Features

Asaf Peled

Minute Media is a leading global sports media and technology company that provides unique social content experiences for fans. The company recently announced a content platform collaboration with Horizon Media, the world’s largest privately held media services agency.We spoke with President Rich Routman and CEO and Founder Asaf Peled about the company’s bid to remake sports media.

Rich Routman

Tell us about your company’s beginnings. What did you see (or not see) in the market that led you to launch?

Minute Media originally started in 2011 as FTBPro in Tel Aviv, Israel by Asaf Peled. The initial idea came as Asaf, a huge soccer fan and formerly a Cisco employee, noticed that there was little investment in soccer related startups. He saw an opportunity to build a company that would be focused on soccer and could tap into the growing world of social media to connect like-minded fans around the world. FTBPro renamed itself 90min as it expanded to new markets and languages.

In recent years, Asaf saw the potential to bring the same concept of citizen/fan journalism to other sports beyond soccer. Minute Media opened its NY headquarters in 2016 and hired Rich Routman as president to oversee global expansion and the launch of US brand 12up. Rich previously served as Chief Revenue Officer at Perform Media. Since then, the company has expanded to e-sports with DBLTAP.

What were some of the biggest challenges that your team faced at zero stage?

When Asaf started Minute Media, then called FTBPro, he faced some challenges that likely all start-ups encounter. First, raising funding for a media company back in 2011 was much more difficult than it is today. He worked hard to share his vision for where the industry could be at a time when the media world was skeptical of a contributor-driven media model and the real-world use of social media. Recruiting the right tech talent in a competitive market, especially when your company does not yet have a name for itself, was also a challenge. And then on a leadership level, being a CEO for the first time and understanding the operational side of things was a learning process.

Let’s look at the science behind your product. What makes it different from other offerings in this space?

Minute Media’s technology is a sophisticated content creation management platform that enables social and mobile publishing all in an easy to use and scalable application. Based on the technology, fans can create, publish, share and distribute their own content. We are now reaching more than 75 million people around the world, featuring content in eleven languages from more than 4,000 contributors.

In addition to our own solutions, we’ve partnered with some of the largest media properties in the world to power their own sports content engine. Examples include HT Media in India, ProSieben in Germany and Horizon Media, the largest privately held media services agency, which licenses Minute Media’s publishing tools for their clients.

How do you translate your brand’s message in a way that gets you heard above the noise?

Our platforms – 90min for football(soccer), 12up for US sports and DBLTAP for e-sports – are all dedicated to telling the stories behind the games, players, and teams that fans are passionate about. We break through the clutter by being an authentic voice for the fans because our content comes from the fans. We believe that by giving fans the tools to tell the stories and share their passion, other fans get closer to the games, acting as the next best thing to actually being inside the stadium. This is especially true when it comes to our video series. One of the most popular series is FanVoice in which fan contributors are doing videos from the fan perspective to really capture the excitement and sounds of the games.

This focus on authenticity also translates into what we offer our brand partners. Brands like Warner Brothers, Mountain Dew, Nike and more have turned to us to help target the millennial audience and we’ve helped them develop bespoke advertising solutions that authentically bring their brand into the sports stories covered on our platforms.

Let’s talk about brand values. What means the most to your company besides industry success?

Building community is at the core of Minute Media’s brand values. Sports is the universal connector –fans from all over the world come together to share a common love of the game or team or player. Minute Media’s technology and our brands help make those connections and build communities whether focused on soccer or e-sports or basketball. We also give fans the opportunity to share their love and passion for sports by giving them the tools to create their content, curate it and share it amongst other fans.

There’s always been this rivalry between Silicon Valley and NYC in tech. What are some tangible benefits to being based in NYC?

As a media company, it’s a huge benefit to be part of the media capital of the world and be surrounded by other publishers, editorial teams as well as a large number of the brands we are hoping to connect with. Plus as a company rooted in sports, NY features some of the best sports teams, as well a passionate fan base for international sports, including soccer, which is where we got our start. While Silicon Valley is obviously known for its tech, our tech was actually created in ‘Silicon Wadi’ in Tel Aviv, Israeli, which has been giving Silicon Valley a run for its money lately.

Name one place in your company’s NYC neighborhood that you and your team just can’t live without.

Minute Media’s NY office is on 33rd Street. We could not live without Open Kitchen, which describes itself as a dynamic culinary market place with a wide range of gourmet cuisine options. It’s our go-to spot for breakfast, lunch, and mid afternoon snacks (we practically live there).

Learn more about Minute Media here.

Sylvain Bellaïche is the founder and CEO of Digital Social Retail, a company that has developed software that allows customers to simultaneously manage push notifications for Wi-Fi signage on any mobile device. The brand’s platform also offers a personalized, geolocated and real-time advertising platform that is used by several leading brands.

Tell us about your company’s beginnings. What did you see (or not see) in the market that led you to launch?

Historically, we developed multiple software technologies for web marketing over the course of more than 10 years. Our goal was to enhance our customers’ websites to incorporate tools that would allow them to “connect” better with their web users, and to provide dedicated and more valuable information and products and a better user experience when those users visited the sites.

During the first decade of the 21st century, applying these technologies was not possible. In 2014, however, Apple invented the protocol iBeacon with Bluetooth. People now had a connected smartphone and Bluetooth became popular. We understood that the technology was now ready to be applied in the physical world. Our objective is the 360° convergence between the web and the real world.

Initially, we were focused merely on enhancing the connection between websites and people. Today, however, we are expanding our goals to encompass a wide range of applications—including construction, retail, universities, industries, security, and entertainment.

What were some of the biggest challenges that your team faced at zero stage?

We spent a lot of time proposing a very easy-to-use platform, which required no technical knowledge on the users’ part. All the technical complexities are transparent from the standpoint of our customers and smartphone users.

Also, with a technology such as ours, people aren’t comfortable purchasing until they have a good understanding of the product and platform. This takes time. We needed to figure out the best ways to educate our prospects so that they are comfortable making a purchase.

Let’s look at the science behind your product. What makes it different from other offerings in this space?

What’s great about our Digital Social Retail beacon and signage management platform is that we have the whole package. With our beacon connector technology, we offer businesses the ability to create a unique customer experience by customizing their message to show relevant information that viewers want to see. The most crucial part of this whole process is that the customers are receiving this unique message when and where it matters most, which is in the vicinity of the store location. With Digital Social Retail’s signage technology, businesses also have the ability to pull information from a customer’s phone and have a tailored message appear on the signage screen. This is done with our new widgets feature. With this feature, not only are you able to pull information from the user’s phone, you are able to play multiple forms of media at once such as the weather, news, live Waze traffic patterns, live T.V. and more.

How do you translate your brand’s message in a way that gets you heard above the noise?

The way we translate our message is by conveying the fact that it is more than just a product or service. We like to say that Digital Social Retail is a 360-degree portal for proximity marketing. It is a “360-degree” solution because we give businesses the hardware and the software and the ability to create completely customizable notifications. Our competitors are mainly focused on one aspect of proximity marketing, such as the hardware or software.

Let’s talk about brand values. What means the most to your company besides industry success?

Obviously, we want to be successful but what means most to us is how we do so. We want to be seen as the industry leaders in connecting people to the physical web using our hardware and software. We use our connectors and digital signage to create a connection between the patrons and the location sending the message. We want our brand to be recognized as the leading “connecting” brand.

There’s always been this rivalry between Silicon Valley and NYC in tech. What are some tangible benefits to being based in NYC?

One of the biggest benefits of being based in New York City is the opportunity for networking. The city is home to roughly three million working professionals and these men and women are all within convenient commuting distance to our office! Many of these professionals have worked at tech start-ups and it is always beneficial to speak with like-minded adults to learn from their journeys. Another great benefit of being based in New York is the number of trade shows that take place here. Marketing at trade shows is a great way to create brand awareness and to increase sales. With all the trade shows right here in the city, it makes it very affordable and convenient for us to reach a large group of prospects.

There are so many possible prospects within a very convenient radius. This allows us to get face time with potential prospects. Anytime you have the ability to speak about your product to a prospect in person, you increase your chance of a sale by building a relationship.

Name one place in your company’s NYC neighborhood that you and your team just can’t live without.

Café Hestia is a café that is located right outside of our office building. At least one of us gets lunch there every day. We visit Café Hestia so frequently because it is very convenient and offers a very wide variety of food options as well as serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Learn more about Digital Social Retail here.

Within 5 years, Datorama has become an industry leader, working with more than 2000 brands, 300 agencies, publishers, and tech firms, and counting L’Oreal, Foursquare, and Godaddy among their clients. We spoke with Ran Sarig, Datorama CEO & co-founder, about his company’s meteoric rise.

Tell us about your company’s beginnings. What did you see (or not see) in the market that led you to launch?

Founded in 2012, Datorama was born out of my co-founders and my own recognition that there was white space for a marketing-specific solution that could drastically reduce the complex data problem suffered by marketers of all stripes. As all three of us had experience in the marketing horizontal — in various capacities at advertising technology (AdTech) providers and at advertising agencies — it was abundantly clear through professionals’ daily struggles that there was a need that wasn’t being addressed. After spending some time doing discovery and exploration, it became very clear to us that artificial intelligence (AI) would be the critical technology that would enable us to surmount the emerging and evolving data woes.

What were some of the biggest challenges that your team faced at zero stage?

Probably the hardest part of starting a company is taking that initial leap of faith. Obviously, there’s a tremendous amount of risk involved from a fiscal and career perspective. For each of the three co-founders this was not an easy decision to make as we all had enjoyed strong trajectories and were reaping those benefits. Ultimately, it was clear that our idea was so powerful it needed to be pursued, especially as it would present an opportunity for Datorama to be a first mover in the marketing technology (MarTech) space.

It seems so long ago that we took that initial step but since then Datorama’s grown significantly. We tripled and are now doubling revenue and headcount for four years now. After the first half of 2017 we are on track to do it again. Now our biggest challenge is keeping pace with our momentum. Scaling the business while maintaining our unique culture and focus on innovation is not easy to do. While we’ve made some mistakes, we’ve been quick to course correct and refocus. I am very proud of where the company is today with a global footprint of 16 offices. Since inception we’ve always had a global presence but now at this scale we’re a truly diverse, multi-cultural organization.

Let’s look at the science behind your product. What makes it different from other offerings in this space?

As today’s marketers are burdened by a plethora of point solutions, they are now adopting an integrated approach that connects marketing performance, outcomes and investments across all of their channels, programs and stakeholders. Customers using Datorama’s marketing intelligence platform as the backbone of their marketing organization produce a single source of truth to power better decision making and collaboration. To this end, Datorama provides marketers with smart, assistive AI machine learning technology, out-of-the-box data modeling and automated insights to connect, unify, analyze, visualize and act on their data immediately — at any scale — with high performance.

Essentially, this provides our customers with the ability to leverage AI to collect, cleanse and mash all of their marketing data together, which can reveal all-new insights not previously seen before. The end result is a straightforward way for marketers to analyze their efforts to determine their return on investment and make better decisions going forward to improve campaign performance.

As far as I am aware, Datorama is the only company to: 1) Apply machine learning to data integration; 2) Have flexible data models that adjust on the fly with user’s needs; and, 3) Leverage AI technology to elevate critical business insights in real time. All of this is delivered in a productized way, which differs from many businesses that provide AI solutions but require lengthy service engagements.

How do you translate your brand’s message in a way that gets you heard above the noise?

One of the greatest challenges operating in the MarTech space is standing out from the crowd. To put things in perspective, in 2011 there were about 150 organizations in the different MarTech landscapes. Today, there are around 5,000. Due to this saturation, there is a lot of confusion in the marketplace and overlapping messages. And we haven’t even gotten into the problem of AI companies overpromising and under delivering — don’t get me started.

For us, the plan was simple. Early on the team’s focus was to onboard as many customers as possible. We sought to prove our value by gaining customer traction and delivering success for them. Now, as a company that’s considered the benchmark in marketing data integration, it makes telling our story easier. The reactions we’re seeing from journalists, third-party research companies like Gartner and Forrester, and from other industry-focused influencers makes it clear that we’re leading the pack with our platform. This is further substantiated by the impact we’re making with our install base, which obviously wouldn’t be possible without a truly cutting-edge solution that delivers on our value proposition.

Let’s talk about brand values. What means the most to your company besides industry success?

At Datorama we’re completely obsessed with our customers. The biggest thing each Datoraman is focused on is ensuring our client’s success. In fact, this has become so central to our mission that we’ve made it a point to measure our very own success based on our customer’s performance working with our platform.

There’s always been this rivalry between Silicon Valley and NYC in tech. What are some tangible benefits to being based in NYC?

While that may have held true several years ago, I don’t think that a rivalry exists anymore as we’re more connected than ever and certain regions specialize in specific industries. New York City’s Flatiron district, for example, has become home to many of today’s leading AdTech and MarTech companies, which is why we decided to put our global headquarters there. For Datorama it’s important to be in New York because it’s, arguably, home to some of the greatest advertising and marketing teams on the globe. As this is our core customer, we find it beneficial to be so close — literally and figuratively — so we can work in partnership with them to deliver greater product innovation and the best customer service possible.

Name one place in your company’s NYC neighborhood that you and your team just can’t live without.

Datoramans are a bit spoiled now that we’re a few doors away from the flagship Eataly, but that’s only the start. Our New York-based team has always been a fan of Dos Toros, so much so that a group carved the logo into a pumpkin during a Halloween get together. I think it’s safe to say it’s always on their minds — just kidding. Personally, I have been a big fan of Eataly’s La Birreria, which is the market’s rooftop microbrewery and restaurant.

Learn more about Datorama here.

 


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Google says AI better than humans at scrubbing extremist YouTube content” was written by Samuel Gibbs, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 1st August 2017 14.33 UTC

Google has pledged to continue developing advanced programs using machine learning to combat the rise of extremist content, after it found that it was both faster and more accurate than humans in scrubbing illicit content from YouTube.

The company is using machine learning along with human reviewers as part of a mutli-pronged approach to tackle the spread of extremist and controversial videos across YouTube, which also includes tougher standards for videos and the recruitment of more experts to flag content in need of review.

A month after announcing the changes, and following UK home secretary Amber Rudd’s repeated calls for US technology firms to do more to tackle the rise of extremist content, Google’s YouTube has said that its machine learning systems have already made great leaps in tackling the problem.

A YouTube spokesperson said: “While these tools aren’t perfect, and aren’t right for every setting, in many cases our systems have proven more accurate than humans at flagging videos that need to be removed.

“Our initial use of machine learning has more than doubled both the number of videos we’ve removed for violent extremism, as well as the rate at which we’ve taken this kind of content down. Over 75% of the videos we’ve removed for violent extremism over the past month were taken down before receiving a single human flag.”

One of the problems YouTube has in policing its site for illicit content is that users upload 400 hours of content every minute, making filtering out extremist content in real time an enormous challenge that only an algorithmic approach is likely to manage, the company says.

YouTube also said that it had begun working with 15 more NGOs and institutions, including the Anti-Defamation League, the No Hate Speech Movement, and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in an effort to improve the system’s understanding of issues around hate speech, radicalisation and terrorism to better deal with objectionable content.

Google will begin enforcing tougher standards on videos that could be deemed objectionable, but are not illegal, in the coming weeks. The company said that YouTube videos flagged as inappropriate that contain “controversial religious or supremacist content”, but that do not breach the company’s policies on hate speech or violent extremism will be placed in a “limited state”.

A YouTube spokesperson said: “The videos will remain on YouTube behind an interstitial, won’t be recommended, won’t be monetised, and won’t have key features including comments, suggested videos, and likes.”

YouTube has also begun redirecting searches with certain keywords to playlists of curated videos that confront and debunk violent extremist messages, as parts of its effort to help prevent radicalisation.

Google plans to continue developing the machine learning technology and to collaborate with other technology companies to tackle online extremism.

YouTube is the world’s largest video hosting service and is one of the places extremist and objectionable content ends up, even if it originates and is removed from other services, including Facebook, making it a key battleground.

Big-name brands, including GSK, Pepsi, Walmart, Johnson & Johnson, the UK government and the Guardian pulled millions of pounds of advertising from YouTube and other social media properties after it was found their ads were placed next to extremist content.

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “‘Now’s the time for change in venture capital’: meet the unicorn hunters” was written by Sean Hargrave, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 25th July 2017 06.00 UTC

Every day some of the smartest brains in finance busy themselves chasing down a unicorn in the making. Not the mythical horned horse of fairy tales but rather the term given to next company to go from startup to a billion dollar valuation in just a few years.

Venture capitalists (VCs) are part investor, part futurologist. They will invest in an exciting startup for a share in the company in the hope their stake will make several times more when it is bought by a large rival or floats several years down the line.

On the one hand, that can mean an investor, such as the co-founder of Mangrove Capital Partners, Mark Tluszcz, can lay claim to some major success stories. His $2.5m investment in Skype in 2001 is now worth $250m. However, he admits no VC has a better than 50:50 chance of making or losing money.

“Around half of the companies we invest in will fail,” he says. “Around 20% might make our money back and another 20% will probably treble our stake. It’s the 10% that are the big hitters that can make ten times your investment that keep a VC company going.”

Mark Tluszcz, co-founder of Mangrove Capital Partners, says VCs have a 50:50 chance of success.
Mark Tluszcz, co-founder of Mangrove Capital Partners, says VCs have a 50:50 chance of success

The venture capitalist industry has come a long way in the last twenty years. From a niche filled with financiers, the number of firms has greatly increased. The total amount loaned to UK companies by VCs between 2011 and 2016 jumped from £453m to £1961m, according to research firm Pitchbook.

Many VC firms are now staffed by entrepreneurs, such as Atomico, which was co-founded by Niklas Zennström, who is also the co-founder of Skype. Mattias Ljungman, co-founder and partner at Atomico, believes this is more in tune with the wave of young people looking to build a business, not just a career.

“Having entrepreneurs guiding decisions fits in well with the trend we’re noticing,” he says. “A lot of the brightest minds are leaving college now and wanting to launch their own startup, so they can sometimes need some help on the business side.”

However, one aspect that is not changing fast enough is the lack of diversity. Entrepreneur-turned-investor Debbie Wosskow became so disillusioned by the fact that around 95% of all VC investments are made to male-led businesses, typically by male VCs, she co-founded AllBright, an investment fund dedicated to female founders. The aim is to make the UK the best place to be a female entrepreneur. The recent case of a prominent Silicon Valley investor resigning over sexual harassment allegations, is putting a spotlight on the issue.

Debbie Wosskow, co-founder of Allbright, calls for the gender diversity issue to be tackled.
Debbie Wosskow, co-founder of Allbright, calls for the gender diversity issue to be tackled.

“Recent events in the US have brought the issue of sexism in the VC world to the fore and now is the right time to have similar frank conversations about the same issue here in the UK,” she says.

Research from Harvard Business Review shows that VCs frame questions differently when talking to female entrepreneurs. With female founders, it is through a lens of potential losses and with male entrepreneurs, it is through a lens of potential gains. Whatever the reasons for sexism, now is the time for change.”

Any company going before a group of VCs will need to sell their vision for how they will revolutionise an industry and make the founders and investors a healthy return. What they should avoid, according to Suranga Chandratillake, a partner at VC firm Balderton, are “lazy MBA” presentations filled with jargon and a claim to be the “Uber” of their industry.

“Someone needs to excite us that they’re a shooting star, a big hitter that’s not just there for organic profits,” he says. “They need to show how they’re going to revolutionise an industry and convince us they can get the right people excited to join their team.”

Jillian Manus, managing partner at Structure Capital has witnessed her fair share of bad pitches since becoming a judge for the US podcast The Pitch, where entrepreneurs pitch in front of a panel of investors. The worst, she reveals, was for a mirror that purported to show up flaws. “Who wants a mirror like that, isn’t that what all mirrors do?” she says. For her, the best pitches come from co-founders where one has a tech background and the other is in operations or sales. The pair need to sell their dream and the road map of how they are going to get there, they need to excite her and they need to be honest.

“My crucial question for all startup founders is to tell me how they’ve failed,” she says.

Jillian Manus, managing partner, Structure Capital advises entrepreneurs to be honest about mistakes.
Jillian Manus, managing partner at Structure Capital, advises entrepreneurs to be honest about mistakes.

“If they tell me they never have, I know they’re either lying or they’re not self-aware. To get an investment, an entrepreneur has to show they’ve learned from mistakes because the original idea they’re pitching to me will not always work out and the company may have to go down a different path. You’ve got to recognise when something’s not working and be honest.”

There is a crucial, and very simple question, any company chasing venture capital has to ask itself, Ben Grech warns. He is the co-founder of Uniplaces, which helps students find accommodation, and recently received a £15m investment from Atomico. From what he has seen, the main source for potential friction between a company and potential investors is an entrepreneur not knowing what they want.

“You have to know what you’re getting in to,” he says. “Founders have to be honest. If they’re going for venture capital they have to be geared to fast expansion and scaling up. If that’s what you want to deliver, then venture capital is a great way to get the funds to do it at pace. There’s nothing wrong with a lifestyle business that ticks over and earns you a good income, but founders have to be honest. If you haven’t got it in you to want to expand internationally very quickly, then venture capital’s not for you.”

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Google fine: EU is not waging underhand trade war against US tech firms” was written by Nils Pratley, for The Guardian on Tuesday 27th June 2017 17.41 UTC

Let’s start by laying one falsehood to rest. In fining Google €2.42bn (£2.14bn), the European commission is not engaged in a form of underhand trade warfare against US technology companies. Instead, Margrethe Vestager, the EU competition commissioner, is addressing a central commercial question of the digital age: to what extent should companies such as Google be able to exploit their dominance in one area to gain advantage in another?

Accusations of anti-American bias don’t hold water if one views the commission’s pro-competition patrols in aggregate. In other industries with different competition complaints, Brussels has been strong in dishing out fines against European firms. Just ask the truck makers – all European – who copped a collective €2.93bn fine last year for colluding on prices.

The fact that most of the technology titans are American is just tribute to the fact that Silicon Valley has been extremely successful in producing companies that grow to dominate their markets. One wishes the commission had more European tech innovators to investigate. Note, too, that many of the onlookers cheering Vestager’s efforts are themselves American – the likes of Oracle and Yelp. There is no evidence of anti-American bias at the commission.

As for the ruling itself, Vestager is treading on new regulatory ground but her argument seems entirely fair. If Google was overhyping its Google Shopping facility in search results while artificially relegating rivals’ price comparison websites, there is bound to be an effect on competition. The consumer harm may be difficult to measure, but it surely exists. Upstarts, whose shopping services might be preferred by consumers, will struggle to get off the ground.

It is also true, as Google has argued, that many online shopping rivals have still managed to prosper – just look at Amazon. But that objection is hardly a clincher. This investigation had to establish when dominance in one area (search) can be used to seek advantage in an adjacent field (shopping). The finding that Google was seeking an “illegal advantage” chimes with common sense. Google wasn’t merely giving its in-house service home advantage; it was massively distorting search results, says the commission.

This finding will have far-reaching consequences if Google or others have also been privileging their products in areas such as travel and hotels. If so, consumer-friendly action by regulators should be applauded: the commission is saying dominance in new fields should be earned on merit, not by seeking to choke rivals.

Such a strict pro-competition view of the world would benefit consumers everywhere, including the US. The wonder is that US regulators, who once upon a time had an honourable record of acting against powerful monopolists, have been so supine with the technology giants.

Bank right to bolster the buffers

You don’t have to be a central banker to know there is a mini-credit boom taking place in the UK. The evidence is the number of new cars on the road, many financed with loan agreements known as personal contract purchases.

Is it a worry? Yes it is, which is why the Bank of England is right to force banks to hold more capital if they wish to carry on feeding the demand. Consumer credit – not just in car loans, but also as credit card borrowing and personal loans – rose by 10.3% in the 12 months to April, which is obviously much faster than the rate of increase in incomes.

The position is not necessarily dangerous but could become so if banks, fooled by the current low levels of default, relax lending standards. The UK’s experience with sudden credit booms is terrible.

The Bank’s intervention is designed to encourage more prudence. In the jargon, counter-cyclical buffers are being increased. Banks will be obliged to hold £11.4bn of capital over the next 18 months to cover lending mistakes that, in practice, may or may not materialise.

Wouldn’t it be easier to raise interest rates as a way to tell overstretched consumers to go easy on the credit? It could still come to that in theory – “monetary policy is the last line of defence to address financial stability issues”, the governor, Mark Carney, reminded his audience – but the Bank’s tweak with the buffers is a better formula. It targets the direct problem and avoids overkill.

That, at least, is the big idea. After the banking crash of 2008, the Bank asked for its regulatory “toolbox” to be expanded to protect financial stability. There is no point having tools and not using them. The same buffers were cut last year to “cushion the shocks” from the vote for Brexit. Since that danger has now passed (for the time being, at least), restoring levels to a “standard” setting is sensible.

Nestlé yields to Third Point pressure

What a coincidence: activist investor Dan Loeb’s Third Point hedge fund is hounding Nestlé to improve its performance, and the consumer goods multinational has decided this is exactly the right moment to launch a SFr20bn (£16bn) buy-back. The share purchase is not quite as dramatic as it sounds since it will be executed over three years. All the same, the move smells suspiciously like a panicky way to buy some peace. There is also a top-of-the-market whiff about it.

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This editorial was originally published in 2016.

 

Viacom’s latest debacle, from one view, is a Snapchat-era remake of 1980’s primetime soap; there are lots of tears, eye-rolling, dramatic exits, glorious hair, fuming selfies, and, naturally, an immense, disputed generational fortune.

Viacom’s financial timeline, however, would make an excellent chorus in a Greek tragedy—if it were not so convoluted and, at times, tawdry.

One of the world’s most powerful media conglomerates, Viacom has been in decline for more than a decade, and yet few in the press went so far as to question the logical fallacies behind its troubled, profligate history until two mistresses started a catfight over the 95-year-old boyfriend’s will. That is the tawdry bit.

A story of miscalculation, outsize ambition, and heart-stopping risk, Viacom has become an unfortunate spectacle for national amusement—a circus of bit players providing a distraction from a distinctly American cautionary tale.

The company’s current troubles—sliding revenues, profits, and stock prices—have been complicated by myriad missteps, but most significantly by an insistence on the maintenance of a nearly 50-year-old business model despite all indicators which would advise the contrary– including its own fall in fortune.

The slow, painful descent of Viacom from the realm of the unassailable to that of a common and vulnerable media conglomerate cannot be laid squarely at the feet of its board of directors, Sumner Redstone, or his string of demonized and/or failed messianic CEOs.

It is the preservation of Viacom’s legacy—which came to be seen as indistinguishable from its business plan—that has subverted newly every opportunity that the company was offered to move ahead, rather than follow, the industry.

No one, not even Wall Street’s most venerable soothsayers, predicted the age of PewDiePie—when user-generated content on YouTube would begin to supplant broadcast television with ad hoc self-promotional videos reaching as many as one billion page views.

There appears to have been few, if any, early allowances made for the competitiveness of the digital world or the caprice of a market which is now turned towards an unending search of tech unicorns, not old-school broadcast TV conglomerates.

The roster of its holdings, however, look magnificent—Paramount, MTV, BET and Comedy Central are under its wing— but the industry, its analysts, and focus groups know that MTV, for example, is not the edgy, slice of cool that it was in 1981.

Yet, it is not merely the lack of MTV’s hipster cred, the recent string of duds released by Paramount or the “cord cutter” revolt among consumers of virtually every demographic that have caused Viacom’s stock prices to falter over the years.

“(Viacom) stock,” wrote analyst Michael Nathanson in a report entitled “Huis Clos” (no exit) quoted in a New York Times article, “was cheap for a reason after significant earnings cuts.”

“We have clearly put too much trust in the old playbook; the game has changed, ” Nathanson wrote.

Fixing what is wrong with the company requires more than shifting board members and making various heads roll. Realizing that no global brand is invulnerable—not in a global climate which has seen startup AirBnB inspire an outright war between itself and the world’s largest hotel chains– is only the first step. The company must not only match its competitors with its pace of innovation; it must overtake them.

Viacom, however, as powerful as it is, seems unable to pull itself away from its own reality show.

 

 

This editorial was originally published in June 2016.

There is a certain architecture to every salacious news story, at least the more attractive ones. There is a bit of shock, a hint at promises broken, a foundation of betrayal (preferably of an innocent party) and an appalling lack of judgment— creating a solid structure of hard-earned and well-deserved public humiliation.

Those who toss away privilege, power and very often the public good for an unnecessary shag or two are fair game in the minds of many, but Nick Denton’s Gawker seemed unfettered by any idea of who merited a public thrashing.

Gawker regularly, and seemingly with great enthusiasm, went too far in the eyes of many—ethically, journalistically and in sheer tastelessness—underscored by one editor’s hard-to-stomach child porn jokes during a deposition.

For its alleged sins, Gawker has rather frequently found itself in court, the most recent appearance ending with a company-killing judgment of $140 million.

It is not that the magazine—which is now up for sale—is so much worse than Perez Hilton or other similar publications in regard to the genre of merciless celebrity voyeurism but rather that it often turned its lens towards regular folks—or rather regular rich folks—whom would have none of this rumored sexual shenanigans reporting.

Gawker is (for the moment) in some ways a throwback to vintage muck-raking journalism: the heydays of  The National Enquirer and The Star before reality TV made everything odd and stomach-churning open source.

The blog—perhaps in a rush of millennials-driven “everything-old-is-hot” euphoria—began at its outset publishing op-eds and gossipy featured posts which made 1970’s ideas– that what people do in bed, for instance, is really shocking and interesting—The New Edgy.

It tried, that is, but even millennials do not believe in the mythology of edginess anymore.

Muck in the post-Clinton era is quasi-serious muck—it slathers tales of personal proclivities with enough sugary, pseudo-analysis frosting that it seems as if it is a delectable slice of Americana rather than a bit of stale soft-core porn.

The 30-year slow creep of tabloid journalism—such as in-depth musings on the cultural signification of Kim Kardashian’s pouring champagne on her bum—has tainted some of the most respected publications, now forced to think about click-bait as financial strategy.

There is such a thing as a Kardashian Effect—a state within which the pursuit of social media memes overtakes all other pursuits by a publication—including meaning.

This recent devolution from infotainment brings inanity to transcendent levels.  Having created a new digital genre of evangelical mindlessness, it buries any remnant of cultural significance beneath an endless cascade of celebrity rants and Instagram pics.

There is, of course, another pseudo-genre of reportage; the modern form of yellow journalism. Hysterical and highly partisan, publishers use an easy-bake recipe of terror, shock and conspiracy theories (along with a bit about ethnicity) in order to hint at a “big picture” which is most often never revealed but which can be whisked quickly into Twitter-friendly quotes.

It is perhaps inevitable—in a world in which CNN and The New York Times must compete against Twitter and Comedy Central for mere survival—that things would get a bit sleazy.

Using political commentary and family values dogma as a modesty curtain for readers hoping to get a “pain porn” glimpse of a humiliated, teary-eyed political wife, even the most illustrious publishers have waded into the muck, hoping to find stories that are intellectually palatable, relevant but nonetheless steeped in celebrity culture.

Kanye West’s recent insistence, however, that celebrities are a population subject to wholesale persecution by the press (with the invasion of privacy as the penultimate hate crime) is perhaps a bit much.  Many stars—including West—openly discuss their sex lives and seemingly endless other intimate personal details in social media and therefore might not have much to support a claim of privacy invasion when nothing of their lives has been hidden from the public eye.

This brings us to what Gawker—and its impending sale—actually means.

In a world in which there are so very many scandals waiting to be plucked from pre-existing political, financial, and Hollywood dramas—Gawker has no need to focus on who gave it to whom, or who is or is not gay.

Adding to the needless suffering component of the fall of House Gawker is the fact that unlike early days of tabloids, today’s celebrities have become brands and those brands have become causes.

America’s rich and powerful are now not merely celebrities but revered cultural icons, self-anointed with the privilege of ruthlessly protecting not only their reputations but their ability to employ their coffers to rise above mud-slinging and even accurate reporting.

Gawker’s fall was perhaps long overdue in the eyes of some, but its chilling effect on the Other Half of journalism cannot be underestimated.

A demise which was in part due to Gawker’s knack for making influential enemies has– -justifiably or not—unleashed an exemplary, well-funded ground war quite likely to encourage more celebrity grudge matches.

Most publications, even venerable cash-cows, would not survive a $140 million damage judgment, or even one for a third of that amount. Gawker was not punished but obliterated—a precedent which could weave its way into the canons of still—evolving digital privacy laws.

Using this model, an offended party such as a Donald Trump might reasonably use a virtually inexhaustible pool of wealth to dismember—at least the editorial wing—of disobedient publications using the Gawker rout as a legal foundation.

The stories that matter, including culturally significant revelations about public figures—such as Bill Cosby’s long, complicated history of sex crime allegations which were ignored for decades—may be overlooked by leading publications simply out of a need to remain solvent.

Fluff journalism—fawning profiles and light, invariably sweetened analysis—requires no risk, involves negligible research and above all seduces, rather than enrages, rich, powerful friends who own rich, ad-buying companies.

Gawker is effectively gone—at least in its current incarnation—but it has changed the playing field for gossips, culture pundits, and investigative reporters permanently. The awful choice—to produce an endless stream of sugary treats for the powerful and omnipresent or face an equally endless barrage of lawsuits—is perhaps one which has already been made for everyone.

 

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Publishers call for rethink of proposed changes to online privacy laws” was written by Mark Sweney, for The Guardian on Sunday 28th May 2017 23.01 UTC

An alliance of news publishers has called on European regulators to rethink proposed changes to online privacy laws, arguing that they will potentially kill their digital businesses and give Google, Apple and Facebook too much control of advertising and personal data.

More than two dozen leading publishers – including the Financial Times, Guardian, Le Monde, Spiegel, Telegraph, Daily Mail and Les Echoes – have signed a letter to the European parliament, which is deliberating proposals to tighten up how data is gathered and used by web companies.

The publishers argue that new regulations relating to “cookies” – small files that remember users’ digital habits therefore allowing the targeting of relevant ads – could cut off their ability to build digital revenue.

Currently, when users visit an individual website or app they are asked if they will consent to a cookietracking them. Under the European commission’s plans, consumers will in the future instead be asked to make a single choice to accept, or reject, cookies from all websites and apps only on one single occasion on their phone or browser.

Publishers argue that creating a single “switch” will most likely result in consumers taking the simplest route of opting out of all cookies, leaving them with scant information to support their targeted advertising models.

In turn, this would leave the few digital giants used by most consumers to access the web, and those like Facebook that have their own giant data mining capability, in control.

“Given that 90% of [digital] usage across Europe is concentrated in the hands of just four companies: Google, Apple, Microsoft and Mozilla, this [proposal]… has the potential to exacerbate the asymmetry of power between individual publishers and these global digital gateways,” the letter says.

“The current ePrivacy proposals will result in the data of European digital citizens being concentrated in the hands of a few global companies, as a result of which digital citizens will become less protected. It will give those global companies a tighter grip on the personal data of European digital citizens.”

Under the proposals, publishers would be allowed to lobby consumers to go into their settings and unblock individual sites and “white list” them, but news organisations believe that in practice this would prove to be an extremely difficult task.

The proposal has been compared to the ad-blocking battle in which publishers ask the increasing number of those who use the software to turn it off, or add their businesses to a white list, explaining how advertising is essential income for many digital news businesses.

The proposals are likely to further exacerbate the huge issue publishers already face as Google and Facebook sweep up as much as 90% of all new digital display advertising.

“The practice of serving relevant advertising to readers is now an established norm in the advertising industry, and is essential to ensure that publishers can compete with Google and Facebook who already control 20% of total global advertising spend,” the letter says.

“If as a result of these proposals news publishers were unable to serve relevant advertising to our readers, this would reduce our ability to compete with the capabilities of dominant digital platforms for digital advertising revenues, ultimately undermining our ability to invest in high quality journalism across Europe,” the letter says.

In recent months, Google, which owns YouTube, and Facebook have faced a barrage of criticism for allowing ads to run next to inappropriate content such as extremist videos.

The companies have also faced a number of issues that have hurt their previously unquestioned ability to accurately target ads, such as brands being charged for ads viewed by “bots”, computer programmes mimicking an internet user, and Facebook admitting to a number of measurement errors.

“The Commission’s ePrivacy proposals will make it more difficult to ensure transparency … and remove any distinction between publishers who place a high value on trust of their users, and those who do not,” the publishers’ letter says.

However, the bad press has so far failed to dent their popularity with advertisers with Google and Facebook enjoying a near duopoly of control of the £11bn UK digital advertising market.

Publishers say that they support the overall objective of the draft “ePrivacy” regulation, which they say has the “potential to clean up the digital economy”, but they need to compete on a fair playing field.

“Citizens are rightly concerned about the use of their personal data by third-party companies of whom they have never heard, and have no idea about the role that they play in their digital lives online,” the letter says. “[But] the commission’s proposals threaten to prevent news organisations from delivering basic functionality such as the marketing of products and services, the tailoring of news products to the needs and desires of news consumers, and relevant and acceptable advertising.”

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Spotify hopes going public will cement streaming as music’s future” was written by Edward Helmore in New York, for The Observer on Saturday 27th May 2017 10.00 UTC

The world may love the services they provide, but the new generation of tech companies haven’t found much love on Wall Street recently. Spotify, the leading music streaming service, is hoping to change that with a share sale could lead another round of “unicorns” to try their luck on the US stock markets.
Founded 11 years ago in Sweden by Daniel Ek, 34, Spotify currently has more than 100m monthly active users, of which 50m are paying subscribers. A successful debut for Spotify, valued at least $8.5bn, will officially crown streaming as the future of the music industry.

The company’s closest rival, Apple Music, counts 20 million paying users; Tidal, fronted by the rap superstar Jay Z, a little over one million. Amazon and Google are also in the game, with Facebook a likely entrant.

Ek, a serial entrepreneur who started his first company at age 14, owns a stake in Spotify valued at $1.8bn. But while he will leave this share sale a rich man, streaming will probably never make the sort of money for the music industry that CDs and vinyl did. Even so, after more than 15 years of disruption that kicked off with industry revenues eviscerated by illegal peer-to-peer file-sharing, the music business is currently celebrating its second straight year of growth.

In 2016, streaming revenue increased 60%, while the overall global music industry grew 5.9% – the fastest rate of growth since 1997. According to a global music report issued by the industry group IFPI, music revenues hit $15.7bn in 2016, up from $14.8bn in 2015. Fifty per cent of that came from digital sales.

A Goldman Sachs research note, Music in the Air, projects that streaming will help revenues double to $104bn by 2030.

The industry’s begrudging acceptance of technology has proved its salvation.

“This is the triumphant return of innovation,” says Les Borsai, music-tech entrepreneur behind the business-facing music platform SongLily. Instead of fighting consumer preferences, the labels “have come around to realizing that consumer demand for innovation drives the business”.

“It’s not so long since we had to walk into Virgin Records to buy the physical product. Back then, we thought people would hate losing that experience. Download kills retail, but that becomes archaic. So we go to the streaming model that gives instant gratification, which is now the model for everything.”

As recently as three years ago, artists were still sharing their doubts that music subscription services would ever be widely accepted. Taylor Swift pulled her music from Spotify in 2014. She later explained she was “not willing to contribute my life’s work to an experiment”.

But significant hurdles remain. One is Google-owned YouTube, which dominates music streaming with a free, ad-supported model. While YouTube points to $1bn it paid back to the industry in advertising last year, payments to artists have not kept pace.

Part of the issue, says Greg Barnes, general counsel of the Digital Media Association, is that copyright laws have lagged behind technology. “We want to make it easier to licence vast quantities of songs in an efficient manner. We need to make the system more efficient and more transparent.”

While it may be hard to imagine a time when one hit single could sell 18m copies of a Twisted Sister album, today’s numbers are nonetheless impressive. Take the Canadian rapper Drake: last year, Spotify streamed his songs more than 4.7bn times.

But music label executives also urge caution. They note that neither Spotify or its rivals have reported a profit. Cary Sherman, CEO of the music industry’s US trade group, noted in a blogpost that the improvement in revenues “does not erase 15 years of declines, or continuing uncertainty about the future”.

Ek is listening. Last week, Spotify announced it had added four new board members, including the former Walt Disney chief operating officer Tom Staggs; Shishir Mehrotra, YouTube’s former head of product; Padmasree Warrior, who heads of the US unit of the Chinese electric auto firm NextEV; and Cristina Stenbeck of the Swedish investment firm Kinnevik.

The appointment of Staggs, a 26-year veteran of Disney, was widely interpreted to signal that Spotify is looking to enter into the video-streaming market. The company previously added Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, to the board.

It may not just be streaming that Spotify makes mainstream. The company is considering a direct listing on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), an unusual tactic that avoids millions in underwriting fees and could help attract other tech unicorns – companies valued at over $1bn – to follow suit.

Tech companies have traditionally favoured an initial public offering (IPO) in which the company offers investors shares before it goes public. A direct listing only allows investors to buy shares through the open market. The move saves a fortune in fees but also – potentially – makes the sale highly volatile as long-term investors, like pension funds, who could have bought into the pre-sale of an IPO, will only decide whether to buy in once shares start trading.

If approved, the Swedish streaming service could go public later this year, marking the first tech listing since the disappointing launch of Snap Inc, which lost $2bn in value after releasing disappointing results earlier this month.

If the IPO is successful, other hot startups, such as Airbnb and Uber, could follow swiftly in Spotify’s wake.

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