You don’t need an exotic address to understand that all communications are global today. Whether you’re in Pittsburgh or Paris, the local becomes global at the speed of fingers pounding across a smartphone keyboard.
But if you want an exotic location, how about Berlin? That’s where I spent several days recently representing WordWrite at the annual meeting of PR Boutiques International, our international agency network.
Berlin is many things – a world capital, a historical marker in the East-West divide of the Cold War, and today, a hotbed of innovation that draws talented young professionals from around the world to create art, invent the future in hot new startups or experiment with fine dining in ways that are truly remarkable.
I came to Berlin not as the late President John F. Kennedy did in 1963 (those are his words above, taunting the Soviets about dividing Berlin with a wall a year earlier by saying that he too was a Berliner).
No, I came to Berlin to learn from colleagues and world leaders in communications so our WordWrite team could provide greater value and new ideas in our daily work for our clients. Last year, the PRBI annual meeting was in San Francisco and included a private Facebook tour and a talk by the head of content marketing at LinkedIn. So that was hard to top. But Berlin did.
WordWrite’s been a member of PRBI since 2010. Today our agency network has 38 members from China to India, with agencies in the major cities of North America and Europe.
As the past president of PRBI, I’ve had the privilege of seeing the network grow and deliver value to clients and to member agencies.
In Berlin, we spent the better part of the day with the smart people at Axel Springer, one of the top publishers in Germany (and yes, the world). In the United States, the concept of digital success in publishing might have us thinking about the New York Times or maybe the Wall Street Journal.
We probably wouldn’t think of Axel Springer and its flagship daily paper, die Welt (The World). But that’s probably because most Americans are unaware that from its Berlin home, Axel Springer has built a global empire that includes the popular, respected Business Insider site, the must-read news site Politico and an entire suite of music publications, including the German edition of Rolling Stone.
What’s so great about Axel Springer? Well, the history’s not bad – founded immediately after World War II by the real Axel Springer, the foundation for the company’s landmark skyscraper was laid next to Berlin’s historic version of Fleet Street, where before World War II, 147 daily papers were printed, many of them by Jewish-owned publishing houses.
Unfortunately for Springer, his decision to honor those publishers with his new building site put the skyscraper right where the Berlin Wall went up, meaning his building sat unfinished for decades. Today, its top-floor dining room is also a museum, with signed pieces of the Berlin Wall (George H.W. Bush’s signature next to Mikhail Gorbachev next to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl), priceless books and art, and photos documenting historic interviews – most recently President Barack Obama, who visited here on his last foreign trip as president.
As great as its history might be, it’s the future of Axel Springer that’s most remarkable. Today, 70 percent of all revenue comes from its digital platforms – website, social, apps, etc. And 81 percent of all advertising revenue comes from digital platforms. This is a world-leading achievement for journalism as we know it and a level of success far beyond what most American media companies can claim.
At the heart of Axel Springer’s success is its strategic decision to focus the company in three core areas for future growth: Digital publishing, new platforms, and venture investing
The nerve center of the digital publishing arena is die Welt, where award-winning editor Ulf Poschardt has reshaped the newsroom to put broadcast, print and online editors and reporters in one environment surrounding a main desk called The Eye. Together, the teams have achieved an unprecedented synergy, in part because of their newsroom set-up. While its print edition is not the leading German paper, on the day we visited, Poschardt pointed to a fine collection of empty champagne bottles and explained that the day before, there was a celebration because the die Welt website had become the top digital destination in Germany.
Axel Springer’s gone beyond its traditional journalistic comfort zone with its second innovation, the creation of UPDAY, an integrated news platform built into every new Samsung smartphone.
The company made several bold decisions with this experiment: It partnered exclusively with one smartphone maker; it passed on the opportunity to build an app for other smartphone platforms; and it agreed to partner with a technology company whose interests might not always align with a news organization. For example, Axel Springer got Samsung to agree that news stories in the UPDAY platform would not be edited or censored by Samsung, something that became important when Samsung Galaxy phones become news subjects because of batteries that caused fires.
Axel Springer’s third focus area is its Plug and Play Accelerator, a funky startup incubator with graffiti on the walls, beer in the fridge and copious quantities of snacks. The startup vibe is global: This Springer subsidiary conducts all its business in English and it plans to incubate no more than 50 companies. The companies at Plug and Play are selected because of the expected synergy between what Axel Springer has learned in its businesses and what the company believes the start-ups can bring to the table.
Nearly 55 years after President Kennedy expressed his solidarity with a divided Berlin, it’s a global Berlin that’s ready to express its unity with the world through its communications leadership
Thanks to WordWrite’s PRBI membership, we’ll be sharing that leadership in the weeks and months ahead through everything we do for our clients, partners and friends.