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By: Lisa Granatstein

Web Advertising Sales Not Challenging Like Print, Some Publishers Say

(Mediaweek) When Thomas Evans, publisher of U.S. News & World Report, chanced leaving his longtime post in early 1998 to become chief executive of community portal GeoCities Inc., little did he know he’d become the poster boy for magazine execs seeking their virtual pot of gold. That summer, GeoCities successfully went public; in May 1999, Yahoo! Inc. completed its acquisition of the company; and by the fall, Evans left Yahoo! to head up Official Payment Corp., an electronic payment firm, more than $100 million richer.

Pretty fly for a print guy.

Two years ago, the burgeoning World Wide Web created an insatiable demand for talent, during which dot-com headhunters plucked droves of eager publishing execs, who were motivated by their own desires to quickly score fat salaries made possible by venture capital money and lucrative stock options.

Now the tide has turned, and publishing execs that dabbled with dot-coms are making their way back to print, often with better titles. After just 15 months at egreetings.com, where he was vp/sales, Rodale veteran Ken Wallace was lured back to publishing last month when G+J USA Publishing CEO Daniel Brewster dangled the post of corporate sales and marketing president – an offer he couldn’t refuse. Though Wallace had no concern about Egreetings’ stability, the big ad deals he was accustomed to in print simply weren’t there.

“I learned a lot of clients haven’t figured out how to use the Web. Creative is limited,” says Wallace. “And there are too many Web sites and too much inventory. If you sell 40 percent of your inventory you’re doing well.”

Publishing execs at most Internet startups had to contend with what’s loosely referred to as the 90/10 rule – 90 percent of online ads go to the top 10 sites, which deliver the most eyeballs. Though traditional advertisers are embracing the Web, it has clearly not been at the speed that was hoped for.

“I wasn’t able to engage in an active and multifaceted dialogue once I articulated my product because most of the clients in the affluent market weren’t thinking about the Internet,” says Victoria Lasdon Rose, a former publisher of Mademoiselle, who in September joined US Weekly as publisher after only six months at beauty/fashion site Style365.com. “The dialogue was perhaps many, many months, if not years, away.”

But for many dot-coms, advertising became the only source of revenue. “Any time [management] wanted to build out technology or do something new and fancy, all they did was [say] ‘Oh, let’s just settle it with ad sales,'” recalls ex-Civilization publisher Quentin Waltz of his Web experiences. Waltz lasted only nine months at Global Music Network, before rejoining his old boss, CEO Randall Jones, at Worth Interactive in May as senior vp/ partnerships. “Here was this whole bag sitting there with a CEO, who was probably more of a tech person or college kid and didn’t understand the ad sales game, saying, ‘Hey just get on the phone with Jacques Nasser at Ford.’ Yeah, right.” Worth.com is set to launch today.

Moreover, there was the added problem of technical glitches to worry about. “There were questions on my mind on the days when the Internet itself went on the fritz, or viruses that were rampant this summer, which didn’t affect the Web sites, but certainly affected the confidence of our clients in technology,” says Rose. “I felt as a professional that that kind of challenge I wasn’t so comfortable with.”

Despite the technical snafus, Rose claims she is still a supporter of the Web, and for the companies she and fellow publishers left behind. Most believe they are better for having had the experience, and the bump in their titles shows it.

Lou Mohn, a 15-year vet at Business Week who for 11 months was vp/sales at Web marketing firm RealNames.com, in September returned to the print world as president of Emap’s Motor Trend Properties. Greg Osberg, an eight-year vet of The Washington Post Co.’s Newsweek, who was frustrated he had not yet become publisher, was among the first to cross over to the Internet. In 1997, Osberg joined CNET for two years as president of sales and marketing. Then, after a stint as president at Washington Post subsidiary Kaplan Professional, he became founding president of sister company BrassRing.com, a recruitment firm where he remained until rejoining Newsweek last month as vp/worldwide publisher.

“There is an opportunity to take what I learned in the last few years and apply that to Newsweek,” says Osberg. “And as the Internet now has become a lot more mainstream and companies become more aggressive with it, you probably will see more people come back and take an established brand and build on it.”

“People who have gone in and had the [Web] experience ought to enhance their value,” says Rick Jones, managing partner of marketing consulting firm The Douglas/Jones Group. “Even if it went bust.”

Lisa Granatstein is a senior editor at Mediaweek.

Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher.

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