I served as VP, Business Development & Acquisitions at Hachette during the dot com period. Among other duties I stood guard at the executive gate fighting off the scores of pure play companies that promised to buy expensive furniture for their offices and spend no less than 90% of their funding on marketing--if we would only fund their dreams. These desperate pleas fade with time but not the memory of a publishing executive at the place asking me how to spell dot com. I saw this request as an opportunity to excel but that largesse has not kept me from using this incident in speeches in India, China, and Brazil, underscoring how unready we publishers were for this slight "disruption." I promise to tell the same story when I next speak in Russia so I will be able to brag about serenading the entire BRIC panoply with war stories less interesting than a groin injury.
Another recollection--though far less vital--I have of this period was how difficult it was for publishers to organize for digital. Most publishers had early-stage web sites. Some were selling content to AOL. Some saw the virgin Internet, prematurely, as a new, large source of print subscriptions, perhaps even replacing PCH. And in 1995 the first banner ad was born.
Not surprisingly, the first inclination for most publishers--and this is mirrored in other industries--was to set up digital shop as an incubator/skunk works, perhaps off campus from the main business or on a separate floor but definitely, more or less, off-limits.
This is perfectly understandable and predictable. You want the tech savvy to lead the charge. What few of us anticipated was how much disruption even a slightly-funded incubator might cause. By most accounts it has taken the publishing industry almost a decade to move beyond the digital incubator, to stand-alone print/digital entities, to various hybrid organizational models--Rodale has done this very well, to a more integrated, brand-centric approach. That technology has continued to change and disrupt has not made anyone's job easier. Whatever the fantasy, Web 2.0 seems a long time ago.
In this spirit the recent re-organization at Conde Nast, with digital responsibilities going to the publishers, among other things, makes considerable sense and acknowledges that "digital technology is front and center in our business, part of everything we do--not off to the side."
These changes are also a sign of a growing digital sophistication in the magazine space and a signal that doing away with silos, though much talked about, is coming to pass.
In hindsight, given the profound legacy and organizational issues to overcome, it was probably inevitable that this maturation would take the better part of a decade.
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
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