Saturday 17 March 2018

The anchorman who became a Twitter boss - but still intends to keep it classy

Mark Little went from being a Twitter fanboy to one of the company's top bosses in just five years. He spoke to Adrian Weckler

Mark Little by Jon Berkeley
Mark Little by Jon Berkeley
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

'I kind of miss the suits," he says. Mark Little isn't nostalgic for his time as an RTE Prime Time TV anchor. But he does have fond memories of the double-breasted armour afforded to presenters.

Alas, there are few Louis Copeland outfits in Twitter's buzzing Dublin office. As with many Silicon Valley firms, wearing a suit in here is practically a sackable offence.

So Little is strolling around in a black, long-sleeved polo shirt and a pair of Dad jeans.

He looks a little tired. But he's in full missionary flow about his new job as Twitter's managing director for its growing Irish (and thus European) operation. And he has no regrets about leaving traditional media for a life in tech.

"It was one dimensional," he says of his former trade. "It was journalists telling a passive audience what was happening in the world and there was no way for those people to be engaged. They couldn't answer back. We had the monopoly and I never felt that was very authentic."

This is a bit ironic. If ever there was an Irish media professional more naturally set up to benefit from old-fashioned, one-way broadcasting, it was Little. To quote the farewell note written by the outgoing Twitter Ireland boss, Stephen McIntyre, Little has been blessed with "that voice". Car radios and surround-sound TV systems hum along to his mid-Atlantic baritone. Few rivals were vocally endowed to the same standard.

But the whole thing just didn't sit right with him.

"Don't get me wrong," he says. "There was no better feeling than to tell the big stories, like when Obama was rising out of nowhere. I was over there. That was probably the gig of my lifetime. Yet when I got to the end of it and looked at the heart of what we were doing, there was a lack of authenticity about it. We were putting on makeup and sitting in a studio. But people couldn't answer back. They couldn't engage."

So in 2009, Little left his glamorous RTE job for life as an entrepreneur. His start-up, Storyful, sourced and verified first-hand reports and witness accounts for media companies around the world. Much of this was helped along by Twitter, then only three years old.

Little went on to sell the company in 2013 for €18m to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. Then last November, he joined Twitter's growing Irish operation as a vice president for media partnerships in Europe.

He still has that title. But he has now also added the role of managing director for Twitter's Irish office, with more than 200 staff, to his @MarkLittleNews Twitter bio.

So as well as dealing with big media companies and strategy, he is now responsible for running an expanding facility just as it is about to move to a bigger new building off Dublin's Merrion Square.

One of his first tasks is to help relaunch Twitter in Turkey, a country with almost 80m people that tried to ban the social network two years ago - and is still prone to blocking it on occasion.

This is the kind of challenge that seems to appeal to Little's sense of mission.

"Part of my job now is to make sure everyone understands that whether you're in the policy department or the user services department, what you do here in Dublin can impact freedom of expression in Turkey," he says. "To do this, I have got to talk to all the different people in this office. A lot of my work is on this doorstep."

While being the one responsible for the seating plans might seem tedious, Little's ambition in accepting the overarching managing director role is unlikely to go unacknowledged.

Handle this role right and he graduates onto a new management level, one where his name is in the fray any time where a country manager position in a rival outfit such as Facebook or Google becomes vacant. Not that there is any hint of such a move in the future.

"When I came here, Stephen McIntyre said to me: 'This is the time to make a mark. If you come into this company right now you're at an incredible moment'," he says.

"I always thought that would be by working on publishers or working on media. But then I thought: 'I can actually do it here with the team we have'. When I was taking over the job from Stephen, I told everybody what I have been saying for a long time, that I was in love with Twitter."

On this, last point there really isn't any doubt. Little can fairly be described as having been a Twitter fanboy from very soon after the social network started life in 2006.

"Twitter changed my life," he says. "I mean, I loved Twitter before it was even invented. I used to sit around in places like Afghanisatan wanting to plug in to the outside world but I couldn't. Now I get to work on things that actually touch lives.

"For example, I'm responsible for Africa. Right now we are working on strategy that can change the lives of Nigerians or South Africans. I don't think I have been in a job in my life touching so many aspects of storytelling."

But there is a fine line between being passionate about the company you're working for and being dazzled by it. Little is genuinely, breathlessly passionate about Twitter and its potential. Talk to cold-hearted industry analysts, though, and it's another story.

To financial analysts, Twitter is in a precarious position. After 10 years in existence, it's still not profitable. Its "active" monthly user figures have recently plateaued, while recently-spawned rivals such as Snapchat are surging ahead in daily usage. Some advertisers are even now grumbling that the platform isn't delivering what they thought it would.

As a result of such tepid top-line metrics, Twitter's share price has tanked from $52 to $17 in the space of just over a year.

And this comes against the background of a would-be rival, Facebook, being on course for a €5bn profit this year with over 10pc of all the world's digital advertising in its back pocket. (With a market valuation of almost €300bn, Facebook has grown to nearly 30 times the size of Twitter.)

Unsurprisingly, Little doesn't accept this gloomy scenario.

"If you are looking at where a platform like Twitter is today, you are missing the underlying momentum that will define it for the next 10 years," he says.

"Twitter is about being live, it's about video and it's about engagement. There was 220 times more video consumed on Twitter last December than the previous December."

But what about Twitter's user base stalling at 310m monthly users? Isn't that a really worrying thing for the company's future commercial prospects?

"It's not just distribution and scale, but engagement and how long users spend," says Little. "In any case, only looking at the 300m figure on the app is not an accurate representation right now. We also have another 500m [non-users] coming to our content. They are hitting our website, they're profile clicks.

"The numbers are real in the sense that any organisation will count clicks on its website. So when you do that math you are at 800m."

In this context, Twitter has recently started to sell ads based on this 500m additional non-users that 'land' on its website. Some analysts calculate that such an audience could yield almost as much in revenue as Twitter's existing 300m monthly users.

There are other new initiatives in the pipeline, too. Because Twitter is such a big sports discussion platform, it is starting to get into live sports broadcasting. Last week, it began to livestream Wimbledon matches. It has also signed a deal with the American National Football League to show 10 live games within the social networking stream next year.

Nevertheless, ads on Twitter still seem to be few and far between. Despite the return of co-founder Jack Dorsey to the helm, new dashboard tools for businesses and video-monitisation services such as Twitter Amplify, it's not easy to discern any structural breakthrough in commercial revenue gathering soon.

Again, Little is optimistic.

"If you look at some of the acquisitions we're making, in machine learning for example, this is a company that is investing to expand," he says. "I can't speak to specific future product changes, but there's a real sense of it."

If Little has a supercharged belief in the renewed growth and depth of Twitter, he has different views about what comes next for traditional media companies, despite Twitter's surgical attachment as the world's online newswire.

However, he is highly sceptical that the answer to the media world's current existential crisis lies in the pouring of more sweat into old business models.

"The biggest mistake that is being made by the news business is relying on advertising and circulation," he says. "Those were the things that sustained you in the past. But the underlying business model for news has been splintered."

Instead, he says, micropayments, niche media services and more brand-sponsored content are likely to prove effective as sustainable commercial endeavours.

"I'm seeing much smarter companies looking at the concept of going after niches," he says. "That includes the growth in verticals from sport to gaming. I think it will involve taking something like micropayments, or newsletters in strong vertical sections that might carry with them some advertising. The companies that will survive are the ones that have within their own organisations small innovation units."

Like other tech-media crossover executives, Little thinks that trying to patch up existing products with what appears to be popular in niches is a recipe for continued decline.

"For me the big mistake is that you try to be all about exploding watermelons and at the same time sell a front page about Syria," he says. "People are not stupid. They understand those two things are not necessarily connected. I think you can have a lot of fun brands as sub-brands of a big organisation. But you have to keep that brand intact as you go forward."

So does this spell doom for mass media brands in general? Is the future media landscape one without any Walter Cronkites, Katie Courics or prototype Mark Littles?

"I think what you are seeing is just the break-up of the business model," he says. "But that is in no way counter to the idea of master media brands carrying with them the things they have always stood for. It's simply associating with the right audience and not about the scale of the audience.

"Take subscriptions, for example. Five years ago I wouldn't have thought that was the future of journalism. But we are starting to see the evolution of subscriptions in pay fences instead of pay walls. I think you're going to see the ability for publishers to offer piece of content with quickpay models that might cost 10c for a piece of content.

"I'm also betting on the combination of brand content, or native advertising as it used to be called. That is simply getting a brand's message directly connected to a publisher that has an intensely engaged audience where the brand knows that those people want to hear what it is talking about. I think it's about finding people who really need you every day. That's the future for journalists."

Little has no doubt about what the future holds for him, though.

"I got up this morning and the first thing that I had to decide was about how we were covering the final of the Euros," he says.

"I'm having the time of my life. This Dublin office is responsible for an area from the Aran Islands to Istanbul. You could say that I'm reaching people in a very different way."

The future of media lies in little chunks

Is there a problem with people screaming at each other a lot on Twitter?

"Obviously we are going to support users and help them on the platform if there's a problem. But we are about freedom of expression. We're not going to be a censor and we're not going to tell you what you should listen to."

Is Twitter still too difficult to use for many people?

"It definitely needs to be simplified, We all know that, and we are not there yet. But if you look at some of the incremental changes that are happening, such as making it easier and quicker to find people to follow, we are starting to produce dividends."

How will media companies survive the current downturn?

"The danger right now is that everybody is going to try and follow the Buzzfeed model. But if all you're focused on is your scale of distribution, you've got a problem. Because if you're looking for five million hits on a video, and that video is being watched without sound for just a couple of seconds, then you are being led down the wrong path... I'm seeing much smarter companies looking at the concept of going after niches."

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