In the first episode of The Bullet podcast, we speak to Justin Pearse, Editor of digital industry bible New Digital Age and partner at Bluestripe, about the evolution and importance of trade media in the technology industry. We discuss how Justin and his team at New Digital Age tackle diversity, driving new initiatives to provide everyone within an organisation a voice.
Q: Justin, you’ve got a pretty impressive CV, having worked at tier-one trade publications such as The Drum, Digiday and most recently New Digital Age. What are some of the biggest changes you have seen over the past 10 years in terms of how media stories are delivered to the industry? A: B2B media has changed dramatically over the last 10 years, but it still does the same job: informs, educates and also provides community. For any industry, especially ours, which is a creative industry, the community is the most important thing. Trade media plays a vital role in forming a focal point. Back when I started as a young reporter 20 years ago, publishing was different. It was quite traditional, publishers made money out of taking adverts in magazines and adverts on the internet – this has shifted hugely.

Who can create media has changed dramatically as well. We are a partner of Bluestripe, we are a group that owns a PR agency and a content agency. We’ve got a media arm which owns titles such as New Digital Age (NDA) and Ecommerce Age (soon to launch). An agency couldn’t launch a respected media title 20 years ago, it was unheard of. Whereas nowadays, we can publish a title as long as you produce content with the same value to the audience, as you do within a publisher. It matters far less who’s actually producing media. The rules have shifted hugely and trade media itself has shifted.

In the UK, for example, we’ve got titles such as The Drum, which has become a global powerhouse. Trade media is evolving, and it will never stop evolving. The rules have changed, the one thing that’s paramount is as long as you still have respect for your audience and produce valuable content.

Q: Your most recent venture sees you as Editor at New Digital Age, and partner at Bluestripe which acts as both a PR and content agency. Bringing these three worlds together feels like an innovative approach in supporting your clients by cutting through the noise. How did this business model come about and why?

A: In Bluestripe Group, there are three founders, which is myself, Andy Oakes and Lydia Oakes. Lydia spent 20 years working in PR. I spent almost 20 years working in standard journalism. Andy spent the same amount of time in publishing; he was MD and publisher for titles like Drum and New Media Age. When we all came together, we realised two things: firstly, the world does not have enough media. Secondly, people need media, they want an edited view of the world.

We wanted to create a company that could do great PR for clients, to make sure they were represented as the best across the media landscape from video to articles to events, through to our content lab and also within our own media.

We decided to build a three-part company, all interlinked and all standing on their own two feet. The media arm in which NDA sits is an independent media operation. Our PR clients essentially have to pitch to be in NDA as much they would have to pitch to be in Campaign or Drum. We’re totally transparent, we write about our clients, as much we’ll write about their competitors. We write about a whole spade of companies, but our clients get priority access to our top jobs.

I used to sit a few years ago on the board of the IAB when it was coming up with the rules for branded content, essentially what publishers should be doing to educate readers about what was paid for, and what wasn’t. It’s very important to me to offer clarity in terms of never pulling the wool over your readers’ eyes.

We’ve been totally transparent, the fact is every publisher has to make money. Every publisher has a commercial content operation now. At Bluestripe, we say we will write about our clients. We’re lucky we have the best clients in the industry; if I was the editor of magazines, I’d write about Liveramp, Xandr and all our clients. But because the NDA media arm is independent, we can write about their competitors, and we can write about their partners. It is about providing a totally interlinked model, with the three parts working seamlessly together.

Q: The global pandemic forced us to adapt at the speed of light in terms of B2B marketing; events were cancelled across the globe, with many creating new and exciting virtual experiences whilst others postponed. 

What were some of the biggest challenges you saw – not just from your clients and how they adapted to change, but the trade media itself?

A: The biggest change has probably been events. In normal time, I spend what seems like most of my life at an event somewhere, whether that be in Cannes, Mexico, or the multiple events in London itself. Events are a core part of our industry, not only for the education it provides and inspiration from the main speakers. Our industry thrives on networking, one of the fascinating things from last year is how we’ve still managed to do that without being together.

With the lack of events, everyone moved pretty quickly to virtual events. We produce a huge number of events, both for our media arm NDA and for our clients. In the first lockdown in June last year, we put on a week-long virtual Festival, which was one of the first virtual events for us. We hosted that in our SoHo office, it was weird because London was shut down and dark. Over the last year, we’ve seen some incredible virtual events, people like Mediatel, pivoted quickly with their virtual events.

We’re a partner of a company called Madfest, and they’re coming back into the real world in July. Even though we’ve all missed real-world events, we have proved how to make virtual events work. Virtual will always be a part of events going forward. Two years ago, a virtual event meant some dodgy webinar which often broke down a bit or a screen in the corner of a conference. No one knew how to make it really work, and now, the platforms are stable. There’s real innovation going on with platforms such as Socio, which lets you do proper networking virtually. This has been a really refreshing outcome from this pandemic.

Q: Diversity and inclusion have long been high on the agenda for our industry and have a long way to go. How are you in your team helping clients support diversity efforts and do it well?

A: Diversity has always been important to Andy, Lydia and I who run the company. For the last 20 years, we’ve always tried to make sure anything we’ve done has been diverse, from panels and content we produce to the clients who work for us. Over the last year, we launched Practice Makes Unperfect in association with Amy Kean. Its aim is to help women and men find their voice. It’s a mix of a training course, which Amy runs. Everyone on the course gets a podcast interview conducted by myself and an article about them published on NDA. We’ve run five cohorts now.

What’s been refreshing to me is when you interview someone it is generally the boss that’s been put forward by the press office. However, through PMU, I’ve spoken to different people from web designers up, and these women so far have been incredible. But they felt the need to go on a course like PMU.

There’s one woman who blew me away; for 20 years, she held senior global roles in America, the UK and Europe. Yet, she still felt that she needed to go on our course to help her find her voice. At the same time, if I look at all the inbound pitches I get for NDA, from PR agencies for opinion pieces, I would say 90% are from men. I know all these people sending in these pitches to me believe in the need for diversity and understand the need for a range of voices.

The problem is endemic. At our PR agency, we always work really hard to make sure when we’re putting up our clients for speaking ops or for interview ops, we offer up a diverse range of voices. Hand on heart, it is not easy, you have to work hard at it. Diversity is an endemic problem and it starts from the bottom. We hope things like PMU are helping, there’s been such a huge success over the last six months, and we were doing far more of these, but it’s everyone’s responsibility.

Q: Celebrating talent in our businesses is something we should all be doing. But it can often get sidetracked due to overwhelming workloads and limited resources and time. Do you have any tips and tricks for businesses when it comes to giving their organisation a voice? 

A: Going back to having a diverse range of public faces, in most companies the CEO has been media trained within an inch of their life. Money is put into making sure that they can get up on stage and not appear in the press.

But any company has a huge range of credible talent, it’s the responsibility of the companies’ press departments to ensure there’s a huge variety of voices that are prepped to appear in public. We all know if you appear in the press or if you speak on conference stages, it’s going to help your career.

Any company wants to help their people, their staff, their talent, it also makes their own company better and act better. It’s incumbent on everyone to make sure everyone throughout the company is given the opportunity to have a public voice.

Yes, it’s not easy and yes, there’s no way you’ve got to put up someone to be interviewed with no preparation. We know what can happen, mistakes can be made in the press, but it’s just incumbent on organisations having agencies that support them to make sure they’re not just focusing on the top talent, often male, often white, often older board members.

Q: AdTech is going through a seismic shift, and many businesses are having to discard old ways of working and build a new business model for the future. Much of this change is about surrounding yourself with expert partners in order to get to grips with global regulations and the demise of the third-party cookie. How important do you think this change in mindset is for businesses in our sector? 

A: Partnership and collaboration have always been a critical part of our industry. Back before the dot com boom, when I first started off in journalism, partnership and collaboration are what drove this industry. Some of the best results we see are from the collaboration with different partners.

Our clients on the PR side, people like Xandr, one of the world’s biggest ad tech companies. Its strength is not only within its own walls, it strengthens within the partnerships it builds an ecosystem it creates. It is the same for our clients like Liveramp, it’s creating this healthy, effective, efficient ecosystem you can do if you’re a strong player in this industry, that’s always going to be critically important.

Q: Looking ahead to the next one to two years, how do you see the trade media worlds adapt to the new normal?  Do you think there will still be a place for virtual initiatives which can often be a fantastic cost-efficient way for businesses to engage with their clients? Or, do you think we’ll sink back into old habits?

A: At NDA, we’re not a traditional trade publisher, all the other traders are our friends or we work with them. We’re fascinated with what’s happening to trade media. We’re launching a new series where we’re interviewing people, like Greg Grimmer at Mediatel, and all the people running trade media because it’s such an important part of our industry.

Trade media has not covered itself enough, trade media spends its life reporting on the industry, but what it’s doing is equally interesting to the industry and the people are equally interested in the industry. We will be spending more time looking at how trade media is changing.

There’ll be huge changes over the last year or so. Personally, a lot of these changes will be maintained, because if you look to the success of people like Drum, Campaign and Mediatel, their virtual events have now become so good, so slick, so effective, why wouldn’t they keep going with these? We definitely will keep doing those events. I can’t wait to come back to the real world and start running events at The Ivy in London.

However, there’s a danger many of these great changes will be lost to the industry, as a lot of trade media agencies and brands will snap back to normal. We will see as London and New York reopen, and the offices reopen, although hopefully all the good work the pandemic has done in proving the validity of flexible working will remain.

I do believe people will want to get back to the office. Bosses will want their staff back in the office, people will want to be in the office, people want to see their colleagues again. If you look at how you learn in this industry, it’s through people, it always has been. The reason I’ve learned for the last 20 years is through people, we need to be together again. Yes, we’ve worked hard to make it work virtually. We can take the best of it forward, but we definitely need to be together.

Q: Having many hats as you do within your current remit, must be quite a challenge at times; not only are you supporting global brands to tell their story across a variety of channels, but you have to keep afloat of trends in the industry. What do you think is key for success in your role?

A: I’ve always enjoyed meeting people and bringing people together. Back when I was a young reporter, what I loved was going out and meeting people and 20 years ago, that’s all you did. The reason how you excel your career was going to the pub and meeting people. It’s always such an important thing for me.

As I’ve progressed my career, you meet more and more people and find out, especially in our industry, most people are interesting, creative people. Keeping your network going, was not really a hardship when you know lots of amazing people. Always keeping on top of what’s going on, again, nowadays not a hardship, with networks like Twitter and LinkedIn, always being aware of what’s happening.

This industry moves so fast, occasionally I’ll convince myself to take a few days off social media and talk to people in the industry, which is tough. You come back three days later and things have totally changed, a company has bought a different company, Google’s done something, Facebook’s done something, or something’s launched. This industry moves so fast, you can’t afford to ever be sort of not watching or not being part of it.