What operators can learn from rock and roll

Nick Thomas/Ovum
14 Jan 2016

Many of us this week have been using a variety of platforms and devices to listen again to the music of David Bowie, whose death has spurred a huge outpouring of affection and reflection in fans across the world.

It has reminded us how important great music is to our lives: Indeed 60% of 16-34 year olds, according to Ovum’s recent Consumer Insights survey, described listening to music as “essential.” And music lovers certainly are cherishing the achievements of an artist such as Bowie, who somehow remained at the forefront of his industry nearly 50 years after his career began.

In a fast-moving industry, he was always relevant and always worth listening to. Leaders in similarly rapidly evolving businesses might want to consider some of the qualities that characterized his work:

  • He insisted on looking forwards, not backwards, resisting the obvious and the easy
  • He sought inspiration everywhere, identifying great ideas and incorporating influences from a wide range of sources
  • He embraced new trends and understood how the industry was evolving (predicting back in 2002, for example, that streaming would become the main distribution model for music)
  • He embraced difference and diversity, and gave inspiration to generations of people who felt marginalized by mainstream offerings
  • He constantly challenged expectations
  • He remained capable of surprising and delighting audiences, anticipating what they liked before they knew it

Are there lessons there not just for those creating content, but for those distributing it? Given how many of us now access the content we love via IP, are these traits of a successful artist relevant to companies providing the platforms and devices through which consumers now access that artist’s music, for example? The answer is surely yes. We are all media brands now.

A spot of rock’n’roll attitude might be what these companies need, if they are to remain as essential to their customers’ lives as the content they distribute. And this doesn’t apply only to hipster start-ups: Large companies – such as telcos – should also reconsider how their business is set up to retain young audiences who currently show little loyalty to their service provider.

Ovum’s survey suggested that 25% of 16-34 year olds are planning to change their mobile service provider in the next 12 months. Telcos need more than price cuts to keep users on board; they need to create brands and experiences, allied to great content, that inspire loyalty.

But it’s already happening. A glance at some of the most high-profile tech companies reveals a cohort – including Reed Hastings at Netflix, Jeff Bezos at Amazon, Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, the late Steve Jobs, and Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin – that has two things in common. One is that they consistently do what great artists like Bowie do – defy convention, collect great ideas like a magpie, retain huge ambition, and reinvent themselves frequently. The other is that their businesses now absolutely dominate the digital media landscape. It seems reasonable to assume that the two things are related.

So as a memo to execs in the telco and media industries who are struggling to see how they can counter the numerous existential threats their businesses faces: It may be time to shed the grey suits, embrace disruption, and, as Bowie implored in Changes, “turn and face the strange.”

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