What B2B Can Learn from the Zell Saga

Sam Zell is the devil. Sam Zell is a savior.

Those are the two polarized reactions I always get when I broach the subject of the diminutive bedeviled one from Chicagoland to my journo friends. Well actually, truth be told, the consensus is about 99.9% weighted with the former opinion rather than the latter.

I had the fortune – or misfortune many would say – to cover Zell’s media foray in my recent book Money Talks, Bullsh*t Walks, which was published by Penguin USA’s Portfolio imprint in December 2009. Instead of a slam job on Zell, I purposely took a more balanced approach to the biography, recounting his days as a real estate mogul and addressing the successes and failures of his 40-year business career.

Darker Tone. The task was made all the more complex when he put his Tribune Co., one of America’s most respected media organizations (and owner of revered newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times), into Chapter 11 bankruptcy only weeks before my manuscript was due. Suddenly the book took on a different tone.

As with so many business people, Zell thought he knew media. After all, it was just another industry to conquer. And to a certain extent, he’s right, it is a business. But it is also known as the “Fourth Estate” for a reason, and as the proud holder of a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and someone who has worked all sides of the media landscape over the past 25+ years, I understand the personalities and complexities of this often insular environment.

One of the undeniable facts about the B2B world is that, like Tribune, most of today’s B2B businesses are saddled with debt. Many have also gone through so-called “pre-packaged” bankruptcies and come out with tidier balance sheets, though still debt laden. New and savvier management teams are now in place.

More Work, Less Pay. Cost cutting had been the order of the day, and as ad sales continue to limp along, just as in the world of daily newspapers, reinvesting in media properties is challenged. Raise your hand if you know someone in B2B publishing, or media in general for that matter, who is doing more work for less pay than two years ago. I thought so.

However, one might legitimately argue that Zell could have fared much better in a B2B world. Thanks to B2B’s built-in connection to loyal niche audiences, he probably would have avoided the constant questioning of journalists’ “worth.”

Instead, he javelined himself smack into a brick wall. Newspaper journalists, in particular, were and still are loathe to introspection and perhaps most of all, change, especially when it is driven by billionaire investor types. Zell’s newly installed cast of merry characters – excuse me, managers – at Tribune were colorful to say the least, but they were also viewed as outsiders, people who didn’t “understand” or “get” the media world.

Hate him or hate him, Zell was just named as the 60th richest American by Forbes magazine. So from a wealth standpoint, he’s obviously right more often than he is wrong when it comes to his business acumen. But he also took down one of America’s great media brands, throwing it into bankruptcy after less than a year of ownership.

Hard Lessons. Obviously, judging the economics of the newspaper business is a dicey gambit. At least Zell is right when he believes that media in general have to change the way they do business. No longer can we all afford to think of ourselves as insulated from the realities of simple economics. That has been an especially hard lesson to learn in the recent financial crisis, as we’ve seen so many of our brethren thrust out of work and cherished titles shuttered.

The situation has spawned something else though – a spirit of much needed re-invention. For example, the web has become not only a much more important part of our own lives, but also the lives of our customers. That has built-in B2B advantages written all over it.

Zell believed that print would never die, but it would have to morph and change in lockstep with the viewing habits of its customers or it would indeed go the way of the Dodo.

At least that’s one point where he got it absolutely right.

By Ben Johnson

Ben Johnson is publisher of The CPA Technology Advisor, a B2B property serving the nation’s public accountants. He has more than 25 years of experience in communications and marketing, including several stints as editor and publisher for a variety of B2B media. Most recently he ran the custom publishing division at American Airlines.

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