ADOTAS — In recent months, there has been a flurry of activity in and around the Time Warner building focusing on the plight of the publishing empire of Time Warner. Despite the great success of SI’s Swimsuit issues and People covers, the company is the most recent casualty of a war between legacy media and digital platforms. We take no delight in the vanquishing of a once-dominant force in the print publishing arena. A veteran of the Ziff Davis organization for over 13 years, I know all too well the depth of anxiety experienced around circulation and advertising revenue declines that precede the death of market leading publications.
We are living through one of the greatest transformations in human communications in the history of mankind. Leaders can be forgiven at some level for making decisions and charting new paths that ultimately result in accelerating the pace of decline. The way in which consumers of content of all types engage continues to change at an incredible velocity. Too many companies are having a tough enough time “keeping up” with this pace of change in how their customers connect with their brands. So very few are either smart enough or lucky to be out ahead of the trends in marketing communications.
Rumors of the death of Time Inc. Publishing are wildly exaggerated from my standpoint. Is the patient on life support? Yes. Is immediate intervention required to save the patient? Definitely. Can the company be saved? Surely. Will the vitality of the company be restored? There are many opinions about the prognosis in the years ahead. As for me, I would rather focus on getting through the next year or so before focusing on the longer-term view. Here’s my sense of what’s required to give new life to this great company.
1. Mourn Dead Ideas. It’s time to go through the organization with an intense focus on identifying ideas, departments and people that have proven ineffective in generating incremental revenues and profits for the company. Time Inc. needs to think small again. At this point, the company can ill afford bloat of any kind in any area of the business. If a person, idea, project cannot show how spending time, effort and resources contributes to driving top line revenue and bottom line profit, cut it — quickly. Department heads need to run their business units with a keen eye on profitability and margin. Let’s go through each group and make sure that we are running as efficiently as we can maximizing our contribution to the company. Park your egos at the door for this exercise. We are speaking about company survival.
2. Focus on New Product/Channel Development. Identify a core team of professionals in the organization who have a keen understanding of consumer channels, customer profiles, content consumption patterns, advertiser spending patterns and device platforms. This team is charged with the responsibility of developing a range of new digital product offerings for the company that leverage their market understanding and drive incremental advertising opportunities. Each new idea will go through rigorous cost/benefit analysis and senior executive review to insure that near-term goals and objectives are being met. Leaders from this team would be assigned as executive oversight on all projects and products to insure on time completion of all initiatives. Senior leaders and board would receive regular progress reports on all operating metrics.
3. Sales Training & Leadership. In order to generate incremental revenues and profits, a new energy and passion must be instilled in the sales organization throughout the company. We have seen many companies where a lack of regular and intense sales training, rigor and discipline translates into sub-optimal performance in terms of new and existing account growth. With the wide variety of products and services that the company offers its advertisers, it’s critical that the company have the strongest and most consultative sales force in the marketplace. Without the proper level of leadership and training on the fundamentals and a renewed rigor on accountability in terms of sales calls and return on investment, the goals and objectives required for growth will not be achieved. Time Inc. sales and account teams need to be the best in the business at selling a suite of integrated offerings to the market. Nothing less than the best will do.
4. Pivot on Digital Publishing. It’s time to stop thinking that innovation and new revenue streams are going to be created within the existing print franchises. Time Inc. needs to survey the landscape of competitive digital content sites and publications to gain a greater understanding and focus on content and communities that consumers are embracing new formats. The company needs to form a business unit that is focused on mining the cross section of print, web and digital profiles in the aggregate customer database in an effort to understand current information need and query these profiles with a range of new incremental content types. The more that the company knows about its current reader profiles — their interests, preferences, affinity towards social media, etc. — the better opportunity to create a new array of digital publications that will appeal to these profiles. Consumers have great affinity for providers who can help them save time and effort in satisfying their need for essential information around specific topics of interest. Advertisers continue to look for targeted opportunities to reach and message with consumers in a highly relevant and engaging environment. Time Inc. could provide the industry and marketers with an incredible network of micro-targeted digital publications that could be assembled cost efficiently from a content and design standpoint.
5. Fight Analysis Paralysis. For too long, we have allowed ego to rule the roost. Within the digital arena, everything can and must be measured. The role of a content provider is to provide those who subscribe and consume content regardless of channel with the most relevant and engaging package available. During the legacy days, it was easy for publishers like me to get caught up in battles with editorial and design teams that were “market experts.” These professionals understood the market better than anyone on the business side. Engagement measurement tools were crude (focus groups, intercept studies, third-party research, etc.) and only sporadically utilized. The Internet and digital platforms have changed that paradigm forever. Today, every aspect of the connection between content and reader can and should be measured. The rise of Big Data has many on the creative and editorial staffs protesting that data-driven creation and editorial breeds formulaic products, arguing that something will be lost in the reader-content connection. While we reassure these teams, we must move aggressively to utilize every analytic tool that we can to understand the relative strength of our connection with readers. Time Inc. can ill afford to be blind to the fact that any of its products have become so full of themselves that they miss the marketable connection between the content being published and the audience need for information. Advertisers are going to demand accountability on this front. The DNA of the organization needs to move radically in this direction.
6. Passionate Leadership. The company has made several attempts to bring fresh thinking and passionate thought into its leadership ranks. In order to achieve all of the above, a leader needs to be selected that isn’t one of the “rock star” names that surfaces when searches like this get cranked up. Time Inc. needs a passionate leader who has grown up in the publishing business and has the “chops” and track record of having managed transformation from legacy print to digital. A leader who has done much more than sit in a corner office and attend industry events. Employees need to see in their new leader a fighter with intense energy, courage, humility and a vision for the road ahead. The company needs a leader who will spend time with customers (readers and advertisers) and gain greater insight on how to build a stronger and more profitable bond between the products and services that the company provides and that customer. Time Inc. needs someone that wants to roll up their sleeves and get to work and isn’t all that interested in basking in the glamour and spotlight opportunities that could accompany such a role.
There is still time for a transformation to happen within the publishing business at Time Warner — just not a lot of it. Here’s hoping that those responsible for making this choice have a clear understanding of what’s required in order to succeed.