Q&A with Frank Anton, Vice-Chairman of Hanley Wood

With a career spanning 40 years, Frank Anton has had a front row seat to the digital revolution. He says businesses are now firmly focused on innovation – but the real winners will be those who think beyond their core business…

Frank Anton is the vice-chairman of Hanley Wood, LLC, a media, information, and marketing services company serving the residential and commercial design and construction industry. As an innovative thought leader, he focuses on creating ways Hanley Wood can better serve the residential and commercial design and construction industry.


1. What have been the biggest game-changers in the industry during your career?

I would say there were really two main events that shaped where we are today. The first was the global stock market crash of October 1987, which we now call Black Monday. As the first real crash since the Depression, that one day changed the media game entirely. Until then, price was never really a factor for clients. Agencies would raise rates aggressively – as much as 8-10 per cent without clients batting an eye lid. But after Black Monday that stopped. It sparked a ten-year period of price wars, which actually saw agencies’ rates decline dramatically as they tried to compete for business. With that came a changing of the guard in terms of industry players. We saw the end of the ‘Mad Men’ creatives of the 1950s and ‘60s, and the emergence of much more business savvy, price-conscious leaders with MBAs.

2. And the second…?

The second was of course the digital revolution and the emergence of new platforms. It directly changed us as businesses – from traditional print publishers to multi-platform, integrated digital agencies. But it affected the industry in another way. The new platforms and their accessibility gave clients the impression they could be their own publishers. That, to an extent, is a trend we are still battling. A few years ago there was a survey of how B2B marketers were spending their marketing budgets. It revealed they were spending around half of their marketing dollars on their own websites. So not only was there far less money to compete for, but half of that money was gone before we walked in the door. So although the emergence of digital platforms created a lot of opportunity for this industry, it also made it much more difficult to get new business.

3. How did Hanley Wood innovate in response?

Integration and innovation were the two things that made the difference for us, and I think we actually had a head start with that. Even early on, when we were a straightforward publishing company, we didn’t just sell our brands on a one-off basis. We were very early to the idea that you had to offer more, and by the mid-1990s we were already integrating our media offering – so that clients were coming to us for a package including media, conferences and events. That gave clients economies of scale and gave us access to new markets. We saw our magazines as our aircraft carriers and we were surrounding them with a fleet of smaller ships that increased our firepower and the ability of our customers to reach into market segments.

4. Did you make the most of the opportunities served up by the digital revolution?

We evolved as a business. We were doing CD Roms in 1994 and almost all of our products had websites by the late ‘90s. But we missed some big opportunities. We failed to understand the enormity of the revolution and the opportunities it provided. When Henry Ford was asked why he didn’t consult consumers on what they wanted before building the model T, he said it was because most of them would have asked for a faster horse. I think publishers, including us, were guilty of failing to consider how we could evolve our businesses using the digital technologies and developments we had access to. So while we were busy building websites to claw back the money our print magazines were losing, we should have been building completely new businesses in our marketplace.

5. Do you have an example of that?

There is a site here in the US called Zillow, which can tell you the value of any house at any address in the US, at the click of a button. It has a market cap of billions of dollars. We could have done that. Through our traditional publishing products, we knew the US housing market better than anyone. But we were focused on protecting our core business. I can understand why we did that. When you have a $20bn B2B magazine with a 40 per cent profit margin, you don’t want that to go away. So you protect it. And at the time we just could not have imagined these sites that are getting 10 million visitors and the revenue and market cap that creates.

6. What are the challenges for digital agencies today?

There’s a big challenge for businesses around talent. First of all, you have to work out what good talent looks like. A talented person in this industry today doesn’t look anything like the talented people we recruited 10 years ago. And even if you can identify talent, it is difficult to attract the very best people unless you are a very top-end, specialist agency in their field. Another challenge is attracting digital business from clients if they still perceive you to be a traditional publishing business. It is also hard for legacy companies to see the next huge opportunities. We can work out how digital can add value to our existing customers and protect existing revenue streams. But it’s very hard for a company like us to come up with the next ‘big idea’ game-changer, because we are used to working with businesses in a certain way.

7. So what excites you right now and keeps you interested in this industry after a 40-year career?

It took a long time for this to happen but, once we got past the initial shock of the revolution, it actually became pretty exciting. I’m still excited to see what happens next and where this industry will take us. And it’s a thrilling ride. It’s a ride where you can no longer be a tiny bit lazy, no longer be unimaginative at all, where you have to be very, very creative, experimental and enthusiastic about what you do. And along the way we are working with incredibly exciting talent. We have this group of young and talented people who grew up through this digital revolution and who get it far better than we do. We have 25-year-olds telling us what to do. That’s not the way the world has ever worked before. But it makes for interesting times and I love being a part of that.

Meet Frank in Berlin:
Frank Anton will be speaking at the Digital Innovators’ Summit in Berlin, 24 to 25 March 2014. Visit www.innovators-summit.com for more information.

To register as a delegate:

Discounted pre-agenda registration is available until 30 November 2013. Register here.

To sponsors and/or exhibit:
There are several custom sponsorship and exhibition packages available. Click here for more.