Playing Ball with the Business Side Isn't a Game, It's a Necessity: An Interview with Ira Ellenthal
A longtime top executive on consumer magazines who launched his career on the editorial side, Ira Ellenthal believes sales and editorial teams can work together to make things happen. Here’s his money quote:
Playing ball–that is, editors working closely with the business staff–is not only a smart idea in current times, it’s an imperative. The media world has already changed radically. No more separation of church and state on many publications. Instead, you find more examples of ads on the front cover; advertorials galore written by editorial staffers, sometimes with fuzzy or no differentiation from real editorial; and features written about advertisers who get final copy approval. Today, savvy editors have come to accept that ad revenue is a precious commodity, essential to the survival of their franchises.
While adamant about the necessity of editorial and sales playing ball, Ellenthal stresses the value for both sides of increased cooperation. And the point is not for one side to defer to the other. In fact, in many cases it will be an editor who comes up with a dynamite promotional idea.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Ellenthal on this topic. While it’s a controversial one for many editors, his approach to it provides substantial food for thought.
Q. In the latter part of your career, you held executive positions with consumer publications, including president and associate publisher of The New York Daily News and chief executive officer and group publisher of The Atlantic, U.S. News & World Report, and Fast Company magazines. But before that you spent 15 years as publisher and editor of several B2B publications. Sales involvement was always a major concern for you then. But how did you switch totally to what many editors regard as the dark side?
A. Thinking back on my career in B2B publishing, I was lucky. After several years as an editor—one who believed in the separation of church and state—I got a chance to sell, learned that I was good at it, and almost immediately became a publisher. A seller who could write well was a wonderful combination, as I was to find out during a successful career. I believe that if every B2B editor shared my experience, they would be far more willing to play ball with the business side of their publications. And given the fact that editors are so much more creative than their counterparts in sales, it’s easy to predict that their revenues would be exponentially higher.
Q. In fact, editorial involvement in marketing has become more common. But there still are many cases where the sales/editorial relationship has become a tug of war as opposed to pulling together. Who is more responsible for smoothing over the relationship?
A. A good first step would be to encourage editors to submit promotional ideas as often as possible. I recall one company where the editor suggested teaming up with the publisher to create a trendy AV presentation for delivery at corporate meetings and ad agency gatherings. That program earned a must-have reputation that resulted in dozens of inquiries for an executive group to view the show. At the same company, editors were assigned to create newsletters for distribution to the promotion list. Content was an attention-getting combination of commercials and timely news stories.
In those many cases where this cooperation doesn’t exist, it makes me think about the promotional newsletters that aren’t being mailed out to prospects and customers, the special sections and supplements that aren’t being produced, the absence of seminars and conferences that bring people under your roof and under your spell, and the frustration of watching your better competitors steal your thunder.
Q. For those publishers who are lacking the benefit of such ball playing, how would you suggest they get started?
A. The first step would be for the top editor and his or her counterpart in sales to start a conversation about the need to begin working together more closely in order to generate special sections, supplements, advertorials, and other business building initiatives that would appeal to existing advertisers and prospective advertisers. Start with existing advertisers because, having already bought from you, they are your publication’s best prospects. Stress the importance of proceeding slowly with one or two projects.
Q. Have you written any books that cover this approach to editorial and sales playing ball?
A. I have not covered the editorial side so far, but two of the three books I have written address a variety of salesmanship issues. The latest, The Last Book About Selling That You’ll Ever Need, available from Amazon, is the best thing I have ever written. I describe it as a learn and laugh experience and the reviews on Amazon and LinkedIn have been superlative. What sets it apart are the many stories it contains. Storytelling has become a new fixture at a growing number of companies, including magazines. Storytelling and the recognition of the importance of retaining personalized, relationship selling techniques are concepts that can save the magazine industry. My book deserves the attention of all aspects of the magazine community, so check it out.