Richard Mulholland, the founder and owner of innovative presentations-strategy firm Missing Link, is becoming something of a guru in new-media circles, mostly on account that his business is proof of the success that can come from thinking out of the box. (Lord knows, many wrestling with where old and new media intersect could do with a bit of that!) Bizcommunity talks to him about innovation, problem solving and the challenges facing the South African media.
Bizcommunity: My ears pricked up when I noticed Branko [Brkic] invited you to be a speaker at The Gathering [powwow organised by The Daily Maverick in November 2010] and I see you were also a judge at last year's SA Blog Awards. Do you think you're becoming a guru for the new-media folk?
The unconventional Richard Mulholland
I actually don't. I'm not involved in media at all, other than having a presence on Twitter and using it as a tool. But, while a lot of my friends are in that circle and while I have opinions on things, I think I'm an outsider and that, I think, gives me a unique perspective. I think that's why I get asked to talk about it.Biz: So what did you talk about at The Gathering?
The future of business models. We need to question the validity of the models that we have built our businesses on... We need to start looking at new things. And there are new business models in the world today that established business people like myself are finding difficult to deal with.
Just as a case in point: we always saw ourselves at Missing Link
as being very affordable and now we're starting to discover that in today's world (with budget cuts due to the recession and functions such as video editing becoming more freely available) we're actually really really expensive. And in dealing with that, we're having to rethink how we look at our entire business because we can't discount our price rate.
So we've got to reframe how we do things and work out new ways of making money. To me that's one of the most exciting things that exists today. Biz: Your business [of strategising how the content of a company presentation or conference should be structured] is a brilliant idea. Annual-results presentation, for instance, usually involve a CFO warbling on about boring pie charts. But this is a very important moment for a listed company as all the analysts are there, deciding on whether they will recommend investors buy shares or not.
Yeah, and yet the generation of the content is usually relegated to somebody's secretary to throw out quickly, which is why most people get bored in presentations. We think that's bullsh*t. If you're going to sit down and listen to somebody for an hour, you should enjoy it. And, also if you're going to deliver a presentation, you should enjoy it.
As a speaker, I like nothing more than strutting across the stage. This is the closest most people will get to feeling what's it like to be on stage (like a rock god) and yet we treat it more like a horrible exercise, like we're standing in front of a school of kids instead of treating it like a rock show. If you reframe your mind around presenting it, it's a heap of fun. Biz: Let's just go back a step. How did this all start? I've never heard of another company in South Africa that does what you guys are doing?
Well, I was a roadie (doing lighting). I toured with rock bands for a company called Gearhouse and the problem we had was that it was a summer-only business. So while it was awesome because we were touring with bands like Def Leppard, Bon Jovi and Iron Maiden (on the SA leg), when winter came we all had no work.
So I went away and did scaffolding and worked for the SABC. What I realised is that we had all this gear and we could put it to use in corporate. So I went to my boss and asked if I could start a little corporate division doing lighting, sound, AV (audio visual) and rigging.
I came off the road and did that. What I discovered very quickly is that it doesn't matter how much lighting and sound and AV you do, if the speaker is sh*t, the presentation is sh*t. I started to feel we were fixing the wrong problem.
At the same time I was the marketing manager of Gearhouse and I had met a designer and I started throwing work his way. So I used to go out to stage a conference and I'd say: "Can we help you with your presentation?"
Within six months, we had five people working for us and we realised there was something to this. So I quit my job and started the company (Missing Link in 1998.) Biz: So what's involved in defining the strategy for a presentation?
The strategy for content is how do I best deliver a specific message to a roomful of people in a way that it sticks?... How do I structure it? So we work with the companies and do a triage.
One of the biggest problems is that people try to say too much. Part of what we do is really get the guys to decide the one single objective and make sure that that's the message that we get across. Biz: And do the companies always know what that message is or do you have to help them define it?
Well, that's the first thing we define. Literally, step number one: objectives and working through them. And then we take it from there.Biz: You've got some pretty big clients?
Yeah, we've worked with all the banks - your Investecs, your RMBs. We did Maria Ramos's financial results [at Absa] last year. We work at a fairly high level. Biz: You're definitely not one of the suits. I'm sure the corporate world is used to you (clad in T-shirts and tattoos) now but was it hard to get people to take you seriously in the beginning?
When I started we were meeting with the bottom rung of middle management. I wore suits everyday but I killed that quite quickly. If we were meeting with senior people, they just didn't give a sh*t. All they cared about was how you performed.
Once you got the handshake of just one of those guys and he turned around to his staff and said: "Use these guys" then it was okay as long as you delivered. It's all about delivery. Biz: OK, as someone who is a problem solver, let's talk about media in SA today. There are new problems and we need to find new ways to solve them.
One problem is the term 'new media'. You have to drop the 'new' because I think social media is just part of the marketing mix. I think if I ran a social media company I'd be sh*tting myself right now as I firmly believe that as it becomes more and more accepted as part of the regular marketing mix - which I think it is - so too will the agencies not want to outsource it to boutiques. Biz: The really big problem for SA media houses such as Media24, Independent and Avusa - and for most internationally - is that it seems nigh impossible to bring in decent revenue with their news sites while at the same time these websites have contributed to a cull in their newspapers' physical circulation. What are your thoughts on this?
Well, first I think we all made a bit of a mistake. We had a culture where it was acceptable to pay for content and then came the idea that information should be free - which I guess in some ways it should. And all of a sudden the online versions of newspapers and magazines became free.
The problem is the [business] models are limited. So we have freemium content models and subscriptions models. I saw a recent survey that asked whether people would pay for information and the majority said: "No". Now that's a real problem...
I think to get people to pay for [online versions of newspapers] will be nigh on impossible because they [the users] believe in a different value of content. But I think you can still make money.
I think you have to reprocess how you make money. We need to break the legacies of our old business cases and say: "Well, that's how we made money before and this is how we're going to make money going forward." And it will be different things. Maybe like the Daily Maverick
did with events [such as The Gathering]. Biz: Well, I can think of two examples of media companies doing that. The Washington Post newspaper is pretty much subsidised by an educational division and then, locally, there's a SA surfing magazine called theBOMBsurf that is posted completely free to a handpicked list of about 10 000 people. Apparently, there's a waiting list to get it and the magazine seems to be making good money. It may only deliver an audience of 10 000 people but the magazine knows a lot about these people and they are handpicked to appeal to a certain kind of advertiser. Now that's pretty interesting but it is niche.
For sure, it does sound like it has a boutique-y feel to it... I'm not sure if this would work for everybody but this is a great case study for new ways of doing things. You can take things out of this [example] and apply it to larger ventures.
The thing, for me, is that 10 000 sounds quite limited but a lot of publications would be very happy with that. And because these guys are limiting the reach and getting the magazine feels like a bit of a privilege, two things are going to happen:
- You going to read it from cover to cover, and
- It's going to be read by your friends.
So the reach from an advertising point of view is probably a lot larger. Biz: You are always talking about innovation and it seems to drive you and your company but doesn't this tire you out?
I've surrounded myself with some very smart people. I think innovation is a culture, a mindset by lots of people - not an invention by one individual. If you allow people to think in a certain way, innovation will happen as byproduct and I think innovation is a lot easier as byproduct than as an end in itself.Biz: It sounds like you're saying that thinking creatively is about having a creative team working together.
I would say it's about having a good team together. Creativity in itself is overrated. I think everybody's creative but if you get smart people with different perspectives together, then creativity will happen. Biz: Let's talk about technology challenges. You've got an iPad, I'm sure.
Yes, but I never use it. It's at best a kid's toy. I've got friends who swear by it but, for me, I think it's an add-on device. It doesn't allow me to remove anything that I would normally carry [while commuting between Cape Town and Joburg].
If I was normally carrying a bunch of newspaper with me every day, then perhaps it might make sense. But it has replaced nothing. I still have to carry my computer everywhere and my iPhone. I would far rather carry my Kindle. Biz: But tablets are going to change things and mobile is certainly serving newspaper such as the Daily Sun very well.
Oh yeah, tablets will definitely change how people will consume content. Look, I'm one of a minority who don't get it.
With mobile, I think smart media should be looking at how Motribe
is delivering content to people. We already have the device [the mobile phone] on us. We just have to innovate how we utilise it. I think if we spent a bit more time on how we deliver the media instead of waiting for the media devices to be innovated themselves, we'd be a lot better off.For more: