Are Media Companies Leaders, or Followers?

Week after week, I link to articles that profile the massive changes going on within media and journalism. Each illustrates companies and people who are coping with a change in their industry that they are forced to endure.

Perhaps these changes are discussed as “opportunities” in some articles; in others, but in many, they are filled with debate over whether or not change is needed in order to regain marketshare stolen by the internet, and smaller players online.

I read a few articles this week that profile leaders in their industries, and one common characteristic in each that keeps them on top of their game, despite intense competition: constant improvement.

Now, this is not improvement that has been decided upon in their own minds – it is improvement that is based on the needs and desires of their customers, and is benchmarked by their fiercest competitors.

The first article is from The New Yorker, called “Little Hotties,” that describes the rivalry between Barbie dolls and Bratz dolls. (Oddly enough, I couldn’t find the article on the New Yorker website, but via Google, found it on the New America Foundation website. Interesting example of how amedia giant is trying to control things, and Google outdoes them.)

Isaac Larian, CEO of M.G.A. Entertainment, makers of the phenomenally popular Bratz dolls:

“…people in my company think I never sleep,” Larian said, smiling but not joking. “I take home all these fan letters, and I read them at night. Our designers — it’s mandatory for them to read those letters carefully, too. We pay attention — we make toys kids want. The secret formula is to listen carefully to kids. They tell you. If they don’t like something, they say, ‘This sucks.’ If they like it, they tell you. And if they want you to make it better they tell you.”

Are media companies doing the same thing? Are writers doing the same thing? I don’t mean asking someone if they want to read about the war in Iraq or about Paris Hilton, and then watering down journalism based on their answer.

I mean, understanding the habits and lifestyle by which people interact with media – and studying their interests and needs to make connections for them, in terms of news and information they need to know.

More often than not, I read about media companies trying to fit their audience into the structure that the company has set for them. This construct works for us, so it should work for you.

But there are so many options nowadays: people are not just drowning in information, but they are drowning in options. We have been given tools to interact with and understand our audiences like never before. Why do we react when the marketplace shifts. Why do we not seek out our audience needs, before they even frame it in their heads to ask it?

The second article is about Toyota, who has been rapidly gaining as their competitors struggle. Even with this success, their CEO seeks constant improvement:

“He frets that quality, the foundation of its U.S. success, is slipping. He grouses that Toyota’s factories and engineering practices aren’t efficient enough. Within the company, he has even questioned a core tenet of Toyota’s corporate culture — kaizen, the relentless focus on incremental improvement… His favorite words include jimichi (steady), tetteiteki (thorough), and, especially, guchoku (having an open mind).”

On another front, a company that has lost its leadership position. Steve Berkowitz, head of Microsoft’s online business, on how Google has trounced them online:

“A lot of decisions were driven by technology; they were not driven by the consumer,” he said. “It isn’t always the best technology that wins. It is the best experience.”

In a recent issue of Fortune, architect Santiago Calatrava describes where form meets function:

“It is very important to deliver a sign of beauty to show that someone is paying attention. That means that not only does the train work, but it also works in a beautiful manner. People don’t only need bread. They need bread given to them with care. It is sometimes just as important to focus on how you serve it.”

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