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Lessons from the jungle for a post COVID-19 future

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World News Publishing Focus
Your Guide to the Changing Media Landscape

Lessons from the jungle for a post COVID-19 future

Caption: Neal Cross, Co-founder and Chairman of PictureWealth, delivers the closing keynote address to WAN-IFRA’s Asian Media Leaders eSummit.

By Lee Kah Whye

“Now is the time to lead,” said Cross, the former chief innovation officer at Singapore’s DBS Bank who left to build social enterprises to help save the endangered orangutans and coral reefs in Sumatra.

Cross listed several leadership principles drawn from building two boutique hotels in a jungle village in Indonesia despite having no previous experience in running such a project.

Get passionateGet passionate

First, get passionate about the problem.

He described a bathroom wall built into natural rock that constantly had mould and peeling paint due to dripping water. They finally decided not to fight nature, removed the wall and let the rock become a feature in the bathroom.

The lesson learned was that sometimes innovation fails because we are solving the wrong problem, misunderstand the problem or are just solving a symptom of the problem, Cross said.

The same can be said about digital disruption, which he said can involve others using technology to take away your customers because of the disconnect between what your company thinks it does and what the customer is buying.

For example, a bank sees insurance as selling a financial product, but a customer believes he or she is buying protection for their family.

Feed everyoneFeed everyone

The second tip is “everyone gets fed.” 

The first thing that workers bought when they started building the hotel was a rice cooker because they had to feed everyone.

“If people work with you or for you, you should feed them,” Cross said.

This principle is reflected in the ecosystems of the business world. In media, it involves copy, content, advertisers and consumers.

Advertisers subsidise the content. For higher value content, people are willing to buy subscriptions. When running a conference, there are sponsors, the audience and speakers. It is about how these ecosystems come together.

Instead of depending on advertisers, publishers should think about “manufacturing the outcome,” Cross said.

“Why don’t we manufacture, or influence or simplify or productise the selling product rather than sell an advert as adverts are lower value,” he added.

At PictureWealth, they work for distributors and monetise data and turn that into financial advice, pensions and share revenue with partners, Cross said.  

Place to innovatePlace to innovate

The third principle is to create a safe place to innovate.

Make it experimental and remove the fear of failure, Cross said, describing how he created an environment for a talented cement carver to make decorative pieces for the hotel restaurant. 

“Leap ahead, be experimental and you will do something really out of your comfort zone,” Cross said.

During the Q&A session, he advised newsroom leaders that if they want to innovate, go back to the first principle.

The key is be clear about why you are innovating, he said, suggesting some key questions to ask.

“What number are you trying to move? What behaviour are you trying to encourage? What outcome do you want?” – Neal Cross, PictureWealth

Another idea is to write the front page of your newspaper based on where the business will be in five years. This will provide focus and the guidance to take dramatic action.

Companies also should know what is their most expensive single item of data and how much it is worth. This will help to quantify the value of their data, he said.

Advertising generates the least revenue, but Google and Facebook know what data is out there, the value of data and how to sell data to multiple industries via advertisers. 

“All businesses need to focus on two things, data and distribution,” – Neal Cross

Asked whether innovation can be planned or is spontaneous, Cross said innovation is like a shadow – something that is there whether you realise it or not. The aim is to turn that into conscious innovation that makes you realise that you are making a choice. 

“Innovation is, a lot of it is about your mindset and how you view the world. And how you view what you do today. Most businesses at their core actually don’t understand what they do,” Cross said. 

Four groups you must convince to be world class

To be world class or best in the world, an organisation must convince four groups, he said.

Your staff must be convinced that the world is changing and that they are on a journey of transformation that is not just something on their CEO’s checklist.

Second, customers must feel the difference, whether the product is better or cheaper, they must feel it and to tell others about it.

Third, you need to convince industry peers, win awards and demonstrate that you are creating disruption or riding a wave of disruption. Finally, shareholders need to be convinced.

COVID-19 or not, this is what organisations should focus on. If staff are inspired to do their best work, you will beat your competitors, Cross said.

“When you re-organise, don’t just focus on the tech. This is not about technology, this is fundamentally a transformation which certainly engages tech,” he said.

“What you need to think about is not a digital business model, it’s a business model for a digital world,” – Neal Cross

About the author: Lee Kah Whye is Director at Project Mercury, a media business consultancy. Prior to this, he spent nearly 20 years at Reuters and was head of the news agency business for Asia.


WAN-IFRA External Contributor


2020-08-05 06:58

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