Paul Cheal is a key player in this true story. At the time of this case study, Paul was the MD of Innovation at Time Inc UK – the giant consumer magazine publisher. Faced with an unstoppable external threat and a deeply entrenched internal culture, he totally disrupted traditional thinking with a leaner, faster, more cost-effective approach to innovation and product design.
This inspiring account has very real cross-industry relevance…
The traditional print media model – where consumers pay for content, and advertisers pay to access consumers – has been devastated by a digital world with very different economics.
Paul’s priority was to transform a print media powerhouse into a modern digital media business. An innovation challenge that called for reductions in the established cost base… the acquisition of new “bolt-on” businesses… and the repurposing of existing brands for the digital consumer.
But there was one huge cultural challenge…
Time Inc had embedded working practices across 60 iconic brands and 3 different divisions. It also had a portfolio of beautiful, tangible print assets for which there was fast-dwindling consumer demand. The print powerhouse was literally dying on its feet – so how do you introduce new ideas and new ways of working into such a proud and proven culture?
Paul began by setting up a new lean product development capability.
“The starting point was to introduce apps and digital magazines to complement existing brands”, he explains. “These were complementary to existing publications and introduced the organisation to innovation in a relatively non-threatening way. This established a feel-good factor around innovation but it was merely the start”.
Paul’s real challenge was to create a framework for more far-reaching innovation. And to find the answers, Paul looked outside the company for expertise.
Fluxx are experts in experimentation. Their service promise is both bold and beguiling: ‘We do product and service design at such pace that we transform the way organisations work’.
Paul teamed-up with Fluxx to run a series of immersive sessions. Editorial, sales and marketing executives worked together to distil hundreds of ideas down to a single proposition.
Paul describes the unique experimental technique that Fluxx adopted. “They threw everything at the wall and deliberately introduced curve balls. Nothing was out-of-bounds. It was immersive and extremely challenging. But it got results fast. We moved rapidly from raw ideas to a refined proposition and an outline proof-of-value product in just four intense weeks.”
That outcome became a new and uniquely personal approach to beauty product selection – the ‘Powder’ brand. For the first time, consumers could identify the precise product for their individual skin type… instantly purchase that product online… and simultaneously access a range of affiliate marketing.
Building on this success, Paul and Fluxx also turned their attention to the music sector where Time Inc. owns the flagship NME (New Musical Express) brand.
Their joint objective was to reposition NME as a digital media offering with an associated free print magazine… a truly disruptive ‘play’ that presented an entirely new level of challenge.
Iterative testing – the gathering of hard data – is key to successful experimentation. And this is especially true when you can no longer rely on the certainties of an old business model…
Time Inc’s traditional approach to launching a new product was to carry out a detailed market assessment. This would establish the size of the market, the potential demand for a new product and then design a high-quality publication to meet that demand. Typically, this was a time-consuming 9 to 12-month process with a costly marketing budget of £10m.
By contrast, the new approach adopted by Paul and his team was low-cost and highly iterative. It reduced time spans from as much as 12 months to less than 12 weeks. And it actually provided a much greater level of certainty… with each iteration they were learning from tests with real customers, in a real-world environment.
In all case studies, it’s easy – and glib – to gloss over the problems.
“There were many issues,” Paul readily concedes. “Getting people with key operational ‘Business-As-Usual’ (BAU) responsibilities to engage with innovation and experimentation was a significant challenge. Equally, so was managing the impact of innovation on these BAU operations.
“But an even bigger challenge was to integrate new and very innovative business capabilities into BAU. Despite having the backing of a new CEO who fully supported the strategic imperative for innovation, this still proved to be a headache. And this is not unusual. Even the most enlightened companies hit the BAU buffers because all businesses have processes in place to protect operations.”
It’s never easy to square this circle but an approach – often used by Fluxx to address this issue – is to start by tackling a thin slice of the business. Every element of the operation is then involved at every stage. And at each stage – from first idea to final implementation – the process is so visible it can be welcomed and embraced by everyone.
One final thought. Genuinely inspired ideas are presented to senior management every day. Most never see the light of day. They cannot be tested quickly and cost-effectively, so they die from lack of investor confidence.
This is a tragic waste of precious ideas.
If any element of this case study has resonated with you. If you have any parallel problems that are keeping you awake at night. If you are tempted to say: ‘I want a piece of that thinking’… then do contact us.
We would be delighted to introduce you to Richard Poole, the MD of Fluxx, and arrange a strictly confidential discussion. We believe you would find this fascinating and immensely valuable.
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