Leaked NY Times Innovation Report reveals what’s wrong with ad agencies

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The New York Times overvalues journalistic skills for digital hires and undervalues digital skills for journalism hires.

Most ad agencies overvalue traditional creative skills for digital hires and undervalue digital skills for creative hires.

The NY Times places too much emphasis on the front page and the home page.

Most ad agencies place too much emphasis on television and traditional messages.

At the NY Times, social media is an afterthought.

At most ad agencies social media is an afterthought.

By now you’ve probably read about the NYT Innovation Report, which leaked to the public last Friday. The 91-page internal review delivers a thorough and, some would say, scathing assessment of the Times failure to become a truly digital organization.

I actually read all 91 pages and found it a perfect summation of why so many traditional media organizations of all kinds — magazines, newspapers, PR firms, ad agencies — fail when it comes to re-inventing themselves for a time when readers control when, where and on what devices they access and filter content.

Compared to its more forward thinking and faster moving competitors, the Wall Street Journal and The Guardian, the Times, despite innovations like NYT Now and a paywall that seems to work, still operates under the belief that if you produce high quality journalism, readers will come to you. As a result, it still runs like a printed newspaper.

Reporters file their polished stories at the end of the day when most people pay attention in the morning. Mobile apps are organized similar to print sections, rather than by location or context. Social media and digital distribution remain afterthoughts in how stories get told and distributed. Too much emphasis gets placed on the homepage, which no longer carries the weight and importance it once did. Bad tagging makes it impossible to find archival articles on everything from recipes to Benghazi. (I’ve always been astounded at how rarely Google searches list NY Times articles, even when the newspaper has written the definitive story.) The best pieces run on Sunday, a day that traditionally attracts the most newspaper readers, but the least number of digital readers. The list goes on.

Put another way:

The New York Times thinks like a printed newspaper that also has a portfolio of digital properties rather than like a digital news organization that happens to put out a newspaper.

Most ad agencies think like traditional shops that do digital rather than like digital shops that also makes commercials.

Anyone who has struggled with transforming their company for the digital age has dealt with similar challenges. The corporate operations, reporting structures, departmental organization and decision making that worked in the pre-digital era tend to be ineffective in the digital age — detrimental at best, deadly at worst.

Look at the Times. User experience lives on the business side, not the editorial side. Same goes for design, tech, insight, R&D and product. That basically means that developers and designers have little say or influence in content or how it gets delivered. Can you actually separate the two today?

Quality is determined only by the length and depth of a story. Yes Snowfall is a remarkable piece of journalism beautifully presented. But it eats up a disproportionate amount of design, graphics and social resources. Meanwhile much of the Times graphics don’t work on mobile.

And the entire staff is so inept at promoting its own content across the web that when digital media repackage NY Times content they often generate more traffic and inbound links for their repurposed Times references than the Times gets for the original stories. The same can be said when it comes to archival content, a resource the daily newspaper pays little attention to. A perfect example is this Gawker piece on 12 Years a Slave, referencing the 161-year-old NY Times story on Solomon Northrup. A New York Times piece goes viral, but the credit and traffic go to Gawker.

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The result of this too slow transformation ranges from missed opportunities, to diminishing readership, to the more troubling exodus of the best digital talent who get tired of fighting an uphill battle all the time. No doubt you’ve seen that, too.

To their credit, the team that took six months to evaluate the Gray Lady’s state of digitalness didn’t just find fault, they offered plenty of suggestions (I’ve added the agency interpretation) including:

Create greater synergy between editorial and the business side (UX and developers.)
Create greater synergy between creative and developers.
Collect much better data on how readers engage with Times’ digital content.
Collect better data on how customers engage with a brand’s digital content.
Develop a long-term newsroom strategy to better understand changing technology and reader behavior.
Develop a long-term creative department strategy to better understand changing technology and user behavior.
Think digital content first, print second.
Think digital experience first, tv and messages second.
Stop putting all the money into one-time projects like Snowfall and develop more formats and replicable templates.
Stop putting all the money into over produced tv projects and develop more ways to create fast and dirty content.
Hire a more collaborative mindset.
Hire a more collaborative mindset.
Experiment more.
Experiment more.

If you haven’t read the report yet, I suggest that you do. Unless, of course, you have a hard time looking in the mirror.

 

17 comments
Korilla Brown
Korilla Brown

Advertising attracts the most of financial resources in our modern world. Of course ad agencies should work better and http://installmentcredits.com/ would help on the issue but I think that without honest competition this area just wastes millions of consumers’ money. I think that first of all government should create conditions for a free market.

marcosdean
marcosdean

Conflating the NYT Innovation Report's conclusions with agencies' well known languor when it comes to digital communications works up to a point. Then comes the Client to insist on metrics, metrics and more metrics. How often have you heard a version of, "the CEO needs to see a measurable impact on [sales] [traffic] [spv] [revenue] [bottom line]; you get the point. A good, creative tv campaign can still cause a measurable bump. No one's figured out how to consistently make money for clients with digital (unless they're selling personal vibration devices) despite all the social expertise and creative synergies in the world.

dneumann
dneumann

@pakyouare Worthwhile read. Seems agencies want to let digital lead more often, but are held back by need to serve archaic client-side orgs.

NewBusinessHawk
NewBusinessHawk

Edward, great points, as always! And I thought the same thing as I was reading. All organizations can and should learn from reading that report. I recently sat in a VCU Brand Center's presentation on reinventing newspapers and they echoed many of the same lessons. It's one thing to "know" things are changing, it's another to actually DO something. Create something different.


This started me thinking about failure, what and why causes it, and why is it some firms fail to see the impact of change until it's too late. So I just wrote a little post about what we can learn from one classic example: Blockbuster. Why couldn’t Blockbuster compete with Netflix? Was it something unseen, unknown that the leadership of Blockbuster failed to grasp? Perhaps it wasn’t just Netflix that doomed Blockbuster, but a wider shift in how people think, live and interact with brands?

http://www.sandersconsulting.com/newbusinesshawk/ad-agency-strategic-plan-development


Will the NYT be the next Blockbuster? I doubt it. Their brand is too strong... But they, the organization, will continue to resist change... it's in their nature. 

Keep up the good work! 


B

rebrivved
rebrivved

Publicis just struck a deal with Facebook. Good news. Except that I'm pretty sure most of Publicis' agencies  have no idea how to move more aggressively toward digital.

RobinHegarty
RobinHegarty

There's so many parallels to be drawn and lessons articulated in this report. One of my favourites, 'The ability to cause a news item to reverberate around the social sphere is now as important as being a good writer' OR The ability to get something seen, used & shared is now as important as having good creative.

RobinHegarty
RobinHegarty

So many parallels to be drawn and lessons articulated in the report. Also the candid tone & proposed solutions makes it refreshing reading. One of my favourites is 'The ability to cause a news item to reverberate around the social sphere is now as important as being a good writer' OR The ability to cause engagement & sharing is now as important as good creative. 

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@marcosdean  I would argue that R/GA, Sapient, Zeus Jones, Undercurrent and the more forward thinking models that represent where the industry is going are doing just fine. And I would further argue that the agencies that are a bit too stuck in traditional land are, in fact, suffering, We both know who they are, but for a number of reasons, including the fact that I need them to hire my students, I won't name any names. P&G, Coke, Nike, and lots of others have moved and will continue to move their money into digital and away from trad'l media. TV is still big, but shrinking in both influence and percentage of viewers. Look at the holding companies. Falling all over themselves to make deals with Facebook or Twitter. That's not innovation. But it is an admission that the future is digital and they don't own it. They can merely rent a piece of it.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@dneumann @pakyouare  True. Witness @bud_caddells's explanation for leaving Deutsch.

tobetv
tobetv

@NewBusinessHawk "Will the NYT be the next Blockbuster? I doubt it. Their brand is too strong..." Until their current demo dies off. Any research on bringing in new young subscribers? I teach really bright college students and they have no interest in the NYT unless it is required reading. The Times is also alienating political moderates. If voters move towards the middle (who knows in the increasingly polarized political environment) the NYT will be limiting its potential for expansion.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@NewBusinessHawk  I think that the Times will continue to get better, just not at a pace that will disrupt or re-invent. So they will lose out (readers anyway) to the Buzzfeeds, Guardians, maybe even Mediums that are inventing the new media. I read the Times every day as it's still the best journalism. But they make it hard, not easy. And I'm 60. Not 20.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

Robin, Yes. That was a good point for sure. Many parallels. The biggest being that legacy behavior gets perpetuated and even rewarded. As I've said before, a generation has to die. Or at least retire.

marcosdean
marcosdean

@edwardboches @marcosdean Yes. Too true. And I get the whole immersive experience thing. The Nitros and Wiedens get it. On the client side, Coke and Nike get it because they have broad investment horizons. The Euros really get it, and some of the work coming out of South America and Asia is phenomenal. But here in the provinces (Boston)? How many meetings have you sat through where the VP Marketing looks at you with that deer-in-the-headlights expression as you start in on the digital brief? "I'm not seeing your metrics, Edward..."

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

Tobe, Agree. Students, even communication majors interested in media, don't read the NY Times or even local Boston Globe in their current non digitally (and that includes online) centric formats: such bad UX compared to newer platforms.

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