‘We’re looking at this as an opportunity’: Bloomberg Media CEO Justin Smith’s optimistic scenario for media’s recovery

During these nerve-wracking times, for public health as well as economic health, people’s appetite for trusted news has sky rocketed.

In March, new subscriptions to Bloomberg Media grew by 86% compared with February, despite — like a lot of U.S. publishers — hosting most of its coronavirus coverage outside its paywall. The week ending March 20 was its highest week in terms of subscriber acquisition since launching its paywall in May 2018. And readers are global: Subscribers from Europe and Asia grew 25% during March. QuickTake, formerly TicToc, has seen an increase of 40% in views across platforms compared with the last 16-week average.

Bloomberg Media CEO Justin Smith discusses subscription growth, virtual events and navigating through uncertainty. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Explain the consumer behavior behind your subscription growth.

With so much change, so much upheaval, so much uncertainty, you’re seeing a historic peak in consumer interest in the news. Somewhere around 30% of our traffic is tied to our coronavirus coverage. The market coverage is still behind a paywall, but we’re seeing an uptake in our subscription business from both sides of that divide. Readers are coming to us then they then discover the breadth of coverage.

Bloomberg Media is in an interesting position because we have a very global footprint. We’ve spoken a lot with our colleagues in China, Hong Kong and Singapore and we’ve been able to get a sense from them of what to expect. I just heard this morning from a colleague that was saying that the first couple of weeks are definitely the most difficult. 

This is a very personal story from an economic perspective, the impact on markets and the economy is so pronounced and so dramatic and so unprecedented. The threat that this virus is presenting is to entire industries. No matter what, industries are going from being very healthy to literally going to close to zero demand.

What are you seeing in terms of demand in the rest of your business?

The global advertising business is an important and large one for us. An event like this causes advertisers to reassess their plans. But it’s very industry-specific. It depends on what industry they’re in as to how their messaging needs to be evolved or adapted. There have been cancelations in industries that are really severely hit, like travel and tourism.

But there are technology-related companies and services for business-to-business products that are going to become much more relevant. You’re seeing a big jump in focus from technology-infrastructure companies, 5G, data. There are other sectors that are leaning in like financial services and banking. In volatile times, there is consumer decision making around personal investments, so there’s activity there too. But overall we expect a challenging time.

Bloomberg Media had a very strong first quarter in advertising globally, despite some of the slowdowns in Asia. Right now, the visibility is relatively limited. We’re seeing Asia open up again and we’re seeing the beginnings of more activity happening there. If it can be limited to an eight to 10-week cycle of advertisers pausing, assessing and then re-engaging, then that would be the best outcome we could have at this point. 

How are you adapting your live events business?

We did our first virtual event last week in Asia with a global bank. The subject was the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the global supply chain and had 250 people online and it was a big success. That was a toe in the water but because of our Asian presence, we were able to be one of the first movers in trying out virtual events. 

Are you redeploying sales teams?

Our global sales teams are still calling their clients and finding new ways of remaining engaged with them. Just last week there were one hundred sales calls that took place, which is a number we’re going to be tracking. In some ways, there’s never been a time when really busy marketers might actually have a few more minutes to engage in the conversation.

What have been your priorities as a leader in these uncertain times?

We have been working from home for just over a week but our approach has been to ramp up communication as much as possible, almost over-communication. We ended up increasing the number of one-on-one meetings and group meetings in the first week. In some ways, you can have a more focused and less distracted conversation virtually. 

The second point is communicating our company-wide commitment to getting through this and the longer term. This is something that comes from our founder and CEO Mike Bloomberg. 

Thirdly, a lot of communication around the importance of responding to this change, how can we be entrepreneurial, how can we do things differently and adapt and evolve our work, our workflows, our product, our relations, or business relationships in ways that are better suited to these times.

How are you cost-cutting?

People are spending less money on travel and entertainment and we’re trying to be as mindful as possible about our overall expenditure. We’re not looking at any significant cost reductions; we’re looking at this as more of an opportunity for us. Since we have a strong resilient business model [as part of Bloomberg LP] we’re looking at how we can potentially invest to further expand our competitive strength. One of the things we did was raise some of our investment in subscription marketing.

If not cost-cutting, what has been the biggest challenge?

Honestly, that’s been has been shifting six global media platforms, the entire production and the creation of these, to a work-from-home environment. Closing [weekly magazine] Businessweek for the first time from a home environment last Thursday was an important milestone. Managing 24 hours of global television with 95% work from home is a very complex, logistical issue. While making sure that we’re taking care of our employees, that was the biggest short-term challenge. Secondarily, as we’ve now shifted to a work-from-home workforce, how do we keep driving the innovation and the entrepreneurship that we’re looking for.

How do you do that?

In addition to entrepreneurship, we’re using this period of time to focus on very strategic projects that are hugely important but have been pushed to the backburner. Like really nailing down a brand positioning exercise for a product or a portfolio of products, or working on a longer-term strategy for a certain part of the business. We can get people to focus and it’s a really positive and productive way of reorienting people in this new world.


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