LOP-SIDED CONVERGENCE

The convergence of Technology, Media and Telecommunications is changing how we do stuff.  That, in part, is why Facebook was valued north of $100 billion this week.  The new shorthand for these converging industries is ‘TMT’.

PR and marketing agencies have put specialist TMT teams in place to offset the new breed of TMT correspondents that newspapers and broadcasters have installed.  But is ‘TMT’ as unified an industry as the label currently suggests, or a bit lop-sided in favour of the media?

The Hollywood movie industry (part of the media bit) is actively at war with the telecommunications bit. It aims to hold telcos to account for the habits of customers working as copyright pirates and watching the latest blockbusters without a ticket.  The music industry (another media bit) is on a similar path. The British Phonographic Institute is demanding that telcos block access to certain music sharing websites, threatening to go legal if the telcos resist.

The telcos are grumpy too, unhappy at shouldering the cost of maintaining and speeding up broadband networks so the growing libraries of content can be downloaded faster.  Meanwhile, the telcos that have launched IPTV services are underwhelmed with what the content owners charge them to distribute the content at a fee, plus profit margin.  The technology vendors generally stay quiet, unwilling to upset either side while selling to both.

Combined, Google, Facebook, iTunes, Instagram, Pinterest, iPlayer and a host of others depend on the teleco’s capital investment but make little, if any, cash contribution.  The telcos, with their real and significant revenue, profits and cashflow are in effect subsidising their digital lodgers who are largely without.

So imagine the envy spreading across telco boardrooms at Facebook’s ‘robust’ stock market valuation.  If you apply the same valuation multiples to telco stocks that was applied to Facebook, BT would be worth around £250bn, Vodafone £750bn and AT&T a cool $2 trillion.

Facebook started and ended its first day of trading on Nasdaq yesterday at $38 a share.  Is it overpriced?   The case for the prosecution would point to the company’s annual profits of $1bn and its easily replicated technology and business model and ask on which planet in which solar system such a valuation, at more than 100 times profits, could have been agreed.

The case for the defence would point to Facebook’s 900 million and rising active subscribers and the growth in online advertising which recently surpassed the number of dollars changing hands for traditional ads. The truth is no one really knows whether Facebook is over priced or not.  It’s a little bit religion.

What about the telcos?  In justifying the telcos’ relatively low market valuations, one could point out their declining revenue, the analogue mindset, conservative outlook and lack of comfort with either technology or business risk since the dot com bubble of the late 1990s and early noughties crashed.

What is undeniable is that Facebook and its peers would struggle were it not for the telcos’ investment in fixed and wireless broadband infrastructure that connects the punters to the platforms.  Because of this, telecoms IS a core element of the new converging world of TMT. But they need to see themselves as such and message it more strongly to their customers, employees, the market and other stakeholders.

Too many telcos still talk in the language of volume voice minutes and network speeds.  The financial analysts that value them speak the same language.  Compare a recent financial research report on any incumbent telco in the world with one from five years earlier – it’s as if the social media revolution had never occurred.

The convergence of Technology, Media and Telecoms means telecoms has never been more important to peoples’ lives or business.  It just needs the confidence, understanding and wisdom of age to say so, in a way that balances the exuberance of youth.

 

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DRUNKS AND LAMP POSTS

The public relations industry has long been accused of using market research the way drunks use lamp-posts – for support rather than illumination.

The data from a well-executed market research survey, especially when the questions have been ‘spiced-up’, make useful fodder for overworked editors with pages or airtime to fill.

Provided you’ve copyrighted the research data, your company or client gets at least a name check in the story, together with the quasi-academic credibility that research bestows.

The process is tried and tested.  You start with the headlines you want to see and then formulate questions that will stand those stories up. Usually the market research firm, which also sources a ‘statistically valid’ number of anonymous respondents, asks for changes to eliminate question ‘bias’, but otherwise you get what you pay for.

Analysing the research data in different ways also enables the press office to target different types of media.  For example “More than half the people in Scotland believe X,” pleases the regional titles, while “64% of women between 18 and 24 years prefer Y” ensures a fair hearing from the (younger) women’s press.

But this, arguably cynical, media-centric approach of the past needs updating for the digital present and future.

For a start, the pervasiveness of social media means is it is no longer necessary, nor advisable for survey subjects be an anonymous representation of your customer base.  They can be your customers and people with an interest in your business.

Secondly, the research can form ongoing process of social engagement, a two-way dialogue with customers where you listen to your customers views and act upon them.  Rather than simply building headlines, market research in the digital can build enduring customer relationships; rather than improving press coverage, it can improve product development and marketing.  Both should directly improve your business’ bottom line.

Ultimately, market research in the digital age can be much more about illumination, much less about support.

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MISPLACED CONFIDENCE

The Celtic Tiger misplaced its confidence after coming second in a fight with the global economic downturn.  The scars can be seen in the unfinished housing that litters the countryside and the empty commercial premises that line the streets and new business and retail parks.

Despair is palpable in the eyes of the Irish. What started as anger in search of someone to blame when the crash happened has started to give way to resignation.  The ‘craic’ is as easily found as hobby-horse droppings.

Ten years ago, this small island on the edge of Europe was punching well above its commercial weight, attracting immigrants from poorer economies looking for better prospects and a better life.   The Irish had developed a swagger.  A decade before that, my generation and I had little option but to leave in search of something better somewhere else.

Ireland is enduring its first recession.  It was only getting into the swing of its first economic boom when the wheels and the axle fell out.  House building, new car sales and debt quickly became thriving industries.  It’s astonishing how quickly a nation gets comfortable with nouveau riches.

Two events coincided to transform the Irish economy.  The first was the Government’s decision to reduce corporation tax to 12.5% (10% for manufacturers) in the late 1990s (less than half the UK rate), which brought a mass influx of the world’s largest corporations keen to keep hold of a higher proportion of their profits.

The other was membership of the Eurozone. This brought significant investment in Ireland’s national infrastructure and scale to an otherwise sub-scale market. The lower tax rates continue to deliver benefits, while membership of the Eurozone is not seen as a universal success.

I’ve just returned and was asked, as someone looking in, on the prospects for the country.  Few found consolation in my views.

But I believe Ireland’s economy is stronger today than it was when I left its shores twenty years ago.  Living standards are higher.  Housing is better.  Services are better and choice is greater. The country has a national infrastructure today that, while imperfect, far exceeds anything we enjoyed in earlier years.

The employment base is more diverse than at any time in the country’s history.   The current generation have a skills base unrecognisable to my generation and are on first name terms with hi tech manufacturing, biomedical research and social media technology development.

In the late 199os, Bertie Ahern, then the Taoiseach or Prime Minister, explained that Ireland would be better off with a 12% tax take on a lot rather than a 30% tax contribution from a little.

That remains true today.  Corporate profits have remained relatively strong despite the global downturn and the Irish economy continues to benefit from what is essentially free money.   Until someone else decides to copy the model, it is likely to remain so.

Of course the Irish economy is suffering like the rest of Europe but the cost incurred in upgrading the country has all but been written off.  Yet in most cases, the assets and the infrastructure created during the boom years are still there.

As the Eurozone woes recede (as they surely must), and the global economy hits its stride again (as it surely will), the Celtic Tiger will be well placed to start smiling again.

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