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Bauer Media acquires Absolute Radio – thoughts from an ex-employee of both

The news that Bauer Media has bought Absolute Radio in a deal close to £22 million wasn’t a particular surprise, and there are plenty of great radio minds who have written about what it means in terms of scale and advertising, such as Matt Deegan. All interesting reading as people try to second guess what the acquisition will means for the various Absolute Radio brands, particularly the 60s,70s,80s,90s and 00s stations, and the crossover between Absolute Classic Rock and Planet Rock.

While that’s interesting, I’ve been thinking a lot more about the culture and approach of both companies. I started my career as Emap, and left a while after the acquisition by Bauer Media, somewhat ironically now, to join Absolute Radio, before starting my own business a couple of years ago. I’ve got enormous respect for the skills of both companies, and for many of the individuals working at Bauer and Absolute – I haven’t spoken to any current or former employees before writing this, so I’m purely going on my own memories and perceptions of how things may play out.

Absolute:

Absolute Radio at One Golden Square - Christmas 2009

Absolute Radio at One Golden Square – Christmas 2009

The main reason I joined Absolute Radio, and went on to have a great experience working at One Golden Square, wasn’t the prospect of radio, or bumping into celebrities. I’d admitted in my interview I already used streaming music services, and literally bumping into Colin Firth, or realising I was stood next to Robert Carlyle when I was having a cigarette break soon became fairly standard.

The best thing about Absolute Radio is the culture.

The combination of history, location, environment and leadership made it a cool place to work. The number of employees was somewhere round Dunbar’s 150 number, which meant it was soon possible to know everyone, compared to the large number contained in each Bauer Media building. And there was always something going on, whether it was a live performance by a band on the 3rd floor (also home to the studios, eating area with free drinks, and conference room), or a summer game of rounders in the park.

In addition, there was a very big focus on being entrepreneurial and innovative. It always felt like Absolute was the fast-moving underdog which was punching well above its weight to claim itself from both the Virgin legacy and take on far bigger radio companies, which tended to result in great ideas and quite a number of awards.

But it was clear that the then COO Clive Dickens and the board were also very engaged in staking a digital claim, both in terms of DAB and streaming. Whether it was working with radio manufacturers like Pure, meeting with the likes of Apple and achieving success via iTunes and apps, or working with Nokia on an app for the launch of a new phone, every day seemed to be bringing new and exciting challenges.

That came from both a very flat hierarchy, in that a good business idea pitched in a meeting could be given the go ahead before the meeting ended – and a very talented group of people across the business. Most of my work involved the relatively small digital and technology teams, and both had a talent for knocking out projects which were brilliantly designed and implemented, and in a far shorter period of time than you could have predicted…

As the latest RAJAR figures are being analysed today, it appears that approach is still creating healthy growth for Absolute Radio.

 

Bauer:

Meanwhile Bauer Media has very different strengths. My career was largely spent in the digital side of the consumer magazines business, although in the later stages I did also work with some of the radio stations on their social media strategy and digital innovation.

Bauer comes with a history and legacy stretching back decades in both the UK, and Germany. And both Emap/Bauer had a very well-honed process for churning out efficient products at a large-scale and reach. That doesn’t mean that innovative individuals and projects can’t surface, but my experience was that it involved a lot more procedure to get them approved, funded and built which also meant larger expectations for results.  Much of the work completed quickly tends to be done under the radar by the intrapreneurial types who went ahead and did things, asking for forgiveness later if required.

It means that Bauer has industry-leading brands, which have dominated their markets for many years, and as a result, direct competitors have stayed away, such as Motorcycle News, for example. There’s consistency and reliability inherent in the business model across the company.

It also means that there is resource to be thrown at any challenges if required. On the occasions where the company had reason to rouse itself, it always did so pretty well.

 

Ideal and reality:

The ideal outcome of this acquisition in my mind would be that Absolute Radio is supported by Bauer with increased resource to continue in the same vein of innovation and entrepreneurship, without adding huge amounts of oversight and management. And that approach could be infused into the main Bauer business to a larger extent. Many years ago I suggested splitting out smaller teams particularly on digital projects, rather than constraining everyone within the large confines of the three main offices, and Absolute could be a great example of how that can work effectively.

My fear is that Absolute will become just another Bauer property – meaning that they’ll be brought into the main offices and the Bauer business process, which won’t harm the end product in terms of on-air output necessarily, but will limit the digital and technology innovation that’s possible. It won’t be stopped by a ruling, but by the motivation and perseverance needed to get new ideas through a much larger company.

To compare experiences at different times, both Absolute and Emap launched quite radical properties which I had the pleasure of working with. In the space of around 12 months, Absolute proposed, built, launched and closed Dabbl, which was an online streaming service powered by listener voting which was well-received by a core group but wasn’t really sustainable in the face of other opportunities and the costs of streaming services. Meanwhile back in my Emap/Bauer days, a new social ranking service named Ditto was launched over the course of many months, but failed to grab enough advertising cash early on to be kept running, despite the fact I still believe that the core mechanism could have worked well, particularly if it was tied into Facebook etc.

The difference for me was seeing the scale of the task for the Ditto team, versus the Dabbl project, which was well supported by senior management and the rest of the Absolute business, but was essentially led, built and run by a handful of people in the digital team alongside their other responsibilities.

The technology industry is littered with acquisitions which have seen small, innovative companies subsumed within the larger whole (Flickr into Yahoo for example), so I hope this will be different, but only time will tell. I can only assume Bauer will be coming to make an offer for TheWayoftheWeb in a few years!

 

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Previous employers coming together?

I couldn’t help thinking it was slightly ironic that Bauer Media has emerged as the frontrunner to buy Absolute Radio, according to recent reports in The Guardian.

After all I spent 8.5 years working for Emap, and then for Bauer Media following the acquisition of the consumer magazines and websites by the German publishers.

And then I left to join my former boss Chris Lawson at Absolute Radio in 2009, not long after the new brand had launched.

I can only presume that the Bauers will be contacting me sometime soon with an offer for TheWayoftheWeb.

Anything I write about any potential purchase would be pure conjecture, but I will say that I’ve worked on brilliant projects with amazing people in both companies, and I’ve never launched so many great things in such as short a period as when I worked at One Golden Square. I’ve also had the pleasure of working with both companies since launching my own business, which has always been enjoyable.