Nancy Lane: Digital VPs to CEOs - You don't understand us

When you put nine or ten top digital VPs in a room for an hour to discuss their pain points and challenges, it is a sobering experience.

The Local Media Association is embarking on a new and bold strategic planning process. As part of that process, we are conducting focus groups with VP-level digital managers to better understand their challenges and opportunities. So far 19 senior-level digital managers have participated. They represent some of the largest media companies in North America and well as some of the most progressive family-owned companies. This mix included 12 newspapers and 7 broadcasters. As a group, they are ahead of the industry on the digital side.

Our facilitator Peter Lamb asked a series of questions to each group. While some of the answers were expected, many were surprising. At the end of the two sessions, it was obvious that there is a major disconnect between CEOs/top management and those charged with leading the company's digital efforts. It's a disconnect that needs to be addressed and fixed.

It's important to note that each group had a minority of people that did not feel this way. And guess what? Those companies are the ones you probably could name. They are the furthest ahead on the digital side and have the most support coming from top management. They were the envy of the room.

Here's a recap of some of the things that were said when we asked them what their CEO could personally do to help them be more effective/efficient/successful:

  • Give me the checkbook and get out the way;
  • Stop being afraid;
  • Stay committed to the goals;
  • Invest in digital revenue/services as much as other areas;
  • Dedicate yourself to the long-term; not short-term;
  • You must lead by example - invest in us like you do for the core;
  • Join us on sales calls;
  • Give us more resources to invest in digital training ;
  • Invest in training at all levels - content, sales, you name it;
  • Invest time in understanding our business more (general consensus was that senior level management doesn't fully understand digital or isn't fully on board with the investment needed to be successful);
  • Understand that digital revenue has an expense associated with it - that is the reality. $1 million in print revenue can't be replaced with $1 million in digital revenue; and
  • Stop being afraid of failure (fear of failure looms large in many of these organizations).

Many other thought-provoking questions were asked such as: what pisses you off about your digital organization and what would you do if your CEO doubled your R&D budget for next year. We'll issue a full report on our entire strategic planning process and what we learned in the first quarter of 2018. Our plan also involves interviewing CEOs; we are eager to hear their pain points and challenges as well.

The two groups represented some of the best digital talent in the industry. Many of us walked away with heavy hearts to learn that we are still dealing with legacy culture issues, lack of support on the digital side and not enough buy-in at the highest levels. These top digital VPs can easily go work elsewhere. I think it's time for CEOs and top management to have open and transparent conversations with their top digital VPs and managers. The two sides need to really listen to each other. There are no easy answers but we can't go on like this as an industry. "It's like mowing the lawn when the house is on fire," said one participant. Indeed, it is.

• Nancy Lane is President of the Local Media Association (USA). Contact her at nancy.lane@localmedia.org

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