An interview with John French on media management, private equity,
and improving sales and revenue.
At the Magazine Innovation Center’s ACT7 Experience in Oxford, MS in April, 2017, John French delivered one
of the best speeches I have ever heard on publishing industry issues, “Life Lessons in Adding Value.”
John is the former CEO of Cygnus Business Media, the former CEO of Penton, and the former president of business magazines and media at Primedia. John has a unique perspective on publications now because he is a turnaround expert who does confidential M&A work as well.
He now shares his experience as an advisor to publishing executives and investors. Here is what he had to say:
JIM: What steps do you take to turn around a
publishing company that’s in trouble?
JOHN: So, the first thing you determine is what’s the mis-
sion? Why are we here? Is it because you want to improve
the operating margin? Do you want to improve the per-
formance of the company? Do you want to transform the
management team away from the old ways of publishing
and to more data and digital? Do you want to package it
and, frankly, dress it up to sell it? Let’s establish what the
goal is and then the plan falls from there. Then you drop
in the operating goals; the first thing you do is assess your
portfolio. You can’t control all these portfolios or assets, so
you must take what you’ve got and make it work.
JIM: What if your client has enough budget to do
JOHN: I tell my client, “Let’s really understand how this
is going to improve your portfolio. How does it fit into
your strategic plan? How is the integration going to go?
How long will the integration go? And bring up all the
challenges. And that’s the proper way to go with M&A—
let’s go to the internal due diligence first and see if that is
really what we want to buy.”
JIM: What about programmatic?
JOHN: The first question is not whether I accept pro-
grammatic advertising. The first question is, “Why do I
have unsold inventory?” And if you have many months’
old inventory and you’re running content that people are
not reading and that advertisers are not supporting, then
let’s have a discussion about that before you run to pro-
grammatic. That’s what I see a lot on the digital side of the
business. People are chasing rainbows here rather than
taking a look at that fundamental core digital business and
then growing it smartly from there.
JIM: What is your approach to assessing and
improving publishing management teams?
JOHN: It’s a difficult task to assess management because
it gets emotional; especially if you have to make really
tough choices with really nice people. I struggled with
that early in my career. We establish a list of people on
the management team. There are two columns: people
that you know add value and people who are currently
not adding value to the enterprise and the growth and the
turnaround. And the people not adding value presently,
you show them how to do it, you help them, you support
them, and if they still don’t get it, get rid of them. That’s
the only way.
JIM: What are some steps that publishing
executives can take to increase revenue?
JOHN: The first thing is to take the blinders off about
where you think your revenue is going to come from.
Often, you get, “Digital.” Well, wait a minute. Maybe it’s
not digital. Maybe you’re doing okay on digital. The point
is, treat all revenue the same; don’t run away from the
print and certainly don’t run away from the other end of
the spectrum which is data and data products. It’s all one
channel, it’s all one pipeline. So don’t dismiss what you
consider or believe to be old line technology to increase
If you want to replace revenue right away, go to your
circulation file—your audience development file of your
magazine—and make sure that you know, or can know, or
should at some point know, everything about that sub-scriber.
Tools to find these things out
are not as expensive as they used to be.
JIM: How do you convince a board
or a private equity board to follow
JOHN: When you’re talking to a board,
or a private equity board, or you’re talk-
ing to a private ownership group, you
actually have to carry that passion and
you can’t waiver at all. You cannot show
weakness. If you really believe it, you
have to be willing to put your neck on
the line. Good ownership, especially the
private equity guys, can sniff weakness.
They get good at it. You can smell when
someone doesn’t have the great belief,
so it’s passion, Number One. Number
Two, you need to be patient and you
may come up with an idea three or four
times and get shot down for the idea
three or four times, but if you really
believe it, stay true.
JIM: How do you see the role of
today’s CEO, COO, or Executive
JOHN: I think the biggest change I’ve
seen is that it used to be easy [for a CEO
or Executive Director] to delegate a
lot of things. You kind of set the course
and steered your plan. You still have to
do all that. You have to have a vision.
You have to have a belief and all that
stuff. But let’s face it, you and I are
running companies that are challenged
by changes in technology. I used to feel
comfortable saying I’m going to del-
egate that decision to my “tech person.”
A CEO doing that today is making a
serious mistake. I think a leader of a
company or an association does not
have to be a technology expert; they’re
not going to be doing coding or things
like that. But they have to be a half step
ahead of their company on where the
new technology is coming and how
it’s going to change what we sell and
how we sell and have a successful tech
JIM: How do you improve a sales
JOHN: In most companies, people who
are making those decisions become
frozen and they can’t make the tough
decisions. Management frequently tells
me they would only rehire about 30%
of their current salesforce. That doesn’t
compute. Why? I’ve seen so many situ-
ations where I’d say, “You know, we’ve
done a full analysis of Jim. And we’ve
worked with him. And we tried, but he’s
not going to turn the coin. So we need
to get rid of him. We need to make a
change.” And—this drives me absolutely
crazy—they will come back and say, “I
agree with you 100%, but it’s account
XYZ…that’s his account and if we lose
that, it’s a half million dollars and it
changes our whole fiscal year.” I’ve nev-
er seen where a salesperson leaves and
the account says, “Well, that’s it. Jim’s
gone. I’m going to pull our $500,000-
$600,000 contract.” There was never
any value to the contract to begin with
if that was going to happen.
JIM: Do you care if your sales staff
is direct or outside independent?
JOHN: No, I don’t care. And it’s not just
because it’s good for you, Jim. I don’t
care; I’m agnostic there. When I was a
publisher, sales manager, etc., I actually
found it easier and more productive to
manage outside sales reps than direct
reps. And the reason being was, very
simply, compensation...if an indepen-
dent rep doesn’t sell something, they go
out of business.
JIM: At ACT7 you said, “Hydrate
your mind.” What did you mean
JOHN: This came from an Army
Ranger, who told my son the key to fac-
ing challenging Ranger training: “This
comes down to two things: one is to
constantly hydrate and the second is
to never give up. No matter what it is,
never give up.”
In the business world, hydrating con-
cerns the thirst of the mind. Just go to
as many seminars, as many educational
things as you can; read as much as
you can, whether it be technology or
big data or whatever is out there, and
hydrate your mind so that you REALLY
understand, and you’ve got your finger
on the pulse of what’s happening in
your industry—not just your industry
that you publish in, but what’s happen-
ing in technology, what’s happening
in data—and just continue to do that.
What it comes down to—whether it
be going through training or running
companies as a CEO, or you’re trying to
grow your career, or you’re an Execu-
tive Director of a tradeshow—is don’t
give up. Stay on course to your goal.
Even if you fall short you are still more
successful than 90% of most people.
This interview with also appeared on
FOLIO:’s site. Http://www.foliomag.com/john-french-interview