Profiles In Creative Management
How three executives are shifting into growth mode through culture change, stabilization and reigniting product creation.
If there’s any common story in our industry over the last decade, it’s been one of upheaval and rapid change. In some cases, this has confounded publishing executives, at their peril. Others, however, have risen to the challenge and have led their companies and teams through major changes and strategic shifts and have ridden the wave of change rather than getting overwhelmed by it. Here, FOLIO: checks in with three executives from very different corners of the market to get their secrets on how they turn challenge into opportunity and guide their brands, companies and teams through a market that’s evolving right in front of them.
Reader's Digest Association hired its fourth chief executive in three years last April, naming Bonnie Kintzer to the post. After working at RDA from 1998 to 2007, she came into the role more knowledgeable about the company than most other new CEOs would be.
Seven years away meant there was catching up to do though. Experience as a board member of F+W Media and Women’s Marketing Inc., and subsequently as CEO of Women’s Marketing Inc., also allowed Kintzer to expand her skillset in a few key areas that would be critical to achieving success back at RDA.
“I was gone for seven years and I knew how much I had changed in those seven years,” she says. “It started in the interview process and in conversations with the board of directors, and in giving me full access to financial plans and strategic plans. It was clear from looking at those documents that the company had changed dramatically.”
Survival Mode, the New Normal
Not only was RDA much smaller—just a fraction of the multi-billion dollar enterprise it was when she left—but perhaps more critically, operating in “survival mode” had become the norm.
As the company shifted in and out of bankruptcy under several different regimes, business development, and consequently, revenue, had stalled, particularly as it related to digital products. The underlying assets were strong enough to justify her belief that the company could be turned around, but they just weren’t being monetized.
Kintzer encountered more evidence of the problem once she took the job. She held 30-minute, 1-on-1 meetings with more than 100 of her new employees, about 25 percent of the company’s total workforce. There, she learned about why they stayed throughout the leadership changes, what they liked about the company and that they still held a pervasive focus on the customer. She also learned that innovation simply hadn’t been a priority.
“When I asked people how we could grow and tried to coax out new ideas, there were many people who couldn’t even fathom responses because they hadn’t been asked that question in so long,” she says. “That was a critical lesson for me—one of the things we’d lost was a sensibility around how to launch new products and services.”
Kintzer knew that RDA still had a massive audience, a history of success with brand extensions and more than 100 years of content to leverage. What was missing was a corporate structure that allowed them to monetize those assets digitally. She knew that by rekindling the fire that made RDA a dominant worldwide publisher just a few short years ago, she could start to develop products that could resurrect the company. That process would involve coaching and bringing in fresh, creative thinkers who understood the economics of digital publishing.
While survival was the norm for most of her employees, not all of them fell into that category. Kintzer identified the individuals—chiefly in the company’s marketing department—who still had an aptitude for business development and has relied on them for the ideas that are now fueling the company’s growth.
Meanwhile, she’s taking steps to reignite the entrepreneurial spirit that once was so central to RDA. That coaching has largely taken the form of town hall meetings where Kintzer discusses the criteria employees should consider when coming up with new ideas for business development. Specifically, there are four questions she needs them to answer:
Do we have permission to sell it?
Does it leverage our existing assets?
Is there an existing business model for it?
Is it scalable?
While Nos. 1, 3 and 4 are applicable to most businesses, No. 2 is of particular importance to RDA and its 100-plus years of content. Kintzer admits they’re not fully there yet, but getting the company to leverage its rich history through modern, digital means remains a priority.
“In 2014, I was very disappointed in our digital sales progress. One of the things I saw in my pre-work before I got here was an un-monetized asset in our digital properties. I felt that we should be able to do more and ultimately came to the conclusion that what I really needed was digital leadership, and that’s what I’ve brought in,” she says.
Board Experience a Plus
Refocusing the company culture on growth has been one of Kintzer’s challenges, but getting owners and a board of directors to buy in to her plans has been just as critical.
She credits her time away from RDA—as a board member of two companies, and as CEO of a marketing agency—with teaching her how to deal with bosses in private equity.
“By the time I came back, I had worked very closely with private equity so I understood what was on the mind of the board and on the mind of investors,” she says. “Boards want you to always be mindful of financial issues, whether that’s cash or profit or growth. I’ve always had a strong financial aptitude, but I met with these people regularly so I stayed on top of their concerns. A good investor is concerned with the business mechanics, so it was my responsibility to make sure they understood the business in the most concise way. When I was asking for investment, I needed to have a very cogent argument and milestones to deliver on. So that was great training for here, because when I took this job, I was very clear with the board that I needed money to turn this company around and they’ve been extremely supportive.”
Aside from her own experiences, Kintzer has also relied heavily on others throughout the on-going transformation of RDA. Internally, she’s brought on a series of new execs, including a new chief revenue officer, chief financial officer, chief technology officer and a head of business analytics to help guide the company.
She’s also turned to mentors like Eric Schrier, CEO of RDA during Kintzer’s first stint with the company and a current board member, and Greg Coleman, president of BuzzFeed and a board member of Kintzer’s former company, Women’s Marketing Inc.
Together, the tactics are paying off already. The company launched the Taste of Home Online Cooking School in October—one of RDA’s first major launches under Kintzer. The platform leverages the print, digital and experiential content of a core brand at RDA—a jumping-off point for hundreds of cookbooks and live events in the past—in a way that’s more reflective of the modern consumer experience. The initiative also required a substantial investment that Kintzer got the board to approve.
The company as a whole is following suit. Eighteen months removed from its latest bankruptcy, RDA is now a profitable enterprise, Kintzer says, with each brand profitable independently. U.S. profits are on track to be up 30 percent in 2015 over prior year.
Although creative management requires nimbleness and thinking outside the box, for Jim Impoco, editor-in-chief at Newsweek, experience is arguably the most critical attribute.
Impoco joined Newsweek during a time of uncertainty and under the scrutiny of a media industry that largely left the brand for dead. Barry Diller’s IAC Media sold the brand to IBT Media in August 2013, only eight months after it transitioned from an 80-year-old print newsweekly into a digital-only magazine. Not only did Impoco have to replace a high-profile editor in Tina Brown, but he also had to start from scratch because the brand inherited less than a handful of staffers in the sale.
“It was a little bit like adopting an abused kid from a shelter,” he says. “It was a fully digital product so the question was: How do we reimagine it that way? It wasn’t a question of restoring what it had been. All the other approaches had failed. And every era was different. So we had to figure out what we were going to do with it.”
Build the Right Team
Impoco had a small window of time to establish his new team and produce his first issue as the brand’s new editor. Obviously his first objective was to build a staff that could not only produce quickly, but one that would fit into his strategic vision—“to put the news back into Newsweek.”
His first step was to recruit a few key players that he worked with in the past, including his deputy editor Bob Roe, who was also his number two at Condé Nast Portfolio. But to get things moving in the right direction Impoco needed to add a lot more than a few editors, and he needed to enlist people that could stand up to the demands of digital publishing.
“I was looking for people with a high metabolism—digital producers who could produce two or three stories a day, if necessary, and with enough added value that they stand out,” he says. “We needed someone that could crash a cover story out in a day. So I sought out investigative reporters, but not old-school types that need six months to develop a story. I needed people who were hugely productive and capable and knew how to chase down a story.”
Develop A Strategy and Stick to It
Putting the “news” back in Newsweek was a systemic challenge. Not only did editorial need to rethink its strategy, but the brand also needed the audience to recognize and accept its new direction.
“We sort of knew everything wasn’t working,” he says. “We didn’t have a blueprint to work from, we couldn’t go back to say, 1999, or some other time, because none of it was working. In a sense, you had to go hard and that’s what we did.”
By “go hard” Impoco means focusing on long form investigative reporting and standing out as a news organization in an era where news has become a surplus commodity. But a new content strategy doesn’t necessarily mean an audience will buy in, especially if they’ve become accustomed to something else. He admits that when he took over the brand it was “smart, but [with a] middlebrow sensibility.” So his ambition was to “relocate it up the food chain a little bit.”
“People are a lot smarter now,” he says. “There was a time when Newsweek could close the magazine on a Friday and stay fresh and relevant on Monday, but that isn’t doable now. You can’t do a cover story on Ferguson straight and try to connect the dots and hope that four days later it still seems relevant. Now what we do is the second-day story.”
Don't Forget the Past
While Impoco wasn’t able to draw on what worked in the past for Newsweek, he was able to draw on his experiences at Reuters and Portfolio. In fact, when he revived Newsweek’s print magazine in March 2014, he modeled the product on a quarterly he previously launched at Reuters.
“I couldn’t have done it otherwise,” he contends. “The Reuters quarterly was a direct blueprint of what we did with the print, I even used the same designers I worked with at Condé Nast. There’s a lot of continuity between Portfolio, Reuters and what I’m doing now—including staff. I have a go-to group that I knew could do this. You need people who share a vision.”
Some of the elements within the blueprint he’s talking about are physical, like heavier paper stock, which makes the book look more like a SIP than a newsweekly.
Of course, there is one critically major difference between Newsweek and his past experiences—resources. Impoco says that while he was at Condé he had what now seems like limitless resources and time to produce an issue. He contextualizes the difference by noting that he had photo shoot budgets that cost more than six months of his current staff’s T&E allowance. But he says the valuable lesson he’s learned from that is that no matter your budget or resources, things might not always work out, as was the case for the now defunct Portfolio.
Grit Builds Character and Culture
In hindsight, Impoco describes the efforts he and his team fostered to reestablish Newsweek as “herculean.” Not only did he need to rebuild his team, redevelop the content strategy, reestablish an audience and assimilate under a new ownership, but he also had to ensure his group shared his vision and had confidence in the brand and each other.
Newsweek faced so many initial challenges when Impoco joined that he says it formed a “band of brothers and sisters.” He explains that everyone was in the trenches together and shared the same goal. They also collectively understood that “what they were doing was crazy,” he says.
“The difficulty created a bond,” he says. “Now we’re up to 60 [team members]. When we started out with such a small crowd we were hoping for a minimally viable product. But as it turns out we did a little bit better in my opinion. Once the treadmill starts it doesn’t stop. And now it feels relatively chill.”
That “chill” environment is succeeding. Impoco says that the brand is now profitable, and the online audience is growing rapidly. Advertising for the magazine has increased 100-fold, and revenue in 2014 grew 400 percent when compared to 2013. What’s more, its online traffic increased from an average of 200,000 monthly unique visitors to over 2 million, year over year. Impoco credits much of this success to the brand carving out a niche in international news with major features like human trafficking, ebola, bitcoin and ISIS.
The change happening in the magazine media market is happening across all the verticals—B2B, consumer, city and regional—but perhaps no other vertical has been blindsided quite as dramatically as B2B. The decline in print has been more acute, leaving business publishers in a confounding position of wholly redefining their corporate strategies. Some began to identify as technology companies, others hung their hats on their ability to provide information and data. And “media” was usually relegated to the end of the tagline. These identity changes are often followed by significant structural shifts to align with the new strategy.
The reasons for these changes vary, but can be motivated by the type of ownership—private equity or banks, for example. But even independently owned publishers have had to evolve their corporate and product strategies.
At Farm Journal Media, that meant some radical changes to company structure, sales approach and leadership style, especially at the top.
Pay Off Debt
In 2003, Farm Journal Media struggled its way through that period’s downturn, coming very close to throwing in the towel with a divestment of assets. “There was a lot of failure—not so much failure as much as getting through a mind-set shift,” says president and CEO Andy Weber. “We’re not a family-owned company, we’re not a publicly traded company, or owned by private equity. What we have in the bank is what we have in the bank. At one time we had a ton of debt and nothing in the bank. You better get a pretty strong and close team to get through those times, but that’s not a revelation.”
That may not be a revelation, but common sense is all too frequently delayed, to a company’s peril. Nevertheless, Weber, who became CEO in 2000, instituted a debt pay-down program before the company began to ramp up new product development. That was achieved in about four years, but not without the help of a directive to dramatically boost competitiveness on the front lines. “What did it for us to get through an extraordinary period of time—2003 being the worst, we almost split up our assets—was creating a business that worked. We focused on winning in the trenches, winning day-to-day and winning competitively,” says Weber.
Reorganize for Growth
By 2007, the company’s debt was paid off and Weber instituted a plan to double the company’s revenue in five years. But as it turns out, that was only the first wave and the plan was immediately challenged by external market forces. What followed was yet another financial downturn paired with an acceleration of digital media while marketers began to shift spending away from print.
“The five-year plan sounded good on paper—to double the size of the company—and then a few things happened: the years 2008 and 2009 were not good and we didn’t have the creativity to deal with it and we had a low tolerance for risk.”
The expertise that Weber had developed during the debt pay-down days came up short during the most recent recession because what was also needed was the muscle to push major cultural change through the ranks. That change meant convincing the company’s leadership to light a fire under product development and dramatically change the way they sold their advertising.
Add A Zero
The germ of Weber’s second act emerged from a simple statement: “Think a decimal bigger.”
In other words, a $10,000 ad sale becomes $100,000. “We realized we had to raise expectations,” Weber says. “I told my division presidents that they needed to work on $300,000 or bigger projects. I wanted sales people to be working on six-figure multimedia projects instead of a banner or ad page. And that was a commitment by senior management first and then pushed down the ranks.”
But that kind of mandate doesn’t just fall into place. “The cultural thing was huge,” Weber says.
Making the transition from cost control and debt reduction to turbo-charged business development was difficult.
In 2009, Weber initiated a major consolidation of Farm Journal Media’s sales teams, and the move couldn’t be done quickly enough.
The company was already gaining traction with new product launches, going to market with a growing array of integrated media products across print, digital, data and FJM’s broadcast content, but the sales teams weren’t offering comparable solutions across those platforms. In fact, the various ad services were competing with each other. “Our go-to-market strategy was working beautifully, and that was to integrate our media, [but] we were sending conflicting messages to the market,” says Weber.
The bigger, six-figure deals that became part of the rallying cry were initially handled by senior executives. “It was mostly management doing it and dragging the reps along,” he says. “I took a scorched earth policy, broke down the silos and made everyone learn how to package. We’ve got business people treating the sales process now as a solutions process, a portfolio process. We do business at a much higher level.”
Four separate sales groups were merged into one. That, combined with the growing complexity of the company’s market strategy, sparked a 150-percent churn rate among sales employees.
But that churn helped the organization bring in new talent that offered new perspectives on product and business development—particularly on the digital side. “Fresh thinking helped open the flood gates and we became very prolific in organic development,” says Weber.
“To this day, seven years later, ‘think a decimal bigger’ is still frequently repeated around this organization,” he adds.
Re-Think Management Style
As the company grew—topline jumped 20 percent in 2013—Weber realized his own management style needed to change. The debt reduction and reorganization years required hands-on, day-to-day attention. But as new employees began to join the company, new products rolled out and groups began to stabilize, Weber knew he had to back off. He realized his leadership style worked for a corporate culture that had since changed.
“Through the tough times here ten years ago, I had a fairly new management team, inexperienced in B2B. I was extremely hands-on, extremely demanding—but never artificial or deceitful. I found out in the last few years that my style was effective for the times. We became stable, then successful, then prolific.”
But to manage through the rapid growth took a different skillset, and Weber sought the council of an executive coach. “What I found out was [the management teams] knew more about what they were doing than I did. The last three years I’ve been trying to change and get out of their way and not stifle growth. We were in a go-go mode and I had to learn how to manage that. It’s less about mandates now and more about repositioning and restructuring the company to handle growth.”
Going forward, Weber is encouraging even more speed from his team while looking at new areas for growth. Data and information are ripe for development, he says, but they need to move fast. “We’re doing some training on agile development and the scrum theory. We want to develop bigger things in half the time.”
Meanwhile, after years of focusing on organic growth, Weber says it’s time to start acquiring more. “We’re going to have to acquire to get better, too,” he says.
But any deals will likely stay within the agriculture market, and get done with minimal leverage. “We’re going to stick with our knitting. I’ve been with the Thomsons and the Reed Elseviers, public companies and private equity. [Companies] have been recapitalized every three or four years because they’ve been too far over their own skis and it’s happening all over again. I don’t want to do that.”