Disruptive Technologies Raise Demand for ‘Outside’ Leaders

February 12, 2016 – The landscape of traditional publishing is changing, as companies are now re-engineering themselves to become global media companies, serving digital audiences and consumers. While many of the senior level positions companies fill still maintain traditional titles, the criteria has changed. Companies are no longer seeking professionals to move from one publishing company to another, but rather seeking strategic hires that are ‘born digital’ from companies like Microsoft, Google or Yahoo, and Oracle, among others, in areas of marketing, sales, finance, content development, new business development, and content creation.

One search firm that makes these sorts of matches is Bert Davis Executive Search. While the Manhattan-based publishing and media recruiter recently celebrated its 35th anniversary, it is hardly old school.

Recently, the firm placed the director of content acquisition at Scribd as well as the SVP product development at Liaison International and the vice president / chief product officer for international at McGraw-Hill Educational.

In the following interview, founder and CEO Bert Davis discusses his entry into search, working strategically with clients, the advantages to being a specialist, the significant changes underway in media and communications, and the sector he has been a leading recruiter in for over three decades.

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Bert, your firm has maintained a leading practice in the media and communications sector now for over 30 years. What prior experience did you have in media and communications and why did you choose recruiting as a career path back then?

My initial foray into the publishing world was while I was actually attending Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (now part of NYU), which was geared toward engineering — my initial career path. Earlier, I had also attended an engineering high school. While studying there at Brooklyn Technical High School, I was extended the position of editor-in-chief of their literary magazine, New Horizons. Subsequently, I applied for a writing position at The New York Times, but in those days one needed to be a strong typist! Can you imagine? I recall being able to type only 35 words per minute — but with seven typing errors I didn’t qualify! So to strengthen my typing skills I went to work for an employment agency and this, yet again, changed the direction of my career path. I began to work with the recruiters at the agency that specialized in placing publishing, media, and advertising professionals. I was an instant success: I placed three candidates in my first week. My colleagues quickly declared me “the boy genius!” That ultimately led me to staring my own firm in 1977 and I have been specializing in the media and communications sector ever since. Interestingly enough, where I really honed my craft was learning the industry from those that I placed into key roles — especially those at the chairman and CEO level.

As a specialist, do clients tend to give you certain types of assignments that might be different than those given to, say, a large generalist that might maintain a specific practice in this sector?

I genuinely feel that the search industry is moving towards specialists even though the large generalists keep growing and expanding into new areas. Their size and growth, while I am certain serves a niche with their own clientele, has actually made specialist firms look stronger and better positioned to handle assignments that we know better than anyone. Without sounding self-serving, I do think repeat business is the most effective measuring stick to signal quality work but, more than that, it signals to your clients you really know the sector, inside and out. Most of our assignments come from repeat clients or recommendations from other satisfied clients. The number of C-level assignments we now conduct has continued to increase and, again, I think this points to being a strong specialist firm; we maintain pure, in-depth knowledge of the industry. Another advantage of being highly specialized and understanding your sector is being able to help key clients through what is a now seen as a major transitional period for the media and communications sector. So many companies today have had to transition from print to digital and, in doing so, the types of talent required has also changed dramatically. It’s now about attracting and recruiting strategic talent from outside of the industry; much of this talent was formerly with cutting edge technology companies. This has been particularly true with private equity firms that are investing in brand name publishing, information, and educational organizations. The big brand, private equity firms we work with are looking to us to provide management talent that can move at a more accelerated pace to achieve the growth they are looking for to justify the premium prices being paid for acquired companies sitting in their portfolios.

Media and communications has changed almost more than any other sector in recent years. It’s highly digital and much of it resides on the Internet. How has this changed the types of candidates you are asked to find today for clients?

Yes, I agree, the changes have been significant. A primary reason is that the internet and upstart or disruptive technologies have been impacting how we read consumer information for a long time now. The large analog companies, especially those dependent on advertising, have had challenges in keeping up with these nimble, technology-driven companies now getting the attention of the younger demographic. ‘Free’ consumer content, which is similar to ‘open access content’ in scientific and research publishing, has hurt sales in all sectors of publishing: magazines, journals, textbooks and consumer properties, for example. So, one of our roles has been to help client companies, who are committed to transformation, find the quality talent needed to change how content is curated, produced and sold. Most, if not all, of this new kind of employee has a ‘hybrid’ background; that is, they have a full understanding of the importance of content specific to the industry sector plus the experience of producing digital products, systems and solutions for a new audience of end-users. Quite often we will advise or suggest that, with traditional structures, companies can build digital equivalents to help create blended products, and increase market share and ultimately stock price. We have been successful in this ‘consultant’ capacity, and have even helped to improve revenues within our client base.

On the flip side, years ago you worked for very old line, traditional print and other media, representative of its time. How has the client profile changed and how have you been able to adapt to this shift in new technologies? 

As implied above, we have been asked, or have suggested, that companies seek out new leaders in order to transition business models. We have a strong group of technology leaders, many from the major technology companies, who are passionate about leading transformation and we have been working with them over the years to find suitable companies in our arena to match their skills. It really helps to have a staff that includes executives most recently from technology who began their careers in publishing. They possess an experiential approach to search. ‘I have been there and understand your needs’ type of approach. We have a very good sense of where our clients need to go in order to be successful in our hyper-fast digital world. We comprehend and foresee market trends and are in close contact with our clients, informing them of changes that are significant to their business. I think this is a critical role that search firms have to play today. It’s not just about finding an individual to fill a position, but serving as a strategic advisor is critical and adds so much value.

Looking ahead a decade, Bert, tell us what you see as the largest shift coming for this sector? What can we expect to see from a talent acquisition standpoint?

Looking ahead, we see our client landscape shifting on a global basis and we are predicting more and more of our clients will be based around the globe, especially Asia. Our company’s growth has been tied to many successful placements in India, China, Japan, and Europe. Successful candidate profiles will need to adapt to market needs and conditions. Adaptation is key, as is adoption of new technologies, many we can’t even dream of today. Candidates will need to be more open to international relocation and language skills will become more important. I’m bullish looking ahead 10 years. What a time to be a recruiter specializing in this sector.

Contributed by Christopher W. Hunt, Publisher, Hunt Scanlon Media and Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief, Hunt Scanlon Media

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