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Brilliant, but cancelled: a consulting career

Aug 1, 2006 12:00 AM

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Bravo, the cable channel, has been airing a series of television shows that have been cancelled or were pilots that never ran. These shows have, for the most part, received critical acclaim, yet for one reason or another, network executives have seen fit to cancel them. It's much like my career as a consultant. I've written about my stint as an advisor to publishers in the mid-1980s. Though I made a great deal of money, I became frustrated by the fact that clients didn't always heed my counsel, even though I had a clause in my agreement stating I would end the relationship if the client didn't act on my advice.

My career as a full-time consultant was brief — only nine months. It wasn't so much that I was cancelled; I became so frustrated with all of my clients that I fired them. (Good thing I had another venture, my Footprints newsletter and subsequent VuePoint conference.) Over the years, I've worked with a number of vendors, printers, associations and dealers. Somewhere along the line, they stop listening, I reach my point of frustration and I quit. One client told me that I wanted to be president of the company. “No,” I replied, “I just want you to follow my advice.”

One vendor I worked with a few years ago had hired me to spend one day a month alerting him and his management team to what was happening in the industry. “We'd like you to spot trends and keep us up-to-date,” he said. We'd sit around, chew the fat, and I'd tell them “What's Happening In Printing.” (I called them WHIP sessions.) Several months into the assignment, the owners said they needed to find a new CEO. “Who is available?” I was asked. I gave them a list of three names and identified my top pick. I guess they didn't trust me totally, because they hired one of the top headhunters in the United States for the interview process. The firm charged them 20 times my monthly fee for the assignment. It took one day of interviewing, and they hired the person at the top of my list. You guessed it. I quit.

What are they thinking? I recently had a conversation with a top executive for whom I have a great deal of respect. “I've come to the conclusion that 75 percent of corporate managers are inept,” I said. My friendly CEO retorted, “I think it's more like 85 percent.” That's why consultants are an invaluable resource. They give you an outsider's perspective you might not have because you're too close to the problem.

To prove my point, consider recent decisions by three publications to which I've subscribed for 50 years: TV Guide, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Each has had to make strategic decisions in the face of Internet competition and increased costs.

TV Guide, which had been a digest for nearly 53 years, made the decision to be a full-size magazine competing with the many entertainment publications. Because it would be printed on coated stock, its deadlines prior to publication were extended. As a result, its listings often become inaccurate as networks change their lineups. Its editorial, which never was much to brag about, was enlarged as the specific listings, including descriptions of movies, were reduced severely. After subscribing for 50 years, I canceled.

Several months ago, the Times decided to eliminate stock listings. I didn't care, because one can find streaming prices on virtually every financial Web site. Yet, I have a number of friends who have cancelled their subscriptions because of it. In addition, the paper used to publish a weekly magazine with television listings. They decided to scrap that. More acquaintances were so upset that they, too, cancelled.

The Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, made one move that I applauded. They reduced the size of the paper to save on newsprint costs. It made sense. But, late last year, someone decided to publish a Saturday edition. So far, I'd guess it's not profitable. I don't know about the advertisers' assessments of the extra paper, but I, for one, never have opened the Saturday paper. I need a rest from the stress of staying on top of business news every day of the week.

Did any of these organizations use a consultant to get someone else's view of these strategies? I doubt it. As a customer, I do know that not one of them surveyed its readers to find out how they felt.

Gaining a view ‘outside the box’ There are dozens of consultants in the printing industry, covering a broad range of disciplines from finance to production to marketing and management. There's even a woman who consults on leasing. NAPL has a consulting division that it created about two years ago, but it has yet to promote it properly.

How do you go about hiring a consultant? It's not much different from hiring a full-time employee. Interview the candidate, check his or her résumé and references, and make sure you call at least three clients. More importantly, make sure his or her strengths coincide with the areas in which you need help. Put the objectives in writing and, most importantly, listen to and act on the recommendations.

M. Richard Vinocur is president of Footprint Communications. E-mail him at