When Product and Content Come Together Wonderful Things Happen. Interview with Dmitry Shishkin

Dmitry is an award-winning, experienced C level leader, specializing in digital transformation, content strategy, change and culture management, and innovation in a global setting.

As a digital transformation specialist, he helps companies transition to digital ways of working and engagement with customers. 

As a content specialist, he is experienced in growing audience engagement, scaling operations across the world, and driving workflow changes in content creation and distribution with an emphasis on data-informed decisions.

As an innovation advocate, he has first-hand experience supporting the global, scalable roll-out of digital products and services, as well as bringing new, experimental products to market, from inception to launch, including AI and machine-learning techniques in content generation.

Ioana Straeter. Dmitry, you help companies to do digital better: you do content innovation, digital transformation, culture change and anything at the intersection of these areas. I am curious to learn more about your background. Where does your love for content and audience engagement come from?

Dmitry Shishkin. Thank you for your question. It is relevant to anything that we do because you need to be able to relate to different parts of an organization if you want to change anything. I was lucky enough and privileged enough to be at the intersection of all these areas in my life. I am a journalist by profession, and I was an editor for many, many years. Early on in my career, I was really interested in trying to figure out how to connect with audiences better, especially as we started developing our digital skills at the BBC. I was interested in any number  of things that digital offered; the formats, the audience engagement, the metrics, product delivery – all of it. What I found is that often you have editors who are strong editors. You have technologists who are great technologists. You have a wonderful project manager who can deliver. But every company needs people who understand all those aspects at the same time, because they will need to be able to connect all of these different things together. They will need to be able to translate the language of different organizational sites into one language, so people have the same shared vision and mission of what you are trying to achieve. This is important because time and time again I’ve seen what looked like a great project on paper fall flat because of one of those three aspects. Either the editorial was not right, or the product was not really thought through, or the delivery itself was wrong. So that intersection between content on the one hand, product on the other hand, and organization as the third side of the triangle, with data sitting at the very center of that triangle, is exactly what I am very passionate about.



IS. You talk of  content and product as one. Can you tell us more? Perhaps go into more depth into what this bridge between the two functions looks like?

DS. Let us put it this way; the audience does not care. I think it is only us who are really thinking hard about these things and seeing them as separate. If you think about the most successful digital products out there, when it comes to product and content, we can talk about Spotify, we can talk about Netflix, we can talk about any great e-commerce website where you have a lot of content. The audience itself doesn’t really say: Well, I actually like that part of it, but I don’t really like the content side, or I like the navigation, but I don’t like the films. It just never happens. You either watch it and you enjoy the whole experience, and they have been incredibly successful in fine tuning and uniting those things. One thing cannot exist without the other, whereas with editorial publications, the news publication, the lifestyle publications, only now do we see successful examples of companies like New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, The Financial Times, and The Economist who started down the road of user centric work many years ago. And I think it is important because without that, you will be creating something that does not contribute to your business goals and business objectives, or else your business objectives are in complete conflict with your editorial proposition. 

Effectively, what I mean when I say that content and product is one thing is that you really need to spend a lot of time thinking hard about your product market fit. The product market fit for any start-up is important,  but, for any organization that behaves digitally and aims at success on digital platforms, you really need to have that product market fit figured out precisely  and early. 

“You need to have a vision statement and a mission statement for your team. You need to have that in one sentence, so everybody understands how you’re different in the market.”

Dmitry Shishkin

IS. Maybe you can just give us an example of a particularly good project of yours?

DS. I have been obsessed with user needs for content, and my product counterparts have been obsessed with user needs for product, since long before the majority of media organizations even started thinking that user needs are equally as important for content as they are for product. When we developed this interesting, innovative model of user needs-based commissioning at the BBC and started developing it, it probably was one of the most important landmarks in my career to date. What really mattered  was how many companies started moving onto that model themselves after that. 

When I joined Culture Trip, I was delighted to see it taking shape there. Hopefully I was hired there precisely because they knew my background in user needs and they had a very specific structure focussed on user needs-based commissioning for travel content at that time. Then I started collecting user needs models and, as you may know, Vogue International experimented with it. Wall Street Journal has a model of user needs. TRT, the Turkish broadcaster, has a model of user needs. All of these companies realized that once you are committed to satisfying user needs, on both the product and content side, wonderful things happen. Because you are immediately getting rid of all the rubbish. 

Most media organizations are drowning in their own waste in terms of overproduction, they produce so much stuff and yet  maybe only 20 percent of it is really impactful. But when you have a focus on user needs, then everything that you do starts with user needs.Your first newsroom conversation in the morning meeting is not about ’we should do that story’, but about ‘what user need does that story satisfy? This one? OK – then we should do that story’. That’s an incredibly liberating way of thinking. When we developed that model at the BBC, we were launching 12 new teams around the world: a Serbian team, a Korean team, several teams from India and Africa. We launched their products, their digital presence, based on the user needs model. The sites themselves were what was signaling to the audience that this content is about this user need or that user need. I think we are only starting out with this, because once you start adding data analysis into that model, then you really can optimize, optimize, optimize! 

That is what our product people, product friends have been doing all the time. They have been optimizing since the start of the Internet.

IS. User needs are particularly important to both content and product. You also say that focus and purpose are extremely important. Can you go a little bit deeper into this topic? 

DS. They are completely connected because  vision and mission is all about your product market fit; it is about why you exist in the market, what kind of niche you want to occupy. We all read The Stratechery blog by Ben Thompson so we know that he once put out this wonderful graph where on digital domain wonderful things happen between quality on the one hand, and focus on the other. The wonderful thing in digital is that there are a myriad of niches, as he says. Because of that, once you really zoom in very hard on what you want to become known for and you provide the best quality content for that particular niche, you will really thrive, and you will be able to optimize your content, not waste effort creating content that is not needed by anyone. 

This is important because once you understand the product market fit, you can translate that into both the vision of your company and the mission of your company. Then you have this wonderful feedback loop because one thing contributes to the other. This is important for internal alignment, and it is important for internal prioritization. It is important for your marketing differentiation between competitors and it’s also important for the internal cohesion of the team.
We had this really useful Litmus test called CEO stopping somebody in the corridor: when the CEO stopped  somebody – a junior designer, a commissioning editor, or a software engineer – and asked them ‘What are we for? What is our product market fit? What is our mission like? Are we all pulling in the same direction?’ You don’t want immediate verbatim answers. Nobody is asking people to just learn these things by heart. Yet everyone in the company needs to know exactly what the company is trying to achieve. Because if the companies operate in silos our job is to break them and to make them work collaboratively. If you have technology, product, UX, sales, commercial, data people, content people all with their own different vision of what the company is trying to achieve, then the company is not going to be effective. That is why vision and mission are connected to user needs and connected to product market fit at the same time.

IS. Absolutely true that this is the universal formula for success and not only for media, but also for corporates.

DS. There was a time at the BBC when I was digital editor for 41 different language teams. I was not responsible for what they were outputting every day; instead my job was to help them to output better things and be better digital actors in all aspects of digital at the same time. I remember how I used to speak to all the heads of those teams: heads of African teams, Asian teams, European teams, and I would say: You need to have a vision statement and a mission statement for your team. You need to have that in one sentence, so everybody understands how you’re different in the market.

Without that, it will be very, very bland. Your offer is going to be very similar to another 10 or 15 other media organizations. The earlier you differentiate yourself, the better it is going to be for your audience relationship in the long term.

IS. Right. I have another question: I would like to take you to a different topic. I read a few of your articles where  you were talking there about the synthetic age. Can you explain what you mean by the synthetic age?

DS. I am glad you asked me that question because I think we in media do not talk enough about that. Synthetic media or the synthetic age is upon us. It is the age where synthetic technologies or technologies created with machine learning and AI are going to be omnipresent. They are going to be cheap. They are going to be readily available. They are going to be almost plug and play technologies. I think that we as media organizations need to understand what our take is on this. How are we going to be treating that? 

I need to be clear: I am a big supporter of synthetic technologies overall, but with the big caveat that where synthetic media contribute to disinformation, misinformation, then our efforts to combat that are particularly important. I think when we talk about deep fakes and misinformation synthetic media gets a bad name within the media organizations. I believe we are missing the point, because if we grasp that technology, well, that technology can help us do all sorts of wonderful things. It will be great for audience engagement. It will be great for your audience growth around the world.

Let us imagine for example the BBC. We had 27 BBC teams, in four different languages. Then we decided to launch another dozen. What if another media house decides to launch a hundred languages at the same time? I totally understand that your audience growth is going to be directly linked with original content, with audience relevance and all of that type of stuff, which is important. But just for the sake of argument, imagine you don’t need to hire a whole team to run a video-based service for half an hour a day. Imagin  you can create an English base which you can automatically translate  and you have virtual presenters, created from scratch, who look and sound exactly like the targeted audience members. I am very excited about this. I think it is not about robots that will come and our jobs. It is actually not about anybody losing their jobs. If anything, new technologies will make media companies create new jobs to make sure that those technologies are helpful.

IS. I completely agree. Machine help is important but human intelligence is also very much needed. A simple example from corporates working in global consumer goods would be that when they create video it has to be adapted to local markets – but with an understanding of how local markets work differently. The machine and the human input need to be combined intelligently.

DS. We have seen those examples. I have been looking very attentively at the synthetic media market ever since I started being interested in this. The opportunities of personalized messages, of individual messages in dozens of languages, especially if you are talking about a multilingual, multi multinational corporate infrastructure. You can scale your training and deliver it in your own language with your own colloquialisms, slang, etc. It would be an important part of the toolset in the future. Six years ago, at the BBC, I led aproject of automatically translating English language videos into Russian and Japanese, but without touching the video itself. This involved importing videos, translating the English text into a vernacular language automatically, and then assigning artificial synthetic voices automatically to each paragraph. At the end you had exactly the same video but in another language, without anybody actually editing it. 

It was a very controversial thing because the journalists would say: The quality will be bad. Who would want it? So we went to the Japanese audiences at the time, and they said: ‘Well, if this allows you to give us 20 videos a day rather than three videos a day, of course, we would like to see it. Especially if you frame it in a way saying you created it with the help of automated technologies, why not?’ 

IS. This brings me to the final question; one that I suspect you have already begun to answer. How do you envision the future of news media?

DS. If there is one particular thing I’m really excited about it’s personalized understanding of what each individual user might need. 

We already are working towards that in the personalization and curation areas of media. I am very interested in how technology can help journalists make better decisions, how technology can help journalists optimize the content that they otherwise would have created, but which wouldn’t have worked. Anything about how you can connect datapoints, audience user needs, audience reaction, and distribution models, all in one go. This is an exciting area, and I cannot wait to see new initiatives in that area. So that is point number one. And synthetic media. We spoke about this already; this is kind of a really big thing in the future as well. 

I am getting maybe 20 newsletters a week. They all are about something very niche and very particular. I am spending more time reading those that I’m reading established newspaper websites or broadcast websites or digital first organizations because the newsletters are about niche and quality.

IS. It is the curated information that you want to rely on. I am very curious now, which is your favorite newsletter. Would you like to share this with us?

DS. I like the Tortoise Media newsletter from London, the digital start-up led by James Harding. I like that they started differentiating their newsletters from the daily news. They have a wonderful newsletter about Big Tech. They also have a great newsletter about climate change. I like the morning briefing by the New York Times, they are giving me exactly what I want on the day, a great palette of everything. They understand how to send those newsletter newsletters right. Plus  I read a lot of industry specific publications.

IS. DDmitry, thank you for thesewonderful insights. Thank you so much for your time and for the learnings you shared on the way. And I hope to see you soon in November at our workshop series on product development. Thank you, Dmitry.

DS. Thank you very much for your attention.