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Monday, June 12, 2006

The (Circulation) Expert's Mind 

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's mind there are few."
--Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

I've been thinking about the above quote quite a bit lately, after reading Laurence Gonzales' excellent Deep Survival--which wasn't the book I was expecting when I cracked it open, but became much more as I devoured it. Deep Survival may be the best business strategy book I've ever read--even though it ostensibly has nothing to do with business. One of its key lessons, in any survival (or business) situation, is to approach things as they really are, not as we perceive them to be. Sounds simple, but that couldn't be more difficult for most of us, who tend to put negative associations with a phrase like "the beginner's mind."

Ad Age's Scott Donaton talks about the value of the beginner's mind in publishing, after spending a few days recently at Northwestern, listening to grad student presentations on his magazine. I've been through something similar with one of our client magazines, which was the focus of several Wharton School MBA candidate teams.

Key grab:

One after another, the student groups questioned why there wasn't more simplicity and consistency in our subscription pricing. Several asked why we didn't have loyalty programs to reward our best customers -- if not with the cheapest rates, then at least with VIP event access or exclusive content.

Justifications? Any circulator can rattle them off in seconds.

But here's the dirty secret: The circulation practices of the magazine industry are based on a ridiculously outdated model designed not to enhance the audience relationship but to inflate rate bases in order to maximize advertising revenue.


I don't have to think very hard to come up with other examples of how our publishing "expertise" gets in the way of seeing things for how they really are. And as Gonzales shows, in example after example, not seeing things as they really are has a strong tendency to end in death during survival situations.

I'm going to dust off the voluminous reports the Wharton students did for our client's magazine. When I first read through their findings, I had dismissed many of their conclusions and ideas out of hand--after all, they weren't really publishing experts, right?

I'll bet I'll find some good stuff in there, if I'm willing to look.

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VNU: Now to Phase Two 

Matt Schwartz of BtoB reports that Valcon, the consortium of private equity firms that bid $9.7 billion for VNU, has acquired 97%+ of VNU's outstanding shares. (Actually, 98.97%.)

Here are some of my previous posts on the deal:

VNU 78.7% Sold
VNU: Waiting for the Fat Lady to Sing

And here's what comes next, I think:

Phase Two: Delisting from the public exchanges, which is already underway.
Phase Three: A (short) period of seemingly quiet reflection.
Phase Four: Reorganization, restructuring, new senior management teams for the major business units.
Phase Five: We'll see. I continue to believe that a breakup of major asset groups is likely, though in its initial iteration, it will probably be a split (formal or informal) of those asset groups among the private equity firms participating in the buyout.

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