Facing your digital future

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ARE you ready for a smack in the face?

That’s exactly how ‘veteran’ digital agency boss Ian Finch describes dealing with disruption in business.

Quoting former world heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson – “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face” – Finch says the only way to survive is to change your business to suit the new environment.

“If you’re going to be ready for that smack in the face, it’s [thinking] about your operating models… being open and ready as people… being agile,” he told an Institute of Directors event in Liverpool.

Finch described the London and Liverpool-based digital agency he founded in 1997, Mando, as “a dinosaur in internet terms” while recounting Tales from the Front Line of Digital Disruption.

Alongside him was Laurie Benson, who has rolled with so many punches over a 35-year career in TV, print media and digital technology that she describes herself as a “student of change”.

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READ: Insight into the business journeys of entrepreneurs from the British Library Start-up Day

The pair talked over the hard lessons they had learned to help delegates confront the future, or rather the present given Benson’s assertion that “soon means now in a digital world”.

And the Tribune was there to capture their pearls of wisdom. Here are ten of them:

Own the problem

Benson recalled her time at Time Magazine, when the industry responded to the internet by rushing to publish free content. “If we had it to do over again, we wouldn’t put it up for free, we would have invented PayPal,” she said. “This was 1992 and the media industry could have [evolved into] Google.”

Consumers are in charge

Benson found the well-resourced Bloomberg, where she headed up commercial publishing and digital operations across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, a more reactive beast. “We moved wherever the audience moved and the biggest lesson is one that many companies haven’t learned: that the consumer, the reader, the audience is in charge – not you. Consumers will demand to interact with you the way they choose to interact.”

Your company can’t sleep

“Customer service is a 24-hour responsibility,” said Benson, who’s currently CEO of Upnexxt, a company that helps businesses transform themselves to meet future challenges. “Customers expect immediacy and they expect it 24-hours-a-day.” So more companies will have to turn to chatbots, she said, quoting Gartner Group research suggesting that by 2020 consumers will manage 85% of their relationship with a company online, without human interaction.

Which makes messaging apps crucial

According to those behind the AI-powered and conversation-driven marketing platform, Drift, you can interact with more than 11,000 commercial chatbots via Facebook Messenger, be it to order flowers, check the weather or book a cab. Some 4bn people across the world use messaging apps, 1bn more than social media networks combined, said Benson, with Twitter’s audience (about 340m) dwarfed by the billion or more who are signed up to WhatsApp. “Messaging apps will begin to act like our home screen,” she said, adding: “The future might not even include websites.”

But don’t scrap your website just yet

“You’ll need that website to be a place to pool information when [Apple personal assistant] Siri searches for it,” said Benson. “It’s more a question of how deep it is.” Benson argued that smaller companies might do well to avoid apps, which require expensive updates to remain compatible with evolving platforms, and instead focus on making information available for the mobile web audience.

And be prepared to keep spending on it

“People think ‘I’ve done my website so that’s my spend for the next five years…’ No, not at all,” was Finch’s blunt message. “You’re going to need to change. You’re going to have to respond,” he said. “Particularly with SMEs the mindset of always spending is anathema to them. It’s our agency’s job to get decision-makers in financial budgeting to think ahead.”

Your activity is limited by humans, not tech

“There’s a free piece of kit for anything. We’ve got enough data to do anything we want,” said Finch. “But the thing about people is that we fear change and like to be comfortable.” To be truly creative, you have to keep trying new things and failing until something finally comes off, he added.

Collaboration can help everyone

Finch spoke about developing the North West group of the British Interactive Media Association, which he chairs, out of a series of informal meetings among Liverpool’s creative industries community. As a result, companies came together to work on large projects and arranged to help each other out with staffing. “When we have a gap in resourcing, we sub each other with developers at an inter-agency day rate,” he said.

So is agglomeration the future?

“You can’t have a siloed production-line mindset in the knowledge economy,” argued Finch, adding that, at company level, Mando couldn’t do some things other companies specialise in, and vice-versa, so it made sense to join forces. Combining to share back office and HR costs is not without risks, he accepted. However, he said longer-term partnerships could offer the buying power of a combined balance sheet, while individual management teams retained their independence over decision-making.

And finally…

Benson’s advice for those looking to grow their business was to dip their toe in a different pool. “Start to grow your world,” she said. “Test your product in an international market; think about becoming the biggest thing in Vietnam. Don’t be afraid to take your product into a small market where people need it.”

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Produced by the 2018 International Business Festival, in partnership with Wordscapes.