Somi Arian’s Interview with Jamie Credland of The Economist
Somi Arian: If you were to compare James Wilson in 1843, to some of the entrepreneurs that are starting out now, the mindset of them and their trajectory. How would you compare them?
Jamie Credland: It’s an interesting question. James Wilson absolutely was an entrepreneur of his day, and also an entrepreneur who felt very strongly about certain things in the political and the economic climate. He had a very successful career outside of The Economist. When we look at how he compares to perhaps founders of Media companies today or entrepreneurs in the world today, I think there are definitely some similarities and also some lessons I think people could learn. In terms of similarities, he saw something in the world that he felt strongly about and he felt that there was an audience that would be interested in campaigning about it. I think you see that certainly today at various different media organisations.
Another thing that was very important to the Economist was that there is a founding statement in the opening pages of the Magazine, where it says it was founded to take part in the severe contest between intelligence, which pushes forward and an unworthy timid ignorance that holds us back and obstructs our progress. Of course, that’s in the language of 1843, but that’s a real founding statement, which is still true of our business now. I think if you look at some other, so many young companies, like Google started with the “Don’t be Evil” line, it’s not actually a million miles away from that single-minded vision of “we exist to make one thing really great”. We’re really going to focus on that. I think that’s true to this day.
Somi Arian: Very, very interesting. Okay. You said “there were some lessons to be learned. Would you like to go a little bit more into that?
Jamie Credland: Yeah. In terms of the lessons for today’s entrepreneurs, I think that it comes down to that brand purpose, that mission statement. Once you have that mission statement, and the Economist was very clear when it founded on its principles and what it believed in, it was very open about it. That has meant that in the 175 years since we launched, it’s actually been relatively easy to adapt to the changing world because we know who we are. We’re not based on a product, a printed product. We’re based on an idea about how we look at the world.
Right now my job is how that translates onto Snapchat. Previously people at the Economist have had to deal with how do we move to global distribution. How do we move with colour photography, back in the ’70s and ’80s. These issues are much easier to answer when you have a clear mission. I think there are some companies around today, entrepreneurial companies, which are really just pursuing a product, a specific product, and a specific niche right now, which of course is great in the short term. But, I think in the longer-term, business plans are hard to build on that.
Somi Arian: Yeah. I think that’s very important, because of one of the most important things and lessons I think to take away from this is that if you have a strong idea, you will adapt.
Jamie Credland: Absolutely.
Somi Arian: No matter what technology comes through and what life throws at you, you adapt because you have a strong belief. I think some of the heritage brands, I have a feeling that maybe they are a little timid to really embrace technology and they are still waiting for everybody to come to them. But, the truth is that if they don’t evolve, and if they don’t find a way to share that original idea, with the people, they could be in trouble. That’s, unfortunately, something that I’ve observed.
Now, could you please tell me, at the moment, how many people work for The Economist? In general, has the company shrunk or gotten bigger, over time?
Jamie Credland: Yeah. At the moment at The Economist Group, which is our parent company, we have about 1500 people worldwide. That includes various other parts of our business, The Economist Intelligence Unit, CQ Roll Call, which is an attachment in Washington and Euro-Finance, which is a very particular financial event that we throw every year. But, in terms of the core Economist business, you’re looking at probably 75 to 90 journalists and editors. Then probably 300 to 400 other staff who are working on it in various ways in offices all around the world. But, we are absolutely growing at a fast pace at the moment. The business is changing dramatically.
Not all parts of the business are growing. The roles that we are recruiting for are changing very significantly. But, the overall team, we’ve hired a lot of social media editors. We’ve been hiring a lot of film producers and directors because we need to have new skill sets. In addition to that, globalisation continues at pace. This week, we hired our 100th employee in Delhi, in India because that is actually now a global hub of real research expertise and knowledge. We’re building a hub there. Yeah, the company is moving rapidly and changing fast.
Somi Arian: That’s great to hear. But there’s so much content out there, how do you break through the noise among millennials? I’ll come back to what is the definition of a Millennial, because a millennial is not so much about the age, it’s the way that people behave. But, how do you break through the noise, when people wake up in the morning and the first thing that they do, is look at their phone. You go to social media and there is so much news and so much content being shared. How does The Economist breakthrough? Would you actually define yourself as a News outlet or is it a News interpretation outlet?
Jamie Credland: So, there are a few questions there. Absolutely, we live in a world where there is more content available to people than ever before. That includes News content and it includes content from your friends, and it includes funny cat videos and everything in between. All of those things are demanding for our attention all the time. One of the ways we think about that at The Economist, people used to talk to us about who our competitors were and we used to list other businesses in the News organisations and say that was our competition. Actually, nowadays our competition is anything else that you choose to do with your time.
Somi Arian: The currency of our time is attention, it’s not about money anymore. You’ve got to really come out of that mindset of trying to just think about how much money can I get in the short run. Where the attention is, is where the money is in the long run.
Another question I have for you is, how do you monetize at the moment? I suppose in the past, it was pretty straightforward, people would buy the magazine, they would pay a subscription fee. But, now the way I see it from the outside, if you are, say, creating films, if you’re creating content, there are so many others that are available online and some of them are actually very good quality. The barrier of entry for producing content has become so much lower. Like, I’m completely self-funding my documentary. I wouldn’t be able to do that ten years ago. I’m running a successful enough business that I can put the money back into creating content. There is still a cost, but, I wouldn’t be able to do that before. There must be other people that are creating content around some of the things that you’re outputting. So, how do you monetize?
Jamie Credland: Yeah. The whole question of monetization for The Economist Group is a fascinating one. I think for the whole media industry and it’s changing very rapidly. I am very focused on the advertising and commercial side of the business, but we also have a very successful circulation of business.
Over the last 10 years, that weight of balance has really changed in a number of ways. Primarily, we made a decision 10, 15 years ago or longer when we first moved online. Which, at the time, everyone thought we were crazy, where we said,”Actually if you value our content, you need to pay for it in the same way you need to pay for the print content because the content is the same and it’s as valuable. We spend as much time making it and it’s of the same journalistic quality.” We’ve always had a pay rule and we’ve always been focused on that subscription rule. As I said, in the late ’90s early 2000s, everyone thought we were lunatics. Now, the economy has moved in such a way that actually this year for the first time, we made more money from subscriptions that we did for advertising for the first time.
That’s a big shift. The technology behind circulation marketing has moved on leaps and bounds; much more sophisticated in terms of how we find that audience, how we make sure that we reach exactly those people around the world who are most likely to want to read The Economist’s content.
That still primarily refers to the text edition, if you like. The word-based edition. Of course, we’re also innovating in other spaces, whether it’s in films, whether it’s in Snapchat, whether it’s on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. There, the subscription model is not so well established. People are definitely looking for different models.
Our priority is very much being, as you say if you have a heritage brand, it’s important to stay true to the mission, but as soon as you lose the audience, it’s very difficult to innovate. First priority is maintaining the audience. Our mission is about sharing liberal social values. It’s about believing in free trade, it’s about progress. There is still a very, very large audience of people who care passionately about that. People who talk about millennials, people who talk about Gen Z and other demographic groups. Even within those demographic groups, those core principles are very appealing. What’s changing is for some of them, not as many, as many people think but for some of them, they want to consume their news media in different formats. For example in the video, for example in a Snapchat story. Well, our job then is to, first of all, build a product that they absolutely love that is still true to our editorial values, it’s still about quality and build that audience.
My job, specifically is to turn that into a commercially sustainable model. On Snapchat, we have an advertising and sponsorship model, not a subscription model; because that platform doesn’t allow for subscriptions. Likewise, on films; at the moment, our films are free but we work closely with sponsors to create sponsored documentaries that really dig into subjects in depth. We have a mixed model. Subscription is still doing very, very well. Subscription is still growing. But, on these newer forms, it’s sometimes easier to innovate with commercial money and sponsorship money while we’re building that audience.
Somi Arian: Okay this is all great. Going back to an earlier topic: how do you define a millennial?
Jamie Credland: About a year ago, I spent almost a year speaking about millennials nonstop. I think the definition of millennial is fascinating because on one level it’s very simple. A millennial is somebody who is aged between 18 to 34. Within that demographic group, the consensus is that those people in that generation are having a different approach to media and a different approach to brands in heritage. I think that’s true and that’s a perfectly good working group.
The challenge is as soon as people start talking about millennials as being all the same because of course they’re not. In the same way, the baby boomers weren’t all the same, and generation X are not all the same. I think there are some really fascinating statements about the number of millennials that are married with children, who have mortgages. When you read trade press coverage in the marketing industry, everyone thinks that every millennial is running a Vlog and Snapchatting all day and crowdfunding their travel. That’s not true. There is a significant group doing that, but it’s not representative of every millennial.
There are some things that have really changed. Specifically, attitudes to technology and specifically media technologies, because they’re growing up with technologies that are not new to them. They’ve never had a life without a mobile phone. Using it in a different way, much more frequently, much more likely to experiment; and specifically around finance and money as well, I think there are some very interesting things. This is a generation who are growing up knowing that they will be poorer than their parents, which hasn’t happened for many generations. A generation who came to maturity during the financial crisis. Attitudes to things like further education, do you want to take on those loans to go to university or do you want to set up your own business? That dynamic has really changed.
I think it’s important to carry that out because as an organisation, it’s absolutely important to us to maintain a millennial audience because they’re the readers of tomorrow. But, not everybody will be an Economist reader. Not every millennial will be. In the same way that not all generation X or baby boomers were Economist readers. It’s really about finding that niche within that demographic group that really appeals to your brand and adapting to it. Changing your behaviour a little bit, but not losing sight of really what makes your brand important in the first place.
Somi Arian: Very, very good. Very good. That was one of the best answers we got. Because we’re doing a lot of interviews for this. Some of the people that actually I want to interview for this documentary are millennials. I haven’t even started connecting and reaching out to those people yet. Like the YouTubers, the like of Zoella and Casey Neistat. The only person that I have reached out to is Gary Vaynerchuk.
Jamie Credland: Oh yeah. Gary Vaynerchuk, he is an inspiration. Is he a millennial though? It’s really interesting.
Somi Arian: For me Gary Vaynerchuk is somebody who is an expert on millennials.
Jamie Credland: He’s also very good at seeing through the hype. Seeing through the buzz.
Somi Arian: So tell me this. How do you keep up with the pace of change in a millennial world?
Jamie Credland: When we talk about the pace of change, I think that’s really interesting in two ways. One is the pace of change for the audience themselves. We’ve been talking about the amount of media they’re consuming, how quickly they’re consuming it, things like that. Then there’s the pace of change of the business. I think they’re slightly different because one of the things that are important if you do have a heritage brand, is partly not to go chasing after the latest things just on the basis that it’s the latest thing. It needs to be right for your business.
Also, to leave things when they don’t work for you. We have left a couple of social media platforms after experimenting with them for a year or so, then said,”Do you know what, that’s not right for us. It’s not going to work for what our mission is and what we’re trying to achieve.” Pinterest is a good example. We had a presence on Pinterest. We’ve left it. Maybe we’ll go back in the future. But, right now what audience is going to that platform for compared to what we are delivering for is very different. Whereas a different platform, something like Instagram, which we hesitated to go into because it’s a very visual platform we didn’t want to go in there until we felt we knew a little bit about what we wanted to say visually. We took our time, then now we’re there. We have over a million followers. It’s growing very, very rapidly because we’ve done it on our own terms and still been true to ourselves.
I think there’s a bit more to the speed of pace of change. You have to accept, the audience is always moving, the audience is always changing. They’re always probably going to be one step ahead of you. But, don’t rush after them just for the sake of being there; because if you’re not careful, you can throw your whole heritage away before you know it.
Somi Arian: Where do you see The Economist in 20 years?
Jamie Credland: The future of The Economist is looking pretty rosy at the moment. We’re in a very good place. There are a number of factors in the short term. We’re living in very troubled fast-moving times. There is a lot of disruption going on. In those times, people are turning to trusted media. Up till recently, the day of the Brexit vote, the morning after the Brexit vote, we had our highest ever a number of subscription stats, because everyone woke up the next day and took out a subscription to The Economist to try and understand the world. That was our record until November last year when Donald Trump became the new president of the United States. We had our highest ever day, beat all our records the next day when the world woke up and said,”There is something really major happening here. There is a big shift happening, and I need to understand it.” And they took out a subscription to The Economist.
As long as the world keeps changing and moving, people are going to be looking for trusted editorial content to help them understand the world. In that respect. We’re in a very good place. As I say, our subscription business has grown very rapidly.
There are of course challenges for us, so I’m talking about five years. If you talk about 10 or 20 years, who knows what the next platforms will be and what the media consumption will look like? I think the kind of principles will stay the same. If you have a mission and you have something you believe in, and a heritage and a story about your view of the world, that will always be relevant, if there’s an audience that’s interested in it.