Big tech, small tech: surely we’re all in it together?
Writes Craig Wills for The Drum
3rd December 2020
Announced last week to not insignificant fan-fair was the ‘newly minted’ Digital Markets Unit [DMU], the freshest incarnation of a power-play by the Competition and Markets Authority. Its remit? To enforce a [yet to be defined] code of conduct that will set new [yet to be defined] limits on tech’s biggest platforms, as well as attempting to create a more level playing field for smaller rivals. [That’s us, new arrivals like Blix, by the way].
There are no specifics released on what that code is or might be or what enforcement powers they may have. What we do know is marshalling the big boys and girls in this space has thus far proved to be tricky, combative and absent of any genuine collaboration for good.
The unit’s formation and subsequent headline intentions pose a multitude of questions, not least how can constructive, positive change come about?
How can the drive-for-profit be reconciled with a desire for a more expansive, collaborative and ultimately [for the customer] more balanced digital landscape? How can competition be seen not only as a force for good but part of the genuine lifeblood of an industry? And how are new ventures encouraged to navigate the market to bring new solutions to the world?
[Writer draws breath, feeling slightly overwhelmed by the task and the weight of these rhetorical questions.]
As the co-founder of a new martech [a rather smaller, much smaller rival] business called Blix, the inspiration to ‘get into it’ every day initially comes from a personal view that competition is good; benchmarks are set, gauntlets thrown down, evolution is born of opportunity-spotting and new ways of solving problems that have not yet presented themselves is the big picture yet quotidian thrill of it all.
Genuine entrepreneurialism is in part about navigation, setting a course and being nimble enough to sidestep. When it comes to units and authorities; they tend to ‘er’ on the side of punishment as opposed to incentive and collaboration; another fine, another court hearing – somewhat blunt tools that big business can factor into their damage limitation budgets. [In principle, of course, there are no such things as damage limitation budgets… or are there?]
Sure, wrong-doing and illegal behaviours need to be punished, but the outcome must be a positive shift; fines only act as a binary solution and potentially miss a whole opportunity-space worthy of some exploration.
We need a new lens through which to look at the big and the small, a fresher perspective to a state of play I call ‘counter-complementary-ism’ – big businesses thrive off new innovations either from within or outside their own spheres. There is undoubtedly room for all, for the competitive benefits and positive disruption of all.
The post-industrial nature of digital tech is more than anything fluidity; the nature of customer user models, applications, re-application, upgrades, integrations; never before have market dynamics been driven by collaboration and complementary tech. Sure, initially counter or competitive even but over time together is often better.
The initial mission statements of ‘big tech’ never set out to be ‘anti-competition’. There was, and in part still is, a purity in their original missions. While I appreciate this is the hopeful optimist in me talking, could it be that we, big and small players alike, might all have a collective role in working towards the ultimate end of big tech working harder and better? To support the very lifeblood of the future, where new and emerging tech can often be identified by their purer missions or north stars?
These purer articulations and manifestations from smaller rivals, entrepreneurs and innovators – they add layers, they weave in, they complement, contradict, inspire change and only over time dilute and lose their own purity, and so the cycle evolves. The ebb and flow of digital innovation.
For context, Google was fined around $9bn by the EU alone across 2017 and 2019, whereas the entire digital tech investment in the UK in 2019 is reported at £10.1bn, and that was a 44% year-on-year increase.
We’re at a point in time where legislative power and fines must also evolve with one eye on cultural shifts, identifying new models for the entire tech ecosystem, rewarding positive change, an appreciation of what’s really happening with smaller ‘lifeblood’ businesses and a desire for a genuinely open debate around positive solutions that address the balance of power for good, as a force for good. For all.
Put that in your code.
Craig Wills, chief strategy officer of adtech Blix and co-founder of brand growth agency Big Blue.