With 40 years’ experience managing a wide range of publishing businesses, Neil Thackray has earned the right to his views on modern media. The Media Voices team worked for Neil back in the day and one of our favourite things were the regular rants he’d go on about the state of the industry.

For that reason alone, Neil was the obvious choice for the first guest on our Big Noises season. He’s earned a formidable reputation for calling out executive BS at conferences and in his columns, and being unafraid to point out some of the biggest industry issues.

His biggest gripe is the seemingly unassailable conventional wisdom that ‘content is king’, a platitude trotted out at every media conference since Bill Gates coined the phrase back in 1996. “I put it to you, that is completely bollocks…” he says.

Neil explained, firstly, that while the content concept might work for print publications, free media on the internet is not contained within anything so can’t be legitimately referred to as content. “The initial premise is wrong. It drives media owners to think that what they should be doing online is trying to work out how they do what they did offline.”

Second is the ‘king’ thing. “If media owners really think that what they produce, the information, data, pictures, whatever it is, is king, explain to me why most of the publishers I see on the web give it away for free.”

Drowning in terrible quality

I remember Neil ranting about the poor quality of regional news UX when we first started working together almost six or seven years ago, and if anything, the situation is worse now. He says publishers clearly don’t consider their content to be worth anything when their webpages are “drowning in terrible quality” advertising.

If content was truly king, Neil believes the starting point would be a content-focused publishing strategy, but he doesn’t see that. Instead, in the absence of strategy, media companies grab for whatever the latest thing is.

“I mean, please save us from media executives talking about pivoting,” he says. “When publishers are running out of cash and their investors are unhappy, they should be looking for products that will satisfy a customer need. Instead they latch on to whatever is the latest new thing. We’re pivoting to mobile, we’re pivoting to video, or probably this week, it’s AI. People have been making this mistake for at least 25 years.”

Looking for answers, Neil thinks that media companies need to move away from a platform-centric philosophy. “They say they’re in the magazine business or the news business, or they’re in the TV business, or video, radio, exhibitions, whatever it is. If you pick the platform and then put a product on it, you leave a lot of money on the table. And it constrains your product.”

Listen here to Neil Thackray’s full interview, or search ‘Media Voices’ on your podcast app of choice.

User-centric, platform neutral

When Neil set up TheMediaBriefing with Rory Brown, they decided the business was going to be user-centric, platform-neutral, but digitally underpinned. Their guiding principles were to ask:

  • What are the problems these customers have?
  • Where is the friction in their lives or in their business?
  • What can we produce which will ease that friction?

Neil explains that products that ease the friction will inevitably have an economic value: the more critical the information produced is to a decision being taken by the end user, the higher the value. The more difficult it is for the customer to get that information for themselves, the further the value will increase.

“Where you’re delivering something which is highly critical to a decision being made… and it’s very difficult for people to assemble themselves, then you can charge a premium price point to the user. They probably won’t even care what the price is.” 

The problem with that model, says Neil, is that you need to really act like content is king and invest in it. Instead, he says, since the start of digital media, companies have been focused on taking costs out of the business, primarily the people who create and manage the content.

He uses the analogy of an aircraft manufacturer trying to cut costs and choosing to get rid of its quality control team. “That would be so dumb that everybody would say you are an idiot. Obviously, you’re not going to kill somebody by producing a crap newspaper or magazine. But that, unfortunately, is the business that we’re in.”

Accelerating revenue decline

He paints a picture where falling revenue means more cuts, poorer quality products and accelerating rates of decline. “Cutting costs in the vain hope that somehow this will improve sales is so baffling. You can’t understand why every media company does it repeatedly.”

Neil acknowledges that media leadership, particularly in public companies with the pressure to perform every quarter, is difficult. “There’s a timeline, right? You can’t run that kind of strategy and have it all fixed by the next quarter. And that’s a problem.”

He thinks that, despite its reputation, private equity is much better at giving leadership the space to work through a proper strategy. “That’s not universally true; I think it’s slightly more difficult in the US, but certainly in my experience here, that has been the case.”

But money worries aside, Neil still sees problems in media leadership. “The point of leadership is not to get backed into a corner. I’ve been a CEO for 25 or 30 years and it’s difficult.You’re always busy. You don’t give yourself the headspace to think about these problems and actually step back.”

He urges leaders to find time to step back and find a strategy that is not grounded in aphorisms and the latest publishing trend. And he returns again to the customer.

“One of the most powerful things you can do is talk to people 10 minutes after they’ve used your product and 10 minutes before. Better still, go and talk to your customers about what they do all day, be good at seeing where the friction is.”

“I’m a sailor,” he adds. “I don’t need to read about how to sail a boat, which is what a lot of the yachting magazines do because I’ve been doing it for 40 years. But I’d love a price comparison site for parts, which are notoriously expensive. I would like all the technical videos for jobs that crop up all the time to be collected in one place. You have to have a really deep understanding of the problem it is you’re trying to solve.”

Listen to the full interview with Neil Thackray here, or search ‘Media Voices’ wherever you find podcasts.

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