Watershed year forces change
A view from Gideon Spanier

Watershed year forces change

It has been a year of extraordinary consolidation and welcome collaboration.

"Don’t fight the change – be the change" is a good mantra for anyone working in the media business. This is an industry that thrives on change and yet some companies have been slow to adapt and transform.

The speed of disruption that is coursing through practically every corner of media is relentless and disorientating. These are anxious times as technology, automation and consolidation threaten revenue and jobs – with a knock-on effect on morale and mental health. And that’s without factoring in the uncertainty of Brexit.

A quarter of UK media leaders fear redundancy, according to executive search firm The Lighthouse Company’s annual Shipping Forecast report.

When I look back to when I started at Campaign in autumn 2015, the UK market already looks very different as it has become more global and less local.

Back then, media buying agency groups were still all-powerful and a local, trading negotiation between WPP’s Group M and Channel 4 could be big news. As Richard Desmond said when he still owned Channel 5 and the Daily Express, he didn’t have the "10-stone testicles" to do battle with Sir Martin Sorrell, the then chief executive of WPP.

The rise of the tech giants has changed all that. Google and Facebook have grabbed such a large share of the advertising pie in just a few years that practically every other media owner that depends on ad revenue has had to consider consolidation, diversification beyond advertising or a sale.

This has turned out to be a year of extraordinary consolidation and welcome collaboration among UK media owners – an inexorable consequence of the market disruption caused by the rapid digitisation and globalisation of media.

Rupert Murdoch sold Sky to Comcast, Richard Desmond sold his Express titles to Daily Mirror owner Reach and Global bought Exterion Media, Primesight and Outdoor Plus.

We have also seen once-fierce rivals put aside their differences as News UK, Guardian Media Group, Telegraph Media Group and Reach set up The Ozone Project, a joint digital ad sales platform, while ITV, Channel 4 and Sky hosted the Big TV Festival to champion TV.

The top jobs have got harder and there’s a sense that just as upstart companies can rise faster than before, they can fall as fast too

There have been other signs that 2018 has been a watershed year for generational as well as structural change. Sorrell departed WPP after 33 years, Paul Dacre quit as Daily Mail editor after 26 years and Jerry Buhlmann stepped down as global chief executive at Dentsu Aegis Network after three decades at the same company.

The top jobs in most industries have got harder in the past few years and there’s a sense that just as upstart companies can rise faster than before, they can fall as fast too.

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, said recently in a striking comment: "Amazon is not too big to fail. In fact, I predict one day Amazon will fail." Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, whose ethical flaws as a leader have been brutally exposed by Cambridge Analytica and other scandals, should take heed.

Amid the whirl of change and the "techlash" against the over-mighty online giants, there are many reasons to be excited about the future.

Media, in the broadest sense of the word, is growing. Brands, content, entertainment, creativity, communications, data and experiences are all becoming more central and more connected in our lives. Campaign’s annual Media Week 30 Under 30 talent search had a record number of entries earlier this year.

For those willing to learn new skills and for those companies prepared to invest in new capabilities, there are many opportunities. Learn coding and Mandarin was Sorrell’s advice for young talent when he spoke alongside MediaMonks at Campaign’s Breakfast Briefing event in November.

Change is hard. "If you’re in this business, it’s because you can do relentless," Buhlmann likes to say. And he was resolutely optimistic in a farewell interview: "You have to focus on the opportunities. If you focus on the challenges, you won’t get out of bed in the morning."

As we prepare for 2019, there is a clear way forward amid the media turbulence: be the change.

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