“Now Corporate is hitting back“

Markus Dirr has been Chief Digital Officer (CDO) of Messe München since the beginning of 2017. We talked to him about his motivation, opportunities in the B2B business and how he defines his role.

Markus Dirr
© Photo: Robert Brembeck

Pedaling for success: Markus Dirr drives Messe München towards the digital age.

Mr. Dirr, you have held your office for a few months. Have you settled in well?

Markus Dirr: There wasn’t much of a grace period for me. Productivity was called for from day one. But yes, the reception from my colleagues was very open, albeit understandably, there were questions.

What question were you asked most often?

Markus Dirr: “How are we supposed to achieve that?” That was probably the most frequent question in the beginning. Ultimately, though, what they are doing is making a list of to-do items for me. It’s a question of making the opportunities digitalization offers us clear to everyone. In order to be successful, we all have to work together efficiently.

We have a clear strategic advantage, because trade fairs have always been platforms. Markus Dirr, Chief Digital Officer (CDO) of Messe München

Before coming to Messe München, you worked successfully in e-commerce and the digital business for over 13 years. What do you like about your new position?

Markus Dirr: B2B, absolutely. I am convinced that the opportunities in the B2B business are underestimated. I have seen that confirmed again and again in conversations with fellow specialists. With the new Digital division, Messe München has created a space within which we can enjoy great freedom in shaping business, even though the overall risk is very high. If you take a closer look at successful digital business models, you will quickly recognize that these are often platforms in which people share, do business and network, such as eBay, Amazon or Uber, just to name three examples. In this relationship, we have a clear strategic advantage, because trade fairs have always been platforms.

While writing your doctoral thesis, you developed a toolbox for identifying digital growth potential. What precisely can we imagine that to look like?

Markus Dirr: The method is called SocialFORCE. Essentially, it’s all about just four questions: How can I stage a pull effect in the market? How do I integrate the user into the added value of a product? How do I make a product successful by digitization? And last but not least: How can I understand the rules of the game of start-ups as an established company?

We only want to do whatever will lead to added value for the customer. Markus Dirr

What do you think Messe München can learn from that?

Markus Dirr: We simply have to reduce the flops and improve penetrating power when we launch new products. In individual cases, that can result in platform models, but actually, we only want to do whatever will lead to added value for the customer and matches our strategic positioning.

What does that mean specifically?

Markus Dirr: We are currently working on approximately ten digital products that differ in terms of risk and growth potential. Therefore, the Digital division optimizes a portfolio and changes the distribution of resources internally much more quickly than is common in the trade fair business. This portfolio can be divided into three types of digital products: cross-event products, event-based products and location-based products. Cross-event products focus on a special branch of industry and are not linked to the trade fair cycle. Let's take advertising technology as an example for reaching B2B decision-makers with an online campaign. When dealing with the event-based digital products, the respective trade fair forms an integral component of added value. This is exemplified by trade fair apps which we upgrade technologically and increasingly monetize. When dealing with location-based digital products, we go a step further and try to monetize our premises even further.

A well-made, printed fold-out map of exhibition halls can by all means be superior to an app. Markus Dirr
Markus Dirr

Messe München is in the process of building two new exhibition halls. Doesn't that contradict an expansion of the digital line of business?

Markus Dirr: Not at all. The CDO is by no means positioned against our core business, but rather supplements it. Generally, the distinction of offline/online is increasingly becoming unnecessary. If a new exhibition hall solves the problem of a customer bottleneck better than something digital, let's do it. Another example: A well-made, printed fold-out map of exhibition halls can by all means be superior to an app.

You have begun the Digital Spa presentation series for your colleagues. Conversely, is there something you need to learn from them?

Markus Dirr: Yes of course, actually a whole lot. My team and I learn something new every day and we have great respect for the work of our colleagues. For our joint success, I have to make my issues compatible with the processes and operations of my colleagues.

Starts-ups are far from being alone anymore, because the established companies are burning off the fat and climbing into the ring. Markus Dirr

Isn't the switch to a trade fair company a step into the past for you as a digital expert?

Markus Dirr: Among the people I worked with in the industry, the move to an "offline company without a clear digital business model" was clearly perceived as a step backwards.

What was your response to them?

Markus Dirr: If they carry out the assessment on the basis of team size or budget, viewed objectively, it is a step backward. However, I based my decision on other criteria: The freedom to shape things, a greenfield and, especially, unrealized potential. As I see it, we are in the process of starting a new digital calendar. I call it “The party is over—corporate hits back.” The starts-ups are far from being alone anymore, because the established companies are burning off the fat and climbing into the ring.

The CDO’s role can always be likened to a kamikaze mission. Markus Dirr

That sounds pretty enthusiastic.

Markus Dirr: That's the way it's supposed to be, too. A simple example: If we want to arrange an appointment with a potential customer, we can be sure we will get it. That is much more difficult for a start-up to do. Nonetheless, we shouldn't deceive ourselves—the digital past of established companies was often fraught by disappointments and deep wounds.

How do you as the CDO intend to heal those wounds?

Markus Dirr: The CDO’s role can always be likened to a kamikaze mission. If you don’t reach the targets, you will be ridiculed by yesterday’s losers and scorned by tomorrow’s big heads. What’s ludicrous is that in the event that the Digital division reaches its targets, the challenge for the trade fair will be even greater, the potential pressure to change even stronger and, with it, the potential counter-reaction of the organization as well. The more successful we are, the more we will be getting rid of ourselves. Because, in the end, we are not building a shadow organization here. Instead, we have the good fortune of going on a joint hike with colleagues in good weather. Seeing that we are experienced hikers when it comes to digitization, we don’t mind taking weight out of our colleagues’ backpacks and putting it into our bags.

ZUR PERSON

Markus Dirr studied philosophy and obtained a doctor’s degree in sociology with a thesis on digital products and services. He specializes in the growth of digital business in medium-sized enterprises and corporations. In addition to diverse consulting projects at leading companies. As CMO from 2015 to 2016, he headed the marketing department of reBuy—a digital marketplace with end customer sales of around 90 million euros. He has been CDO of the leading trade fair company, Messe München, since January 2017 and is building up their international digital business.

By Florian Severin. The article was first published in our Messe München Magazine 01/2017.