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Q&A: DC Thomson CEO Ellis Watson on the publisher's digital transformation

DC Thomson is a "cautious" rather than "reckless" pioneer when it comes to digital, according to its CEO Ellis Watson. He speaks to The Drum about the company's digital transformation in the last few years, warning that newspaper publishers should not approach digital “as a default of the print business being broken”.

What changes have you seen as DC Thomson in your time at the company?

The company has undergone a fairly dramatic transformation in the last two years. We've installed the largest new printing press that the UK has seen in years, closed down two smaller plants, moved all newspaper titles to compact, launched a digital offering, acquired companies and brands, and come a long way along a cultural transformation journey. We have, however, only really just started…

How do you expect to see the Dandy evolve as an online-only product? What are the commercial opportunities it offers online?

It's a fine place to start to experiment with our archive and to learn how to unlock the latent heritage and affection that people have for our brands and characters.

How is the evolution of mobile and tablet developing a publisher such as DC Thomson? How is this evolving your offer to advertisers?

We're a careful pioneer in digital. I was a pioneer in the race to move analogue audiences to digital 15 years ago with initiatives like Currantbun.com and I've seen how cautiously brave is better than recklessly so. I like learning from the mistakes and successes of others and creating a hybrid strategy from what others have shown me. We've a fine print business with good margins and popular brands; yes – digital can stretch the appeal further, but I don’t want to accelerate the print losses as quickly as some competitors have done, to their regret.

We're half way through a two-year digital transformation and I'm fairly optimistic that we're going to deliver a nice fillip to our business without damaging what is a fairly successful 'old media' business. The best thing we've done so far is not to have migrated audiences in a way we regret - once it's out the bottle, that genie can’t get back in. We'll bring advertisers with us because, when your business is as local as ours, you must stay in tune with readers and advertisers - it is their business as much as it is our shareholders.

Trinity Mirror's Simon Fox has claimed that digital ad revenue will offset print – how far away do you think that is for it to become reality? Do you agree with him?

It may well for him and it could be within five years. We really need to be cautious that it isn’t the case that the print revenue has crashed so much that digital is bigger as a default of the print business being broken. Digital may become bigger for some, but it needs to be viewed in context.

What is your view of the ambition set out by Local World? How do you view the strength of local news media generally?

I think Local World is GREAT. They've good management, supportive shareholders, a fine vision and brands that are all needing the sort of invigoration that only people with massive energy and resource can deliver. They need the regulators to allow them to get on with saving the brands.

Was is your major ambition for the rest of the year?

To try my best, be nice to people and have fun.

Ellis Watson is CEO of DC Thomson Publishing. Ellis presented the inaugural Ogilvy Lecture as part of the Marketing Festival “Amplify – a day at the festival to shout about marketing” in Edinburgh. The lecture took place at University of Edinburgh Business School, George Square.

For more information on Amplify visit: www.marketingsociety.co.uk/amplify2013

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