By: Brad Howarth, researcher, speaker and author
Few people can claim to have turned £150,000 into £6 million in just a year. But by building a technology group within the marketing function at the magazine The Economist, that is exactly what Steve Lok and his team have done.
As head of martech and operations, Lok and his team were given the task of growing subscriptions above the standard annual rate of a few percent, to alleviate the pressure on display advertising revenue that has beset many magazines.
"There was nothing in market and off-the-shelf at the time, so we built it."
“We were given £150,000 to play with,” Lok says. “But only three months to execute. We created a mini skunkworks, and built one of the first automated content-led targeting systems that was advertising driven. It was around making sure the ads we were pushing out were on-brand and relevant, so we used ecommerce techniques for finding people and automatically retargeting them. There was nothing in market and off-the-shelf at the time, so we built it.”
The results were impressive. After starting 2014 with subscription profit of around £9 million, the magazine closed out the year with circulation profit around £15 million.
“It was absolutely unprecedented,” Lok says. “And we got noticed. The CMO said ‘if you can do that with £150,000, what if I gave you £1.5 million?’. And we did it again, and we grew to somewhere under £40 million. And in 2018 we are looking for double that on subscription alone.”
Lok had a circuitous career path to his current role, having studied everything from chemical engineering to theatre, before starting a healthcare technology business in New York in 2000. From there he moved through various roles in the publishing industry.
“I have always been interested in the way things really worked and how you got one bit of information from one place to another,” Lok says. “And I always thought publishing was particularly interesting, because people always want content – but how can you systematically monetise content, when most people just want it free?”
"You can have meaningful discussion once you gain some trust inside the marketing function."
One of those roles saw him move into business analysis, before he was recruited into The Economist to take over its agile transformation program. That immediately drew him into conflict with the existing digital marketing team, which was having to evolve to a data-driven future.
“I started getting embedded into the business simply to solve new tech problems and essentially learned the business of marketing from learning how to transform it,” Lok says.
That in turn led to an invitation to create The Economist’s marketing technology group.
“There was a need and desire to challenge the way things had been done,” Lok says. “And from a brand perspective, that can be particularly challenging. It definitely ‘takes a village’.”
"I cannot overstress the requirement for someone who has soft skills and emotional intelligence beyond technological intelligence."
By working from inside the marketing function, Lok was able to avoid the clash that often occurs when technology-based change is driven by the technology function.
“It creates a safe space to disagree,” Lok says. “You can have meaningful discussion once you gain some trust inside the marketing function.”
Communication has also been critical to the transformation.
“It really does take someone who speaks technology, but who also speaks ‘people’,” Lok says. “I cannot overstress the requirement for someone who has soft skills and emotional intelligence beyond technological intelligence. You can lead a horse to water, but if they don’t trust you or they don’t trust how they got there, they are not going to go and drink.
"Prove out something in three months, and just do it. Not enough companies are doing controlled experimentation and piloting."
“So it is of paramount importance to not forget the human element, and deal with it as part of this transformation process. There have to be plans and real thought put into the psychology of people caught inside of an industry that is changing around them. The disruption is not unique; it’s just marketing’s turn.”
That also applies at an organisational level. Lok says it is important to critically listen to the needs of the business as a whole.
“Sit down, figure it out,” Lok says. “And take a dose of courage to say ‘we aren’t going to continue to do this easier thing, we are going to disrupt ourselves and do the right thing’. And that can help focus what a particular company needs and doesn’t need, and provide a much cleaner way to getting provable value in what you are doing as part of this transformation with less wastage.
“And don’t bite off more than you can chew. Prove out something in three months, and just do it. Not enough companies are doing controlled experimentation and piloting. Martech is about the magic that comes about when you combine marketing and tech to create thought leadership – the kind you can act on tomorrow - that is more than just the sum of its parts.”
This requirement for business acumen, data literacy and technological prowess is reflected in the team that Lok has assembled at The Economist – business skills to see the opportunities, data literacy to see the patterns, and technological skills to actually implement the solution.
Only through this combination does Lok believe organisations can deliver on their ambitions to be truly customer-focused.
“There has been a long-standing desire to break down siloes and put everything together into one place, generate a single customer view, find that customer and deliver just the right content to them at the right time,” Lok says. “The great thing now is we can actually do it. And the horrible thing now, is we actually can do it. So there is no excuse around that anymore.”