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Star Tribune classifieds VP out in re-organization

I admit, I’m barely conversant in the language of sales, but the Star Tribune is going to need some to survive. That’s why new CEO Mike Klingensmith’s biggest hire so far is Chief Revenue Officer Jeff Griffing, who came on board April 23.

I admit, I’m barely conversant in the language of sales, but the Star Tribune is going to need some to survive. That’s why new CEO Mike Klingensmith’s biggest hire so far is Chief Revenue Officer Jeff Griffing, who came on board April 23. Griffing — whose title is newspeak for “sales boss” — just busted his first big move, getting rid of Jamie Flaw, the paper’s Vice President of Classified Advertising and Niche Publications since 2006.

Classifieds — once the engine of newspaper profitability — has taken an unholy beating in recent years from Craigslist and other targeted upstarts, and the former king is now nearly vestigial. Still, Griffing says the latest decision wasn’t related to cost-cutting, or Flaws’ specific performance. (My sources spoke well of her.)

Instead, he’s combining territorial entities — classifieds and display advertising — and needs only one VP. The survivor: Retail and National Advertising head Paul Kasbohm. Even though he’s only been on the job six weeks, Griffing will take over classifieds duty during a transition period.

“We currently have two different sales organizations sitting on different sides of the floor,” Griffing said Thursday. “I don’t believe customers, advertisers and people trying to market products and services think of us in two different ways.”

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In a staff memo (below), Griffing noted the Strib sales side is “not fundamentally different than 20 years ago… In order to be more responsive, we need to be organized around categories and location of customers rather than types of advertising.”

As an outsider (like Klingensmith, Griffing came from Sports Illustrated, among other stops), he saw things he didn’t understand. Example: Classifieds handles auto advertisers, “even though my logic would say auto dealers are more similar to regional retailers” who buy display ads. “To me, we had it in a category because we’ve always done it that way. Why wouldn’t we have a regional retail group salesperson do it?”

Griffing says what he’s doing is “not revolutionary. It’s the same thing we did at SI — be integrated sellers, truly be able to sell digital, print, event, niche publications on a variety of platforms.”

That’s easier said than done, as veterans of endless sales re-training programs can attest. Griffing acknowledges he doesn’t have “an exact formula” yet, but he is sure that instead of “two VPs over two different sets of salespeople, I need people on the bottom end of the triangle, getting out on the streets, selling, prospecting and doing customer service.”

I asked him how many salespeople he could hire with a VP’s money; he said administrative support might be more important to free up the existing salesforce’s time.

“I really wish I could give a short plan” for what comes next, he says, “but we are literally shaping this as we speak. I’m meeting with a lot of customers — and a lot of former customers, on why they’re not spending with us and how we can come up with a solution. The biggest mistake is to sit in a corner office and imagine what customers want. I’m getting out every day and talking to advertisers, just like Mike is doing research with readers and what they need.”

In a two-part interview last month, Klingensmith forecast a revenue uptick for later this year, while acknowledging the uncertainty. I asked Griffing what signs of life he was seeing.

“The general trend is that, we’re close to the bottom — things are leveling off, and we’re seeing increased spending in some sectors,” Griffing says. “But it’s almost a month-to-month thing. Last year at this time, there were grocery store wars, so even though it was a bad year, this month last year was a good month.”

He adds, “We seem to be in more active conversations about [advertisers] spending money. They’re not throwing money at us, but they’re listening to ideas. If priced right, people will buy it. As simple as that sounds, it’s an activity game — make calls, meet customers. If you’re doing that, the ripple effect is revenue.”

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Sure, that’s a sales guy talking, but the bottom line will be fully his any day now.

Strib sales manager Burt Bauman is also departing, but Griffing says that’s coincidental, voluntary, and not part of the reorganization. “The position has been posted, and we are actively interviewing for it.”

Savvy sales-side pros are welcome to continue my education; email address is at right. Here’s Griffing’s memo:

I’ve spent the last six weeks learning about our current organization and it’s clear that while the marketplace has been changing dramatically in recent years, our basic structure is not fundamentally different than 20 years ago. Like most newspapers, we are primarily organized around a distinction between two types of advertising—classified and display. But this is mostly an internal and historical distinction that does not reflect how customers interact with us. In order to be more responsive, we need to be organized around categories and location of customers rather than types of advertising. 

That being said, we will be moving to a more unified and nimble organization that no longer separates classified and display advertising, but instead is a collection of versatile sales teams armed with a variety of solutions. One immediate outcome of this new direction is that we will be eliminating the role of vice president of classified advertising. Jamie Flaws, who has served admirably in that role, will be leaving the company, effective Friday.  For almost 14 years, Jamie has been an outstanding contributor to the Star Tribune in a number of leadership positions, and we thank her immensely for her dedicated service.

As we move through this evolution, the current classified department will be reporting directly to me. I will be working as quickly as possible to realign our entire sales organization around customer groups. I don’t believe we will ever be able to say we have an organizational solution that will last for another 20 years. The marketplace is always changing, and we will always be adapting, which is exactly what will continue to make us an elite media sales organization.

This realignment is not a commentary or report card on what you are currently doing, as I know first-hand that you’re all working hard in a competitive marketplace. Rather, this is about staying nimble and responsive.

Thank you for your continued hard work, your honest feedback, and your open-mindedness. I’m looking forward to continuing to evolve our organization along with you. Again, we all owe Jamie thanks for her hard work and contributions over the years and wish her well in her next endeavor.     

Jeff Griffing