Faaez Samadi
Sep 25, 2018

Don’t whine about media disruption, lead it: Bloomberg Media CEO

Justin Smith says taking calculated risks on key innovative projects is why the media giant is having one of its best years to date.

Bloomberg HQ in New York
Bloomberg HQ in New York

As he’s saying it, Justin Smith has a light smirk on his face. He knows all too well that it sounds hackneyed. But for the Bloomberg Media CEO, who presides over a media company that is currently projecting between 15%-20% growth this year, it doesn’t stop the phrase being true.

“You have to invent your way to growth,” he says as we sit in Bloomberg’s Singapore bureau. “I know that sounds like a cliché, every CEO says that: innovate, innovate, innovate. But that involves taking risks, getting into new businesses, leveraging our brand, our content creation skills and our global reach, in high-growth new mediums.”

To that end, Smith’s tenure has seen him walk the talk and re-tool Bloomberg Media as a modern, progressive media organisation built for the digital age. This has been a combination of taking bets on entirely new areas, such as social media, and revamping old models, such as subscriptions.

That mix is crucial, says Smith, especially for a publisher like Bloomberg that has a wealth of traditional media assets. It’s not about jettisoning the old stuff, but developing it into an better asset for the future.

“We value our traditional assets tremendously and see them as being an important part of our global footprint,” he says. “At the same time we’re really realistic about the fundamental trends that are affecting both consumer engagement with those types of traditional platforms, as well as how well you can monetise them.

“So what do you do? You can either play defence, and watch your traditional assets become smaller, or you can actually play offence, and you can say ‘well, while these traditional assets are our backbone and the cornerstone of our brand, and will continue to be powerful, where can we play in new high-growth markets in exciting and meaningful ways?’”

For Smith, the nature of today’s media environment, in which many leading publishers are seeing huge challenges, is to work out where your brand can participate in disruption and growth, rather than be disrupted by it.

Justin Smith

“So not just stand back and be disrupted by Facebook and Google and whine about the duopoly,” he asserts. “But actually say, where’s the growth? It’s in social, it’s in smartphones, it’s in video, it’s in global, it’s in events.”

This strategy is paying off. Regarding social media, Bloomberg launched TicToc in partnership with Twitter, a real-time news channel on the social media platform. Smith is delighted with its progress, as well he might be: after just nine months, TicToc has a daily audience of 1.4 million viewers, with the platform reaching 2.2 million views a day.

“It’s hugely exciting to advertisers, and it’s a massive growth area for us. We want to disrupt CNN, the BBC, and those are huge billion-dollar companies that are going to be disrupted, so why not us? Why wait for Facebook or Google or some other startup to do it?”

Of course, placing bets on risky endeavours is made easier when your parent company's core business helps power the global economy. Smith is very aware of the privilege of having Bloomberg LP's terminal business as a cushion that has "given us more protection from some of the choppy waters of the last 10 years in media". But you still have to make the right bets and it's this that has turned Bloomberg Media into "a major growth company in the media space," he says. 

Smith’s enthusiasm for being disruptive is palpable, and it goes beyond content. In a world where most media companies are seeing digital advertising revenue steadily decline, Smith says Bloomberg Media is on course for a remarkable 13% hike this year—a number, he says wryly, that puts their growth closer to Google and Facebook than their media rivals.

A large part of this is down to Bloomberg overhauling its advertising sales model, Smith explains, and turning into “a hybrid of a strategy consultancy, marketing services company and an advertising sales operation”.

“A lot of people have custom content studios, or marketing services offerings, but no-one’s actually got truly integrated marketing services and consulting at the heart of their ad sales operation, strictly focused on advertisers and marketers looking to reach business people,” he says.

The simple premise, Smith says, is that Bloomberg knows more about business people than anybody in the world, so if you want to design a campaign or an activation or a marketing effort towards business people, Bloomberg probably has a lot more information on how to do that than agency X.

Smith’s zeal for more revenue sources doesn’t end there, and in May Bloomberg Media introduced a subscription model for its content. Not exactly an innovation, but again, something that has given many publications difficulties has quickly turned into a success for Smith: the subs business is already three times larger than Bloomberg’s year-end projections, three months out.

The key here, he says, is closely observing changing consumer behaviour and turning it to the publisher’s advantage. “In the last couple of years, we’ve realised the world has changed and en masse around the world, smart, intelligent professionals are paying for content,” he explains.  

“So [another] major growth business. We’re charging US$400 a year for really valuable content, and we’re finding there’s a big global, and particularly Asian, market for it.”

That last comment brings us to another area of huge significance to Smith: the potential for Bloomberg within Asia. For a man who spent some of his teenage years studying in the north-eastern Chinese city of Harbin—“It was great, but it was cold! I just wish my Mandarin was better now”—and spent many years working in Hong Kong, Asia’s importance cannot be overstated.

Outstripping many of its media rivals in terms of presence—Bloomberg has 24 Asia-Pacific bureaus—Smith wants to bring the weight of that expertise and in-region brand equity to bear with possibly his most ambitious project thus far mentioned: the New Economy Forum.

Taking place in Singapore on 6 and 7 November, the forum is essentially billed as Asia’s Davos, bringing together several world leaders across politics and business to discuss solutions for the pressing matters affecting the global economy.

Smith is quick to interject and clarify that the forum is a global conference, not an Asia-specific one, but situated in Asia, which to him is vital.   

“We think Davos is a fantastic property, except that it’s geographically constrained by kind of not being in the right part of the world,” he says. “And if you look out at the landscape at these new emerging economies, there really isn’t a singular leadership convening of this level that even comes close to rivalling Davos.”

It’s been a long and bumpy process for the forum, not least given that it was supposed to be held in Beijing, but was moved last-minute to Singapore due to the massive escalation in trade tensions between the US and China right now.

“It’s caused a lot of unintended consequences, a lot of complexity, and I think our partners in China were actually incredibly supportive of the whole idea and of keeping this thing going, but felt like the timing was a bit awkward,” Smith says, adding that the plan is to return the New Economy Forum to China in 2019.

Asked whether Bloomberg Media’s own strained relationship with Chinese authorities (like many foreign publishers, it has been blocked in China in the past) had any bearing on the sudden shift to Singapore, Smith was adamant in his denial.

“It was actually not even part of the discussion at all,” he stated. “Bloomberg’s got a really strong presence in China and its journalism is strong and independent. It had nothing to do with this.”

With 12 leading partners from around the world supporting the event, including the CEOs of Microsoft, Mastercard, Hyundai, SoftBank and HSBC, Smith revels in Bloomberg being the platform for such a high-level meeting of minds, believing the brand’s long-term commitment to the region affords it the permission to attempt such an event in Asia.

“The future of the global economy is out here, driven by demographics and economic trends,” he opines. “Much of the growth is here, this is the future of the global economy, so this is the future of our company in many ways. So that by itself has made Asia such a priority.”

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