Fairfax Media takes on 'Digital' with Microsoft Data Analytics.
Fairfax Media is an innovative, integrated multimedia business with strong brands across multiple platforms including newspapers, magazines and digital. Fairfax Media owns the market leading website stuff.co.nz, two national, nine daily and more than 60 community newspapers and 25 + magazines.
In the face of dramatic industry changes happening internationally and now being experienced in Australia and New Zealand, it’s been necessary for Fairfax to restructure its business.
This dramatic industry change has also led the organisation to review the approach to the Fairfax Media Business Intelligence and Data Analytics strategy. While a traditional BI approach of a data warehouse and structured reporting had provided a good foundation, the key was to move to a self-service model that would put the power into the hands of the decision makers. The Microsoft BI and data analytics stack was a natural choice as it provided an end to end solution.
The Business Opportunity: Digital!
The reality of the media industry is that the organisations servicing it now need to be dynamic and respond quickly and efficiently to changing trends and emerging markets. The leading change for the industry is a move from print only advertising revenue to a combination of print advertising revenue and an increasing proportion of digital revenue. This is optimised for each customer based on their target markets – with digital being the key driver of growth.
For a historically print focused organisation, the information available to the Fairfax business to base decisions on was predominantly print advertising and circulation related. The digital advertising information was in the cloud and not easily available to information users. It was manually manipulated each week and distributed to the managers but not accessible to the analysts.
- A centralised repository for digital advertising information
- The business rules and standardised language applied to the source data
- Simple to access and analyse
- And they needed it yesterday
Montage has been working with Fairfax for over 5 years now. The early years were focused on building a foundation of information and decision making using the following Microsoft Technology;
- Data Warehouse (DW) - Microsoft SQL Server 2008 R2
- Reporting - Microsoft SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS)
- Analysis – Microsoft SQL Server Analysis Services (SSAS) and MS Excel
While this “structured” solution delivered results and information into the hands of end users, it was a traditional approach that was resourced from the IT department and meant that users were consumers of the information and any changes or improvements went back through a requirements stage, DW and Report development that resulted in a delay in delivering as there was a lead time from getting the changes from development to UAT to release.
With the release of the new Power BI tools from Microsoft – it meant that Fairfax could transform from a traditional IT approach to a user/analyst centric model.
The solution was to build a digital advertising data mart hosted in their data centre that could be regularly updated and distributed to the business analysts using the tools they already had – Microsoft SQL Server Analysis Services and Microsoft Excel.
Because the solution was required now, it needed to be flexible, scalable, and most important it had to be a solution that could be led and driven by the data and analysts.
Microsoft – Self Service BI: “power to the people”
Fairfax decided the optimal solution was to use Microsoft and their Power BI tools available in SQL Server 2012 and Excel 2013. Microsoft was already available to the key business users in some form as most of them were already licenced for Microsoft Excel. The key users were upgraded to Excel 2013.
Phase 1: Microsoft Excel PowerPivot Model
Phase 1 of the “digital” project was about quickly and efficiently delivering a proof of concept ‘cube’ to the business in order to validate the proposed information from both a content and accuracy perspective.
Fairfax took the standardised weekly extract that was manually sourced from the cloud based digital advertising system, and imported it into an SQL Server 2012 operational data store using SQL Server Integration Services 2012. Then using Microsoft Excel 2013’s Power Query and Power Pivot, Fairfax was able to quickly discover the data and then build a proof of concept model of the data. The model was released to the analysts via Excel 2013 to validate accuracy and business rules and also provide additional requirements.
A Tabular model was made available to the commercial analysts who could then provide information to the business – all in a tool they were familiar with.
Phase 2: Microsoft SQL Server Tabular Cube
Once the Power Pivot Model was validated and signed off by several key analysts, Fairfax proceeded to upgrade the model into a SQL Server Analysis Server Tabular Model “cube” using SQL Server Analysis Services 2012. Going down this path allowed Fairfax to quickly take a proof of concept and ‘productionise’ it into a scalable solution that had disaster recovery options, while retaining the flexibility to change and adapt the model as required. Microsoft made the upgrade extremely simple by offering an import wizard to move from Proof of Concept to deployed Analysis Services tabular model in several simple steps.
Again the solution was delivered to the business in tools they already had, and already had the expertise in.
Phase 3: Data Analytics
Once the Analysis Services Tabular Model was in place, the analysts were then upskilled in Microsoft Power View. This Excel 2013 add-in allowed the analysts to start visualising the data in ways they never had. They started producing time in motion charts in order to look for stories available in the data. Rather than just having flat tables of account revenue over time, they were able to visually see account movements over time against several key attributes.
The process also allowed Fairfax as a business to quickly see the trends in their information, while also creating the opportunity to mature their analysts from grids of data to visual representations, while also slowly maturing the managers.
Resolving Business Problem #1: Growth in new markets
Business Problem #1 was about delivering to the requirement of “we need the information now”. Hence Fairfax was able to resolve this business problem through:
- Combining the power of Microsoft Integration Services and Excel 2013’s power BI tools (Power Query and Power Pivot), Fairfax was able to quickly deliver a proof of concept data model users could validate against business content requirements and accuracy of business rules. The Power Pivot model very quickly moved from proof of concept to “live”. Thus providing the organisation with information now, not in 3-6 months when things may have changed.
- The Power BI capability allowed Fairfax to deliver regular enhancements to the business through rapid development, solution releases and feedback/enhancement cycles. This was not an option available using the traditional BI approach.
- Even with delivering a “now” solution, the solution still had to be robust enough to ensure it had business continuity and scalability as it became more business critical. The Power BI tools delivered to this IT requirement with their solid upgrade path from Power Pivot prototype to Tabular Model cube using the Microsoft Analysis Services Import Wizard for Tabular Models.
- Going through this process, Fairfax was able to mature the Analysts through moving their experience from purely number driven reporting to visual representation of the information. This has led to maturing the managers as well, and requesting more visual representation in their analysis requests.
Resolving Business Problem #2: Improving access to and use of information
Fairfax saw this business problem as a great opportunity to empower their staff, in particular the commercial analysts. Fairfax decided the best approach was to:
- Enable our key analysts by upgrading their Excel to 2013, train them to use the Power BI suite, and then inspire them to think differently, and ask different questions, well also asking them “are there any other data sources we need to consider in order to help you in your job”.
- Fairfax also understood by maturing the analysts, they in turn would slowly mature the managers and the organisation. The end result is “our managers are now asking new questions”.
The future of BI at Fairfax will continue to be driven by the need for constant improvement. That “doing nothing was [and will continue to be] not an option”. The continued “focused on delivering information for the people in our business” while also continuing to leverage existing technology where possible to help optimise the people and process – especially as new versions with new functionality are released.
The Microsoft Self Service BI tools have allowed Fairfax to rapidly deliver previously inaccessible information to the business in a manner that was efficient and cost effective but also allowed the end users to feel appreciated through being on the latest versions of Excel.
The decision to go with Microsoft Power BI was a simple one, but also one that delivered value because it was fast, it was efficient, and it was certainly cost effective.
As Fairfax continues to drive business growth through new markets there will be a constant requirement from the business users for access to new data. Whether this data is internal or external, the Microsoft SQL Server and Microsoft Self Service BI stacks will continue to cover all bases from data warehouse to discovery, modelling and analysis to visualisation. The results have validated the BI approach and the partnership between Fairfax, Microsoft and Montage.