“Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast.” I love this quote.
Culture sounds so touchy-feely. Strategy is a man’s man’s man’s world – it’s blueprints and white boarding and financial projections – so it seems unlikely that culture should ever devour strategy. But here’s the thing, I didn’t get this quote from the guru of the month or a recent address to the United Nations.
This is a quote from Richard Plepler, CEO. Plepler recently took over the reigns at HBO and I heard him say this at an event called “In Search of the Unexpected Future of Media” which was hosted by The New Republic just prior to the much-covered, scarcely-viewed relaunch of tnr.com. I attended the event because I had interviewed at The New Republic for a Marketing Director position a few months back. I didn’t get it but I was still interested to see what was percolating at the new The New Republic.
As expected, I was very impressed by TNR’s access to topflight media people. On an unexpected note, I was completely underwhelmed by their ability to produce an event. It looked like an event and it smelled like an event but something was obviously missing from the plate. That’s not sour grapes over the job interview: The audio quality from the stage was terrible, the video quality was worse. They had one camera in the back of the room to film a conversation between two of the most influential people in media – Richard Plepler and Jill Abramson, the executive editor of a little rag called The New York Times.
I am very familiar with the current trend of “underproduction” whereby a highly capable production crew intentionally obscures the quality of a recording because people more readily believe video that looks bad over something that looks polished. This was not a case of intentional underproduction, it was simply a lack of attention to detail and a lack of experience.
The conversation took 50+ minutes to heat up and never quite reached a simmer. I don’t mean to knock TNR unnecessarily but if you are going to stand for quality journalism and talk about new media and you go ahead and name your event “In Search of the Unexpected Future of Media” and you attempt to produce video content of high caliber people that winds up sounding bad and looking worse, that’s on you and I simply don’t understand such an operational failure. I waited to write this post because I wanted to reserve judgment until the audience had spoken. The event was back in January.
Video by the numbers
My own opinions and experiences aside, the numbers on the event video in question are not reassuring. The video currently has 18 views on YouTube. While I was hoping to dig into the stats a bit and provide some analysis of the media value netted from the event, there is not a lot to analyze on this one. The video was also posted to fora.tv, a site that focuses on “Conference and Event Video.” That video feed boasts 1,480 views. If you believe that counter, that’s a total of 1,498 views. According to my own search, the video never made it to tnr.com. I don’t get it.
Here is a screen grab that shows all of the Twitter coverage that Topsy finds:
Now I really don’t get it.
So I will tell you what I did gain from the event. Nothing on the future of media, which was unexpected because The New Republic, while never viewed as a commercial success, has always been viewed as an influential purveyor of topflight political journalism, at least for the last 99 years. I also took away from the event that Jill Abramson is highly intelligent, experienced and funny. That was reassuring, I guess.
Finally, what I took from the event was that Richard Plepler is impressive. And Plepler’s most interesting contribution to the unexpected future of media was that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” He touched on it twice. It was unexpected advice from a CEO. Maybe that is precisely why HBO has been able to rise above its competition so consistently for the last decade and a half and transform itself into what is now, essentially, the most successful entertainment studio in the business. People subscribe because HBO has the best content on the dial, and they are able to create the best content because they have all the money (think: best writers, best production people, et cetera). Such a virtuous cycle not only represents a fortunate position in the marketplace but a culture that is committed to quality, that values originality and vision and that measures its success by more than the obvious metrics. That’s a culture that eats strategy for breakfast.
The second most interesting insight from Plepler was that the average age of an HBO viewer is 39. The third, which is mostly exciting on a personal level was that Vice is currently developing a show for HBO, which will be righteous if it’s anything like their web video journalism.
The breakfast quote was so fantastic because of its source, I only wish more people could have heard it, and I know that TNR could use the revenue.
I have no doubt that former Facebook founder and current TNR CEO/Editor-in-Chief, Chris Hughes, has the ability to build a profitable and culturally important media brand that is bolstered by quality journalism but… he needs to develop a culture that will eat his strategy for breakfast. His strategy so far has been to modernize the format across all significant platforms and to expand the content. Decent first steps though reviews of that implementation have been mixed. Put simply, it’s not working yet.
Culture takes time, Mr. Hughes, keep at it. And call me maybe… because I’d love to dig into the analytics of the new site, if only for my own curiosity and to help you increase conversions, improve UX and ramp monetization. At the very least, let me introduce you to some experienced audio and video production people.