Player Profile: Crystal expectations clear for a 'BIG' position at G&J

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So let's see if we've got this straight.

Scott Crystal was exec VP-publishing director of Ziff Davis Media's consumer magazines. As the company's fortunes decline in sync with the tech world's, as the chairman-CEO that brought him in was ousted, he makes his move from a company and sector besieged by ugly economic trends.

And so he lands as president-CEO of Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing's Business Innovators Group. There, he'll oversee two titles, Inc. and Fast Company, which, through September, have seen ad page declines of 42.1% and 51.4%.

But Mr. Crystal, 45, waves away frying pan/fire comments, in part by pointing to how he started in the business-selling New York Times classified ads over the phone. "Telemarketing," he said. "If you can get through that, you can get through anything-you're kind of an indentured servant."

More seriously, he references his most recent experience. "I don't come in with false expectations," he said. "I've been through probably the most cataclysmic decline in publishing-at tech books."

And that, paradoxically, made Gruner & Jahr seem like a good bet. "I have no doubt that the objectives for Gruner & Jahr, both here and in Germany, are to continue to expand and evolve." He contrasted this with his experience at Ziff Davis, where his three-title portfolio-Family PC, Yahoo! Internet Life and Expedia Travels-was trimmed to two with the closing of Family PC before it could re-launch as Family Internet Life. And while he left before the company pulled the plug on Expedia Travels, he said "the writing was on the wall, in that the commitment [to the title] was being questioned almost monthly."

"He's been through the wars," said Dan Brewster, CEO, Gruner & Jahr. "He's had very tough assignments in his career." The assignment Gruner & Jahr now demands from its new divisional CEO is more marketing than expansion-based. When David Carey, Mr. Crystal's predecessor, came on in January 2001, he told Ad Age about a division to be built around three to five consumer titles, supported by a welter of trade titles, conferences, Web sites and newsletters.

These days Mr. Crystal is more apt to tout his hires and BIG resources-former Industry Standard conference guru David Evans is heading efforts to build conferences off the division's stable-and discuss the potential for seminars and newsletters. And Mr. Brewster said Mr. Crystal's biggest challenge is positioning the titles in what Mr. Brewster sees as a demographic equal to the Forbes and Business Weeks of the world but at a lower premium.

"Obviously we are operating in an entirely different environment now than when we made these acquisitions," Mr. Brewster said. But he added the titles were nonetheless "exactly on track."

Inc. has also gone through a much-touted facelift, resulting in what Mr. Crystal jokingly calls the biggest logo in magazines. That redesign, he said, should help it get more ads from the luxury goods, automotive and travel sectors.

Mr. Crystal refuses to blue-sky his immediate forecast. "We expect that declines will continue for a bit" and then stabilize, he said. "This is not a short-term scenario. And I think everyone's on board ... that '02 will be a very different year," although he thought it would ultimately beat '01.

"Business is not a spectator sport," Mr. Crystal said, sounding as if he was articulating his division's new calling card. He just may be speaking from experience on that one.

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