Saturday, October 20, 2018

K-12 Education Market Survey Report for Publishers

I completed this overview of the education market dynamics with publishers and content owners as the intended audience for a recent client. Also of interest to private equity and other investors.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Paywall: The Business of Scholarship (CC BY 4.0)

Paywall: The Business of Scholarship, produced by Jason Schmitt, provides focus on the need for open access to research and science, questions the rationale behind the $25.2 billion a year that flows into for-profit academic publishers, examines the 35-40% profit margin associated with the top academic publisher Elsevier and looks at how that profit margin is often greater than some of the most profitable tech companies like Apple, Facebook and Google. This film is free to view both in personal and public venues.

Friday, August 17, 2018

The Publishing Industry’s Blindspot: Technology Spending

I wrote the following for the BISG newsletter this month:
Sharing operational data and information does not come easily for publishing companies. Many other industries benefit from benchmarking data that enables business improvement but, as an industry, publishing seems uninterested in this philosophy of continuous improvement.
Seeking detailed information about technology spending for a series of investor presentations, I found that this information doesn’t exist. While the Association of American Publishers (AAP) has long collected high-level sales and operating data, this effort is of marginal value if a business is truly committed to benchmarking and measuring their performance across a set of key performance measures.
The AAP numbers do have value, but they lack the specificity and detail needed for true and close comparisons of operating data that can drive performance improvement. Based on my experience, the way that publishing thinks about data has not changed even as the industry migrates from legacy-based technology and operating environments (where “fixed” models rule) to one where flexibility drives everything from content packages to cloud-based applications. 

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

AP Report: New ways for publishers to capture digital revenue

The AP has released a report on ways publishers can generate digital revenues:
Converting audiences into paying customers is core to building a sustainable future for journalism. To provide a broad view of capturing digital revenue — from industry standard paywalls to emerging alternative methods of capturing digital revenue — we spoke with experts and practitioners from news organizations, related startups in the space and the big tech platforms.
In this report, we look at many of the models being implemented and explored, breaking out best practices where available, highlighting ideas that are still looking for a foothold in the marketplace, and evaluating what experiments haven’t borne fruit and why.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

M&A Activity in Digital Services H1/18 is Very Active

Some interesting observations from boutique M/A advisor Pharus Advisors on the state of play for transactions in the digital services sector:

From their report:

Acquirer appetites for digitally-focused services firms are becoming increasingly voracious
  • There have been 147 digital and innovation services transactions in H1 2018, up 58% from H1 2017
  • Dentsu and Accenture remain very active in 2018
  • Consultancies such as EY, Deloitte, KPMG, and smaller agencies such as M&C Saatchi have been active acquirers
  • PE acquirers have doubled their digital services platform acquisitions from a year ago - a trend we predicted in our 2017 report
Buyers seek subject matter and technical expertise, as well as impressive client lists and local market leadership
  • Sought-after specialties include digital design, as well as cloud consulting and cloud migration services capabilities
  • Subject matter expertise within financial services, healthcare, cyber and retail has also been in high demand
  • Leadership in a particular geography (e.g. ANZ, Benelux) has been particularly attractive to large global buyers
  • Data-focused and tech-enabled services firms remain in high demand
A diminishing supply of targets with highly-valued capabilities are pushing multiples higher
  • When coupled with buyer competition, higher multiples and better terms for sellers of the most unique firms are more attainable
Unique differentiators include top-tier management and industry leadership, as well as scalable business and service delivery models

Monday, July 23, 2018

Blockchain Discussion Document

Recently developed this short discussion document to start discussions about blockchain and the possible development of 'proof of concept' ideas. Get in touch if you are interested in a similar discussion.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Thomson Reuters Up in the Clouds

Almost 10 years ago, Thomson Reuters embarked on the development of their Elektron Data Platform and sold it as a mechanism to get faster as a data provider and closer to their customers.  As part of this effort they built data centers around the world to support their objectives and the efforts were highly successful.  That said, the rapidity by which technology advances is now encouraging the company to place their financial data into the cloud supported not by their own technology but by Amazon and the AWS products.

Financial data is highly transacted and Thomson Reuters counts as clients most financial companies of any consequence.   As a result of this implementation to AWS, their clients will gain increased flexibility in how they use data and how clients can develop new products based on this data.   Not only do clients not have to build and maintain their own data centers (obviously they can if they want) but they can build their own applications on AWS which in turn will allow them to be more flexible in how they service their customers.  The model Thomson Reuters is establishing could be revolutionary in the manner in which users manage financial data and service customers. 
"The enhancement to the Elektron Data Platform will initially provide access to real-time data on the secure and scalable Amazon Web Service (AWS) Cloud in North America, with plans to expand to Europe and Asia later this year. With the cloud API, data can be consumed natively on AWS, directed to applications based in other cloud environments, or to an on-premise environment.
As a simplified, conflated real-time service, the real-time in the cloud service can power up to three client applications at three updates per second across 50,000 instruments at the same time, which can be selected from the full universe of over 70 million instruments covered by the Elektron Data Platform."

No less important from this announcement is that by using AWS, Thomson Reuters will be buying in to a set of standards and protocols which will encourage application development, experimentation and likely broader usage.  This will lower the barriers to entry for many existing and new customers.

As the sheer amount of data increases and complexity grows, Thomson Reuters have taken the view that making data accessible can reduce complexity and help companies focus more on the delivery of analytics, machine learning applications and other innovations.   Enabling this without a cumbersome back end technical architecture will be the strategy all data managers will begin to execute.

(Press Release)

Michael Cairns is a business strategy consultant and executive.  He can be reached at for project work or executive roles.  See here for examples of recent work.

Friday, July 13, 2018

From Awareness to Funding Summary Report Voter Perceptions and Support of Public Libraries in 2018

A report from OCLC takes a look at voter perceptions of public libraries.
In 2008, OCLC published From Awareness to Funding: A Study of Library Support in America, a national study of the awareness, attitudes, and underlying motivations among US voters for supporting library funding. The research, which was led by OCLC with funding by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and conducted by Leo Burnett USA, dispelled long-held assumptions and provided eye-opening insights about who supports public library funding and for what reasons.
A decade later, OCLC has partnered with the American Library Association (ALA) and its Public Library Association (PLA) division to investigate current perceptions and support among US voters and how they may have shifted in the intervening years. The partners re-engaged Leo Burnett USA and revisited the survey instrument used in the original research

Full Report

Monday, July 09, 2018

Every Consultant must Engage

“Understand the business strategy” is frequently one of the first tasks on my project workplans, usually undertaken in the first week or weeks of an engagement.   But this essential exercise can also be one item that generates push-back from clients, who see it as something a consultant should undertake on their own.  Obviously, embarking on a consulting project without an understanding of the business you are engaged to help is unprofessional and displays disinterest (both of which are justifications for dismissal in my view).  However, no amount of a consultant’s second- and third-party research can substitute for first-hand insight (on business challenges and strategies) from senior members of the management team.  These inputs are critical to the development of a baseline understanding of the business, which is often one of my first deliverables and also serves to record clearly what management told the consultant.

Depending on the scope of the engagement, it may only take two or three days during the engagement’s first week to conduct senior management team interviews, review strategy documents and other proprietary materials.  But I’ve also conducted engagements where almost the entire project scope consisted of examining the business strategy and its relationship with business execution and took several months to complete.

This first phase also yields other benefits that will inform the rest of the project.  (At PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC), this phase of our methodology was termed ‘Engage’ for obvious reasons and I logged many hours with new consultants as a certified instructor in the PWC project management methodology).   As a consultant, you will have researched the business before delivering your proposal and that research will give rise to a set of initial questions for the senior team.  During these interviews, you will have the opportunity to validate your research and note any changes and/or differences.  You will also have a chance to ‘test’ your next stage interview questions and assess if you are focusing on the right issues and business drivers.  Compiling a set of relevant questions for the detailed interviews you will undertake in the next phase is (obviously) critical to the eventual success of the project. 

Most importantly, during these meetings with the senior management team, you will have the opportunity to define the ‘success criteria’ for the project on which you are about to embark.  I have often found that the objectives of one or two executive team members are opposed to or prioritized differently from other executive members which, as a consultant, you need to manage from the early interview stages to the final report.  It can also be the case that the CEO may be unaware of some of these project priorities and/or differences of opinion, which is why I try to arrange the CEO meeting last.  During that meeting, it is important to address these conflicts head on to avoid any future project problems.   As an aside, if you are told you do not need to speak to the CEO (or business unit head) at this stage it is wise to push back on this ‘advice’ to get that meeting.

While it is incumbent on the consultant to do their company research and digest what they hear during the proposal process, there is no substitute for detailed discussions with management about the business strategy and project objectives.  Without exception, this team will be more receptive to you (and more open one-on-one) once you are officially retained and their input will inform how you organize the rest of the project.  Ultimately, the creation of the interview guide and/or the workshop program(s) for the detailed interview phase can sabotage the whole project if it’s not on point.  That’s why I tell every client that the initial ‘engage’ phase should not be eliminated or truncated because it’s an investment in the success of the project.  And it’s also an opportunity for the CEO to understand how effectively he or she has communicated the project priorities to the team: The consultant represents a ‘trusted third-party’ who often has the ability gather intelligence often not shared with the CEO.

However you term it, the initial stage of a project can frequently define the success or failure of an engagement.  Economizing here can prove detrimental to the later phases of a consulting project and my advice is to push back hard if your project sponsor believes this activity to be unnecessary.  As they say, penny wise and pound foolish.

Michael Cairns is a business strategy consultant and executive.  He can be reached at for project work or executive roles.  See here for examples of recent work.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Does Barnes & Noble recall the Borders Books and More?

Image result for barnes and nobleNews of yet more executive turn-over at Barnes & Noble reminded me of similar CEO musical chairs at Borders as they were on their gradual and then precipitous decline.  A series of non-book experienced executives tried to reinvigorate and rebuild the chain but a combination of the speed of digital change and the basic lack of real book and publishing knowledge resulted in these executives only making the situation at Borders worse than when each arrived.

In 2007, somewhat new CEO George Jones outlined his strategy to shareholders.  I thought his effort was vapid and penned a version of my own. 

While more than 10 years have transpired there are still some points here that B&N might think about.  Read the whole post here.
No telling what the new management of Borders has in mind.

Last week George Jones, the recently appointed CEO of Borders Stores, Inc. released his strategic vision for the next three years. There was little in the document to inspire, and it was replete with suggestions that the route to success for Borders was to travel the road already trod by their stronger competitors rather than develop a set of bold new ideas. Coupled with this mediocre set of objectives was a time frame that seems embarrassing given the critical issues Borders and the retail book industry are facing. Borders sales per store and per square foot which lag their competition are declining, they have embarked on a diversification program that continues to draw attention away for the core products and they propose to withdraw from the international market that appears to produce 50% more revenue per store than the domestic business. What then might George Jones have said.....
Read the whole post here.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Barnes & Noble CEO is Dismissed for "Policy Violations"

This is something the book retailer will not need: Another search for a CEO in a volatile retail environment. 

From the Reuters report:
Barnes & Noble said Parneros will not receive any severance payment and he is no longer a member of the board.  Parneros, who joined the company as chief operating officer in November 2016, became its CEO in April 2017.

The company said it would begin search for a new chief executive, and a leadership group would share the responsibilities of the CEO till a suitable candidate is found.
The company’s board was advised by law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP on Parneros’ removal.

Copyright Kills the Internet

This week the European Union will vote on a set of revisions to copyright legislation which critics say could wreck the internet as we know it.  Of particular concern are two clauses in the new legislation which passed through committee and will be voted on July 5th.

  • Article 11 – termed the “link tax” – grew out of examples in Germany and Spain where platforms like Google and Facebook were obliged to pay a tax to support local publishers.  The ‘link tax’ will force anyone to get a license from the publisher first before using content. 
  • Article 13 proposes to make gate-keepers out of platforms and police content uploaded by users.  Piratically, they could do this only by building expensive and expansive filtering systems to catch content uploaded inappropriately.  Only the largest platforms will be able to comply with this burden thereby marginalizing the smaller players.

Article 11 has been presented as a way for content owners to recapture lost revenue from platform providers which some – Rupert Murdoch – have castigated for building very large revenue streams from content they don’t pay for.   While there is some truth to this assertion, the manner by which the EU proposes to counter this impact via this legislation has failed in earlier iterations.   

In Germany and Spain, rather than boost local publisher revenues, research indicates the law cost local publishers as much as $10mm in lost revenue.  Google News pulled out of Spain entirely.   It seems logical that the more important a platform is to a content owner, via the traffic they drive to the content owner, the more leverage the platform will have to negotiate any broad content license.  That leaves the smaller players out in the cold with limited resources to negotiate and a lack of standing in the benefit they provide to the content owner.  This implies that the larger platforms will only gain in power as more content is concentrated on their delivery platforms.

It is article 13 which has received the most negative reaction since it places the already powerful platform providers in the role of internet police.  While the legislation doesn’t specifically propose the implementation of filters, there is no other realistic solution to fulfill the requirements of this rule.  Here again, it will be the larger, most embedded platforms which will have the technical capability (and money) to build the robust filters necessary to comply.   More negatively, it is likely these solutions will remove content first and then place the burden of defending the upload on the user/consumer/member and, we all know how easy it is to communicate with most of these platforms when something goes wrong.    

If this legislation does go forward there may be more motivation to get the technology right but recent examples of this type of filtering technology have been mixed.

The true negative impact of this legislation is difficult to determine given the murkiness of some of the definitions embedded in the draft.  It is also unclear to what extent some of the copyright protections which already exist are taken further because of this this legislation.  For example, the link tax clause (Article 11) could apply to headlines which goes significantly further than providing the full text of an article which is already covered by existing copyright legislation.  Arguably the existing law work but the revision will materially stymie sharing and creativity.  Additionally, the definition of ‘commercial website’ is also debatable.  The parsing of commercial and non-commercial is to identify the ‘bad guys’ who make money by serving up content they don’t pay for versus those which don’t.  However in its broadest interpretation “commercial” could mean everything from Kickstarter to Facebook which is why Wikipedia Italy went dark today in protest.

The EU parliament is scheduled to vote on this legislation July 4-5 with a final vote later in the year.  Opposition is mounting against this legislation but the irony here is that only weeks after putting in place the GDPR legislation to protect individual privacy the EU is presenting copyright legislation which may empower the mighty at the expense of the individual.

UPDATE:  Back to the drawing board for this legislation.  From the Guardian:
Google, YouTube and Facebook could escape having to make billions in payouts to press publishers, record labels and artists after EU lawmakers voted to reject proposed changes to copyright rules that aimed to make the tech companies share more of their revenues.
The proposed new rules, which have been going through the European parliament for almost two years, have sparked an increasingly bitter battle between the internet giants and owners and creators of content, with both sides ferociously lobbying their cause.

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