We’re putting the final touches on our Cannes projects. The New Attention Economy, presented by Kerv, will have speakers from the Financial Times, Uber, Paramount, Havas and more. Join us for three days of exclusive thoughtful conversations and cocktails with the industry’s best to discuss the Attention Economy and the future of publishing, streaming, AI and creativity.
On Monday, June 19, I will be recording a live episode of The Rebooting Show podcast with GroupM CEO Kirk McDonald, who I’ve known since he was at Time Inc and calling out ad networks. Kirk has been on the buy and the sell side, as well as the tech side, giving him a great perspective on what’s needed to build a sustainable media ecosystem.
B2B is an execution game
There’s plenty of doom and gloom in the air these days around the media business. The pandemic bazooka of government cash into the economy and the era of rock-bottom interest rates are in the rearview mirror. And straight ahead is the prospect of AI living up to its billing as the most consequential tech shift since the internet itself, which hasn’t gone great for large swathes of the publishing industry.
Over the next several weeks, I want to highlight models that are working. B2B is one sector that is emerging from the wreckage of the past generation of digital publishing. The business models in B2B are less flashy: generating leads for SaaS companies via webinars, white papers and eBooks, putting on vendor-driven events and wading through complicated and even esoteric issues. To many, B2B is boring and even, in some aspects, unseemly since trade publications was that their cozy relationship with companies in the sectors they covered was hardly the journalistic ideal of speaking truth to power.
That view is changing. From Skift in travel to Workweek and Morning Brew in building B2B brands around individuals, to Stat and Endpoints in health, and Endeavor’s roll-up strategy across verticals, and many individual niche business newsletters, B2B is one of the few vibrant sectors in publishing at a time when not much else is working. There will always be a need for specialist information, and creating marketplaces for buyers and sellers to meet, so long as capitalism is around.
I’ve spent my career in B2B, and I appreciate the need to go narrow and deep. That’s one reason why journalists make a giant mistake “following their passion” vs focusing on learning the ins and outs of something like, oh, programmatic advertising or utilities regulation. On this one, Galloway was spot on. Mastering an arcane subject area gives you leverage in a market designed to commoditize you.
Over the years, I found B2B to be something of a sanctuary from the travails of the broader publishing industry. There were tweaks to the models, but for the most part, B2B isn’t about bold proclamations that you will reinvent journalism because it is “broken.” It is, at its essence, mostly about execution.
Last week, I traveled to Washington DC to record an episode of The Rebooting Show with Sean Griffey, CEO of Industry Dive. I’ve known Sean and Industry Dive a while, mostly because two of its 33 publications – Marketing Dive and Retail Dive – were in areas in which my previous companies had publications. Sean was also the rare media CEO who would come onto my podcast and not rattle off a bunch of talking points. The big numbers he talked about weren’t Facebook video views of ComScore uniques ginned up through traffic assignment schemes. He spoke about revenue and, imagine, EBITDA.
Industry Dive went on to be bought not once but twice. First in a transaction to growth equity firm Falfurrias Capital in 2019 and then last year in a deal to events giant Informa last year that Axios reported put an enterprise value on Industry Dive of $525 million. That would make Industry Dive’s value at over two Vices and five BuzzFeeds.
What Industry Dive got right is something I covered after the Informa deal. I was long impressed by Sean and Industry Dive’s management ability to stay focused and disciplined in their business model. It helped that Industry Dive didn’t raise venture capital. Constraints can be good. It meant focusing on what was working, notably newsletters and being good at putting first-party data to use for B2B marketers.
In B2B, the pull to do events – have you signed up for The Rebooting’s Cannes events yet? – is strong. That’s because B2B doesn’t have advertisers per se, but marketers. And B2B marketers serve to get their sales teams prospects. That leads many B2B publications to go heavily to events. Industry Dive skipped events because it was very good at building publications in high value industries with tons of regulation and tech-driven change and acting as a critical marketing partner. That isn’t revolutionary. But it’s hard to execute.
Another aspect that impressed me about what Industry Dive did was it executed its playbook not once but across multiple industries. It didn’t wait until it perfected its playbook in one industry, because as Sean told me, you will perpetually put it off because you’ll never feel like you’ve gotten there. Building a leading publication in a single industry is hard but also has a fairly low ceiling, if you’re trying to build a big company. (I tend to think more people should be OK building a great company that’s smaller and skip the lure of massive exits.) Industry Dive was able to pull that off.
There’s something to be said about how Sean and his team went about building their work without all the PR nonsense. I hope of the many things that are left behind from the previous era, it’s the out of whack ratio between sizzle and steak. Fake it till you make it always struck me as a terrible strategy. Ask Ozy.
That’s why I think more smaller media companies will emerge that are, for lack of a better word, real, not a bunch of puffery and smoke and mirrors. Instead, they’ll be about the hard work of execution because, as Troy Young said on People vs Algorithms last week, said last week, “Break news guys, you don’t deserve to have a media company just because you want one.” Instead, you have to work for it.
Cannes cocktails and conversation with Neil Vogel
On Thursday, June 22, The Rebooting and Dotdash Meredith are hosting a cocktails and conversation event where I’ll be recording an episode of The Rebooting Show with Dotdash Meredith CEO Neil Vogel. The event is from 4pm-6pm. RSVP by May 29.
Meateater is a good example of a successful deployment of a content-as-a-front-for-commerce playbook in a neglected niche. The old levers for the media business aren’t working, but strong brands tied to personalities in passion areas have plenty of paths to sustainability. (Axios)
The problem with blindly following analytics is when people don’t check what the numbers say with what their eyes tell them. ESPN’s analytics decreed the Heat had a 3% chance of reaching the Finals, but nobody watching them play and Boston’s shaky moments versus the Sixers would believe that. The Heat are up 3-0 vs the Celtics. (ESPN)
AI threatens a wave of disruption that too often is hand waved away as the inevitability of progress. Economist Daron Acemoglu reminds us of the power dynamics at play of every tech disruption, such as the Industrial Revolution:
“Yes, you got progress, but you also had costs that were huge and very long-lasting. A hundred years of much harsher conditions for working people, lower real wages, much worse health and living conditions, less autonomy, greater hierarchy. And the reason that we came out of it wasn’t some law of economics, but rather a grassroots social struggle in which unions, more progressive politics and, ultimately, better institutions played a key role — and a redirection of technological change away from pure automation also contributed importantly.” (FT)
Starting anything new is chaotic, so I take early bumps with some grains of salt. That said, The Messenger as a product felt very rushed and incoherent, even grading with a curve. The problem with early stories of dissension and complaints about clickbait is they beget more. Ask Quibi how that works out. (NYT)
The media business loves manias. E-sports appear to be one of those. The sector “has been too much hype and too little actual value.” (NYT)
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How did you end up choosing landing in the B2B writing space?
This is a fantastic col Brian. Kudos