Google 'no mates'; The Guardian hunts Autotrader 2.0

20 Mar 2017  |  Dominic Mills 
Google 'no mates'; The Guardian hunts Autotrader 2.0

As the pressure mounts, no-one is now going to put their head above the parapets and stick up for Google, writes Dominic Mills. Plus: a worthwhile investment of the Guardian's trust funds.

What a week. George Osborne’s appointment as editor of the Evening Standard - and I’ll leave my fellow columnist Ray Snoddy to dissect the move more fully - proves that, just as truth is stranger than fiction, real news is better than fake news.

But before we move on to Google’s latest travails, let’s just make a few observations on Osborne: a) this is a starfucker hiring when what the Standard, these days an increasingly shallow read that gets me no further than Clapham Junction on my evening commute (a mere nine minutes), needs is to return to proper journalism b) his experience with austerity budgets will come in handy c) watch out for arse-licking appearances of the Osborne family wallpaper in the lifestyle pages, and d) if he reduces the daily Delevingne count we may cut him some slack.

Back to Google, which after an earlier News UK-inspired furore in February, must this week feel as though UK plc is lining up to empty buckets of crap all over it: To wit...

- Sir Martin Sorrell, followed by first mate Johnny Hornby letting rip at the Guardian Media Summit
- Clients pulling their business
- Agencies, led by Havas, also pulling their business
- Politicians describing Google, along with Facebook and Twitter, as “prostitutes
- And monsterings from the Times and the Daily Mail.

It’s a little surprising that, of the agencies that could also hit Google in its pocket by withdrawing their business, only really Havas has so far stood up to be counted in public – described to me by one media player as as effective as taking the car off the road because the ashtrays are full.

So why haven’t the likes of Omnicom, Publicis and WPP? It must be our old friends the volume deals. Taking their business away or pulling it entirely would hit them in their pockets too.

As for Google and its senior executives, they must feel they are on trial in the court of public opinion. The pressure must be unbearable.

But here’s the thing. No-one is going to put their head above the parapets and stick up for Google. When they need some well-placed friends, they find they are Johnny-no-mates.

There’s a surprise. Whether it’s playing fast and loose on tax, pretending they’re just a tech company, or self-righteously playing the ‘do no evil’ card, Google has become the great dissembler. It has forgotten that with great power comes great responsibility. When you shrug off all responsibility, your ‘friends’ fall away fast.

This saga will run for some time yet.

The Guardian needs another Autotrader - and it may have found one

This week the Guardian confirmed - six weeks after Mediatel first reported it, which doesn’t say much for its news sense - that its membership scheme had topped 200,000.

Wow. I must confess to being surprised and impressed. Holding out the begging bowl clearly works. When it launched the scheme last year, I expected a small take-up, concentrated only among superfans, especially amongst the north London liberal elite. But I am clearly wrong. Better still, members have quadrupled in numbers in less than nine months.

At £5 a month, that brings in £12m a year. It’s not to be sneezed at, but set against the newsbrand’s £69m trading loss last year, a predicted cash burn this year of £90m, and rebates of a few million a year to media agencies, it’s not much more than a finger in the dyke.

Indeed, the number of members exceeds by about 25% the number who buy the paper, according to the latest ABC figures for print, which show average daily sales for the Guardian of 154,444 - down 1.4% on the month before.

By the definition therefore, the members include many who do not buy the paper, or at least regularly. Which is a bit weird. If you really believed in the Guardian and wanted it to survive, you’d buy the paper, that being a far more lucrative source of revenue and one which, more over pays back twice - once with the cover price, and second as a bigger number to sell for display purposes.

But I don’t think this is going to happen. My guess is that a decent number of the 200,000 live abroad, or are lapsed readers holding some sort of residual warmth for the title, or people who don’t even like the Guardian, but feel strongly that it ought to survive.

Lovely as it sounds, these members are never going to butter the Guardian’s parsnips.

No, what it really needs is another Autotrader, the rich parent that has turned the paper into an institutional trustafarian, gleefully splurging the inherited money (I’m talking historically here) on all kinds of grand, but spurious plans.

And here’s the funny thing. The paper is one of the funders of what just might become Autotrader 2.0.

This one is a start-up called HelloCar, founded by Nic Carnell, one of whose previous businesses was sold to We Buy Any Car, so he clearly knows what he’s doing.

How did it do this? Well, through GMG’s part-funding of a cohort of media tech start-ups via the Brent Hoberman incubator/accelerator Founders Factory.

One of the cohort is HelloCar, which last month took a few baby steps - in this case raising £1m - towards its next stage.

Other start-ups backed by the Guardian at Founders Factory include self-serve video platform Vidsy, data-visualisation tool Flourish and Peopleio, which aims to help consumers monetise their data.

I’ll come back to Founders Factory - somewhat ironically, given the Guardian’s involvement, based in the Mail’s offices in Derry Street - in a future column.

But for the Guardian, spending a million here or there on start-ups in the hope that one pays off big time is a worthwhile investment of its trust funds.

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