Behind Bonnier’s secret for creating better content with less workforce

For over 200 years, Bonnier has been in the publishing business in one facet or another. The United States presence of this heritage company formed in 2007 when the American office opened for business. Today, its brands range from Field & Stream to the award-winning Popular Science, with many more in between.

And the man heading up this legacy publisher is CEO, Eric Zinczenko. Before taking on the CEO leadership role, he served as executive vice president of the company, coming from Time Inc. in 2007.

Under Eric’s stewardship, Bonnier has seen record financial growth and broadened its capabilities outside traditional media by diversifying into new revenue-growth areas in licensing, agency services, content syndication, digital and events.

Mr. Magazine™ recently spoke with Eric and talked about his vision for the company and his successes to date.

I hear from almost every CEO that I interview that they’re doing more with less. You told me earlier that your workforce is considerably less than it used to be, yet you’re doing more: There’s been a 36 per cent reduction in workforce since I became CEO, and many industry peers would state the quality of Bonnier content didn’t slip, but is actually the strongest yet, as evidenced by the numerous National Magazine Awards and the most recent nominations of General Excellence for Saveur and Popular Science.

On the magic wand he uses to do more and better with less workforce:  I think the experience here is that we had areas of improvement where we could have been more financially disciplined. And I think when you make changes like the changes we have made since 2015, it’s very important to communicate those changes and explain why we’re changing and how we’re going to change. Communication is a big factor.

Culture is very important here, and it’s something that I take seriously. And I think culture remains a challenge. I believe it’s an enormous challenge for any media company right now, to keep everyone motivated and leading through the unprecedented disruption. When an organisation is going through constant restructures, at times it’s like juggling eggs. It’s impressive when you can pull it off, but it becomes a real mess when it’s done in the wrong way. And we really do try. The approach here at Bonnier is more of a startup approach.

I think most legacy media companies start with the idea of cutting. So, they speak to the manager and find out who on their staff that they can reduce by one or two. And then the next year comes along and they have to cut more. They go back to that manager and that manager picks two more people. But I believe what companies really need to do is start from a zero base, in more of a startup mode. So, it starts with the CEO; who does the CEO need next, it’s the CFO. After the CFO, who’s next? And that’s really how we’ve tried to organise the company and that was part of our big realignment that we just did a month ago.

It’s interesting, there’s other principles we try and speak about here, and again, it’s to break these orthodoxies of the way that we’ve done things, but my view is we have these wonderful brands at this company, if it makes money it makes sense. Imagine an Amazon employee back in the ’90s saying, wait a minute, we ship books, that’s what we do. Or Google back in the ’90s; wait, we’re a search engine company and that’s what we do. There are opportunities everywhere if you just stay true to the brand and you understand your audience and your customer. There’s a lot of opportunity out there.

On whether he thinks this is the best of times, the worst of times, or somewhere in between for magazine media: I think it’s somewhere in between. For companies that are evolving, in challenging their orthodoxies of the way legacy media companies have operated, those are companies that are seeing opportunity in front of them. And I think maybe companies that are more stuck in the way that we’ve done things for decades, I think it could end up being the worst of times for them. I do feel that the only thing predictable is that disruption is going to continue.

On whether he sees a value in print in today’s digital age:  I do. The notion that print is dead is not accurate. I think print isn’t dead, it’s just different. Gone are the times where you can operate with an inflated rate base or 12 times per year as a standard. And I think gone are the days too where you were just concerned with whether there was enough fax paper in the machine where you got all of your signed insertion orders back. Those days are behind us. But print for many companies, Bonnier included, is still profitable. It’s just not at the margins that we once enjoyed. And I feel strongly that brands that sit one or two in a category or vertical can thrive if managed correctly.

On whether he feels paywalls, such as Wired has implemented, and other forms of payment for digital will be an accelerated trend: I hope it’s an accelerated trend, but I do feel firmly it will be a trend. I think the newspaper industry has done a pretty inspirational job of getting people to pay for their content, and I think the magazine industry has lagged behind the newspaper industry. But I really do believe there’s opportunity there. So, this is something that we’re absolutely taking interest in at Bonnier and we’ve talked to some consultants that can help us unlock the potential there.

On moving their CMS system to Arc: We moved to a new platform with our digital and that platform is Arc, which is owned by the Washington Post. We moved to Arc because here at Bonnier we’ve spent the last five years trying to move everyone to a proprietary CMS system that we had. And that CMS system was called Sandcastle. So, we made a decision based on economic factors, based on how we wanted to operate, and the CMS of Arc would be stronger than our own proprietary CMS, so it would have more of a suite of opportunities for us from a digital perspective. So, that was seen as not only an efficiency measure, but actually an opportunity.

Thank you.

Abridged article re-published courtesy of FIPP, the network for global media.

Our gratitude also to Mr. Magazine™