How SPH’s traditional methods of selling digital media backfired
With a monopoly and captive audience, media giant Singapore Press Holdings should have remained the country’s dominant player. The Drum finds out why the publisher failed to turn a profit as it sought digital transformation.
Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) has been on a digital transformation journey as its print advertising business declines, but its efforts have, ultimately, failed to pay off as opportunities were left untapped and its focus diverted elsewhere.
Its media business no longer boasts a profit as it slipped into the red, despite the 28 million monthly unique visitors it claims across all its digital assets. It blames its first-ever loss – down $11.4m for the financial year ending August 31 2020 – on the Covid-19 pandemic and says if not for the Singapore government’s jobs support scheme and its thriving property business, the loss would have been $39.5m.
To stem its losses, it announced on May 6 it will restructure its media business to classify as a not-for-profit, the listed model no longer financially sustainable. This will see SPH’s media business transferred to a newly formed public company limited by guarantee (CLG) called SPH Media Trust.
Transformation of the core business
Ranganathan Somanathan, a media veteran who has spent close to two decades as chief executive officer of Omnicom Media Group and chief operating officer at Publicis’s Starcom MediaVest Group in Singapore, notes that as SPH’s leadership priorities focused on delivering shareholder value, the publisher hedged its future on diversification rather than the transformation of the core business.
He says its goal went from striving to be the leading multimedia company in Asia to investing for returns in property-based businesses.
This meant that, over the years, the returns generated by SPH’s non-core forays have masked the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of its media business. During the same period, technology platforms have accelerated the change in the way people all consume news and entertainment.
“Digital transformation, like any other change initiative, requires us to review and refresh the whole organization across people, process and product,” explains Somanathan, who is now a co-founder and curator at RSquared Global Ventures.
“Just throwing people at it, without the commitment to drive process and product change will never work. In the case of SPH, one needed a full-stack business process re-engineering work to be done. This was required to break down and break up the current, design the new and build the future. What we saw was a bit of tinkering around the edges without a holistic reset.”
Adapting to the future of media buying
Hari Shankar, the former chief executive of Singapore Media Exchange (SMX), the joint venture between SPH and Mediacorp, recalls when he was tasked to set up and run SMX, he had the opportunity to engage with the system and found there was a lot of ground to cover before SPH could have a meaningful conversation with the digital media buyers of the day.
He says that for a true digital transformation effort to take place, there has to be concerted efforts at the right time and place in the form of a specialist team put together to make the transformation possible.
Shankar stresses that this needs a tremendous vision as well as top-down support from leadership. “We are talking about a sales system hitherto steeped in offline/traditional mindsets and methods of operation and by no means is it an easy task to start a digital transformation due to the sheer size of the sales force in addition to the other factors mentioned earlier.
“Therefore, if the leadership didn’t have a well-crafted strategy at least a decade ago that showed how the existent sales force would transform into a digital sales force while also engaging the product and tech teams to effect the transformation across the platform, it would be a foregone conclusion that the whole model would go sideways one day or the other.”
Changing digital habits
While SPH and other traditional media organizations have pivoted and built brands in the digital space, driving readers online with print-like consumption habits on digital devices has been a challenge. Instead, those readers become a lot like digital readers – easily distracted, flitting from link to link and spoilt for choice.
Serm Teck Choon, the co-founder and chief executive of Antsomi, a regional marketing technology company, says SPH’s failure to tap its first-party data opportunities and truly understand its audience caused advertisers not to spend.
“The fact is, today’s audience is mostly consuming content – including news – via digital, and lots of them have not read newspapers for years,” says Serm, who spent 17 years at Star Media Group in Malaysia building digital products.
“The duopoly of Google and Facebook have taken away a big chunk of ad revenue from traditional media players, including print and electronic media such as TV and radio, globally. This doesn’t just happen to a specific country, but it is a global phenomenon.”
The challenge of the duopoly
However, Shankar argues that conceding defeat to the duopoly should not be used as an excuse. He points to the national publishers in Australia that are able to capture a significant share of the ad budget simply because they were at the forefront of digital transformation during the early days and able to refine their strategies by trial and error over time.
They also invested significant time and dollars in hardware, in the software to build strong in-house adtech and in talent way before any other market in APAC because the writing on the wall was loud and clear.
For example, News.com has its own ad tech stack replete with a header bidder and streaming TV monetization tech, along with a very clear strategy around where, how and to whom the most premium inventory is sold. Most importantly, it has a very clear stance with the duopoly – especially Google, where valuable inventory is not being auctioned off in open markets.
“It has been a pretty shoddy job by the SPH leadership because when the race to the bottom started due to pressures from agencies and the onslaught of the duopoly, the 'premiumness' of the inventory should have been protected by making only the lowest-performing inventory available to these open marketplaces. Premium inventory should have been made available only via IO/programmatic buys with a premium dollar value attached to it.
“But that didn’t quite happen since the only thing that mattered at that time was a certain myopic logic of how to extract maximum revenue from these open marketplaces and agency land, without regard for the value of the inventory itself – fill rate versus yield – and when the market was screaming for more innovation on the ad product, targeting, performance and packaging front, there was hardly any activity to address that need except some loosely-coupled partnerships, which meant that precious time to set up in-house adtech and ad product plan was thereby lost.”
A second chance
What does the new SPH Media Trust mean for the future of the media industry in Singapore and advertisers then?
Anshuman Purohit, regional investment director for Asia Pacific at Dentsu International, says with the end of third-party cookies looming, as well as Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) and other browser changes, there will be an increasing premium on publisher first-party data and SPH is now in a better place to develop more on their first-party data opportunities for advertisers.
He says SPH re-structuring into a new and not-for-profit entity is the right move considering the significant and long-term changes in the industry.
“It will afford SPH the time, space and investment to focus on their digital transformation, collaborating with third-party partners to enrich their data and help improve monetisation over the long term, without the pressure of driving short-term profits,” he explains.
Shankar agrees but notes the success of SPH Media Trust rests solely on the shoulders of the new leadership and management structure. He notes that unless the new team takes some very quick and hard decisions across the board on the people, process, platform and performance areas, the road to recovery will be fraught with insurmountable challenges.
"They need to become leaner, meaner and much more agile to drive a transformation in the way the media entity runs, if any hopes of a turnaround may be harboured," he says.
Looking ahead, while the printed word still generates trust, loyalty and is an authoritative source of quality content in the current climate of information overload, fake and unverified news, consumers have shown they are not interested in reading content that can be easily available in the online space instantly, way ahead of publication.
Quality and consistency
This means the editorial content strategy is key as it is a well-established fact that consumers are willing to pay for quality content that is consistently and significantly better than what can be found online.
“SPH Media Trust should adopt a new mindset that they are a media company or a news company, and they are no longer a print company. They should see news as their product and treat mobile, desktop, messaging, podcast, video and print as the means to distribute their product to their customers,” explains Serm.
“It should also transform itself into a data-driven media company and spend efforts to mine its 28m unique visitors by analyzing the data, understanding their preferences and needs, continually serving them relevant and trustworthy content, and making them be SPH Media’s loyal customers. Being a data-driven media company, SPH Media can also offer data-driven advertising solutions to advertisers in Singapore or the region.“
Hitoshi Maruyama, the managing director of publisher growth at AnyMind Group, agrees, “SPH is in a unique position to drive this complementary relationship between its print and online assets. In addition to a sound editorial strategy of focusing on in-depth quality content, SPH will need to prioritise driving efficiencies of fixed printing, editorial and distribution costs."
“There should be a pivot towards driving more subscription, providing more value to the consumers through multimedia content combining text, video and audio, and driving innovation by using new technology like AR/VR to bridge the divide between the online and offline consumer experience.”
Shankar suggests SPH could follow what the publishers did in Australia - to ensure that the future of authentic, valuable journalism is secured by making the duopoly pay for the original news content they are capitalising on, to their own advantage.
He explains the long life of the print industry needs to rest on such initiatives rather than putting the entire burden on advertising revenue alone because it is only fair that the duopoly pays the industry back for making their business thrive all these years, riding on the original content created by publishers.
Singapore Press Holdings may have had an unsuccessful first run at transforming in a digital era but the challenges it has faced are universal and will feel familiar to publishers across the world. With a new start on the horizon, the question is whether Singapore's dominant news brand can take this second chance and run with it.