Gannett Hires WaPo, Yahoo Sales Exec Kevin Gentzel as Revenue Chief

Newspaper Publisher Split From Parent Company Last Month

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In the past year Kevin Gentzel has gone from newspapers to digital media and back again.

After hopping from The Washington Post to Yahoo last year, Mr. Gentzel has landed at Gannett as the newspaper company's chief revenue officer and will report to the company's president of domestic publishing John Zidich. As Mr. Gentzel did previously as revenue chief at The Washington Post and Forbes, the longtime sales exec is looking to branded content -- perhaps better known as advertorials -- as a way to boost the traditional media company's ad revenue since it can longer rely on its more profitable TV business.

Perhaps best known as the publisher of USA Today, Gannett is actually a new company with an old name. Previously Gannett was a TV-and-newspaper company that also owned some digital sites like Cars.com and Careerbuilder. But in late June that company changed its name to Tegna, keeping the TV and digital business and spinning off its newspaper business -- including 92 U.S. daily local newspapers such as USA Today, Detroit Free Press and The Des Moines Register -- as well as the Gannett name into a new company, which is where Mr. Gentzel now works.

Gannett and now Mr. Gentzel have inherited a business in decline. Prior the split, old-Gannett's publishing business -- which is new-Gannett's only business -- had seen its revenue fall by 9% year-over-year in the first quarter of 2015 to $768.2 million with its operating income dropping by 57% year-over-year to $18.3 million.

There are few, if any, bright spots to be found when breaking down the publishing business's revenue. In the first quarter of this year, revenue from advertising and circulation dropped year-over-year by 11% and 3%, respectively. The company's advertising revenue had been hit particularly hard by a 9% year-over-year decline in revenue from retail advertisers -- typically merchants advertising in Gannett's local newspapers and on those papers' respective sites -- that accounted for 51% of overall ad revenue and a 29% year-over-year drop in revenue from national advertisers that accounted for 13% of overall ad revenue.

Mr. Gentzel thinks the combination of Gannett's local newspapers and their respective sites as well as the national reach of USA Today and its site as well as the rise of branded content and the ability to programmatically target those advertorials give Gannett an opportunity to reverse its revenue decline.

"I've been thinking a lot about the ability to build branded content capabilities so that you can create tools that measure success of national branded content work that you're creating out of [Gannett's existing branded content arm] Studio Gannett and perhaps that can translate into relevant ads at the local level. And vice versa, if things are working at the local level, there might be some successes that we can take from that and build at a national level," Mr. Gentzel said in an interview Wednesday morning, his first day on the job.

While he hasn't firmed up his plans to tackle that work, one idea he floated is creating branded-content templates specific to brand verticals, so that a consumer electronics merchant in Rochester could use the same template to run a piece of branded content as a consumer electronics brand in Indianapolis. "It's an interesting way, I think, for local advertisers to draft off the trend of native advertising," Mr. Gentzel said.

Mr. Gentzel has a pattern of building up traditional media companies' branded-content businesses. At Forbes he oversaw the roll-out of its so-called native ad format that lets brands pay to publish op-eds on the publication's site that mirror the look of normal editorial articles. He introduced a similar product while at The Washington Post and organized a team called BrandStudio charged with making ads for marketers.

He also has a pattern of hopping back-and-forth between traditional and digital media companies. He spent roughly a dozen years at Forbes -- eventually rising to become the company's chief revenue officer and overseeing -- before leaving in 2012 to take the same position at digital video startup News Distribution Network. After about a year-and-a-half at the video newswire, he joined The Washington Post in June 2013 as its chief revenue officer. Then in October 2014 he stepped down from that position to serve as Yahoo's head of North American ad sales but left the company in May 2015. Mr. Gentzel declined to discuss why he left Yahoo seven months after he was hired.