Blog Article

The media sector: Hobbiton, Mordor or somewhere in between?

Posted by Stephen Welch

Stephen Welch

You might at first think there is little connection between the media sector and JRR Tolkein’s “The Hobbit”, recently released as a movie.  But there are in fact a lot of parallels between Bilbo Baggins’ journey and the on-going journeys of media organizations.


In both:

  • Life is disrupted by the arrival of intruders
  • There is a journey and transition from comfort to difficulty and from stability to aventure
  • Strong leadership is needed: more Gandalfs, please!
  • As the hobbit’s unexpected journey progresses, the protagonists transform and grow, becoming masters of their own fate.  So too can the media sector.

Let’s examine the parallels in more detail.

Scene 1: Here come the dwarves.

Our first scene is the comfortable surroundings of pastoral life experienced by many media companies for many years. Just like in the book where Bilbo Baggins contemplates the life pastoral.  But then unexpected dwarf intruders arrive and he needs to change … quickly. For media companies, the ‘dwarves’ are the rise of small online companies, and they way they have upended traditional media structures and ways of working.

Scene 2: From easy to hard

Our hero then embarks, and as his life changes from comfort to difficulty, from stable to changing, so too have the operating models of our clients. Many are struggling to contain the invasion of online competitors and rethinking their operating model around how they create and deliver content across multiple platforms. However, others are finding that the reduction of print revenues is not matching the rise of online advertising. And some, like Newsweek, have abandoned print completely, requiring a total change of business model.  This is not a big surprise when you read that UK media advertising spend is expected to decline 9% in 2013, and is currently running 60% below 2005 levels.

A bad but common reaction to this is increased centralization: this creates challenges around localized content delivery, slow decision-making and inhibits the traditional independence of journalism and creative content production.

Scene 3: Leadership lessons from Gandalf

Instead, our guidebook of change, The Hobbit, tells us that the journey is best completed by aligning people behind an end goal but then letting them get on with it; irregularly intervening. Although one of the dwarves is technically the leader of the team, the peripatetic wizard Gandalf is actually the one who shows the best leadership skills and acts as the coach to the team.  Many leaders in media companies could learn from Gandalf, in terms of both his overall leadership style and the way he sets up the operating model of the organization of hobbits and dwarves. His approach of setting the overall direction, motivating the team to fulfil certain roles and creating the conditions for success is best practice. And Gandalf’s interventions, while powerful, are even more importantly, rare. Who knew Gandalf was a fully-accredited Hay Group consultant?

Scene 4: individual and group transformation.

As in the Book, as the unexpected journey of the title progresses, the protagonists transform, change and grow, settling into their roles and becoming masters of their own fate.  Hay Group observes a similar transformation in the media sector: people working in sector need to transform too. This is especially true of sales forces: media sales teams have to move to a new way of working, and be equally comfortable with each platform. There is also a move from commodity-based sales to account management sales; although both of these shifts are not happening in all places, nor at the same time.

In a way, this is all a bit like Bilbo getting lost in the cave under the mountain.  In the maze of tunnels he is trapped, only to eventually encounter Gollum, a slimy sibilant stoor at the centre of the mountainous maze.  Bilbo has to play a game of riddles to escape.  For both Bilbo and media companies, navigating and escape is messy and complicated.  This is especially true in the media with difficult personalities and precioussss egos. It requires thinking differently, and going past the obvious to find the answer to the specially-difficult riddle.  But in fact there are some clear answers to the riddle of sales forces: the media sector can indeed avoid death by Gollum and escape the dark caverns of red ink. As Bilbo will discover next week, the ability to transform and enable an escape is key. This transformation is important for both him and our clients.

To find out exactly how Bilbo escapes, and its relevance to media companies, stay tuned for part 2 on Wednesday, 6 February.


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