"Switzerland must be digitally sexy as a business location"

Ringier CEO Marc Walder wants to encourage the Swiss to engage in lifelong learning: He and his fellow members of the Digitalswitzerland location initiative are dedicating the nationwide Digitaltag on September 3 to this topic. Before the event, Walder welcomed us for an interview - an exchange about big and small changes, future aspirations and entrepreneurial courage.

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The sixth floor of Ringier's headquarters on Dufourstrasse, a cloudy Thursday in August. Modern art hangs on the walls, the publisher's well-known passion. But it's not the only thing that captivates the eye: high glass fronts open up the room to the lake, where a couple of boats are leisurely gliding along. Then Marc Walder appears, Ringier CEO for more than ten years, shareholder since 2018; in physique still the tennis pro of yesteryear. A handshake, a little small talk - then the conversation can begin. 

 

MK: This magazine is being published immediately for Swiss Digitaltag on September 3. You were once again responsible for the organization with the Digitalswitzerland initiative. Tell us: What are you particularly looking forward to at the event?  

Marc Walder: Firstly, I'm pleased that Digitaltag is taking place at all. The project is still unique throughout Europe, although there are now efforts to copy it - which is important for Europe. Lichtenstein is doing a Digitaltag, and in Eastern Europe there are Poland and Serbia that want to do one. In Germany, too, there are efforts to organize such a digital day.

You know, when we talked about this three and a half years ago at a Digitalswitzerland board meeting - and all the company CEOs who were members at the time were at the table - there were two camps. One said, "Absolutely, for the population, for the normal people in this country to experience digitization. Great." And the others said, "That's such a big box, and a big risk associated with it. Imagine it's Digitaltag - something that wasn't known in the population at the time - and nobody goes. What an embarrassment that would be ...." 

 

But it was not an embarrassment ... 

(laughs) No! Already at the first edition came tens of thousands of citizens. Old and young. City dwellers as well as people living in rural areas. Federal councillors, business leaders, top politicians, heads of major institutions such as ETH or EPFL - everyone was there. That was an incredibly good feeling. And now to build on that and make Digitaltag bigger and bigger on the one hand, and more and more decentralized on the other, is something that all of us at Digitalswitzerland look forward to and can be proud of as the team behind Digitaltag. And we would like to thank everyone who makes this possible.

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The main partners of the event are large companies: APG, Google, Ringier, the SBB, SRG and Swisscom. Would you describe them all as pioneers of digital transformation?

Generally speaking, we have over 160 members at Digitalswitzerland today, and they are all members who have recognized three things: First, that digitization in virtually all areas of life also means for them that their business model or what they do today will change within a very short time. It's happening fast, it's happening radically. 

The second point is: You have acknowledged that Switzerland, as a leading business location, is way out in front in many indexes: Entrepeneurship Index, Competitiveness Index, Innovation Index - these are all global indexes, Switzerland is always way out in front, but - that can change quickly. Not only companies gain or lose ground through digitalization, but also countries. It is easier for a company to get ahead in a location that is digitally competitive, digitally sexy. Where little innovation happens, less successful companies will also be found. 

The third point, which we all answered in the affirmative, is that we want to help do something about it. Four and a half years ago - when we founded the whole thing as a small group from business and academia - we would never have thought that Digitalswitzerland would one day become so big and powerful. And the spirit of the beginning still prevails. Together, we can really make a big impact in various areas - right now we're talking about Digitaltag, but there are many other activities. This is observed from the outside, from the other countries, with a lot of admiration, by the way: That Switzerland has brought together such a strong and large group working on these issues. All members invest money, time and bring great people to the various projects. That's fascinating.

 

Would you like to see even more commitment from the "hard core" of the IT industry and its associations?  

Of course, because the better the mix of members - including IT-oriented companies, digital agencies and so on - the more everyone benefits. The question that some companies ask themselves is: "What is the immediate benefit for us? But that's the wrong question. The right question would be, "Where can I get involved?" Because if I get involved in the startup eco-system, training and further education, or infrastructure, a positive effect is automatically achieved for the whole.

 

But let's keep in mind: If someone from digital marketing reads this and thinks his company would like to join - Digitalswitzerland is open?

Of course, we try to embrace everyone who can contribute in any way these ideas and know-how. Absolutely.

 

Where do we still have the greatest need to catch up in the digital sector in Switzerland?

There are three items that are currently on our list. First, the topic of E-ID: digital identity, which, by the way, was launched with SwissID at the first Digitaltag two years ago. That was an important milestone. This SwissID has been around for two years and one million people in Switzerland are already using it. Now it's time for us to discuss the e-ID law. The two chambers have already confirmed it by a large majority, but there may be a referendum.

 

You assume this because...?

Because the uncertainty is relatively great: What is the role of the state in digital identity, and what is the role of the private sector? This uncertainty exists even though the distribution of roles is clear and sensibly regulated. In any case, we need to make progress: A digital identity with which citizens can obtain digital services on Swiss platforms - but and above all also communicate with municipal, cantonal or national authorities, that is fundamentally important.

 

Where does progress still need to be made?

The second point is the issue of 5G. Any digital commitment is only as good as the digital infrastructure in a country. And just as with e-ID, there is still a lot of uncertainty about 5G, such as medical concerns, which, by the way, are not substantiated in studies, but are simply there, and they should be taken seriously. But to make a long story short: It is very important that Switzerland becomes a pioneer in 5G - and we still have this opportunity. After all, everything that can be created in terms of connected devices or digital services is ultimately based on our ability to offer high data speeds in Switzerland.

So: E-ID, 5G, and the third point is the data protection law. All in all, the EU's General Data Protection Regulation is a good thing, but Switzerland has not yet joined it. Our parliament should now adapt the level of protection around data to that in surrounding Europe. If Swiss citizens are adequately protected, our economy's access to the free exchange of data will be secured. And Switzerland's reputation as a competitive, digital nation will be strengthened. 

 

Let's take a look at digitization at Ringier - since May, there has even been an entire book on the subject, "Ringen um Ringier. Has there always been an affinity for this topic in your company?

What there is and has been at Ringier is an enormous entrepreneurial self-evidence. The company and especially the shareholders have always been very entrepreneurial. That is the thread running through Ringier's long history. One has gone - I'll take the last three decades - to Eastern Europe when one was almost laughed at for doing so. One has gone to Asia. And we went to Africa seven years ago, when many people asked: What are the Swiss doing in the big Africa now? 

Eleven or twelve years ago, there was very little thematic attention paid to digitization - just like at any other publishing house or media company. We were doing our business and it was going very well. You have to remember that the time when we kicked off the transformation was one of Ringier's most successful years ever. In other words, if the pressure of suffering is not great because things are still humming along, it's all the more difficult to say, "Hey, now we have to change and invest!"

 

And then you got involved in business areas in which the company had never been active before. Did you sometimes have palpitations about whether it would all work out? 

The very first transaction was the Scout24 Group in Switzerland. At the time, we had spent a lot of money on this company, around 160 million Swiss francs, and (laughs) we didn't actually have the expertise in-house to run a company like that. We didn't really know how digital marketplaces in automotive and real estate work. I remember the first management meeting with the Scout24 Group, where we, the Ringier managers, listened to them and didn't really understand much. They talked about things we didn't know, which was logical .... But Ringier as a company is good at what it does: It is very good at getting a ball rolling and then pushing it forward consistently, courageously, and quickly. 

Of course, that's also often a risk when you do things like go to Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, or throw yourself into digitization. At the time, many people told Michel Ringier and me that we were crazy to spend so much money on digital companies, which many people couldn't really assess at the time. So many millions here and there, for example in ticketing or just the digital marketplaces in the car, real estate or job segments. But the shareholders had this willingness, this entrepreneurial courage.

 

In the book, there are anecdotes about e-mails about delicate transactions that go to the wrong contact; about meetings in wine cellars in very small circles; about meetings with investors in Manhattan. Sometimes you almost get the impression that you're reading a detective story. Did you yourself find the anecdotes so exciting back then?

We had a dinner with friends recently and they actually read a little bit in the book. A quick parenthesis in advance: The announcement to the book author René Lüchinger was: You are the author, you get access to everything, to all documents, protocols and people who were involved, and they talk to you. You evaluate it and do what you think is right with it. But please tell it in a way that nobody falls asleep. And I think it has succeeded to some extent. 

That's the insertion, now for the anecdote: So the friends I mentioned actually read a bit in the book. The one about the wrong mail - it was about the Ticketcorner acquisition about 10 years ago. They laughed their heads off at dinner about this mistake of mine: the entire shareholder agreement that I sent to the wrong address in the presence of all the lawyers here in the office. When you run a company, it's like anywhere else in life - you make mistakes, you overlook something, you forget something ... 

Or you meet in the wine cellar, like each other, come up with a good idea, and say, "Let's follow it up." Or you meet someone who has a great idea, but is an A ... with whom you don't want to have anything to do ... Then probably nothing will come of it.

Or you struggle through a shareholder agreement for weeks, are dead tired at the end and send the 80-page agreement not only to the wrong address, but to a competitor of your actual partner - the worst thing that can happen. What's important about this book is that the other companies that were involved, they were all confronted with these passages. That means they were all able to read it - and of course they fished some stuff out. 

Does that give you sleepless nights? (turns to René Beutner, CCO of Ringier) René knows me relatively well. I'm a conscientious, hardworking, precise guy, nothing more. (both laugh). And we said to ourselves: "We have now started this, now we will go ahead diligently, conscientiously, precisely. In such a way that no one can accuse us that we should have taken better care of it." We are an attentive company, also a courageous one. We have a good work ethic - and that helps.

 

So you would advise companies that are in the process of transferring their structures to the digital age: Prepare well, be diligent - but then just act boldly and take risks?

That is very important. But I'm not here to give lessons, I can only draw from experience. Michael Ringier's principle is: "I don't believe in business plans, I believe in people." He acts that way, too. When he sees all the graphs, he usually doesn't care too much. He tries to understand, to judge the people who are responsible for these figures. So it's always about people first. 

Second, more specifically back to your question: Business plans and scenarios in this digital world that is changing so fast are damn difficult to work out, and there's little point in clinging to them anyway. Because you're jumping into an uncertain world. But you have to jump. If you don't jump, then you know, in many business models, that there's only going to be one way, and that's down. 

When you jump, you always jump into a certain unpredictability, a world that is not yet defined, because there is no or only a few how it will all develop. And that's why my recommendation is: prepare well, but then also jump. And when you have jumped, then you have to swim, swim, swim. That's exactly how it was for those who are big today - and were a startup not long ago.

AirBnB - my favorite anecdote: Back then, when no one wanted to see them, I was allowed to visit the company through a contact. They had an office with fifteen people at the time. They welcomed me, were super nice, took their time. Maybe they thought, a Swiss who probably wants to invest (laughs). But I just wanted to learn. I never thought they'd get this big. But what's even funnier is that the founders themselves never thought they would. Why? They told me at the time: "Look, we're doing something that won't actually be able to gain majority support. On our platform, people offer beds and apartments and bathrooms to people they don't even know." That can never actually become big, they said to themselves. And it became huge. 

And not only that, it has changed society. Today, it is sexy and taken for granted to use other people's houses and apartments. Digitization often not only changes business models, it also changes the social habitus. What we do, how we do things. If you observe today how people talk to their smartphones when they want or are looking for something! Who would have thought that I would talk to my smartphone at some point. I even talk to my car (laughs).

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You sometimes hear nostalgics, colleagues, and even some media journalists ask: "As a publisher, shouldn't you stick to journalism and print if that's what made you great? Otherwise, aren't you betraying your DNA?" Tell us, please: What about Ringier's DNA? Can you imagine that at some point you will no longer invest in media, no longer cross-subsidize them?

That was a lot of questions, fair questions too, I'll try to answer briefly and succinctly. We still have 140 media brands under our umbrella, which says a lot about whether Ringier is actually still a media company, whether journalism is still important to us. Of course it is. 

Secondly, I don't really care whether our journalism takes place on paper or digitally. What matters is that it's good journalism, that it finds its audience. Where it finds its audience is secondary. 

Thirdly, I would like to say that Michael Ringier and I think little of cross-subsidization. A publication is judged by its performance, and cross-subsidization of business - including journalism - should be avoided as a matter of principle. What I would say, however: If a company has enough substance to invest in digital journalism or in journalism in general, i.e., to create something new, then of course that helps. Blick TV is therefore a typical Ringier topic. It is an entrepreneurial topic. We don't know how it will come out. But we can invest because the company has substance to do so.

Digital journalism is more expensive today than print journalism. If you add up printing and distribution and paper for a publication like BLICK and set all the digital investments in a year at the BLICK Group against that - i.e. platform, data analysis, moving images - then digital journalism is more expensive. That's why it needs substance. All journalists who work at media companies that are diversified can sleep more soundly than those who work at a non-diversified media company.

 

What you always have to think about as a media maker, of course, whether you're online or offline, is an economy of attention. People seem to have less and less time, but more and more input that demands their concentration.

That's true, but it's not just the case in the media industry. If you take a very simplified look at the daily structure of a person in Switzerland today and take the same person, say, ten years earlier - how the economy of his time management or what he invests time in has changed - it's enormous. One indication is the "screen time" that you can have your iPhone record. Regularly look at the analysis of your screen activities on your IPhone ... 

Of course, there are different types of users. Some play Fortnite for seven hours, others check the weather app twelve times, others scroll through endless social media feeds and profiles. The battle for attention has radically changed, even intensified - and that's a key challenge we all face. But that's also true for the store out front on Bahnhofstrasse. Or for TV: TV has actually always gotten better since my parents used to sit in front of the TV after dinner back then. But today you have ten options for what to do after dinner. Just with this little device that each of us has in our pocket.

 

And assessing what people will choose is becoming increasingly difficult.

Now we've come full circle to the beginning of our conversation. Digitization brings new things and thus changes the way we move, keep busy, watch TV, sit on the streetcar, go on vacation, go shopping, go to the doctor, order food, make friends, buy a house or a car, discover new brands. It is so complex to assess what changes society and how, and what the consequences are. The only thing that is clear is that everything is happening much faster than ever before.

If autonomous driving becomes majority-capable, then in the first phase everyone will sit in the car and admire what the car does on its own - taking photos and videos ... and being nervous. After two or three years, it will no longer be fun and exciting. Then we'll probably read, eat, shop digitally or whatever.

 

If you could make a wish right now, as you look to a future where digital transformation continues to advance - what would be your idea of ideally exploited opportunities in Switzerland?

That is a complex and very philosophical question. If we use digitization correctly, it will bring improvements for all of us in practically every situation in life. More access to knowledge, greater efficiency in general, even better manufactured products, new solutions for diseases, and so on. I would almost say: a better world in almost every respect. 

But like everywhere, there is a downside and a danger. We can already see some tendencies. Problems of young people that are psychological in nature and arise from social media, because social media can have a massive impact on one's own being. Such issues are the other side of the coin. That people - again quite banally - go out to dinner in groups of six and hardly communicate any more because everyone is communicating on their cell phones with some third party. Political influence - we saw it with the election of Trump - a third of all tweets with the hashtag "Make America great again" were bots, computer programs ...

On the one hand, there are these incredible opportunities and improvements that I believe in. On the other hand, there are also the dangers and dark sides of digitization.

 

Shall we close on a positive note anyway? 

A central topic is - and is becoming more and more: training and continuing education. We should all be prepared to learn every day, to enter this learning curve, and it is becoming rather steeper. On Digital Day on September 3, we will launch the "Lifelong Learning" initiative. It's not just individuals who should be willing to continue their education. Employers, whether it's a small company or a large corporation, regardless of the sector or industry - are also called upon to provide their employees with opportunities, budget and time for this. We are all aware that this is easy to say, but it is still a long way from being implemented. That's what we're working on.

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