Magnetic helped launch Vogue Business, the new global business service from Condé Nast International. Ciara Byrne, Director of Business Development, talks about building a culture of innovation inside a complex, fast-moving organisation.
Tom Whitwell (Magnetic) When we first met about a year ago, how developed was the idea that became Vogue Business?
Ciara We’d been looking at business-to-business as an idea for Conde Nast International. So many different teams around the world had looked at different B2B ideas: products, services, editorial. So we wanted to make sure that we were setting aside our own internal biases and assumptions and being really rigorous. I wanted to create a repeatable, systematic process for assessing opportunities.
Tom How do media organisations normally do it?
Ciara There is a tendency in all sectors to try to produce a perfect product. We’ve all seen those projects that linger and linger or have lost momentum entirely. When they’re finally ready to launch, it turns out they’d made assumptions at the very start that turned out to be wrong. Getting the product into real customers’ hands as soon as possible to test those assumptions is crucial.
Tom When Magnetic started on the project, the first thing we did was talk to dozens of customers, just trying to understand their businesses and
what motivates them personally.
Ciara I remember being very nervous initially. I thought people would realise what we were working on, and it would be leaked. But, really, the idea isn’t the thing. You won’t fail on the idea, you’ll fail on the execution. So you can almost give your idea away…
Tom What was the moment when you thought, ‘yes,this is really going to work’?
Ciara After doing about 50% of those first interviews we kept hearing the same thing. The customers wanted intelligent, data-led analysis: Global trends, tech, culture and innovation. I realised we could succeed and include new businesses that were helping to shape the future of our industry.
Tom We spent a lot of time building that five-stage innovation framework. Why was that necessary?[The framework sets out a repeatable process for finding, assessing, prioritising and resourcing ideas]
Ciara I think it was so essential for us to approach opportunities in a consistent, rigorous way. That allows us to scale opportunities quickly once they have been proved in the framework. So now, when I say, “We’re in phase two,” people now understand what that means, even in different markets.
Tom I spent ages giving names to all the sections, but now everyone just says ‘phase one’, ‘phase two’. It is very structured, and a different approach from most of the media companies I’ve worked in. How confident were you that the approach would work?
Ciara When I first read about this process and met Magnetic, I thought, “No, that won’t work here.”
Tom You can’t just pick a load of methodology from a textbook and expect it to work. We had to understand CNI’s quirks, and create a framework to fit.
Ciara I knew that the hardest thing at Condé would be going from incubation to public launch. All the comms, internal and external, helping everyone to understand the product and what it means to them in their market. We had to build that process into the framework.
Tom Vogue Business really ran like a start-up inside a big organisation. But editorial people are used to having an editor say what’s right and wrong. In a start-up, you never have that certainty. You don’t know what the answer is, but have to find out together.
Ciara Yes, there was a shift in mentality. You could see each person going through it. And some people came in later because they missed some of the kick-off sessions. You literally saw the difference, which was really interesting. And me, too, I remember the time it shifted, it was like, “Ah, okay.”
Tom It can feel like having the rug pulled from under your feet.
Ciara It comes back to this idea, which I certainly found uncomfortable at the start, where your backup plan isn’t ‘ask the boss’. It’s the research that you’ve done. If you feel confident in all that research, then there’s no stopping you.
Tom And whenever you get stuck you just go back and say, “Who are these users? What have they told us? What more can we get out of them?”
Ciara It’s been amazing having that habit of talking to customers from the start. Eight weeks after launching Vogue Business we did a big survey and got amazing feedback that’s been so intrinsic to us setting up the next phase.
My favourite was after the story on Golden Week in China, where a reader said, “I’ve just changed my marketing budgets just because of the piece.”
Tom One year in, what’s your advice for someone else doing the same thing?
Ciara Three things. Make sure that you’ve done real customer research. Make sure there is really money in it, which is sometimes overlooked. You might say, ‘Oh, it’s a $50bn industry’ with no clear idea how you will add value. Then finally, the Sheryl Sandberg thing. “Done is better than perfect.” Do something, move on. Keep that momentum up.