By Ross Douglas, Founder & CEO of Autonomy & the Urban Mobility Company

In this new monthly column, I share what I’m reading and how it influences our decisions at Autonomy & the Urban Mobility Company.

Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Industry (and Everything Else) (Ken Auletta, 2018) carried an urgent message when I read it two years back, now made more so by COVID-19. Author Ken Auletta, a veteran writer for The New Yorker, has profiled media tycoons like Ted Turner and has published 12 books including Googled: The End of the World as We Know It.

His publicist describes the book as “Ken Auletta’s reckoning with an industry under existential assault” and it does indeed give the reader a behind the scenes look at a rapidly-transforming ad industry. We meet some of the biggest actors in advertising, many of whom must contend with former allies turned competitors: ‘frenemies’.

If you make your living from helping companies market, communicate and sell, then I recommend Frenemies for lockdown reading. Auletta speaks to the scions of the ad industry, who open up about what keeps them awake at night. Which, for the most part, is how tech companies are undermining a hundred-year-old industry that’s worth $2 trillion dollars.

And COVID-19 is only making it worse. The virus has half the world shut indoors, consuming more media than ever before. It should be a boon for advertisers, yet the world’s largest advertising agency, WPP, has halved in value during this short time. By contrast, Amazon’s stock has hit an all-time high. Investors know that social distancing is speeding up digital change and it won’t be business as usual when we come out the other side.

Lessons For the Trade Show Industry

My industry, trade shows, is facing meltdown as governments and companies enforce physical distancing (a more correct term than ‘social distancing’). Facebook recently banned staff from attending gatherings of more than 50 people till June 2021. Until we have a vaccine, governments will insist on physical distancing to fight the spread of the virus. Not an easy undertaking! The mumps vaccine—considered the fastest ever approved—took four years to go from collecting viral samples to licensing a drug in 1967. AIDS has been around since 1984 and there’s still no vaccine.

Amongst the big names profiled in Frenemies, one epitomises how to make the most of the disruption. Michael Kassan, founder and CEO of MediaLink, is the master matchmaker who has got rich by brokering connections in the media and marketing industry. With things in flux, MediaLink is seen by many as a steady centrepoint, some calm in the eye of the storm.

Kassan is a likeable and engaging character, a mensh who inspires confidence and trust. He also has a great brain for business. His approach inspired me to create a parallel digital and networking business to the Autonomy Trade Show. We began by producing content under the brands Urban Mobility Weekly and Urban Mobility Daily. This helped us to increase our knowledge and networks. Once we reached a critical mass of more than 10 000 readers late last year, we launched the Urban Mobility Company to help clients access our knowledge and networks.

How I am Applying These Lessons to My Own Company

When the lockdown started in March this year, we set our priorities in the following order:

  1. Safety of staff and clients
  2. Reputation of our clients and our brand
  3. Creating value for money for our clients

In the many discussions with our clients during lockdown we learnt that our clients:

  1. Are reluctant to commit to physical events
  2. Want to communicate “through the crisis” and not wait till it’s over
  3. Need to reshape their message, to take into account a new reality
  4. Have reduced their budgets so are looking for value for money

By setting our priorities and listening to our clients, we were able to make the decision to pivot Autonomy Paris from a physical to a digital event. Thankfully we had invested in building and understanding a digital community that we are now able to leverage – two years later.

COVID-19 will disrupt trade shows as it breaks the cycle of an industry meeting at the same time and place each year. Trade Show organisers now need to figure out how to digitally hold their clients until the pandemic is behind us and we can once again bring buyers and sellers physically together. This will not be easy for multi-sector trade show companies that have built physical scale without deep sector knowledge and networks.

In the closing chapters, Auletta details how agencies have adapted to survive by inventing new business models that harness technology to give clients better value for money. The next few years will be all about offering clients, speed, quality and value. And to do this knowledge and networks will be the primary assets at our disposal.

Read last month’s edition of What Ross is Reading which reviewed The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future by David Wallace-Wells and Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet by Mark Lynas