Innovating within a publishing giant: how Time Inc UK operates their innovation skunkworks

Innovating within a publishing giant: how Time Inc UK operates their innovation skunkworks

Time Inc is one of publishing’s grandfathers.  Once a start-up itself, Time Inc was founded in 1923 by two young 23 year olds, Henry Luce and Briton Hadden, who having raised $86,000, launched their first magazine ‘Time’, and then went on to launch a plethora of other magazines: the business magazine Fortune in 1930, the pictorial magazine Life in 1934, and House and Home and Sports Illustrated subsequently in the 50’s - slowly growing their media empire over the decades.

Fast forward to today, Time Inc now publishes 90 magazine brands with revenues of $2+ billion dollars, employing 7,200 people.  Although one of the biggest global publishes, Time Inc, true to its start-up roots, has a strategy to 'innovate from within’ as well as buying in talent and formats by acquisition - like their recent acquisition of Hello Giggles for $30 million

Hackers.Media sat down with Andrew Sanders, Commercial Director at Time Inc UK’s Innovation Lab, over a couple of pints of Tea (the beer, not hot beverage) to discuss how Time Inc goes about innovating from within a publishing giant.

Q: Context.  What the hell is an Innovation lab?

A: We are a ‘start up factory’ at the heart of Time Inc. UK.  We were set up to challenge the way that large media companies, like Time Inc. have traditionally approached new product development.  We take an iterative approach to product generation, using minimal resources to test ideas and products in the market and using real data to make decisions.
Andrew Sanders, Time Inc

Andrew Sanders, Time Inc

 We very much stick to the idea of “Test, Measure, Learn” in our approach but beyond that we try not to develop mantras or slogans, they can get you dangerously stuck in a rut.  Our objective is to develop profitable new products for Time Inc. however there are no set ideas about the form those products may take, or where they ultimately may sit within the portfolio.
 I think the thing that we work hardest on is around being fearless, we are constantly trying new things, challenging received wisdom and trying to objectively analyse product performance.  You can’t do that if you are looking over your shoulder, and we have a great structure around us to ensure that we aren’t.

 Q: The set-up.  How does The Lab sit within the bigger Time Inc mothership?

As you might expect we sit at the heart of the Innovation Group at Time Inc. UK.  That is the part of the business that focusses on youth oriented brands (NME, Now and Look).  As our remit is very broad, work we do could end up with any part of the company (and we have handed several products across), but the hunch is that a lot of innovation will happen around those brands.
 We do a wide range of research on consumer needs from desk work, quantitative analysis to focus groups and other qual work.  We then generate and work through ideas at product ‘hack’ days to try and answer those consumer needs.  We never attach MVPs or ideas to brands in the first instance (though we might research around several obvious sectors) as we don’t want to limit findings or prejudice tests.
 Our NPD is not just about digital products; they could be events, services, anything really.  Often they will get folded into a Time Inc. brand when we are further down the testing chain and they are ticking boxes like audience appetite, commercial appetite and sustainability within a commercial framework that affects both.
 Our focus is set by Paul Cheal – Group MD of Innovation – in consultation with the wider business.  In theory we can be asked to look at anything.   The head count of the lab can change depending on the project and specific skills required.  There are four of us permanently in the lab, who are basically the swiss army knives of the operation, we will do the initial work on most projects and then additional help will be drafted in as required or as a project begins to scale.
 What we are not is a delivery or support team, we are set up to germinate products and then hand them over to the business once we have established the beginnings of a profitable commercial model.

 Q: Internal relationships.  What's your relationship with other teams within Time Inc?

A: We like to pretend that we don’t play nicely with other but the reality is that input from other departments is vital to our success.   We are testing on a shoestring so being able to beg, borrow and steal favours from around the business is crucial.
 Personally I spend a lot of time working with our consumer insight team and our wider commercial/advertising teams. As a department we also work closely with editorial, audience development, video, creative and technology teams.  There are no set rules about who interacts with whom and how, everyone does what needs to be done to get the job done quickest.

Q: Success and failure.  What's worked, and what's not?

A: We won a couple of awards this year, which was nice.  Product Team of the year at the BMAs and Product Development Team at the AOPs since you ask, in part I think these were in recognition of the work we are doing to challenge the idea of what a product team can be and the work that one can do.
 Powder, a product that started in the Lab, is also up for a PPA award this month, and work that we started as List for Life is coming to (profitable) fruition in NME #Lifehacks and Look Life right now.  Whilst it is always nice to look at past successes we are definitely more focussed on finding the next one.
 What’s really good about the way we work is that we get to love all of our children equally, even the really ugly ones.  Because we never throw anything away, even the ideas that tested really badly have taught us something and give us a steer towards more success in the future.

 Q: Advice.  What's your advice for others?

I think the key piece of advice would be to commit to it.  Don’t ask people to do this kind of thing alongside their day job, make it all or at least a significant part of their day job.  If you aren’t doing that development will be flattened under the weight of business imperatives elsewhere and you’ll be left with a PR exercise that pays lip service to innovation but that doesn’t deliver on promise.
 Also, have fun with it, you can’t do it if you are scared of what you might find.

 Q: Where next for the Lab?

A: In terms of where we are taking the Lab, we see it as not only a vital part of our internal offering, but also our external offering and we are really keen to start challenging the ways that media owners and advertisers have traditionally done business.  Rather than just calling advertisers ‘commercial partners’, we want to develop genuine relationships along those lines.
 For example, if you are a client or an agency looking to invest in content marketing in a particular vertical we would love to work with you to develop and test ideas, we have a low cost infrastructure set up here to enable us to do just that.  We would love people to use us a service in that way.

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