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Time Out’s CDO: using digital to compete with the publishing giants

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David Cook, one of Hot Topics' top 100 CDOs globally, leads Time Out's digital transformation by re-aligning their international franchise model, and seeking out new revenues.

Company wide digital transformations are becoming integral for businesses as they battle to future-proof their services and products.

Tasked with leading these evolutionary changes are Chief Digital Officers (CDOs), continually modifying and improving their brand’s operations, communications and technologies.

It’s not an easy role, yet sometimes the hardest tasks yield the most promising results, as was the case experienced by Time Out magazine’s CDO David Cook.

The publishing and journalism industry is experiencing its own particular digital challenges, but Cook and his team are using their digital remit to discover ways to make Time Out’s remodelling improve its position in the industry, incorporate a better experience for customers, and, most pressingly, benefit its franchises internationally.

When Cook joined the company to lead its digital transformation, it quickly became apparent that the brand was too London-centric, with little attention being paid to America or elsewhere.

“Each publisher in each city buys into our brand’s franchise model on the delivery of the brand promise. That promise looked like a digital component or platform which they could use to leverage their own content, but it really wasn’t geared up to support them.”

One franchise in particular was the Barcelona entity, which Cook describes as “a very unhappy customer that we needed to put our arms around and fix their problems as a priority, to keep them on-board.”

To solve the problem and improve other functions in the company, Cook’s remodelling strategy focused on one aim: to source new digital revenue streams.

“It was the most difficult part of our transformation, but creating new digital revenue streams was key to some of our initial successes.

“The digital advertising model is the preferred model within media, but over time these models have migrated to big brands like Facebook and Google, so our challenge was to secure as many high-performing revenue streams as possible as the display advertising industry changes forever.”

The British magazine group is nearly 50 years old and as CDO, Cook had to rebuild the print and online media company into a more digital, and international, business.

This required a complete remodelling of its platform.

The London publishing brand now works in partnership with publishers around the world and in many major cities, to create a global network of magazines, websites, apps and guides.

“We wanted to create a model where each Time Out would be created in a city-centric way, for each location. They start out with a local readership, but over time the audience grows and we then add digital resources and capabilities to improve their networks.

“It was very much a model that was based around continual digital growth but with added functions to support print and/or live events should a particular city need them.”

Time Out’s transformation allowed Cook to consider alternative revenue streams which its digital framework now facilitated.

One such example was the magazine’s move into commerce.

Time Out’s original platform included information of new events opening or theatre plays showing within a city; positioning itself as a reporter at the very heart of a city’s culture.

“We’re now able to sell tickets to events on our platform alongside their details, opening up its own revenue stream.”

Cook also introduced a more classified advertising model for local businesses in a sidestep away from display advertising.

“A local restaurant, for example, can now advertise on Time Out’s digital platform, a multi-million pound product in its own right. It’s still advertising, but it’s a very different market to the one that’s traditionally been where media companies have tapped into.”

Now that Cook’s digital platform has enabled more revenue streams to open up, the task for the international publisher is to make sure these products can be adopted elsewhere.

London is the brand’s strongest location in terms of brand awareness, so model testing makes sense to be conducted there, allowing the roll out strategy to include the next tier of cities where Time Out is strongest.

America, in particular New York, falls within this next bracket and is somewhere where the brand is growing in strength, Cook states.

“Also, because of the way Time Out is a single digital platform, we’re able to leverage the investment across different territories reasonably quickly.”

Knowing, or predicting, which strategies to promote digital revenue streams would make sense in the UK, the US, or in Europe, proved to be interesting.

“The competitive landscape changes across each region. Take local advertising for example: Yelp is our biggest competitor in the space, but they’re strongest in the US which is why our revenue stream from that service is stronger in London.”

Time Out is not the only publisher in this sector to be digitzing, of course.

Many companies across nearly every sector are in some ways shedding their legacy systems and products, meaning that digital strategies are no longer a differentiator alone.

Brands now need to recognize how their transformations can create opportunities for them, like digital revenue streams, to best leverage new clients or consumers, and improve their financial position.

Time Out sourced new revenue streams which was only made possible by embracing digital strategies.

Other media and publishing businesses aren’t as quick to capitalize on these opportunities, leading to what Cook thinks will present large changes in the market.

“There will inevitably be consolidation: too many media companies have the same revenue streams, meaning margins on certain products are getting smaller and smaller, especially as, again, Facebook and Google change the pace of this space.”

Competitors have arrived from outside of the industry, initiating severe disruption to core sources of income for many media brands.

Coupled with the need for digital transformation, many companies are treading water and being forced to completely rethink their service.

Cook and Time Out however have combined these two needs and found ways to compete with new players in the advertising world by creating new, digital revenue streams that can service it into the future.

“You have to begin by questioning the value of your media brand and where that lies in today’s market. Only by creating an experience that a customer can buy into can you have the potential to cement your company’s future and diversify your revenue streams accordingly, if that’s your aim.”