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Tony Silber

Business Conversations That Make Me Lose Sleep

Tony Silber - 06/02/2014-08:48 AM

Which workplace exchanges do you find to be most difficult? For most people, they're centered on two things: personnel and performance. Both of these things straddle the worlds of internal communications and HR, and both are also general managerial challenges.

I recently read an interesting column in Business Insider about the toughest conversations you can have at work. They were:

1. The Emotional Dismissal Conversation
2. The Awkward Personality Conversation
3. The Underperformance Conversation

All these are tough, but they are typically part of the same progression, and the progression usually starts with number three above, and ends with number one. Here are the toughest workplace conversations, from my perspective, and how I proceed.

Personnel
These kinds of issues run the gamut-from people who are squabbling, to turf wars, to folks who simply don't work well together. Sometimes goals don't sync up. Other times, actual performance doesn't fit the needs of the job, and that's typically when the three-conversation pattern that Business Insider described kicks in. To my mind, all of these things are a huge challenge and all of them divert from the common business goal.

I've learned over the years that a sustained, tight focus on performance is the way to go. There should be no politics, no gossiping, just set a tone for the group that all you care about is results. Results require collaboration. Keeping everyone focused on that creates a sense of confidence that relaxes a group and empowers them to experiment and achieve.

Business Relationships
This is another difficult area, but it's critical. Everyone from entry-level account managers to CEOs deals with either external clients, or with the public. Think of how frequent it is that a lower-level employee embarrasses a brand on social media, either when representing the company, or through some personal post that goes viral.

Of course, we're talking about conversations-whether with a subordinate or a colleague, or with an external customer. I've learned you can't wing it when it comes to customer conversations. Too much is at stake. Policies that everyone knows about and understands are critical, and these have to come from the top. I've had many conversations with customers in my career, and when business is on the line, they can be really tense. For me, the way to ensure that you preserve the business-if that's the goal, sometimes it isn't-the relationship has to come first. (This is a bit counter-intuitive, because I just stressed the importance of policies.) If your customers trust that you have their interests at heart, and you have thought through their challenges and understand their objectives-you'll keep the business. If they feel like you're officious, and policy-bound, you won't. Never use the word "unfortunately." That conveys a focus on your internal policy, not on customer-service. It is also condescending. Never use the phrase, "We're not set up to do that" for the same reasons. Always be ready with a solution or two.

Business Performance
For a lot of professionals, this is always a stress-inducing conversation, especially if you've fallen short of your goals. But it doesn't have to be. Putting aside the possibility of the fundamental lack of skills to do a job, most business-performance shortfalls relate to external factors in the market, not to your execution. So it really is an opportunity to shape a conversation about missing goals into the cool ways you're going to pivot to adjust to changes in the market.

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Tony Silber

Beyoncé, The Time 100 and Leveraging the PR Value of the List

Tony Silber Consumer - 04/29/2014-12:34 PM

 

When the Time 100 was released last week, our editorial team discussed how we might cover it. The context was its relation to PR, and how communicators could leverage the value of making the list.

This list is a PR person's dream. It's eclectic and interesting, and it covers a wide variety of human endeavor. It's global in scope. Unlike many magazine lists, the Time 100 is worth coverage and every person on the list is deserving of recognition in some form or another.

Are they the "Most Influential People in the World?" Some might be, but many are not. Why, for example, are Kirsten Gillibrand and Rand Paul on the list, but not Ted Cruz and Elizabeth Warren? It's all kind of random. The common denominator is that all the selections seem to be whom the coastal elites and people in the power centers of Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco are talking about. Or think they should be.

The cover of this year's edition was Beyoncé, featured in a revealing costume and an open-mouthed expression. To me, the image didn't convey the gravity that the list aspires to. Would other designees be posed that way? But Beyoncé has the gravitas. She was also on the list last year, after her performance at the Super Bowl. Sheryl Sandberg did this year's writeup.

(This is a cool feature of the list—celebrities do write-ups of other celebrities. It solidifies the likelihood that the list will be the preferred dinner party conversation at not just 100, but 200 parties. Of course, it leaves the door open for questions. Did Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe make the list because he is a "bold reformer," or because his profiler—U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew—thought that touting Abe's economic policies might be useful?)

But back to Beyoncé. Sandberg noted that she "doesn't just sit at the table. She builds a better one." (This is a variation on a line from the old movie about Sting, where, when his hired musicians complain about what Sting is paying them, the response from one of Sting's handlers is, "You might have a seat at the table, but Sting owns the table.")

But Sandberg likes Beyoncé's message of empowerment for young girls. "I'm not bossy, I'm the boss," Sandberg quotes Beyoncé as saying. What I like about Beyoncé is her authenticity—there is a sense that what you see is what you get. She's not a phony. I also like her staying power. She's been a star since the late 1990s. That seems like forever ago. My kids loved her in the old Austin Powers movie when they were little, and they still love her for her music and style now. That is remarkable. And then there's her sense of innovation. I've followed music my whole life, and I can't remember when anything as unique and unexpected as the release of a new album—a concept album complete with videos—without anyone having the slightest idea it was coming.

So if you're the communications person for any of the Time 200 (the Time 100 plus the celebrity essayists), there are three things you can take from the example of Beyoncé: Authenticity and talent beget longevity, and both beget the ability to innovate. 

 

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Tony Silber

Above the Fold, or Just Out of Date?

Tony Silber Homepage - 04/11/2014-09:25 AM

I was editing a report the other day about a PR person who got into a spat with a news organization. And the report used the phrase, “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.”

Some of you might know that one. Many of you may not have heard it. But that phrase and many others like it are so clearly out of date that it’s interesting—even comical—how they’ve hung around long after their original meaning has faded into history.

And it got me thinking about those phrases and why they’re still with us. Here’s a partial list (that is, all I can think of.)

• Stop the presses. Okay, this one is used more for dramatic effect than its actual literal meaning these days, but it is still around.

• The Press. This reference to the journalism industry is still common (think “Meet the Press,” the TV show. But it has a diminishing relationship to media today. You could just as easily call the show “Meet the CMS,” and you’d be just as accurate.

• Hot off the presses. Another term that’s more theatrical than literal these days, but still around.

• Above the fold. Why do we use this term in 2014? It refers to the front side of a broadsheet-style newspaper, like the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. It is not really an effective metaphor for how Web pages scroll.

• Ink-stained wretches. What journalists were called—usually by themselves—until 15 or 20 years ago.

• Cutlines. This actually refers to a caption that was pasted onto a makeup board below a photo, which was then turned into film, which was then printed.

• And speaking of “pasted,” why do we still use “cut-and-paste?”

• Op-ed. This used to mean the position opposite the editorial page in a newspaper. Now it just means an opinion piece.

• Press release. Seriously, why are they still called this?

• Clips. PR folks love this one. They love to collect clips. Except that no one “clips” stories anymore.

Then there are a few phrases and words that have not really survived.

• Morgue. This was also known as the library, where story clippings were cataloged and stored for future reference. Think of the morgue as a much less functional Google of the 20th century.

• Yellow Journalism. This was used to mean unfair reporting, but it came from a type of ink used in a cartoon in the New York World.

And then, finally, there are the terms from the old days of journalism that are still true to their original meanings today.

• Byline

• Beat

• Breaking news

• Exclusive

• Gotcha journalism

• Puff piece

Which terms and phrases have I missed? What can you come up with? I’d love to hear from you!

—Tony Silber
@tonysilber

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Tony Silber

What’s First, Technology or Content?

Tony Silber Editorial - 11/08/2013-14:06 PM

 

I’ve been thinking lately about how media is moving increasingly toward a greater technology dependence. I’ve read about how investment dollars, especially in Silicon Valley, where so much media-related innovation is occurring, steer towards technology solutions for media consumers. New utilities—new ways to interact with content—seem to be more important than the content itself.

Think about the major social media and many of the new online-only media businesses like TripAdvisor and Yelp. User interfaces, tools, analytics and more are the difference-makers. They create no content on their own, really, but they have massive audiences. Google commands more ad dollars than the whole magazine and newspaper industries combined.

Which for me raises an interesting question: Should media companies be technology companies first and content companies second? Has some paradigm shifted in the media world?

Now, before you dismiss what I’m saying as just simplistic nonsense, consider that not only is Google an advertising giant, but so is Facebook. So is YouTube. Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and others will rise in ad spend, and they all depend on users for their content. They pay no content creators, but they create extraordinary technology-based environments for people to post their own content.

And if you’re looking for consistency in the argument, consider that most media companies acknowledge freely that the one-way form of communication is dead. The old-school model of, "we-create-content-and-you-consume-it" is simply incomprehensible to modern media users. They take cellphone photos and videos, and share them easily. Even media companies say that they want to create a platform for community interaction.

In that context, then, should we be focused on content—or technologies that enable the sharing of content? It’s a fascinating question.

There are those who say that without content, there’s nothing. No Google and no Facebook. Which is true. But that doesn’t really address the question of who’s doing the creating.

 

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Tony Silber

On the “Free Fall” in Media Advertising

Tony Silber B2B - 10/04/2013-14:45 PM

 

Yesterday, I read a well-done blog from a writer and social-media consultant named Paul Gillin lamenting the death of BtoB Magazine, which Crain Communications said it is folding into Ad Age as of the first of next year.

What especially caught my eye was this observation:

“The advertising market for business publications is in free fall, and since most of the magazine’s advertisers are themselves B2B media companies, BtoB has suffered along with everybody else.”

Being a student of the media industry, I wanted to know why. I have a few theories, and I like to test them out on other smart people. Sometimes they agree, and other times I suspect they think I’m way wrong.

So I wrote a comment to Gillin’s blog that asked him what he thinks is driving that free fall. Specifically, I asked:

• Is it that print advertising has become an inefficient way to deliver brand messages?

• Is it because software products have emerged in the media industry that render third-party suppliers—advertisers—less essential? In other words, is it a case of, 'we can build, so we don't need to buy?'

• And also, do we buy less? For example, online, 'we don't need a printer in a continuous relationship, we need a Web development firm just once every few years.'

• Is advertising in free fall too because new channels and technologies have emerged—such as Facebook, Google and database-management tools—that allow marketers to more effectively identify and communicate with prospects?

• And if that's the case, does that mean that the audiences that media companies have traditionally aggregated are less valuable and less compelling to marketers?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. I don’t even know if they’re the right questions to ask. But something is driving the decline in advertising, not just in media on media, not just in b-to-b media, but in many print publications.

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Tony Silber

What Content Marketing Means to Traditional Media (and Traditional Journalists)

Tony Silber Editorial - 09/17/2013-14:27 PM

 

When I started out in journalism—in daily newspapers—every so often you’d have a colleague opt out of the reporter’s life and move into PR instead. It always seemed like a loss, because some of those colleagues were the most capable among us.

But journalism’s loss was PR’s gain. Today, in 2013, that’s perhaps more true than ever, because of the disruption of the traditional media world. Let’s be honest with what’s happening: The newspaper industry—the industry dedicated to putting news on a paper product, which is printed and distributed every morning—is dying. It will be gone in a generation or less. The magazine industry is less challenged than newspapers, but the trend is clear. Think about what’s happened:

• It’s not just that new technologies have massively changed media-consumption patterns and expectations.

• It’s not just that the Internet has destroyed many forms of revenue-producing classified advertising, which once was a staple of newspaper businesses.

• It’s not just that it’s become an extraordinary challenge to invest resources in highly qualified journalists to produce news, when that news is then redistributed online for free within minutes. How do you make money in that environment?

• It’s not just that newspapers have become an inefficient and outdated vehicle for local advertising. Local ad revenue is soaring, but it’s online, and going to contextual and ROI-oriented technology companies like Facebook and Google. 

• And it’s not just that paid reader circulation—an essential part of the revenue model for newspapers and magazines—is unpredictable, at best, online.

It’s all those things, combined. And the pace of change is accelerating. One outcome has been a wave of downsizings in the newspaper and magazine worlds, with some journalists moving into PR. And ironically, what many of them are doing now is—wait for it—creating journalism! They’re just doing it for all different kinds of brands, not just media brands. They’re serving brand communities, not geographic or industry-specific communities.

As media has changed, so has marketing and communications. The most significant change currently in brand marketing is content marketing, where brands engage audiences through traditional journalism techniques—they tell interesting and relevant stories that engage readers. This storytelling doesn’t work if it’s product pitching in disguise. It’s more sophisticated than that. And usually, it’s the PR staff that handles content marketing.

Is content marketing a threat to journalism? No. No more so than the bottom-feeder media companies that for 100 years neglected journalism and viewed content as “the space between the ads.”

What is happening is this: As marketers increasingly engage in content marketing—online, on social media, in video—they become a new source of competition for traditional media companies. And they also provide a new source of employment for those professional journalists who’ve found that career opportunities, good incomes and professional growth are no longer as plentiful in traditional media.

Maybe those folks who went into PR when I was starting out were just a bit ahead of the trend line.

 

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Tony Silber

A Media Company CEO’s Vision

Tony Silber Consumer - 09/09/2013-15:46 PM

 

 


 

Last week, BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti published a long memo on LinkedIn. It was titled a memo to the staff, but really was only partly directed to the staff. It was also a message to all external stakeholders and to competitors.

At any rate, it was brilliant. It was the most clear-headed, fully thought-out description of where media is going, and what attributes are necessary for success in a completely transformed media era, that I’ve seen. For those reasons—and because it serves as a great example of executive communication—it’s worth discussing.

First thing Peretti did was thank his team in what seemed heartfelt and was certainly gracious:

“Before anything I want to thank you for all your amazingly great work
over the last year. All of our success is because of you. BuzzFeed is on a significant roll, we have reached 
new milestones and our future looks tremendously bright.”

And that’s just the start. Peretti cited statistics illuminating BuzzFeed’s staggering Web growth. He outlined non-Web initiatives, such as an app, a YouTube channel and live meetups. He indicated the things BuzzFeed will not be doing: Live paid events, print magazines, white-label versions of BuzzFeed. And he reveals that his company is profitable—a rarity for Web-only startups.

As part of his thank-yous, he cites the work of various content, technology, data and marketing teams. Then Peretti gets into some interesting territory.

“Most other publishers integrate off-the-shelf products built by others, but this full-stack, vertically integrated approach was worth the significant, multi-year investment and is paying off fantastically today,” Peretti said. “There are great
 tech companies and great editorial institutions, but it is very rare 
for one company to take both as seriously as we do.”

This is a really important point. Very few traditional media companies look at their businesses this way. And that serves to ensure that they are perennially a half-lap or more behind technology companies like Google and Facebook, which understand the direct relationship between content and technology, and how it drives the new types of media consumption. It’s simply not about monthly magazines, with a front-to-back pattern, and traditional devices like the TOC, the front of book and the features anymore.

This leads to the really interesting core of the memo, where Peretti pivots into a discussion of the characteristics and economic prospects of BuzzFeed compared to traditional media companies.

“Despite the struggles of the traditional media, there remains an 
insatiable desire for great reporting, entertaining content, and
 powerful storytelling,” Peretti said.

“Facebook, Twitter, and the other Silicon
Valley-based social sites are amazing distribution platforms, but user
 generated content alone isn’t enough to fill the hole left by the
 ongoing decline of print newspapers and magazines. The world needs 
sustainable, profitable, vibrant content companies staffed by
 dedicated professionals; especially content for people that grew up on the web, whose entertainment and news interests are largely neglected by television and newspapers.”

This is all true. It’s important to hear, even if his point about the “Silicon
 Valley-based social sites” ought to be looked at with skepticism, because the basic dynamic of social sharing undermines the profit-generating ability of news organizations—and because BuzzFeed’s founding idea is about creating (and also finding and sharing) content for those same “Silicon Valley social sites.” You can’t have it both ways.

Still, Peretti is pointing to a new future, and he elaborates in nine additional points, covering everything from news to mobile, international coverage and more. (The point about being an international brand is especially valuable. Old-school media companies launch international editions. Technology companies, and, Peretti says, BuzzFeed, are one brand, one content package, translated and presented to different markets.)

One of Peretti’s points is that his company is investing in news. “There is a huge opportunity to be the leading news source for the 
social, mobile world,” he writes. “As we saw during the 2012 election, the Boston
 bombings, and our LGBT focused coverage of the Sochi Olympics, a new 
generation of readers are turning to us for news.”

You didn’t need to search very hard last week to find a contrary perspective, one that Peretti never addresses. Jeff Bezos, the Amazon CEO who just bought the Washington Post for $250 million, gave his first interview—to the Post. Bezos:

“The Post is famous for its investigative journalism,” he said. “It pours energy and investment and sweat and dollars into uncovering important stories. And then a bunch of Web sites summarize that [work] in about four minutes and readers can access that news for free. One question is, how do you make a living in that kind of environment? If you can’t, it’s difficult to put the right resources behind it.”

Bingo. If BuzzFeed is truly going to succeed in homegrown news, it needs to crack that code. Nothing that I’ve seen indicates anyone—including anyone at BuzzFeed—has figured that out.

And then there’s advertising. “Part of being a great business is being a “must buy” for advertisers
 who have many options,” Peretti said. “This means giving advertisers the full
 advantage of our scale, our data, our creative team, our social and 
mobile reach, and our technology platform. We have more
 expertise about social content than any other company. We can light up 
the social web for an advertiser across Facebook, Twitter, and
 YouTube, with content that is worth clicking and sharing.”

The challenge with that is that BuzzFeed’s own advertising model is based on a trend that works against media companies. BuzzFeed specializes in native advertising—advertising that looks and feels like and lives in the same format and in the same context as BuzzFeed’s (and other media companies’) own content. That is innovative, for sure, but it plays into another major trend—companies creating their own content and building audiences on their own, without the traditional absolute reliance on media companies. This, combined with the targeting capabilities social sites and Google, enables non-media brands to create content, engage audiences, identify leads and sell products and services without the same level of reliance on third party companies.

I love the clarity of Peretti’s vision. That doesn’t mean there aren’t significant trends playing against BuzzFeed. 

 

 

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Tony Silber

Native Advertising: Sticky or Icky?

Tony Silber Sales and Marketing - 07/22/2013-08:38 AM

 

The second story on BuzzFeed’s website Friday morning was…wait for it…“12 Comebacks We Can All Agree With.”

(I say ‘wait for it’ because anyone who knows BuzzFeed’s editorial approach knows its love for lists.)

It was a sponsored story—paid advertising—posted on behalf of Hostess, whose Twinkies and other brands are back after the production ceased and the company downsized nearly out of existence last year.

But the comebacks listed in the BuzzFeed story never once mentioned Hostess. It was all about other stuff.

It was actually a pretty good list, and pretty funny, too, despite small errors and its ‘intern-pulled-the-factoids-off-Wikipedia’ feel. So were the comments, not all of which were complimentary. “Uh, Arrested Development was canceled in Feb 2006, and the new season, specifically for Netflix, had 15 episodes. It really isn’t hard to check up on simple facts before submitting an ‘article,’” went one.

At the FOLIO: and Min MediaMashup event in April, one of the speakers was asked to define native advertising. “Advertising that doesn’t suck,” he said.

That’s an awesome description, for native or traditional forms. But with native, there are new ways to create superior value for an advertiser (and reader/user) and also new ways to mess things up.

Check out QZ.com for a clean, elegant way to do in-stream native advertising. Consider that the advertising is in the form of storytelling. Not a marketing pitch. Think too about the value provided to an advertiser to be fully integrated into a site’s content stream—where you see the ad as you scroll, and the ad’s content comes up in a search. That’s incredible advertising value.

But then there’s the flip side: Done poorly, native advertising in a content stream can seem spammy. It can disrupt the flow of content, not enhance it. It can make your page look like a dissonant cacophony, and put your credibility at risk when people open a page and see yellow-tinted ads where you think they shouldn’t be.

It’s a double-edged sword, and I admit that I’m not sure I like everything BuzzFeed is doing. That might be, though, that their formulaic approach kind of gets old quick. The fun of media consumption is in being surprised, and even delighted, in unexpected ways.

 

 

 

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Tony Silber

Goodbye, American Business Media

Tony Silber B2B - 05/08/2013-10:31 AM

 

The American Business Media Annual Conference last week in Jacksonville, Florida, was a really interesting one, for a whole lot of reasons. This year's conference was certainly the last of a breed.

With the ABM membership voting last week to approve a merger with the Software & Information Industry Association, the ABM is no more, at least as the 107-year-old independent entity it once was. Now, really, all is up in the air. Whether CEO Clark Pettit stays on board beyond the fall is an open question. Probably not. Same for CFO Todd Hittle. I'll be following up in the days ahead with the SIIA chief, Ken Wasch, for answers on these and other questions.

In the meantime, some observations:

• I had a brief conversation with Wasch at the Saturday night dinner hosted by Glenn Hansen and the folks at BPAWW. There were perhaps 30 people at that dinner, which was a terrific networking event. But I was there in prior years when that BPA dinner was three times as large as it was in 2013. That dwindled group was somehow symbolic of the state of the ABM itself.

• Back in the day, in the 1990s, the ABM event—then called the Spring Meeting—was a true annual gathering of anyone who mattered in the business-information space. It included all the big players of the big companies—mostly middle-aged men whose surnames were also their companies’ names. Everyone wore tuxes and gowns to a formal event on the Tuesday night. (One of those meetings, at the Greenbriar Resort in 2001, especially stands out.) Those executives were the core of the ABM, and there were enough of them to support a robust association. Some are still around, but not enough. It was left this year to Roger Friedman, whose father founded Lebhar-Friedman in 1925, to offer a final tribute to that old American Business Press.

• Later, into the final years of the 1990s and the early 2000s, the ABM meetings were where operating executives and their private-equity backers converged to do deals. The brokerage firms would be there in force, hosting invitation-only dinners and sponsoring lavish cocktail parties and golf. This year, I saw one person from JEGI, and he might have been the only investment banker I saw, other than John Wickersham of Atwood Capital Partners, who noted from the stage that there were no private-equity firms there this year. Again, a barometer of the health of the association.

• The ABM board members and senior staff were remarkably frank about the financial state of the association—one of the reasons for the merger with SIIA was a small cash reserve and a burn rate that might have jeopardized the association's existence by the end of the year. It was striking.

• I think what happened to the ABM was several things:

1. The disintermediation of marketing communications caused a flood of dollars into search, into lead-generation, and into marketers' own Web efforts, and out of b-to-b media companies.

2. Spending on digital advertising doesn't generate the same amount of revenue as print did.

3. Data providers and information companies became much more important, and they didn't join ABM.

4. Digital-only startups proliferated and began achieving scale, and they also didn't join ABM.

5. Technology media companies like Ziff Davis, IDG or UBM either stopped being involved in the association or they downsized themselves into oblivion.

6. Traditional b-to-b media companies struggled through the recession and vast secular changes, and some opted not to be members of ABM—which as a staff-dependent organization charged relatively high dues.

7. As ABM revenue declined, so did its level of services, causing an acceleration of the pattern.

• At any rate, here we were at ABM 2013, watching the last of the independent ABM conferences. Many sessions were strong, and told of the great amounts of innovation among ABM companies. Wickersham in particular offered one of the most insightful looks I've seen of what the traditional model of b-to-b media looked like, and what the advanced model needs to look like (see accompanying slides). The merger with the SIIA seemed promising to most people, and the larger association gives ABM members access to rich resources from like-minded companies.

• One session perhaps summarized the conflict that the ABM of the last 10 years has faced. Rafat Ali, founder of Paidcontent.org and more recently of the b-to-b travel-industry site Skift, called out Northstar Travel Media by name, even as Northstar CEO Tom Kemp sat in the front of the room. Ali lit Northstar up, claiming that the company (and other traditional players in the space) are basically resting on their laurels, have an old-school approach to media, don’t link to other sources in stories, are not innovative, are afraid to take on major advertisers, and don't have a cohesive view of the travel industry that includes air travel, hotels and destinations under a single umbrella.

Ali described his own startup company as one that doesn't sleep, that works on weekends, and doesn't need to own the "story," just the "conversation." In response, Kemp sarcastically noted that it’s true Northstar has an "old-school" problem: It’s called revenue. In response to that, Ali tweeted that, “a 60mn company, with tiny margins, isn’t exactly a revenue behemoth in travel, for being decades old.”

Goodbye, American Business Media.

______________________________________________________________________

Tony Silber is General Manager of FOLIO:. Follow him on Twitter: @TonySilber.

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Tony Silber

Reflecting on John Suhler’s Impact

Tony Silber Consumer - 01/17/2013-16:40 PM

 

Min wrote about John Suhler’s retirement last week. Other than that, and some mentions in the financial-industry media, his retirement didn’t make much news. To me, that’s an oversight, because John Suhler is certainly one of a dozen or so major figures in the magazine industry in the last 40 years.

That group includes people like Bill Ziff, who founded two major magazine companies; both had brands that live on today. It includes people like Peter Diamandis, who in the eighties bought CBS Magazines for $650 million and flipped it to Hachette less than a year later for a $100 million in profit. It includes iconic editors like Helen Gurley Brown and Tina Brown. And IDG’s Pat McGovern.

For a bunch of reasons, John Suhler belongs in that group. Suhler and his partner, John Veronis, created the category of boutique media investment firm in 1981, with the launch of VS&A, a brokerage firm specializing in the magazine industry. It was VS&A that managed the $3.2 billion sale of the TV Guide to News Corp. in 1988. More recently, TV Guide sold for $1.

And it was VS&A (later renamed VSS when a third partner, Jeffrey Stevenson, was added) that led the way for a host of other firms, including JEGI, DeSilva+Phillips, Berkery, Noyes, and others that operate in the media-industry space.

More than that, Suhler and his partners anticipated the private-equity boom in the magazine industry. VS&A began private-equity investment funds in the mid-eighties. By the mid-nineties, with the acquisition of Ziff Davis by Forstmann Little, the private-equity boom was on—a boom that with its spectacular successes and equally remarkable flameouts has transformed the industry.

But Suhler’s major impact might have come before even those milestones. Early in his career, he was a circulator, and because his father was also a magazine circulator, Suhler says, “The dinner table was a circulation bootcamp. I wasn’t bathed in football,” he says. “I was bathed in the language and the people and the activities of large-circulation magazines.”

Suhler took that education and transformed an industry. He pioneered an analytic approach to circulation, developing mathematical models to figure out costs and volumes necessary to maintain ratebases, solicit new subs, estimate renewals, factor in cancellations, payups and all of the many moving parts associated with paid circulation. Suhler’s work on circulation modeling predated the famous Lighthouse Model. He had a hand in developing the game-changing Kobak Model. And in his mid-twenties, as publisher of Psychology Today, Suhler used those analytic skills— And marketing planning and creative subscription offers like, “try a subscription for no cost, but if you like the magazine, we will bill you at our best introductory offer”—to push that magazine to an unlikely circulation of 900,000.

By 2004, VSS got out of the brokerage business and became a pure investment firm. And here’s another numeric measurement of Suhler’s success. In 32 years, VSS created four private-equity funds, two mezzanine funds, with about $3 billion in committed capital and invested in a total of about 70 operating companies with a combined enterprise value of $14 billion.

Not a bad career.

 

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Tony Silber

On the Nature of Technology Transitions

Tony Silber Consumer - 11/02/2012-15:04 PM

 

Two significant industry conferences in the last couple of weeks were dominated by the question of whether print is dead. At the American Magazine Conference two weeks ago, Ben Horowitz, co-founder, Andreessen Horowitz, said this:

“Babies born now will never read anything in print. At the same time, people in their 40s and 50s will never stop reading print. Face the reality that print will eventually go away.”

(You may recall that Mark Andreessen and some college classmates invented the browser that became Netscape in 1994.)

Similarly at the AMC, Jeffery Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future at USC said this: “Some magazines will always remain in print. Especially those with strong design principles. However, the majority will see their print roots begin to completely break down by the end of the decade.”

(It’s worth noting that a futurist who heads “The Center for the Digital Future” would probably be fired for predicting the print business model will prevail into the future.)

In a fiery opening speech at the AMC, the new CEO of MPA, Mary Brener, said the old-line magazine industry can prevail if it has “chutzpah and balls.”

“I love magazines and I believe in magazines. I believe that magazines—on both print and digital platforms—have a bright future. I am pissed that we as an industry have allowed others to hijack our story, our narrative.  A narrative that is now dismissive of print magazines.”

But I say the whole definition of the argument—print versus digital—misses the point. It frames the question inaccurately. Of course we’re both.

Berner also said, “We are not in the printing business. We are in the content business.” That reminded me of all the times I’ve heard industry prognosticators describe the supposedly fatal error of the railroad industry early in the last century. Railroads thought they were in the railroad business, the thinking went, when they actually were in the transportation business.

Well, the truth is the railroads—with their thousands of miles of track and their expensive, highly specialized locomotives and heavy equipment—were in the railroad business. And railroads got superseded by better technologies in the form of cars and airplanes. That they didn’t transform was not their fault. It was unrealistic to think they could. This pattern has been repeated countless times in the history of enterprise.

But: Berner is right in saying the media companies are in the content business, and as such, should not be tied to a particular distribution form.

At the other conference, the ACT III Experience at Samir Husni’s Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi, the keynoter, ASME’s Sid Holt, correctly said that no one really knows what the future will bring in media. Anyone who says they do is bluffing. But we do know this: Those who say print in its current form will live on, and ignores the opportunities and threats in new technologies, are playing a risky game.

There are plenty of positive statistics presented by Berner and others:

• The number of brands advertising in magazine media
has increased by 57 percent since 2009.
• Combined unduplicated magazine media audiences, 
across print and online, have increased by 4 percent.
• 91 percent of U.S. adults read magazines.
• 96 percent of adults 18-24 read magazines.
• The top driver of Web search is print magazines.

But for every stat along those lines, there are other, unclear signals:

• Magazine ad pages for the first half of 2012 are down 8.8 percent, according to PIB, following declines in consecutive prior years.
• Ad spending on magazine media is declining.
• Spending on marketers’ own Web sites is dramatically increasing.
• Technologies have emerged that connect buyers more directly to sellers, meaning the role of traditional media must evolve.

At the ACT III conference, Bob Sacks said the loss of dominance doesn’t necessarily equal death. But the truth is, sometimes it does equal death. New technologies frequently totally replace older ones. Has anyone bought a typewriter lately? Or a word processor? Horses supplied human land transportation for 6,000 years. They don’t anymore. Have you bought an LP lately? Or film for your camera?

And transitions can take a long time. Johannes Gutenberg gets credit for inventing the printing press, but the Phaistos Disk, discovered on Crete 104 years ago, is the earliest known printed document, dating to 1700 B.C., 3,100 years before Gutenberg. Why didn’t printing take hold earlier? Because the technology was not enough of an improvement on existing technologies to cause people to change.

And Nikolaus Otto built the first internal-combustion gas engine in 1866. But it wasn’t’t until the third decade of the 20th Century, nearly 70 years later, that cars became ubiquitous.

And you can bet that at annual horse-and-buggy conferences and trade shows for every one of those 70 years, prognosticators were insisting there would always be a role for the horse and buggy.

Bob Sacks is right. We’re in an era of realignment. And realignments can take a long time. In the meantime, we can better understand our customers, innovate, iterate and reinvent our businesses before someone else does for us.

 

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Tony Silber

The Joss Group's Hurricane Marketing: Case Studies from the Bad Taste Department

Tony Silber B2B - 10/31/2012-10:21 AM

 

We received this e-mail from the Joss Group on Monday, as the hurricane was about to hit. Not only did they take a shot at our decision to postpone the MediaNext event—we didn't cancel it, we postponed until January—but they also made hurricane jokes.

For the record, Joss Group, here's some of what Hurricane Sandy did:
• Caused 51 deaths.
• Knocked out power for 7.5 million people.
• Caused the cancellation of 16,000 flights.
• Caused unprecedented flooding on New York's 100-plus-year-old subway system.
• Left much of Manhattan in darkness, with Lower Manhattan flooded.
• Caused the New York Stock Exchange to be closed on consecutive days, the first time since 1888.
• Destroyed scores of houses in fires in New York City.

So you can market your event by making light of the impact of a hurricane, and you can offer hurricane pricing, and mock our decision to postpone our event. But don't expect everyone to think it's clever.

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