Sniffing out new ideas: publishers' push for online innovation

An ominous-looking black-and-white cartoon animal glowers down from a poster on the wall of a spare bedroom in Felix Dennis’s flat off London’s Regent Street.

“Big Badger,” the poster warns, “is watching.”

The giant badger is a bit out of place amid the dark wood panelling of the bedroom, but so are the assorted gadgetry, technology books and inexpensive desks that litter the tiny room.

Welcome to the badger’s den. Here former Dennis Interactive editorial director Mathew Toor (pictured centre), along with Rhys Lewis and Lowri Williams, are running Project Badger. Their task is to build five websites by the end of the year, using off-the-shelf products and no outside agencies – and unencumbered by the usual bureaucratic processes involved in a website launch by a major publishing company.

Project Badger’s name is in part a nod to the sort of cult sites it hopes to unleash – like the viral animation “Badger, Badger, Badger”. But the use of a blackand- white animal is also a nod to the legendary organisation that inspires the unit’s approach to product development.

During the Second World War, US aircraft manufacturer Lockheed set up a small research and development unit tasked with rapidly developing a jet fighter.

Lockheed’s unit, known as the Skunk Works for the malodorous plant where it initially set up shop, was a small, autonomous team that rapidly developed advanced projects without the bureaucratic procedures of a larger organisation. The secret unit delivered the XP-80 fighter in just 143 days. It would repeat the feat on other advanced aircraft projects after the war, and has become one of the staples of management literature on fostering creativity and innovation in large organisations.

As publishers begin to think more carefully about how to manage their efforts to innovate online in the face of nimbler upstart competitors, several are consciously adopting the Skunk Works approach.

Thirteen weeks after starting work in the spare bedroom, Project Badger’s first project will launch next week. The site, KnowYourMobile, will help users learn to use the 90 per cent of their mobile phone’s features that they don’t currently use. A second site, HateYourBoss, about Britain’s worst bosses, is at an early stage of development and is pencilled in for a May launch.

When the sites achieve an audience of 100,000 unique monthly users, Project Badger will turn them over to Dennis Interactive to monetise.

“The beauty is that we don’t have to worry about selling it. We just produce websites that we’d actually like editorially,” says Toor.

There are no pitches here, no cumbersome approval process, no board meetings, and no web design by committee. The Skunk Work’s focus on rapid, lowcost delivery is a conscious inversion of the way large publishing companies launch new sites.

“There’s no strict hierarchy here, we are informed by what we, as a group, think will work well, that we would want to use or read. We can make decisions quickly – there is no real interference,” says Toor.

“It’s like having a start-up. We’re trying to recreate some of the excitement and spontaneity that went into the web when it was all amateurs creating sites because they liked it, and trying to harness some of that and do it within a corporate environment. And obviously they think they can make money off it.”

Bang it out and see what happens

Toor contrasts the Project Badger sites to Dennis’s online-only lads’ mag Monkey, which he began working on two years ago: “I did a proposal to the board and did a demonstration of the technology 18 months before it launched,” he says. “And Monkey was quicker than most things because there is no actual hard copy, it was all done electronically. By contrast, start to finish, this will be 12 weeks, which is pretty quick.

“Monkey spent more in one month in advertising than our entire budget for all of us for a year. So that’s the scale difference. Monkey is a project that has gone, from start to finish, through the normal gestation of a major project within Dennis, which is why it has taken so long. We’re more like the underground, bang-it-outand- see-what-happens approach.”

Dennis’s little research and development unit – which will soon add a web developer as its fourth member and will only hire site editors on renewable three-month contracts – has been given extraordinary freedom to experiment and, if necessary, to fail.

“What we’re doing will be quite cost-effective, even if we have a 50 per cent success rate,” says Toor.

In addition to the larger sites, Project Badger will also be “churning out blogs”, using existing staff from across Dennis’s titles.

Perhaps revealing the sort of competition it is designed to counter, Toor mentions the blog network Shiny Media, which recently attracted £4.5million in venture capital investment, as another organisation that can rapidly launch blogs in this way.

“A lot of people work on magazines because they want to be a journalist, not because they are on a magazine that they actually want to be on, so there’s a lot of frustrated creativity out there. If you can give them an outlet, they get to put their name up and write about stuff they want to in a way that they want to, and we get the bonus of them doing it for peanuts.”

Innovation

Across London, in another pokey room hidden within altogether grander surroundings, another publishing company is attempting to adopt the Skunk Works approach to online innovation.

Stepping off a lift and wandering through the glitzy glass and polished steel offices of advertising agency AMV-BBDO, past an office kitchen and down a poorly lit corridor, you arrive at a door marked with a scrap of crookedly taped A4 announcing you have arrived at Project Red Stripe.

“The reason we’re here is that it’s a completely different vibe from The Economist offices,” says Economist Group chief information officer Mike Seery, who organised the project. “There are some Economist posters here because they’re our ad agency, but other than that, we don’t have anything here that ties us back to The Economist. It’s a different environment.

“If you take people out and put them somewhere else, they’ll come up with something different. If you’re in your usual surroundings, you get all these cues that take you back to where you already are.”

At management level, says Seery, the Economist Group had become conscious that its online development was not radical enough.

“We realised that we were hardly cutting edge – in fact, we were falling behind in some things,” recalls Seery.

The Economist Intelligence Unit has, in recent years, moved distribution of its monthly research reports online, but without significantly changing their structure for the new medium. Economist.com has gone through several iterations since its launch in the 1990s, and has made some incremental changes like updating content daily and adding blogs.

“It’s a bit more of what’s already there, and it’s hardly groundbreaking,” says Seery.

“This is asking what we would have to do to have an online business the size The Economist is offline. To do that we need to innovate. And to do that we need to drop the shackles of our normal processes.”

Seery has clearly given the theory of innovation some thought. “There’s a bit of a debate about innovation – whether it’s something you do as an integral part of what everyone does every day, or whether you set up some sort of stand-alone unit to do it,” he says.

He opted for the stand-alone approach after an abortive attempt to use the everyday method with his 50-member IT team.

To run Project Red Stripe, Seery was given his pick of any six people recruited from across the Economist Group. They have a budget of £100,000 and six months to come up with something new. They have been given carte blanche to use any brand and any existing content in the Economist Group free of charge. In theory, at least, they could decide to give the Economist Intelligence Unit’s expensive research reports away for free online.

The only constraints in the extremely broad remit are that whatever they do must be radically innovative, and must be on the web.

“We’re in a luxurious position: people have a job to go back to, their salaries are being paid, but they’re doing something that lets them step outside of what they’d normally be doing,” says Seery. “Not many people get a chance to do something like this in as riskfree an environment as The Economist.”

Deciding what exactly they will do with all this creative freedom has been the first task of Project Red Stripe, which has now been running for six weeks. It won’t be a new wiki or blog, nor even an online Chinese-language version of The Economist. All of these ideas have been discussed through conventional channels and are not radical enough.

It probably won’t be a patentable technology, says Seery. They have discussed incorporating online news aggregation and networked journalism approaches to expand the way The Economist and the EIU operate, but it might not even be an editorial product at all.

Seery believes they will have succeeded if the group’s executive board is puzzled by Project Red Stripe’s proposal when they present it.

“It would be a good thing if we present the business plan and explain how it would work and they don’t get it and just think ‘what do you mean?’ That would tell me that it’s something they wouldn’t have come up with,” he says.

“My internal remit is that we have to come back with something they wouldn’t have done anyway, something that can only be done because we’re doing it. We want it to be successful, we want it to make money and all those things – but we also need to have a bit of freedom to screw up.

“It should be big. It should be ‘wow’. It should be something that gets noticed. That puts us on the other end of the spectrum from just adding a new feature to Economist.com.”

Management theorists are divided on whether it is advisable to seek ideas for innovative products from existing customers.

“There’s one school of thought that says if you ask your existing customers for ideas to be creative, to innovate, you get nothing,” says Seery, citing Clayton Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Dilemma. “If you are The Economist, and you ask your customers what they want The Economist to do, they will say ‘it’s great already’, or ‘more articles on finance’, or ‘less articles on politics’. But it’s kind of the same stuff. They’re not going to come out and say ‘I think you should create a high-end gambling site’.”

Companies like Apple and Google don’t solicit ideas from their users, relying instead on their own staff’s ingenuity in devising new products. On the other hand, companies like Procter & Gamble and Lego have been very successful in involving their customers in developing new products.

Last week, projectredstripe.com began soliciting ideas from interested Economist readers for the next three weeks.

Contributors are asked to label their submissions with tags, giving hints at the ideas that have already been floated. Perhaps giving some clue about the ideas submitted, these tags include: audio, blog reporters network, e-learning, private broadcasting system, editorial control, fraud prevention, prediction marketplace and wiki.

The site has already drawn critical reactions from some bloggers and from the online community Slashdot, which noted a legal disclaimer claiming ownership over any ideas submitted – and promising only a six-month subscription to Economist.com in return for submissions that are incorporated in the project.

To remain on schedule, they will have to know what they are doing by 30 April.

Project blogs

While the original military Skunk Works were secretive projects, both publishers’ attempts to apply the theory are doing so very publicly, with project blogs recording every step of the process. Seery and Toor say the blogs have been useful in recruiting their teams and explaining the progress internally.

For The Economist, gaining outsiders’ input is fundamental to the early stages of the project. And the Dennis project, with its more specific objectives already in place, is not particularly worried about giving away any secrets to his competitors on projectbadger.com.

“How many people from Emap have looked at that blog? None. I know because I look at the referrer records,” says Toor.

“The best way to hide something sometimes is to hide it in plain sight. There’s no secrecy to this because I know Emap won’t be able to launch a site before we can. No fucking way they can.

“The advantage is that I can say I’m going to launch this site in two months’ time – let’s see them do a spoiler. I’d be gobsmacked if they did, because they’ve got to go off and set up their equivalent of this division and give it the kind of backing and independence that we’ve got.”

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