Updates Media: Disrupting the market through successful innovation

Meet Oli Hills, CEO, Updates Media

Effective innovation is difficult to achieve in constantly changing markets. Oli Hills, CEO of Updates Media, joins us to talk about the impact that innovation and disruption have had on his businesses journey.

In this episode:

  • An overview of Updates Media's business model.
  • Insight into how innovation is constantly changing the sector. 
  • Oli's take on what differentiates adaptable businesses from those that are negatively impacted by disruption.
  • Top tips for businesses that are ambitious to be more innovative.

Subscribe to the podcast series

This episode is part of our straight talking business success podcast series. Learn more about the series and what we cover. This podcast is available on iTunes, Spotify and Soundcloud.

Read the transcript:

Host: Welcome to Straight talking business success, your guide to growing and developing your business.

Host: Today I'm joined by Oli Hills, the CEO of Updates Media. Updates Media are the company that sits behind the really well known Birmingham Updates. It's great to be talking with you, Oli, to begin with, can you give us a little bit of background on yourself and tell us a little bit more about what Updates Media do?

Oli Hills: Yeah, totally. My background's quite interesting. When I was at uni up in Newcastle, I always wanted to be an investment banker. I did economics, did business management, and managed to get a job at Fidelity. Thought I'd made it. It was like the dream for me to be involved in financial services, but it just didn't feel right when I was there. My brother phoned me up, this was back in 2015 and said, "I've got an idea for an app." I was like, "Cool. I got no idea how to create an app. Never worked in it before, but let's give it a go." We launched our first product or business called BIP shop, which essentially connected athletes and spectators through photography. And I phoned mom up and said, "Mom, I can't afford to live in London anymore because I've just quit my job." She's like, "You're nuts."

Oli Hills: And yeah. So I moved back to back to Nuneaton and was fortunate enough to get a place in Entrepreneurial Spark, which was an accelerator here in Birmingham. That business didn't work out. We've all had our failures or first lesson, I guess, in business and that business kind of evolved. And I got approached by the chairman and investor in Updates Media and he said, "You know nothing about the media. I think you'd be great to run a media business." I was like, "Okay." And interestingly, that is kind of the first stage of disruption. It would have been very easy to go to somebody very experienced in agency landscape to take over the business. But the chairman who in his own right is an incredible entrepreneur, saw an opportunity to bring somebody into the business who would just think differently.

Host: How did you find that transition moving into that role in a completely new industry?

Oli Hills: Yeah. It was really, really interesting. I remember on my first couple of days I kept getting loads of emails saying, "Oh, any chance you can put this press release on Birmingham Updates?" And I'm like, "I don't know what you mean. I got no idea." It was really fascinating. A little bit of background on Updates Media. I take zero credit for launching Birmingham Updates. That was a guy called Luke, who during the riots in Birmingham in 2011 created a Facebook page to dispel myth and rumour around the city. And it grew to 65,000 followers in just three days. It was unbelievable. Unfortunately for us now, Facebook's algorithms get in the way, so we can't do that again. But back in 2011 it was quite easy to grow pages, so continued to grow to where it is today.

Oli Hills: We've got 610,000 followers across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And the interesting thing about what Updates Media does compared to most other kind of local news providers is we've innovated our business model.

Host: Okay. Tell us a little bit more about that.

Oli Hills: Cool. Traditionally if you're a newspaper, you would have a bit of text and then an ad, and then on the other page you probably have a full page ad and then you'll have a page of text. And I'd love to know what happened in the boardrooms of those local newspapers because they essentially went, let's now put that online. You go onto local news websites now and there's a bit of text and then there's a banner, and a pop-up, and a video and just advertising around the content. Now the fundamental problem with that, in my opinion, is where we have distribution through social media, through your website and through loads of other mediums your sole aim in life is to drive traffic to your website. Because as soon as someone's on your website, you can monetise through advertising.

Oli Hills: Unfortunately, where there's so much content on social media, you have to do something to set yourself apart. So in the last, I guess, five, six years, we've seen the biggest rise in click bait, in sensationalism and essentially fake news because you have to do something to grab someone's attention and drive them to your website.

Host: To take those advertising goals and totally revenue that.

Oli Hills: Yeah. Absolutely. Once you have eyeballs on your website, you are monetising, you're making money. When I took over Updates Media, we looked at what other people were doing in the industry, so the likes of Buzzfeed who were doing incredible work in terms of monetising content rather than monetising around the content, if that makes sense. Then you've got the likes of viral threads.

Oli Hills: You've got Twisted and Tasty, some massive pages on social media and our very own On the Tools, in Tamworth, incredible business. Lee is doing a phenomenal job at growing that community. We saw an opportunity for engaging audiences through social media with our content. Say for example, something happens in Birmingham, my team would think about, right, how do we create that into a video, or at least 280 characters and an image to get that message across?

Host: Rather than relying on pushing people back down to a story on your website.

Oli Hills: 100%. On Birmingham Updates, I'd say 50% of the content that we do does never actually go on our website. It just pushes straight into social.

Host: Wow that is, again, completely different to the traditional way of doing things.

Oli Hills: Yes. Totally. And then you have to think, well how does that look on Instagram stories? How does that look on Facebook and now in the introduction of IGTV, Instagram TV and Facebook Watch, where it's more longer form content, how do we create that story into a longer documentary?

Oli Hills: It's been a quite a radical shift internally in terms of the content we create editorially. But actually because we generate such good engagement online, brands are now wanting to reach into that kind of trusted engaged audience that we've built. And therefore we now get paid to create and distribute content through our channels.

Host: Okay, so that's completely flipped on its head then really. How long did it take for the new model to compare with the traditional approach in terms of revenue and the actually balancing the books for you? Is that a long turnaround time?

Oli Hills: Yeah. We're very, very fortunate that we did have an investor who was patient, shall we say? While we worked out what the business model was. We're, in a good position now. So two and a half, three years down the line, we are cash break-even, we're profit making.

Oli Hills: I think the biggest challenge for us as a kind of a disruptive entity in this space was bringing brands along with us. So forever brands have said, "Well, I've got a press release. And what we do is we sell that into newspapers." Well, Birmingham Updates is essentially there. They need content, right? So we'll just send them content and hopefully they'll pick it up. Now generally we press select all and delete. We don't even read press releases because it's not the way we do things. Educating brands, marketing directors, marketing managers and agencies to that matter. How to get content onto Birmingham Updates was a huge, huge challenge we had to overcome. And that was probably the hardest thing we've had to go through. But it did require absolute persistence because we were so passionate about the model that we've created that we couldn't reverse back and start monetising our website, because it would fundamentally shift everything we do.

Host: Absolutely. I'm sure there are still numerous marketing teams out there that are solely relying on those press releases being sent around. Really interesting. What do you think it was that actually allowed your organisation to be that innovative and to take that step?

Oli Hills: Yeah. Great question. I think that we always understood that local news in its current format would not exist anymore. You only have to look recently that Facebook and the BBC are now employing journalists to sit in local newsrooms, which is just bizarre, right? You'd never expect a billionaire in San Francisco to be funding local news in the U.K. But that is the reality of the situation. We knew that's not a sustainable model. So you have to think differently and people are inherently nosy, right? You always want to know what's going on in your street, or down the road, or if the traffic's bad in your area.

Oli Hills: There is a need for local news or local interest content. What we had to think about was how do we distribute that content to that person that doesn't rely on the current form of advertising? What enabled us to do that was was patience from from an investor, I'm not going to lie, we're very fortunate in our board being very supportive and very patient while we worked out what the model was. There were some times where we thought, this is too hard, but we have kind of persevered through. I think as well my mindset coming into the industry as an absolute novice enabled me to ask that question like, "Why?" I would go into a meeting with a marketing manager sat in front of me and I'd just constantly ask them, "Why?" Because I didn't know any better. And once you get them questioning what they're doing themselves in such a rapidly changing digital environment, actually they then started to change their own opinions as well.

Oli Hills: Coming into the industry cold was, I think, a real benefit in this particular case.

Host: Interesting stuff. Okay. What do you think differentiates those businesses that are able to kind of capitalise on a changing environment and disrupt the landscape from those who are negatively impacted from disruption?

Oli Hills: Yeah, it's a great question. I always find it interesting because we heard earlier about the Blockbuster and Netflix story, right? I think we all know how Netflix has grown and Blockbuster not so much, but when Blockbuster launched, that must've been quite disruptive and innovative.

Host: Absolutely. Yeah.

Oli Hills: In the concept of going to a store and picking up a video or a VHS, that in itself was quite innovative for the time. What I'm interested in is what stopped them being able to be that innovative? To when then when the digital revolution took over and the likes of Netflix and I guess LoveFilm was probably one of the first subscription DVDs to your door via post.

Oli Hills: Something must have changed during Blockbuster's journey from where they could be innovative and disruptive to then being disrupted themselves. You have to look internally fundamentally, you have to look at were the board of directors too comfortable? I think they had an eight billion valuation at one point. Have they got the right people leading that business who do think differently? Have they brought someone in that hasn't got an idea how media rental or content rental works? Because that's what Netflix have done, they've just done it into a slightly different model. I think everything always comes from the top. I think organisations need to ... There's a big kind of concept of the moment called reverse mentoring where you actually bring junior members of staff to mentor the more experienced members of the team. Maybe those at board level or senior manager level, or C-suite, or whatever.

Oli Hills: Because I'm sure there were some people working within Blockbuster that would have had this idea. I'm sure that with the concept of digital streaming of content and paying for that, someone within the Blockbuster realm, depending on how many employees they had, could have come up with that concept. They just weren't listening internally and yeah, probably just got a little bit complacent.

Host: Okay. So zooming out a little bit to think about kind of the broader environment. Obviously there's a massive amount of kind of political and economic disruption at the moment. It's a huge factor for businesses. How do you think organisations can better deal with that? Is it similar kinds of points that we were covering earlier? What do you think?

Oli Hills: Yeah. I think personally I'm just a bit bored of it. I'm not going to lie, and I know myself what I can control, if that makes sense? I tend not to worry about things that I can't control. There's no one within Downing Street listening to little old me worry about Updates Media, they've got bigger fish to fry. Right? From my perspective, I always think about what are the micro little things within my world of marketing content distribution? I'm more worried in fact about Zuckerberg and algorithm changes, or TikTok and how that grows, and we've not got a presence on there, because that's something I can control. For me, I think we live in a completely global world where everything is connected. I think now we're almost more into silos where you can be impacted so heavily within your own silo, external of any political factors.

Host: It's an interesting take. Yeah.

Oli Hills: We in the last three months have totally transformed our business, purely because the algorithm change on social media.

Host: For anyone listening who might not understand what that algorithm change would entail, can you explain little bit around that?

Oli Hills: Yeah. Absolutely. The algorithm within social media, so let's take Facebook as the obvious example, the Facebook news feed. So when you open it up and you see all your content from friends or pages that you follow, that is defined by an algorithm. Facebook have a very detailed picture of you as an individual, and the algorithm uses data and content that could possibly go onto your news feed to work out what it should surface you. If I was to look at my news feed, it would be completely different to yours.

Host: That will be based on things we'd done historically-

Oli Hills: Yeah. What pages you've liked, what you've engaged with. Absolutely. The big challenge for publishers on social media, whether that's a new site, the likes of LADbible or on the tools that we've all heard of, Facebook basically compressed the amount of people that would see our content through social media to between 15 and 25%.

Host: Wow. Okay. So some huge implications for what you're doing there today?

Oli Hills: Huge. We would guarantee to brands and we'd say, "Well, we'll create industry content for you." Back in the heyday of social media, we would reach two or 300,000 people. Now you're doing good if you reach 20, 25% of your audience. Just listening to that factor, i.e. what Mark Zuckerberg has in terms of impact on algorithms, changes our business more than Brexit would ever do.

Host: Of course.

Oli Hills: Yeah. I tend to think about those factors rather than import and export rates and whether we can get across the channel tunnel and all that stuff, just because it has more impact on me day-to-day.

Host: Sure. No, that makes sense. I think it's a key point now really around being aware of what those factors are, and in the context of your business and some kind of scenario planning around that.

Oli Hills: Yeah, totally. And purely because of those changes we've launched an agency because we've realised that we know a lot about what's going on in the world of social, that a lot of brands don't know because we get access to Facebook and Instagram, and Twitter, and whatnot. Essentially it's ... Okay, we got hit pretty hard with the algorithm changes, but we've turned it into an advantage and now are working with brands in a completely different way, just through the knowledge and information that we've managed to gain. Yeah. And I think that's where, I don't really like the term, but entrepreneurship is, in terms of spotting opportunities when you think everything is going downhill. It's having that persistence, that grit and determination to constantly fight and constantly win regardless of what situation comes along. It would've been very easy for us to be quite downtrodden with the algorithm changes. But actually it's opened up a huge opportunity that we've sprinted into basically.

Host: That's great to hear and that's been really interesting to talk through with you Oli. I think we may have covered some of the points that you might have raised in my final question, but I just wanted to know what your top pieces of advice would be for any businesses that have an ambition to be more innovative?

Oli Hills: Yeah. Great question. There's the obvious one, but no one really knows what it is, which is culture. We're a team of six now. Everyone asks me, it's like, "What's the culture like within Updates Media?" And I don't really know. We just have created this thing where everyone works super hard. We have fun, but everybody has the opportunity to challenge me. Like, I am never right. That's the fundamental.

Oli Hills: We have people in my team who are so much more experienced and knowledgeable, and creative than me. That I just let them lead with something. We have a very data-driven mentality. We always talk about performance. Go and give something a go. If it works, brilliant, let's keep doing it. If it doesn't work, even better. What have we learned and what can we do slightly differently to innovate?

Oli Hills: I think having that mantra around the team, that everyone has a voice and everyone knows that they can go and give something a go. You want to build a whole team of innovators and creators because that's what you need. Especially as a small business. I appreciate when you get a little bit bigger, you need those more process orientated, more operational people. Because I imagine our business in a year's time, if we had no process people it would be absolute chaos.

Oli Hills: You need to get a balance. But I think when you do bring people on board or kind of redefine the culture, it's giving everyone a voice. Whether you do work in kind of operations or customer services and you don't think you have an opportunity to innovate, you're not there in the strategy team, actually you're more important because you're either working in a cost centre of your business and therefore you can create huge savings in terms of operational process and streamlining. Or you're the one speaking to your customers.

Oli Hills: And it's what your customers are saying, it's absolutely crucial. My advice to businesses is never outsource social media.

Host: Yep.

Oli Hills: Because that is one of your biggest routes to understanding what your customers are saying about your business. And I think that is so, so crucial. We work with brands from an agency perspective on paid social because we have expertise in that matter. But when it's organic or responding to customers, or engaging with customers, they're your innovators because they will tell you what they want. And for me that's the most important thing. It's building a culture within the business for people to innovate, to try new things and listening to what your customers are actually doing.

Oli Hills: I think we live in a world now where ... I think it was, can't remember who quoted, but, "Data is the new oil." Was a quote that I heard recently. The problem is we have so much data, it's best to really speak to your customers and find out what they want, and that enables you to be innovative. Because as soon as you're providing a solution to a genuine problem, you're winning. I think it's just really focusing in on that at every layer of the business is so crucial.

Host: Oh yeah. That's brilliant. Thank you. Thanks for speaking to us today. That has been really interesting.

Oli Hills: My pleasure. Thanks for having me on.

Host: Thank you for listening to Straight talking business success. To find out more about the series, please visit From here, you can subscribe for updates, meet our speakers, and get more information on all of the topics that we've covered.