Steve Jobs has done an amazing turnaround at Apple since he retook the helm. Apple was in a death spiral it appeared; yet today they are the most valuable tech company in the world. For a while Apple was a bitter, twisted company that produced nice looking products that nobody but fanatics bought. Today, everyone but my mother has an iPod, iPhone, iMac or iPad. Some poor souls like me have all four. Apple, in short, is king of consumer tech right now. Will that last forever? I for one doubt it.
Right now Apple has a great team headed by a visionary leader. At some point that team will grow old, run out of energy and start to fragment. Apple’s future will be determined by the ability of the company to create a new generation of leaders. I know I’m stating the obvious when I say that but my point is that it is easy to assume that Apple has that problem nailed in the same way they have their product strategy right now. But do they?
When news of Steve’s illness was pushed on to the market, people speculated about who would take over from him. All of that speculation tended to focus on internal rather than external candidates. This makes a great deal of sense and is most likely what will happen. However, if they do go internal we can expect the losers of that battle to be at best disenfranchised and at worst leave. This will in turn lead to a weaker team at the top. Furthermore Apple is likely to have to live through a period where any new CEO is constantly being measured against Steve. That’s a hard act to follow. They’re not going to get standing ovations like he does when they walk on stage at the Moscone for product launches. The crowd isn’t going to laugh at the little jokes that are thrown in. In other words the ‘Steve factor’ will be lost and Apple will be just another good company, rather than a great one.
When this happens, the door will be wide open for rivals large and small. Right now Apple is all but impossible to beat in the consumer space. Sure there are some that hate them but they are a minority. That could change very quickly. Microsoft could fix its mobile strategy, RIM could design a BlackBerry that iPhone users would like or some new player could appear.
My point in all this is that innovation within a company is directly linked to its success but is also linked to the people that run that company. They are the ones that decide which products to sell to whom and at what price. They are the ones that create the markets, the excitement and so on. While some companies do a good job of creating a culture of innovation, even they know that it is what you do with that innovation that matters. Put another way, you will only keep on winning for as long as you have the best team. Today Apple has that team but there will come a time when they don’t. And come that day, others will take their chance.
We are what we are. For many that means middle aged and over weight. For others it means happy but a little lacking in the career department. In short we all have thoughts about what we’d do differently if we could start again. PR agencies are a collection of people that are, like all of us, imperfect. As a result, agencies often find themselves riddled with the very flaws these people possess. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great firms out there but we all know they could also be a lot better. Even the good ones would love to turn back the clock and change a few things. Given that’s not going to happen the only real choice, for some, is to wipe the slate clean and start again. But the decision to start again doesn’t guarantee that the ‘new agency’ will really be any different. Most people who start firms, do so with a set of skills derived form experience. In other words they know what they know. This makes it hard for them to really innovate. To get revenue they have to sell the services they have always sold and hire others they already know. In all likelihood that means they quickly start repeating the same mistakes, albeit with a new business card. To really start anew requires people to do things differently. This means offering new services and delivering old services in a new way. This is best done by hiring people that are not familiar with the old ways, people that challenge even the simplest assumptions of the old business model. This is harder to do than you’d think.
I’m therefore proud that in launching Beyond (www.bynd.com) we are doing just that. We could have hired a bunch of PR people we knew and sold services that sounded a little different but were, in reality, existing services with a coat of paint. Instead we’ve hired people that scare me because they talk a language I don’t always understand and have a way of looking at challenges that is alien to me. I’m sure we will learn that some of what we are offering isn’t what customers want but I also know that we are offering is truly different to anything customers can get elsewhere. For those entrepreneurs out there who are thinking about starting their own firm, I hope Beyond will remind you to create a business that is truly something new. Go Beyond!
The popular view is that traditional media is dying as we all stop reading the newspapers and instead pass our time on Twitter and Facebook. For the generation that grew up with the Internet, the idea of reading traditional print media and watching the 6 o’clock news is an anathema. They get their news and perspective from a raft of sources: friends, Internet friends (bloggers, communities etc), people they follow on Twitter and of course online media. But it would be wrong to say that the media’s role has been relegated to a bit part. The media still fuels the vast majority of twitter feeds for the adult world for example. Indeed without traditional media, Twitter and Facebook would be very dull places. Sadly the direct consumption of that media has dropped as people opt for the 140 character summary. This is unlikely to change very soon. Society now expects us to cram more and more and more in to our day. In turn we are evolving as entertainment, news and perspective consumers into a population that expects to have its content delivered in a concentrated form. We expect the middle east crisis, Iraq, Afghanistan and the latest jobless report to be summarized into a sentence or two. We may be willing to look beyond the headline but a 5000 word article is just not going to be read, unless it is an amazing read, regardless of its import. For journalists this is a nightmare come true. These people were/are trained to dissect the news and give us the important perspectives. They don’t even try to do that in 140 characters, or even 140 words in most cases. But the future of journalism relies on their ability to adapt to this evolution in consumer behavior. Some journalists get this and are embracing the opportunities online brings. Many are simply ignoring the winds of change and are hoping that consumers will simply go back to the good ol’ days, or at least their publishers are. This isn’t going to happen just like we haven’t all ditched our cars and gone back to riding horses. So, the media must adapt and adapt fast. Here are some of my thoughts on how it could adapt:
1. Fragment even faster. The media has become fragmented but instead of fighting it it could champion it. Instead of subscribing Forbes we can subscribe to Quentin Hardy. Instead of making the magazine the icon, make the reporter the rock star.
2. Create a new content model. We currently have news, news analysis, features etc. This model hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years. Why not have news analysis pieces and features that are 200 words long but link to ten separate features that are also 200 words in length? In other words make a 2000 word feature a collection of 200 words articles that fit together.
3. Charge by the article not by the magazine. We have all got used to iTunes and paying 99c or $1.29 for a track. Why not offer news related content on the same basis from rock star reporters?
4. Personalize it. For over a decade the media has talked about making news more personal. It hasn’t really happened. My homepage gathers a bunch of news from traditional sources. It doesn’t to appear to have learned anything about what I like or don’t like. At least half the content gets ignored and much of the rest gets only a cursory view. It’s time for the media to REALLY act in this area.
My view is simple. The media has all the assets to succeed. It has talent and content. It simply needs to rethink its channel strategy. We all care about the media and we all want the media to succeed but that doesn’t mean we always will. A diminishing role for the media is a realistic prospect but it isn’t inevitable.
PS – I just realized that most people stopped reading (even if they started) some 3000 characters ago.