It’s July, and Sue Barker is back at Wimbledon for the BBC. When you do something every year, there’s bound to be pressure, and an appetite, to move it on rather than risk predictability. Back in 2015 the BBC tried to do that, with humbling consequences. Here’s a reminder of what they did and what we all can learn from it.

You have to feel for Clare Balding, the nation’s darling after 2012. Her success has catapulted her into being the sole presenter of a total fiasco of a programme which has been universally derided. After defending the show, saying “new formats can take some time to bed in with audiences”, the BBC has backtracked on most of the changes and turned it back into a programme about the day’s tennis at Wimbledon. Phew.

What went wrong, and can we learn from it?

It’s tempting to say this is proof that market research can’t be relied on – assuming someone at the Beeb checked out some of these ideas with viewers in advance. It could also illustrate the natural tension between, on the one hand, the creative process and/or the drive to innovate, and, on the other, the natural conservatism of the marketplace, in which, all things being equal, we will usually prefer the familiar over the unknown.

Nope, it’s neither of those things, and it didn’t have to be this way. Here are three lessons from Wimbledon 2Day that can be applied in any business.

  1. Start with the job to be done, and never lose sight of it.

People will always tell you the things you could do differently, the new things they’d like to see, but they don’t usually mean at the expense of the basic delivery. That’s why it is so critical to keep that core proposition in sight. What’s your product or service really for, at its simplest?  What are the basics, the hygiene factors that people expect? They go without saying. Innovation that doesn’t start with understanding what consumers value is a vast and scary landscape. Maybe there is room for a tennis chat show on a tacky set with an awkward audience dynamic, but it’s no substitute for an informative round-up of the day’s play at a Grand Slam tournament.

  1. When you make changes, make sure you know whose needs are being met.

I suspect the BBC team who made this programme may have had their own drivers – pressure to refresh the format (but not from viewers), an ongoing BBC push to make their programming more interactive, and to feature social media. It’s ok to meet internal needs instead of doing what people say they want. We all know you can’t take instructions from people sitting in focus groups. It’s not their job to make business decisions, and anyway they don’t have the full picture. Sometimes consumers are reflecting the status quo, and you know you need change, as in the creation of Swatch, famously rejected in consumer research. Sometimes change is driven by operational or other factors, and doesn’t benefit customers. That’s fine, as long as you’re clear that you are pursuing another business agenda, and you’re ok with the consequences.

  1. Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken. (That was Oscar Wilde.)

At some stage there was a meeting, perhaps a brainstorm à la W1A, where features of successful programmes were discussed. Benchmarking, a favourite of the management consulting world, works brilliantly for operational and financial issues – sensible ratios, that sort of thing – but it’s no way to evolve or improve a proposition. Yes, the ingredients look ok: widely respected and well-liked presenter? Check. Everyone loves Clare Balding. A proven format? Check. Everyone knows that Top Gear is the BBC’s biggest programme worldwide. They must have thought they couldn’t go wrong using the format. But if we want Top Gear we know where to find it. As someone tweeted, “Who decided they needed to turn Today At Wimbledon into Top Gear?”

It’s true that people don’t always know what they want, but they seemed pretty unambiguous on this one: 95% of readers voted to revert to the previous format of Today at Wimbledon. So much for the unreliability of market research. But the Beeb have achieved one objective in spades. The Twitterati have been generous with their time in giving feedback. As The Guardian reported, “Happily, the very social media that the producers were working so hard to win over with their #anyonefortennis hashtag also showed them the error of their ways.”

Thought leadership | July 2019