Anarchy in the New Zealand media landscape

One of the many challenges facing the Commerce Commission, in the wake of its decision to reject the proposed NZME / Fairfax merger, is one that brings into sharp focus the tidal wave of change brought about by the Internet. 

As ex-Google CEO, and current Alphabet CEO Eric Schmidt has said, “The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand – the largest experiment in anarchy we’ve ever had.”

Yes, it is anarchy – and it is irrevocable.  Having worked in advertising for over two decades, and therefore circled around the media and technology landscape for the same amount of time, I can vouch for the fact that it has never had fewer rules, more vagaries, or indeed so many alleged ‘disruptors’. 

But it’s no secret that our industry is experiencing massive disruption, and it’s been subjected to that change for some time.

We’re seeing formerly well-established advertising and media channels become increasingly irrelevant, and newer ones invented at a rate that, for those inside the industry anyway, feels like practically every month.  Being candid, reaching people with the right sort of information, at the right time, and in the right way, has never been more complex or problematic.

Amidst this sweeping sea of change, the Commerce Commission has the temerity to stand like King Canute – doing its best to thwart the waves of progress by saying ‘no’ to mergers like this one.

Even if the Commerce Commission were to have conducted a detailed survey of people in the media and advertising industry, I doubt anyone would have suggested that the NZME/Fairfax play was anything other than part of a play to be relevant and viable; just as Sky and Vodafone have been trying to do.

It beggars belief that the people presiding over the future of some of New Zealand’s biggest media companies are apparently themselves so far removed from the changes taking place in the media landscape – and yet that appears to be exactly the case.

A cursory search of Facebook will quickly uncover the fact that only one of the members of the Commerce Commission’s Board and Executive Team even has a presence on the platform – their profile picture nearly two years old, and taken in what would appear to be a corporate boardroom.

This concerning fact was brought to my attention by a very senior marketer – but why does it matter, you might ask? 

It matters because Facebook obliterates the readership stats of even the most widely consumed newspapers.  Over two million Kiwis check Facebook each and every day. The news, opinion, gossip, sport and anything else that is served up via this platform reaches significantly higher numbers of New Zealanders than the 2.5m weekly combined readership of all our domestic newspapers. 

If the Commerce Commission tsars aren’t on social media, how can they even begin to understand its potential to deliver what is effectively an aggregated news service, and one that can potentially negate the need to check other sources? Put more simply, you need to use this sort of ‘new’ media, to rule on its efficacy and relevance.

Only the strongest of local media services, the likes of which could include a combined NZME/Fairfax offering, will be able to ensure local journalism retains a relevant voice. I’d suggest that the Commerce Commission might be better off spending some more time looking at the digital world that’s right under their noses, rather than the prevalence and pertinence of historic merger and acquisition case law.

But as I’ve already mentioned, this is not a category in stasis, but one that’s experiencing complete and utter anarchy.

For those of us in advertising, we’ve been working to maximise the marketing channel that Facebook presents for years, because it gives us the unparalleled ability to precisely target products and services by interest, location and psychographic profiling. 

In the world of advertising, we’re all continually adapting – because we’ve literally had no choice.  We’re now developing different sorts of creative work increasingly made for video rather than TV – driven by a social content sharing philosophy, and leveraging data driven thinking much more heavily.

Another sign, of course, of the dwindling influence of TV and print advertising, is the investment that more and more New Zealand organisations are making in building massive loyalty programmes, helping them to better understand consumer behaviour through leveraging shopping data.

It’s disappointing to see the Commerce Commission ultimately opt not to change its tune on this incredibly important ruling. The rejection of the merger will no doubt have consequences for New Zealand journalism – and indeed all the related industries that surround the Fourth Estate.

  • Ben Goodale is managing director of JustOne

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