May 8, 2006 People: The Madison Avenue Register
 

Jim Spanfeller on Video, Part 1.

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By Wendy McHale

Played by George Clooney in the film Good Night, and Good Luck., Fred Friendly ultimately went on to head up CBS Network following his role as producer for Ed Murrow.

Like Murrow, Fred shared a similar vision of using the power of TV to inform and educate the public. He was a huge consumer of TV. When conducting a meeting in his office, visitors were impressed to see that Friendly had installed 12 TV sets into his office wall, so he could view what every TV network, Independent and PBS-affiliated station was airing in the top markets. This enabled him to view up to 40 or more different programs a day from his media-walled office, making him the one person on earth to have that much TV programming available at his fingertips.

I recently met with Jim Spanfeller to discuss the online video business. Like visitors meeting with Friendly, I was equally impressed with Jim's Forbes.com office, but there was a difference. I could see the actual studio from which Forbes.com produces their daily programming. It was great seeing it all happen in real time.

I was interested in interviewing Jim to learn more about his view of the business as president & CEO of Forbes.com. In addition, having recently been elected as Chairman of the Board of the IAB, I hoped to get some juicy scoops for Journal readers!

During our interview, I learned that Forbes.com is the leading source for original business video for the Web. Though as compared to Fred Friendly, Jim is not the only person to have it at his fingertips. He shares that media walls-worth of online content with anyone who's within clicking distance from a broadband connection. Anytime and anywhere. The other distinguishing contrast is that it not found on 12 screens. Rather, it all happens on one, the new Forbes.com Video Network.

If you have not yet seen the film, do go to see it. You will find out why an interview with Fred Friendly was as impressive then, as my interview with Jim Spanfeller is now. Good Day & Good Luck!

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Wendy: Well, it's interesting, reading your bio. I know some of the same people that you know. Both you and I have a similar print background. I worked at two major publishing companies, where I went back and forth. [Smiling] One thing funny about both of them was; if you go somewhere else, right away, they're like, "Are you interested in coming back?"

Jim: [Smiling] Right. "We're happy to have you once you have gone someplace else"!

Wendy: [Smiling] it's kind of like my early experience going back and forth between online and offline. So I was curious, when you made the leap from traditional to online, was it anything like that for you? What was your initial experience, and how did it shape how you felt about your new venture?

Jim: Well, you know prior to coming here, to Forbes.com, I was at Ziff-Davis for over four years. I went over to Ziff to launch "Yahoo! Internet Life" [Magazine] which we did with Yahoo! And then eventually we launched "Expedia Travels" [Magazine]. I ran all the paid-circulation titles at Ziff. I had the opportunity to work with Jerry Yang, Dave Filo, Tim Koogle and the Expedia team from the get-go. I wasn't there at the dawn of the Internet, but it was close to it. So, I got a pretty good understanding of the web, and what was going on with it, and how to coordinate a magazine-related venture with it. That said, during the first few months, I went home with a headache everyday, because the learning curve was intense and I really didn't know much of anything. So I'm not really sure how they put up with me initially! [laughing]. The businesses are, as you know, somewhat similar but there's a lot that's different. The pace and regularity of the web can be backbreaking, sometimes slavish.

Wendy: And the technology. The technology portion sometimes still loses me. You know, someone will be talking to me about web concepts, and I'm like, "Will you repeat that for the third time?" Did it change the way you looked at business or approached things? Did everything sort of have to change? Did you have to think from a different side of your brain, if you will?

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Jim: I wouldn't look at it that way, although the great thing about the web, despite the backbreaking speed and complexity aspect of it is that the payback one gets from it on both sides of the desk it worth it. It's basically being able to do anything a client wants. If you find yourself in the print world--where you're constantly on call—there are always moments when an advertiser is asking you to do something that you can't deliver. Like if a marketer only wants to reach people who work in financial service companies. Or "I really want the content, but I don't want to do it in every issue." Well, you really can't do that. Or, "I really want to do a printout of your video." These are legitimate objectives but you couldn't accomplish them offline as compared to the web.

Wendy: Good point.

Jim: So this was really one of the most emancipating aspects of the transition. With the web, you basically can always say yes!

Wendy: You're right. It's a really exciting medium for that. It can really get your creative juices flowing. And I agree from a sales perspective, it's like, "Yes, we can do that, and here's the price tag."

Jim: Yes, I've seen how you can move somebody from what "they really want to do" to "Yes, we can get that done for you." That's a wonderful place to be.

Wendy: That's a good transition to the next question, which is the Forbes Video Network. I have to tell you from what I've seen, there's nothing else that's quite like it. It's very exciting. This is clearly a huge initiative and something that you're making a big commitment to; the development of a broadband video network. What makes it different? Is there anyone else out there that's doing anything similar that you see, or is Forbes.com really in the forefront of going forward with this thing?

Jim: It's all a matter of degrees, right? We're producing content that's not all that different from what you might see on other news sites and TV channels. What's different, of course, is that we're able to produce it in a very specific way. We're able to offer it in very definable, edible chunks. Which is not to say that you can't watch a cable TV news channel for five minutes and receive valuable news updates. But you most likely won't get the news you're looking for in that exact five minutes. Most likely, you'll have to watch the whole show to see what you were looking for.

Wendy: Tell me about it!

Jim: Forbes.com gives you what you want in those five minutes. It has 8 content categories and 10 subcategories under each. For example, on Forbes.com you don't have to watch some long show to find out how a CEO answered questions about earnings, or how a newsmaker responded to a tough question. I think there are a lot of revolutionary things around web-oriented video. What makes Forbes.com different is that it offers a wealth of video content against the widest variety of relevant topics. And it's up to the minute on all of them. It's sort of this notion that we've been applying, which I'll call for lack of a better term, "entwined media". That's the concept of consumer control taken to the n'th degree; the classic understanding that you watch what you want to watch and you digest what you want to digest when you want to digest it. Right?

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Wendy: Exactly

Jim: For example, now with TiVo, you can make some of those choices. You can decide that you want to watch the show "24" not on Monday night, but on Friday night. That's all well and good, but with the web we think there's a very important differentiation. You can also choose to digest the subject matter in a way that's most interesting to you, or ways that are most interesting to you. Is it video? Is it text on screen? Is it a data base? Is it audio? Is it some sort of interactive chat with an editor or one of your peers? Or some combination of all those things?

Wendy: Right.

Jim: Well that's really an incredible number of choices for the consumer. The more choices you give the consumer, the better off that consumer feels, and the better off you, the content delivery system is going to be.

Wendy: Absolutely. What are your expectations here? Where do you want to take this? Where are you going to get traction quickly?

Jim: Traditional media. I think the first competitive advance we see is against other news properties, particularly against TV networks. Our first communication point to get the industry's attention is to let them know that Forbes Video gets the same kind of reach on the web as they have on TV.

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Wendy: OK. This may be a little redundant, but other than your typical user, who I assume are the Wall Street folks' managing portfolios, who is your user base?

Jim: Actually, the portfolio managers are a somewhat atypical audience for us. Our core user base is people who run companies.

Wendy: OK.

Jim: There's a real difference between those groups. I mean, I would never tell you that we don't have institutional folks on the site or we don't have people on the site looking to see whether they should invest in say HP or Microsoft. Certainly, that's part of the makeup. But the fundamental core component of the site, what the site is developed for, are the people at those companies who are actually running them.

Wendy: OK, good. So what's the reason that people should tune into the Forbes video network all day long?

Jim: There's a variety of reasons for that. One would be to get management insight. How do I run my company better? Also, of course, we have a variety of things on our pallet in terms of the network. Besides business, we cover technology, investing, leadership, lifestyle, events and more. We have interviews with executives, editors talking about the latest news in all areas, market experts of all different types and various close-ups of trends affecting every aspect of our lives.

Wendy: So what sort of challenges lie ahead in the future to inform and educate Madison Avenue about what's going on here? How are you going to generate awareness? To date, you've had your Mass Targetability campaign running. Now you have an entirely new product where the learning curve will be steep. How are you going to get the word out there and what points do you want to hit?

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Jim: Well, we're introducing the next generation of broad-based marketing. Invariably, we're out in the marketplace everyday and are now talking to people about the site in a variety of ways. Our new campaign is to focus on how Forbes Video compares to other online and traditional mags who publish a small fraction of the stories we publish a day. The others reach a few million people every month. We reach 15 million every month. It doesn't mean the online mags are bad; they're great. But we have this huge plethora of content that is well in excess of the online and offline magazine opportunities. And then of course there's the point you made earlier about the power of video. Video is an area we feel has been under-recognized. Obviously, the fault for that is ours as an industry.

Wendy: That's true.

We're going to try to fix that. How do you get Mass Targetability for a video? If you think about the sort of classic Ying and Yang of marketing, which is if you buy TV, you get massive reach and sight, sound and motion. But you can't get a real specific target. It's a little better if you buy cable networks but then you get a really fragmented audience. Well, now we can offer video applications that have a great big reach, but reach that's specifically towards a specific target audience. We're talking about specific audiences like small companies or large companies, or automotive companies or retail companies, or a specific location such as Los Angeles or New York, or even specific job titles for that matter.

Wendy: Wow!

Jim: So, it's a brand new sort of mind-set that marketers and agencies should see its value. Of course, that doesn't happen overnight, but once it sinks in, we expect the interest to grow, ideally quicker than later.

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Tomorrow, look for part 2 of my conversation with Jim, where we discuss the state of the business on Madison Avenue.

Wendy

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