February 18, 2016 – It’s no secret that the Internet and upstart or disruptive technologies, like e-books, have generated so much upheaval and uncertainty in the publishing world. For all of the benefits that technology has brought, including instant and widespread distribution, publishers continue to struggle to find a business model for new media that actually turns a profit. Though unheralded, executive recruiters have been instrumental in helping companies solve that riddle and make the transition from print to digital a sustainable one.
Bert Davis Executive Search and Consulting Services, based in New York, with a regional office in Austin, Texas, has been one of the steadier hands in the midst of the tumult. The firm serves clients in the publishing, information, and new media fields. Bert, who founded the firm nearly 40 years ago and still serves as chief executive officer, agrees that changes in how news and information are consumed have been tough on even the most venerable publishing concerns.
Indeed, even two decades after the Internet began gaining widespread usage it remains unusual for a week to pass, often just days, without news of continued losses or further staff reductions at one formerly unassailable publishing entity or another.
“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,” Bert told me recently. “‘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.”
This is where executive search firms, especially those that specialize in publishing and information sectors, can make a big difference. In short, they recruit the human capital that’s helping companies bridge the gap between old and new approaches, ultimately finding their direction, and regaining their financial footing.
“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,” Bert says. “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 created blended products, and increase market share and ultimately stock price.”
Yet the talent capable of executing such transformations is seldom found among a client’s competitors or businesses that produce similar products. In large part, these individuals are developing and plying their skills elsewhere. “It’s now about attracting and recruiting strategic talent from outside of the industry,” says Bert.
“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.”
Originally, Bert planned to make engineering his career. He studied at Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (now part of NYU). But he was also drawn to publishing. Back at Brooklyn Technical High School, he had been editor of the literary magazine. When he first stepped out into the world, in fact, he sought a writing job at the New York Times. He fell short because of weak typing skills.
He then sought to remedy that by taking a position with an employment agency, where he figured he would get plenty of time at the keyboard. But in working with the recruiters that placed publishing, media, and advertising professionals, Bert discovered that he had a knack for search work: He placed three candidates his first week and was celebrated by his colleagues as a wunderkind.
The Shift from Print to Digital
By 1977, Bert had started his own firm, specializing in media and communications. “Interestingly enough, where I really honed my craft was learning the industry from those I placed into key roles, especially those at the chairman and CEO level,” he says.
Specialization allowed him to fully understand the intricacies and the needs of his client companies. That’s been a major reason that Bert David Executive Search has been able to help publishers effectively shift from print to digital. It’s also why Bert’s own business continues to thrive.
“I genuinely feel that the search industry is moving towards specialists even though the large generalists keep growing and expanding into new areas,” he says. “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, he says, “ I do think repeat business is the most effective measuring stick to signal quality work, but more than that, it signals to your clients that 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.”
Bert and his colleagues bring a lot of credibility to the table. They have a well-developed network to draw upon and recruiters with first-hand knowledge of the challenges that their clients are facing. “We have been asked, or have suggested, that companies seek out new leaders in order to transition business models,” Bert says. “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 area to match their skills.”
It really helps to have a staff that includes executives most recently from technology backgrounds who began their careers in publishing, he says. “They possess an experiential approach to search. ‘I have been there and I 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.” This is a critical role that search firms have to play today, he says. “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.”
And though Bert is optimistic about the future, he knows that change is always part of the equation. His firm’s client landscape, for instance, has begun shifting toward a greater global presence. In the years ahead, Bert expects that more of his clients will be based around the world, particularly in Asia. Such repositioning throughout the publishing industry will only naturally require adjustments by would-be prospects.
“Our company’s growth has been tied to many successful placements in India, China, Japan, and Europe,” he says. “Successful candidate profiles will need to adapt to market needs and conditions. Adaption is the 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 Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor, Hunt Scanlon Media and Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief, Hunt Scanlon Media