Lessons For Marketers in the NYT’s Leaked Innovation Report

The New York Times 2014 Innovation Report is an extraordinary document. Extraordinary in that it  exists at all, for one thing. But, also extraordinary for the honesty and candor in the analysis provided by the authors.

We’ve all watched the news business getting transformed over the years by blogs, the web, Google, etc. Now we can read the report from inside a pre-eminent news organization, written by a handpicked group of leaders given the mandate to tell the truth to power (well, their bosses).

But, at the same time, it’s an exceptionally useful document for marketing leaders who are struggling to thrive in a time of rapid, seismic changes. Digital, however you want to define it, is creating almost unlimited opportunities to create new growth, reach new audiences, and work in different ways. Call it creative destruction, transformational innovation, or just reinvention; we’re all going to have to deal with it. The news business is at the front of many of these changes, but eventually all business, from cars to cereal will have to deal with them. So, we can learn a lot about what to do (and what NOT to do) by reading this report carefully.

While it was unfortunate that this document was leaked, we nonetheless have it as a story of a great organization at the mid-point of a life-or-death struggle. Here are just a few lessons  brand builders can take away.

Be Honest With Yourself, First – One of the more remarkable things about this document is that it doesn’t seem to hold many punches. It calls out specific projects, departments, etc. Its a seemingly honest assessment of what’s working and not working. Not self-flagellating, but also not overly optimistic about what’s really going on. Marketing leaders should take on this kind of assessment every other year, at least. A hard look, done by trusted mid-level leaders, those with enough understanding of how things really work on the execution level but also have a broader strategic sense about what the organization can be and needs to get there.

Understanding how Disruption Works is the First Step to Disrupting Yourself - With everyone talking about innovation all the time, you’d assume everyone understands what “Innovation” really is. But, wisely, the writers spend a couple pages outlining Clay Christensen’s Disruptive Innovation process. And, they even provide a cheat sheet for their new competitors. As leaders, we should understand that disruptive innovation actually is kind of predictable and it will hit every industry at some point. Get your teams to understand this, and it’s the first step to creating the kind of innovations that disrupt the business on your terms vs. waiting for someone else to do it to you.

Reconsider What You’ve Always Taken For Granted – The report advocates a recommitment to audience development strategy, to re-examine how they are getting the news in front of people.  For generations, the Times could assume an audience existed, was reachable in a predictable way, and cared about the product. But, that audience is easily swayed, distractible, and, in the end, not so easy to reach. Now, the Times has to re-learn how to reach it’s audience, weaving a news set of skill into the newsroom. All leaders should be rethinking the parts of the model they’ve always taken for granted.

Digital First is Much More than a Buzzphrase - For the times, it’s a flip from “a newspaper that also produces a rich and impressive digital product” to “A digital publication that also produces a rich and impressive newspaper”. That’s over-simplified, but that mental model flip is one that most marketing organizations need to make if they haven’t already made. A mobile, digital way of building the brand that is amplified at scale by traditional media is  “digital first” for most marketers.

Culture Change is a Mofo - This is really a document describing wrenching culture change in slow motion. The capabilities, the technology, the tools will all be relatively easy to update. But, the talent, the leadership, the skills, the mindset needed to thrive in a digital-first world at the Times will be incredibly difficult to weave into the organization. The leaders will have to remake their culture from the inside without losing the best of what got them there.

Finally, the real story here is that the leaders of this organization recognized they were out of synch with their times and they turned to 8 trusted insiders to figure it out. That’s courage. We can all learn from them.

There are dozens and dozens of smaller nuggets in the document. It’s so rare for a business leader to get a peek into another organizations’ strategy development process that i imagine this will be a document i go back to and re-read multiple times.

Here are a couple other great writeups:

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