Handling Disruption – Interview: Samantha Fay, Guinness World Records

Handling disruption is about adaptation… and also continuity

Adapting in the face of disruption is one of the most challenging endeavours for any well established business. Defined by rigid infrastructures, processes, and hierarchies, large companies often struggle to evolve. Today, no industry is safe from the effects of digital transformation and innovative technologies. Publishing is one of them.

D/SRUPTION spoke to Samantha Fay, Senior Vice President of Global Brand Strategy at Guinness World Records, to find out what it takes to thrive as a business in a constantly shifting sector.

Much more than a book

The Guinness World Records book has its origins in the early 1950s, when the Managing Director of the Guinness Brewery, Sir Hugh Beaver, argued with a shooting party over which game bird was the fastest. Beaver saw the argument as an opportunity, and invited fact finding researchers to compile a book full of facts and figures to settle these types of disputes. In 1955, the first edition of the book was published. Over the next six decades, Guinness World Records gradually evolved into a multimedia brand, spanning digital, events, television, business and, of course, publishing. In fact, the book holds its very own record as the best selling copyrighted book of all time.

The publishing industry has seen unprecedented change in the face of new digital channels and devices, leading to a perceived move away from traditional print. So how did Guinness World Records deal with disruption, and prove that they are more than just a book?

“I think that’s been our biggest learning curve and our biggest challenge,” says Fay. “We’ve had to step outside of producing one book once a year. We’ve had to explore digital media, live events, whole website platforms, social media and TV shows. Next year, we’re opening an attraction. We’re a publishing company that produces three million books and are very good at creating a wonderful product and putting it through traditional retail channels. Once that all changed, it was about going back to the content and thinking about new ways to share these stories.”

The importance of innovation

Fay’s role centres on the future, and how Guinness World Records can create an environment that enables innovation. On a practical level, the brand has set up an in house group called The Records Lab, which meets each week to look at fresh ideas and new creative campaigns.

“A lot of companies have done this so I was hesitant with it, but it has really worked. The reason I think it’s important to put a name around it is that otherwise you could have hundreds of good ideas but nobody has the time to do anything about them. With innovation, every company has to have a unit or a couple of people responsible for it. I’m very lucky that that’s me, but you’ve got to make sure you do the business as usual as well.”

Creating a defined team or space for developing new ideas has fast become a corporate trend. The difficulty, though, is making sure that the rest of the company understands what the lab or team does, and why it has value. How does Guinness World Records merge the ideas of The Records Lab with the larger business?

“The merge point is me, because I sit in The Records Lab and I sit on the leadership team,” says Fay. “You’ve got to keep going as a business, to keep the lights on, and then find time to be innovative as well. You don’t have to have it separated out in a room, but I do think you have to have somebody responsible for defining innovation. For us, it focuses on new product development and campaign thinking. So, what can we come up with that a seven year old would love to watch, play with, or break as a record?”

Digital diversity

A major part of Guinness World Records’ success has come from making use of a variety of digital channels. The brand creates videos for YouTube, Facebook, SnapChat and Instagram, as well as Officially Amazing, which is the number one rated television show on CBBC. The company has also dabbled in computer games, and the immersive technologies of Augmented and Virtual Reality.

“Video is a key thing for us. At one point, we went to Westfield and had an AR Guinness World Records show, so you could actually bring record holders to life. It was a very expensive project but it did give this idea of what could be done in bringing record breaking to life.”

Experimenting with disruptive technology has helped Guinness World Records to stay ahead of the game, and bring a new quality to brand-to-consumer interactions. In October 2017, the brand launched a virtual reality record at the Festival of Marketing in London. Delegates were invited to attempt to build a 28 block pyramid in VR in the fastest time. The company is now doing a trial with TUI, formerly Thomson Holidays, to build a Virtual Reality holiday village with activities. However, working with cutting edge technology and unfamiliar channels is no easy task. Fay sees the major challenges as overcoming legacy thinking, choosing the most appropriate channels and getting hold of the right resources. As well as diversifying the mediums used to distribute Guinness World Records’ content, the business has also experienced a shift in its audience.

“As people have seen the amplification that record breaking can give to brands, we’ve had more and more corporates come to us. It’s now fast growing – it’s the second biggest part of our business, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the B2B side of the business overtakes publishing in the next couple of years,” Fay says. “Reebok, for example, came to us because they were launching the Nano 7 shoe. They broke 44 records in 24 hours in four cities across three countries – LA, New York City, London and Sydney. This is extraordinary, but unless you get the PR, make the right video and share it on your social channels, it doesn’t mean anything.”

Turning the page on traditional publishing

In light of Kindles, online media outlets and blogs, you would be forgiven for thinking that books are fading into antiquity. That being said, the Guinness World Records book remains staple reading material, especially for families.

“We still sell 2.7m books, and it’s still the biggest part of our business,” says Fay. “So as we’ve had to change to survive, we’ve also had to work hard to stand still. We used to sell three million books, but 2.7m is still an awful lot of books! Parents still want their kids to read, and the book contains bite sized chunks of information. Sticking to our core values has helped.”

Guinness World Records is a legacy company that started out as what many would view as an outdated product. However, through the application of new channels and technologies, the brand has grown into a multinational multimedia company and household name. Their success has come from a commitment to core values and quality, teamed with a willingness to experiment and try new things.

“Facts are static, but the minute you take that fact out of the book, and write a story with a video and a picture, you bring the whole thing to life. It’s given us that movement from being an annual book to a year-round content provider,” says Fay. “You’ve got to be fresh and exciting every day.”

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