October 2015 Business Breakfast: Roger Parry in Conversation with Molly Flatt.

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Roger Parry in Conversation with Molly Flatt.

The latest LikeMinds breakfast event on October 29th featured Roger Parry in conversation with author and journalist Molly Flatt.

Roger’s long and distinguished career in media and advertising ranges from Saatchi and Saatchi through Aegis Group and McKinsey & Co to Johnston Press and a new venture looking to create high quality TV drama.

Molly is a journalist and consultant specialising in the impact of technology on business, culture, and identity. She writes about technology and culture for the BBC, The Guardian, and The Bookseller, among others.

Attendees started gathering at Mayfair’s new Business Members Club 12 Hay Hill at 8:00am where breakfast and casual networking took us to just after 8:30am, when Roger and Molly took their places at the front of the room. Molly introduced Roger and then started the conversation.

What follows can only give a taster of the session, which generated a wide range of material that was warmly received by the audience. Roger’s answers were both in-depth and informative and much credit must be given to Molly for asking questions that inspired Roger to reflect on lessons learned from the full gamut of his experience.

The format was straightforward; Molly asked a question and Roger used the question as a starting point for some thoughts on the topic. A shortened version of Molly’s question is followed by a summary of Roger’s response, as I understood it.

Is publishing screwed?

Roger thought that, although the newspaper and magazine industries are struggling in the face of the impact of the internet, traditional publishing is far from dead. The fundamentals are in good shape because of the need for curation. As the noise increases, it is curation that provides great value for an audience. The struggle will be how best to monetize this skill and means a painful and difficult period for the industry. Success will come as the result of innovation in how best to curate and deliver content.

Tips for leading an organisation?

Hire people who are intellectually curious. Make sure the top line of management — or the board, if that exists — contains a range of disciplines. Work closely with experts.

How would you start your career if you were starting now?

Molly asked Roger what he would recommend as a career path now for those fresh out of school. Roger mentioned that at one time certain careers — such as accountancy — started from school rather than college. He would recommend getting a role in a large organisation. This was a way to experience a structured job and to understand the roles necessary to make an organisation work, as well as to receive exposure to discipline. With this background and experience assimilated, only then was it the time to look to launching as an entrepreneur.

What have been your career low points?

For Roger, the low points tended to be missed opportunities. Two in particular stand out for him: the inability for the newspapers in the Johnston Press group to move quickly enough to adapt to the arrival of ubiquitous digital access; and his failure to buy ITV at a time when he and his consortium could see the potential but the stock market failed to spot just how good an opportunity this was.

Are you worried that the promise of digital has been subsumed and we’re left with capitalism as usual?

Roger believed that the furore over the low rates of corporation tax paid by the leading digital beasts was a red herring because of the jobs created and the knock-on effect of localised spending. He thinks that there is a real intent in those companies — from Google to Facebook — to be both socially aware and to make a difference.

What’s exciting about the digital / tech future?

We are by nature an innovative species and it is telling that across the globe people are continually finding new ways to use technology. The sharing economy — driven by the ease of communication available via digital — will transform swathes of society, from ride-on mowers in affluent or rural communities to lessening traffic congestion in the cities.

The Globe: Is there a role for live theatre in a Netflix world?

[Roger became a Trustee of the Globe Theatre in 1998.] The highest level of craft skills are learned in the crucible of live theatre. We only need to look at the way British talent populates leading US TV and film productions, both in front of, and behind, the camera to see the benefits of this learning environment. It’s also true that we relish the physical event: attending things with other people. The Globe itself tends to work at around 85% attendance rates, which is good from both an economic and a cultural perspective.

Q&A

The conversation had lasted around forty minutes but there was time for some questions from the audience. Those asking questions started by saying how much they had enjoyed the discussion. Here is a brief sample of the Q&A.

How important is digital diversity on company boards?

Roger spoke about the fact that at Johnston Press they had someone on the board who advised continually that there was a problem coming because of digital. Unfortunately this was a lone voice. It’s important to make sure that a digital representative is not merely a token voice. Hire at least two. They also need to be passionate and obsessive.

Further discussion on this point led to a consensus that the key for an innovative digital approach for companies was to apply digital principles within a business strategy rather than look solely to a digital strategy per se.

Can digital improve democracy?

Roger was incredulous that we still need to trudge to the local primary school to cast a vote. Electronic voting, for all the claims that it is easy to subvert, is no less secure than the current system. Social media offers a forum in which it is possible to be harsher to an individual — and may make individuals more visible than their parties — while at the same time increasing the likelihood of increasing voter turnout.

Are there dangers in ubiquitous data collection?

Roger thought we simply needed to live with it: it’s the price of internet access and social structure. But companies owe it to us to be more careful with financial data.

How do advertisers get round ad blocking?

The best way to prevent ad-blocking is to make ads interesting or relevant. This will require the ability to include selective blocking as part of the ad-blocking tools. He suggested there is a huge scandal brewing around programmatic advertising.

Video Interview.

As more coffee and breakfast was consumed, Roger was kind enough to let me ask him some supplemental questions for our customary LikeMinds video. You can watch the results here.

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