How Disintermediation Is Changing Communications: A Conversation with Adrian Monck of the World Economic Forum

October 16, 2014

[world economic forum]
[world economic forum]

Adrian Monck is managing director and head of public engagement for the World Economic Forum, an international institution committed to improving the state of the world through public-private cooperation in the spirit of global citizenship. Best known for the annual meeting it hosts in Davos, Switzerland, the Forum is an independent not-for-profit that engages with business, political, academic and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas.

From your position at the World Economic Forum, when you think about communications — how people transmit, receive and share information — where do you see the field going? What’s next?

If you have recognition or authority in an interesting field, then what’s next is disintermediation — creating and using your own content to build a voice. But it varies by sector. There’s not so much scope for it in fast-moving consumer goods, for example.

What are some examples of how disintermediation is playing out today, and the organizations involved?

General Electric, for example, building a newsroom. Government, especially in the United Kingdom. The World Economic Forum is an example. We have twice the number of followers as the Financial Times, so why should readers go through gatekeepers? Why not bring eyeballs directly to content? Content selection tells you about voice. What we talk about is what we care about.

Our sophistication demonstrates that we get complexity and we understand your point of view. We acknowledge viewpoints with counterpoints. Another example is the “Open Minds” platform that Swiss Re has launched. Here is a 150-year-old insurance-reinsurance company that has created a place where everyone and anyone can share views and engage in a dialogue about the future and risk.

What are the factors behind disintermediation?

From the consumer side, it’s all about access to their attention, so lifestyle is a key driver Another is education in terms of quality. More of us have stayed in college; we like our intelligence worn lightly. A third driver is demographics in terms of cash. There are greater numbers of older people in mature economies, economically empowered U.S. Spanish-speaking audiences, etc.

Old media monopolies saw this coming, but mostly their internal politics led them to prefer genteel decline to the rigors of self-preservation. Newsweek has been re-imagined as a kind of spectral warning to mainstream media hubris. It didn’t have to happen. Look at Vice, the much-vaunted digital rebel upstart, which began life as a print magazine launched to provide community work in Canada, and is now hiring old-school TV producers, documentary makers and journalists but cloaking them in a hip brand.

The lessons are the same. You have to stay with people. Move too fast, or too slowly, and you lose them.

For businesses, NGOs, etc., there’s a chance to step in and offer information directly to consumers as traditional media players decline. But internal politics remain the big barrier. Many organizations would rather that their content align with their own internal political agendas than connect with people outside. Disintermediating content within organizations requires people on the inside to give up ownership of their content — and that remains the single biggest barrier.

In the disintermediation dynamic, what do you see as the key success factors? Content? Empathy?

The key factor is an organizational willingness to engage with audiences without mediation, without having your information filtered through traditional news media. For organizations, mediation hides many things — embarrassing pitches, bad timing, irrelevance. Going directly to the audience is risky but ultimately rewarding, as you have the power to tell your own stories.

Do you see any geographic variations in this trend? Any sectors or industries that are better at it than others? Any laggards?

There are two big models: Content as intellectual marketing, and content as campaign. Hardly surprising, universities are old players in intellectual marketing, such as Harvard Business Review and MIT Technology Review. Digital media have lowered the bar to entry for academic sub-brands, like individual economics professors, such as Tyler Cowen, Michael Pettis, Brad DeLong and others.

From the professional-services world, McKinsey Quarterly has long used intellectual marketing to build credibility. And digital has simply lowered the barriers to entry for other industries like insurance, technology, etc.

There’s undoubtedly a tension between intellectual marketing and building individuals as brands. Media organizations have grappled with stars since the dawn of time. The tension tends to be removed when the lead is from the top. But there’s plenty of room for different styles. Contrast Mohamed El-Erian, formerly of PIMCO, with Richard Branson at Virgin, for example.

In new sectors, tiny players like Buffer and Contently have used blogs to demonstrate both knowledge and an openness to new ideas that can attract people to adopt their apps. GE has used content as part of a campaign to shift perceptions of it as an exciting R&D-led innovator, rather than just a maker of household appliances.

The World Economic Forum has used content in both ways — to demonstrate that we are an authority on issues like competitiveness, for example, and also by highlighting areas of our knowledge work that people don’t traditionally associate with us, like our work on the global gender gap.

How have these trends changed the way the World Economic Forum communicates from a strategic perspective? What’s different at the Forum today compared with five years ago?

Five years ago, the Forum looked at communication as a risk rather than an opportunity. We still relied on other people to tell our story, but like many organizations, the Forum felt that people didn’t get it. Our website was an intranet that served organizational needs ahead of potential readers, and we weren’t rigorously data driven.

Today, we have a lot more expertise, more languages and more youth on the team. And the success of the channels has been a good way of bringing more people to us, so we are no longer the end point internally. Now we have strong social channels, tied to content production on relevant themes, backed by shareables. I hope we punch above our weight, but equally we are no strangers to many of the internal challenges I mentioned.

We’re also moving beyond Anglophone media to engage in Chinese, Spanish and other major world languages, again using social as a point of entry and content as a differentiator. And we try to explain ourselves before we do things rather than afterward.

Can you offer tactical examples of how the Forum is doing things differently today?

We did a Competitiveness World Cup this summer with football cards for different countries. It was fun, inexpensive and a light touch. We were early creators of memes — quotes with pictures. But now they’re everywhere. We play tactically with the news agenda to re-package material, and tailor our headlines and social to what’s current, while staying on the right side of the line editorially. We pay a lot of attention to new developments, so we were quick to jump on LinkedIn’s rise as a publishing platform.

You can’t be complacent in this environment. With limited resources, you have to be prepared to abandon some platforms and adopt others. That makes it both incredibly stimulating and incredibly frustrating. We are always trying to automate workflows and move on, but apps change, rules change, companies drop products, and suddenly what was working stops having access to an API. But if it was easy, it wouldn’t be fun.

Ed Cafasso
A member of PRSA's Corporate Communications Section, Ed Cafasso is a managing director in the corporate and financial practice for Burson-Marsteller and the agency's Boston market leader.


Jacquelyn Goddard says:

Excellent information. I really support the approach that communication is an opposed to a risk.

Oct. 21, 2014

Amanda Swanson says:

Great interview! Very good content. Disintermediation is an interesting topic and I agree, there are certainly barriers that seem difficult to get around, but like he said, that's the fun of it all.

Dec. 14, 2016


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Jan. 20, 2018

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