Why Wired UK is in the consulting business

Companies everywhere are hoping they won’t be the next big firm to slip into irrelevance by ignoring the changes happening around them. To do their part to help others (for a fee), Condé Nast International is offering the recently rebranded services of Wired Consulting.

Wired Consulting has been up and running for just under three years and was “relaunched” in September 2014. Their fresh offering includes two main products: corporate offsites and a retainer service. Its presentations help clients understand future threats and opportunities by putting on talks and brainstorming sessions led by Wired and its network of contributors. It has taken a luxury-goods retailer to Shenzhen to understand the lifestyle of young, urban, middle-class Chinese consumers, for example.

Its retainer services – or “Bat phone,” as the consultancy likes to call it – includes calls and meetings designed to break some of the clients’ assumptions about their business and the future of their industry. It’s currently working with a financial services firm on retainer on a similar basis.

The firm is led by Sophie Hackford, who joined in September 2014. Previously, she held roles in futures research at the Singularity University in Silicon Valley and at the University of Oxford. Hackford is charged with tapping into Wired’s staff and its network of contributors and associates for its clients. This might mean, for example, crafting a session on data security for a client based on the reporting done by a reporter working a story on the subject for months. It also involves using Wired’s wide network to draw on the expertise of contributors — “scientists, astronauts, inventors and entrepreneurs,” she said.

“We’re not writing reports for clients; we’re not prototyping products; we’re really stopping short of doing things that actually might make it a little bit messy,” Hackford said.

Nic Newman, the former BBC News product director, said Wired Consultancy is emblematic of publishers having to think hard about how they unlock some of their organization’s expertise to create new products. The tricky part is doing so without treading on the toes of other revenue-generating departments or influencing the newsroom.

“Internally, virtually everybody now recognizes that you have to break down some of the internal barriers which hinder the way you operate, but in doing so, there should still be principles that govern those new relationships. That’s what everyone is trying to figure out at the moment,” he said.

This is something Hackford is mindful of as she looks to grow this business for Wired. “There’s a very strong Chinese wall between my part of the business and the editorial team,” she said. “That is something that is very important editorially. But what I do seek from [the editorial team] is curation.” she said.

As an example, she said, she might have an automotive client who wants to understand emerging technology that could impact their future. In that case, she would ask the newsroom for the five best thinkers that they’ve come across in the last year — but might never divulge who the client actually is. “That acts as a protection,” she said.

Wired UK isn’t the first publisher to have opened up its in-house expertise as a sellable product. Atlantic Media does the same, as does De Telegraf in the Netherlands, which has opened Publisher Market to help other publishers get up to speed with ad technology. The Next Web is even making a public product out of its startup database. As it builds its proposition, Wired Consulting is having to distinguish itself in this growing crowd of experts for hire. Aside from its contacts and its digitally savvy image, Wired’s storytelling expertise and independence are a key part of its pitch.

“Firstly, we’re entirely impartial. Our consulting is not loaded with any products, because we’re not a management consultancy; we’re not an investment bank; we have no particular bias or interest in there being a next step,” said Hackford. “We’re also very good at storytelling and presenting complex ideas in a very digestible manner. Having read some of the research output from banks, [Wired offers] a very different experience.”

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