Lesson #5: Don’t be afraid to change course, even when you are in front.
This is an article series based on lessons learned from my great mentor Lionel Morely Joel. Read the first article to understand the background and then dip in and out of the lessons as you please. In this article I discuss the dangers of complacency.
Over the years, there have been amazing success stories of companies who knew they needed to make changes in order to prosper. Not many of us know it but Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram evolved from apps that never gained traction in their previous incarnation. Nor that Suzuki’s origins were in looming and Nokia’s as a paper mill. There are just as many who didn’t. Blockbuster and Blackberry anyone?
Within our group of publications at Newbourne we had a publication called The Baby Book (not the most intriguing name), and it was a very successful publication. We distributed 650,000 copies to expectant mums through 250 UK hospitals. Uniquely at the time, we over-printed the front cover with the name of the hospital, and inside the front and back cover we inserted information specific to each hospital, such as visiting times. So to the expectant mum it looked like the publication was produced by their local hospital.
This was 1975 and no small task to personalise a book for 250 hospitals, but it worked really well and was extremely profitable. Moreover, this one publication generated more than 100,000 reader inquiries per annum, from mums asking for more details from advertisers. After five years we had a database of more than 500,000 names, which in turn allowed us to earn additional income from list broking (there were no data protection laws like today).
At the same time, the Midwives Association were very concerned about the amount of advertising material being made available to mums, so they were calling for more and more and restrictions to be put in place. One day Lionel called me into his office and said we needed to start looking for alternative distribution channels to reach mums. He believed within two years the hospital distribution of The Baby Book would be severely restricted if not stopped entirely.
“That won’t happen,” I disagreed. It was our most profitable title, we had good relationships with all the hospitals and the hospitals wanted the book so why change course?
Lionel insisted we start to plan for such an eventuality, so within the next two years we launched two new baby publications, with very different distribution channels. We now had our contingency in place, and of course (as so often happened), Lionel was right. The Midwives Association’s voice got louder and slowly eroded our distribution at hospitals, to such an extent that within three years only 100 hospitals were still taking personalised copies of The Baby Book.
The lesson was very simple. Just because you are in front it does not mean you are going to stay there, especially if circumstances beyond your control are looming in the background.
Thinking of print publishing more generally is another good example, this time where a whole industry failed to look ahead not just a single company. Through the newspaper industry ran “Rivers of Gold” (recruitment, real estate and classified advertising). Then websites started being launched, not by the publishers but independently. I remember a very well-known newspaper publisher saying to me that a recruitment website wouldn’t work. He thought it was a waste of time (how he regrets that statement now) and he was not alone. The Rivers of Gold were deep, many thought endless, and by the time they realised what was happening for many it was too late.
Custom publishing was no different. In 2009 at Edge (formerly Edge Custom Media), where I was CEO for seven years, we were doing really well, winning many new clients and all looked good. But it soon become apparent that custom publishing was going to be affected to the migration to online publishing just as much – or more – than mainstream publishing. So we decide to completely change direction and transform ourselves into a content-marketing agency.
“Why? When you are doing so well, winning all these new accounts. Why change, why reposition?” one of our major competitors asked me when we rebranded. But thank God we did. Edge made it through the transition and through the financial crisis, while many of our original peers were not so fortunate.
So what is it that separates those companies that evolve and prosper from the rest? I think author Steve Tobak puts it well:
“The truth is staring you right in the face. Every company I’ve watched go down the tubes in agonising slow motion – from Sun to Blackberry – had one thing in common: executives and directors living in denial. Don’t live in denial. Have the courage to face the truth and deal with reality.”
The world is changing at such fast pace, what is successful today can become irrelevant tomorrow. It’s more difficult to predict the future than ever before, but if you stick your head in the sand, one thing’s for sure you will get run over.
Next: Why you need to know the finances better than your accountants.
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