Accidental CIO, Ian Cohen, wanted to be a musician and only began his career in IT by chance, while trying to fund his passion for music. “I got into IT by mistake,” he says. “I left university to focus on my music.”
He went to work for Lloyds Bank in its datacentre to pay his way, while he considered a career in music.
He is now CIO at the century-old Associated Newspapers, part of the Daily Mail and General Trust media group, having arrived there with a wealth of experience from the financial services industry and a stint at the Financial Times.
Associated Newspapers publishes a range of titles including five of the major nationals: The Daily Mail; The Mail on Sunday; Evening Standard; London Metro and Ireland on Sunday.
The group also owns Northcliffe Newspapers, one of the largest regional newspaper publishers in the UK, with over 100 publications in the UK including 20 daily titles, 28 paid-for weeklies and over 50 free weekly newspapers with a weekly combined circulation of 9 million. Its online activity is delivered through Associated Northcliffe Digital.
Cohen’s career began in the big traditional datacentres at Lloyds TSB and he believes it gave his a very good foundation. “Despite all the recent advances – PCs, client server and the web – the fundamentals of the old datacentre days have not gone away. Uptime, security, performance and resilience are as essential today as they ever were.”
At Lloyds TSB he first worked in operations and support, then moved into what was then, the emerging discipline of project management. The first major ones he worked on were in datacentre automation using NetView.
During this period he was seconded to IBM, where he worked in systems programming on joint Lloyds TSB/IBM projects and developing PC systems, as well as covering the major disciplines of the IT profession. He returned to Lloyds Banks’ Payments division and spent time “in the business” as a
project and product manager. This exposed him to many different demands: “This was an interesting time and I got to experience first hand what it’s like to be a customer of IT.”
From there he returned to the technology division in a strategy and architecture role at the cusp of the first internet wave. At the time the bank was trying to come to terms with changes to its business model that the internet was initiating. “It was the ‘e-everything’ era,” he says. The experience put him in a great position for his role at Associated Newspapers. The media industry only now has come to terms with changing business models, brought about by technology innovations like the internet, mobiles and iPods.
At Lloyds TSB, one criticism of technology strategies was that they had been thought up in IT ivory towers and often had little relevance to actual business needs, according to Cohen. “The bank’s e-business hub tried to be different. It was on the road, arguing the case and working with business colleagues,” he says. “We built the strategy for e-commerce and the operating model in partnership with our colleagues in the retail, commercial and corporate businesses. The e-commerce division was a true hybrid team.”
"“We are going through quantum changes. We can try to predict and hopefully anticipate some of them but we really don’t know what will happen. The reality is that our readers will move and dictate everything"
Ian Cohen, CIO, Associated Newspapers
Cohen says the fact that IT and business people were working successfully together drove the e-commerce operations and the web agenda. The unit went from two people in a room to over 150 people by early 2000, at which point Cohen felt it was time to move on. “We had board level support, had found ‘like minds’ and set up an internal unit to deliver the strategy,” he says.
“We looked at a whole host of options and models but in the end it is always the customers that ultimately decide. We were fortunate to recognise that in our space it was the ‘clicks and mortar’ multi-channel model that would win out. You also had to be prepared to fail and adapt fast – recognising, for example, that mobile delivery didn’t work in the early stages because the technology wasn’t ready. It was very interesting, the debate was intense and we had to learn very quickly how to understand the economics of different channels and to use them efficiently.”
It is this multi-channel delivery experience that is so valuable in his current role at Associated Newspapers. “Banking worked this out in the late 90s. Now newspapers have to learn how to reach their readers wherever and whenever they want – print, mobile, web or whatever.”
He was approached initially in early 2000 by the Financial Times, which was looking for a head of e-commerce. Only in the subsequent interviews did they decide to offer him the role of CTO for FT.com.
The Financial Times was looking to consolidate and integrate its online properties, which were run as separate and autonomous businesses. “For me it was a great time to test myself in a new industry while bringing skills that could quickly help the company,” says Cohen.
Moving with the Times
While Cohen was at the Financial Times it became the first major UK publisher to move its online readers to paid-for content. It moved seamlessly from zero registered readers to over 70,000 paid-for subscribers – a major shift in the industry.
At the same time, the title took the bold decision to fully integrate its print and online businesses and technology was at the forefront of this transformation. “To do it we needed a combined technology function, a single system for web and print publishing, plus a robust and scaleable infrastructure that could support the global expansion of the newspaper and subscription solution for FT.com,” says Cohen. “It was a major engineering exercise.”
Coming from the Financial Times, with its specialised customer base, to a firm with such a variety of consumers meant the operations were bound to be more complex. “The challenge at Associated Newspapers is everything it was at the Financial Times and then some. This is a huge general news operation with multiple national and regional titles; online companion publications; like dailymail.co.uk; and thisislondon.co.uk; and a strong ‘classified commerce’ franchise through leading online brands like Jobsite, FindaProperty.”
Changes in the media industry are having a profound effect on how IT is viewed at Associated Newspapers. “Investment in the core infrastructure was relatively small in recent years, although there had been significant wider corporate investment.
“Now we have to re-engineer if we are to support the business in where it wants to go. The scale of our infrastructure change is huge. IT covers consolidation and virtualisation of servers, the exploitation of SAN technology and maximising the opportunities from true IP networking in our WAN and LAN. The ability of the infrastructure to flex and meet business demand has to be a given but we can’t stop everything else to get it done.”
Cohen says his first challenge at Associated Newspapers was to rebuild the relationships between IT and its customers and start essential tactical rebuilds.
“From a technology perspective we had to look long and hard at where we were, where we needed to go and then build a robust and fully funded plan to get there. Then we had to sell it to our business colleagues,” he says.
“Speaking the language of business and understanding its levers is crucial if you are to engage effectively and regain trust. The conversations can’t be about technology – they have to be about the capabilities and opportunities it brings.” The infrastructure project will take place over an 18-month period but it is only one part of a broader transformation programme.
“We will be implementing a new WAN for the whole group, a new publishing system for the nationals and completing major circulation and advertising projects, among other key projects.
“The nationals, online division and regional operations all have major change programmes but the one constant is building a flexible technology capability that can enable the goals of our business,” says Cohen.
“I am really enthused and confident about this. We have a fabulous management team, a supportive CEO and chairman who really get it and I am incredibly fortunate,” he adds.
Despite this confidence, he believes that many CIOs are trying to provide utility services in an industry that is not really mature enough to support it. Other industries have matured over decades, and in comparison, IT is still in its infancy. He argues CIOs need to be honest about what can really be delivered.
“We talk a lot about standards and then spend huge amounts of time and money trying to make solutions work together. We need to get to the point where IT just works – then we can start using technology to drive and innovate which is the interesting part.”
"You also had to be prepared to fail and adapt fast – recognising, for example, that mobile delivery didn’t work in the early stages because the technology wasn’t ready"
Ian Cohen, CIO, Associated Newspapers
In the media industry there are serious ‘moments of criticality’ for service levels. Like most other businesses, it does not care about IT but everything has to be available exactly when it is needed. If services are unavailable during those periods it jeopardises the Evening Standard getting out. Which cannot be allowed to happen.
“We have to be smarter than just blanket service levels. Five nines availability means nothing if the sixth nine occurs at the most critical time for your business,” says Cohen. “It is all very challenging and there is never a dull moment in this industry. We are going through quantum changes. We can try to predict and hopefully anticipate some of them but we really don’t know what will happen. The reality is that our readers will move and dictate everything.”
His goal is to improve Associated Newspapers’ ability to reach its readers online. “The web, mobile and the renewed interest in interactive TV are challenging us to better understand our readers and become more relevant in the digital form,” he says.
“With all the information available online, the role of the publisher and editor to sift out what is really worthwhile is even more important. Readers will look to trusted and familiar brands to see the wood for the trees. We don’t know all the answers but we are building on 100 years of experience, so that stands us in very good stead.”