Media companies and losing talent

A couple of very interesting posts regarding the ever-changing media world popped up last week. Jeremiah Owyang catalysed some interesting discussion when he posed the idea that the Golden Age of Tech Blogging is over (A theme I’d covered earlier with a less provocative headline – curses!) We both broadly agree on the topic, although I think we’re probably both being slightly biased towards anecdotal evidence and especially an understandable English-language bias.

One thing we both mentioned was the move for senior writers and contributors from notable blogs to be starting out on their own – whether as a group or individuals – e.g. The Verge, The Kernel, Uncrunched, The New Gambit, etc).

And related to that was Neil Perkin, with a typically insightful post asking ‘Why big companies get rid of talented people?’. Considering AOL looms large in the stories of TheVerge and Techcrunch,  it’s a pertinent question to the state of tech blogging, along with all large media businesses at the moment. To quote:

Despite talking a good game, many large organisations remain relatively poor at moving talent around the company. The silo culture that still characterises many businesses doesn’t help. Requirements and expectations become optimised to local needs rather than those of the organisation as a whole. Strangely, the people who can really see the bigger picture and are often the ones to challenge existing assumptions are the ones that begin to not fit so easily into those silos. So companies take the easy option.

In my view, it’s their loss.

I’ve certainly suffered from those elements of traditional business culture, and also been lucky enough to benefit from senior individuals who looked beyond it and saw reasons to do things differently. I also commented on Neil’s post that there’s an element of a culture clash – anecdotally, the most talented digital and non-digital people I’ve worked with have all been more concerned with solving problems across the business than staying within their assigned role or concentrating on office politics and have often suffered for it, even within firms which are supposedly extremely tech focused.

The major difference is that digital tools mean those people have less reason to accept their given role – there’s greater access to other opportunities whether with another company or via self-employment. I haven’t timed it for a while, but a new site via Blogger, Tumblr etc is about 1 minute to set up, and however long it takes to get your first post written – all for no financial outlay.



How big media companies can keep talented people

1. Hire and fire the right people:

First up, there’s an oft-quoted rule about A players hiring A players. You need to be hiring people who you can trust with the freedom I’ll mention in tip 2, and who can work with a high degree of autonomy. Those people who will identify a problem, come up with a solution, and then get it done, rather than just sitting there.

You also need management at all levels who can accept constructive criticism, work with it, and are able to change things. And you need a level of honesty throughout about whether or not it’s working, because even if you can convince yourself within your business that everything is fine, it’ll still be apparent outside of the office by the output.

2. Freedom

Everyone knows about Google and their 20% time. Barely any companies ever actually do anything similar. Lots of people can provide empirical evidence about how small changes and innovations lead to big results, and yet very few companies ever put that type of approach into practice. Every company would love the next big thing, but hardly any would let someone build something and get it straight out the door to see whether it works or not, without months of watering it down into something non-offensive, and uninteresting. I have to mention my former employers at Absolute Radio as one example of a business which puts an above average level of mutual trust and respect in the talented people they employ, and as a result continue to constantly churn out a variety of interesting projects and innovations, some of which are highly successful.

And when it comes to freedom, common sense goes a long way in revising employee contracts and guidelines for areas such as social media. In a litigious area, it’s easy to forget the effect that what may have seemed a legal safeguard will actually have on a normal employee, especially when it comes to legal attempts to own innovation rather than encourage and reward it.

3. Support and reward

Psychologically, money is not the biggest lever to increase productivity and success, provided it’s at a decent level. Crucially in the media industry, the attraction of a career leads to a high amount of applicants for roles, and a correspondingly low level of pay for many. If you want employees to focus on the best way to make your business more money, then you need to understand they can’t do that if they’re constantly worrying and stressed about making the next mortgage payment and their increasing overdraft.

I’m not suggesting you pay huge amounts over-the-odds for people who aren’t going to be productive, but that you adequately reward people that are. And that doesn’t necessarily mean in basic wages – give people a chance to share in success, and make it meaningful.

Whatever your opinion of Richard Branson, there are examples in Business Stripped Bare of cleaners and watersports instructors rising to management positions. At the same time, cabin crews on their airlines earn slightly less than competitor employees but receive other rewards for their contributions to improving the business.


Culture Jamming by Hugh McLeod (cc Licence, ref

It’s worth reading this Hugh McLeod post that accompanies the above cartoon on Culture Jamming. The money quote is:

chan­ging your company’s for­tu­nes NOT by trying to directly change what the gene­ral public thinks of you, but by trying to change what YOU think of you.

And that’s the massive, massive problem with most media companies up until now. Along with marketing and advertising, they’re the companies most used to talking at audiences, and have spent decades, or even hundreds of years perfecting that art. And when you’re used to playing a part to an external audience, it’s hard to even start to acknowledge what’s going on internally.


  1. Some good points here Dan (and thanks for the link). Just to build a bit on what you say here, did you see that recent Forbes piece about the top reasons large companies fail to keep their talent?
    Makes some related and additional points which I think are as true of large media companies as of any other. Good post.

    • Cheers Mr Perkin – I hadn’t seen that Forbes piece, but I’m not surprised that many people that have worked with or for large companies, and have witnessed an exodus of digital talent, are all reaching similar conclusions.
      I think the surprise isn’t that it’s happening, but probably that, like the death of print, it’s just taken longer to become substantial than people may have predicted.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I love the irony that so many companies which have made a fortune out of communicating and connecting with their audiences, prefer an ostrich approach with their staff. It’s true that not everyone is a corporate animal and as employee there is an unspoken rule that we have to adopt a certain persona to get up the greasy pole.

    The contempt for HR departments, the outsourcing of training programmes and casual abuse of talent in the form of intern culture doesn’t help. The churn of editorial assistants from one poorly paid position to another mean most junior staff don’t get much training or support and most hacks I trained with at Emap have gone to the dark side simply because PR salaries are higher.

    The behaviours you’ve highlighted are endemic in large, complex
    organisations. I worked for John Lewis, when it was waking up to the
    power of its own-brand and new business, and the disconnect
    between the shopfloor, management, head office and the public perception
    of ‘Britain’s best-loved retailer’ would make your hair curl.

    So, here’s a radical concept for employers: recognise that you can’t change an employee’s core personality though you can change their skill-set. Encourage staff to bring more of themselves to work and praise up, down and sideways throughout the organisation. Don’t assume that the same formula will work across every market (whether its a font, reader offer or management mindset). Remember that human beings are complicated, emotional creatures and give staff respect for wanting to bring their skills to you. Listen to them and keep your promises. Manage by walking around and not hiding behind a wall of emails. Factor in cock-ups because every human being makes mistakes.

    And a radical concept for employees: are you expecting too much from your job? Accept that it can have its ups and downs like a relationship. Your boss wasn’t put on the planet to be your surrogate parent or to please you. Your job is not your whole life and constant carping about it just makes you a victim. Play more at work – think about how you can be the change you want to see there. When I took redundancy I found very helpful in identifying which corporate structure would suit me best. And the best book for career development? Dale Carnegie’s classic, How to make friends and influence people.

    • Cheers, and a good point regarding trying to change things rather than just complaining. At best, you’ll end up creating a new, better role for yourself, and at worst, find yourself looking for something new, which would have been the case anyway…

  3. That is so true, Dan. With the digital tools at disposal, it has become quite easy to shape the role people want esp. in media. And a lot many of them are already shifting their own realm. One thing I learned before I became a bestselling author and long before Inc Magazine voted my company as one of the fastest growing companies is that understanding the motivational factor goes a long way in retaining talent.