You Can't Teach Speed

by , Aug 16, 2007, 10:03 AM
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My professional life is spent straddled between online-centric publishing ventures and the well-groomed hallways of traditional publishing organizations. The differences between the two are as noticeable as an orange cone for those driving through. And yet the residents of either side treat these stark differences as nuances -- as if neither can stand to look long enough at the other to learn from one another.

For many traditional publishers, it has been a difficult challenge emulating the strengths of their dot-com competitors. because producing Web sites and driving sizable traffic is not their core competency. Yet, like some divisions at Time Inc., for example, they are getting better at riding their brands and developing new leadership to close the gap with the online publishing properties they compete with.

On the other side of the street, online publishers are so passionately consumed with improving their online offerings they rarely look in the rear-view mirror to see what they can adopt from their traditional publishing predecessors. But here is a little secret: Online publishers have print envy.

They won't admit it, but I would guess the salespeople at TheStreet.com for example, would not mind walking into an ad agency like Mindshare and seeing a glossy representation of their content sitting on the coffee table saddled next to Fortune and Business Week. How could it hurt? Google is selling print ad pages right now, but not its own. If the company ever published a magazine, I bet it would break the newsstand single copy record. At IGN, we tried our best to publish a magazine to uniquely complement our Web site. It was not our core competency -- and we proved it with an awful-looking first and last issue.

The point isn't that we put out an awful looking magazine, or that Google is selling print pages -- it's that online publishers could produce magazines to complement their web offerings if they wanted to, because online publishers operate without fear and at a speed traditional publishers can not match.

Those who lived outside the dot-com publishing boom would often point to the speed in which online publishers moved as a negative. "Look at the mistakes" made when operating at that kind of professional speed. Guess what, mistakes are made in the right-hand lane, too -- they just don't get pulled over for everyone else to see.

Speed is part of the culture, and for many, it's the allure of online publishing. A new online-centric client of mine -- a fifty-person outfit -- recently reminded me of how fast a company can move when not shackled by fear and saddled with the tradition of two-hour lunches. This company literally changed its business model on the fly and is now soaring to new revenue heights.

You can't teach speed. You can try to acquire it -- but that didn't quite work out in the Time Inc. AOL merger, and I doubt UGO.com will impact the traditional pace kept by Hearst Publishing after this recent acquisition settles in.

So if you can't acquire speed, and you can't teach it, can it still be learned? Yes, but it has to start at the very top and roll down like an avalanche. For starters, online-centric publishers don't think about calendar years, but rather, treat each quarter as a full year and each week as if it's always the fourth quarter. The pace kept is both exhausting and exhilarating.

Secondly, online publishers use white boards to track tasks assigned so that when follow-up meetings occur, accountability is staring them in the face. You can't find a white board inside a traditional publishing company.

Thirdly, online publishing employees feed off the momentum of those around them because there are no walls separating them. Offices are nice to have, but do nothing to generate pace. Open cubes are awkward at first, but they serve as energy stimulants and as deterrents from time spent on non-business-related tasks.

And finally, lunch doesn't happen at online publishing companies. People eat -- don't get me wrong -- but the twelve o'clock bell doesn't signal a two-hour break the way traditional publishing companies treat high noon (I recently met with a vice president of sales of an edgy online publisher at 2:30 p.m., and we went somewhere so he could grab a bite to eat). Client lunches are one thing, but two-hour lunches without clients because "that's what we have always done" is no way to keep a faster clip.

Traditional publishing companies need to rethink their way of doing business if they want to compete with online publishers. If you can't run as fast as the people you're chasing, how can you catch them?

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