Griffin Breaks Silence on Time Inc., What Lies Ahead
Jack Griffin is out to prove there's life after Time Inc.
Fired seven months ago as CEO of the Time -Warner unit, he has established Empirical Strategic Advisors, a consultancy for media and related technology companies and investors.
And it wouldn't have happened if the Time experience hadn't forced him to get off the "main line," he said last week in an interview at the Harvard Club in Boston -- his first in-depth chat with the media since his dismissal. Mr. Griffin has a major client and an office in Boston in addition to his New York office on Park Avenue South. He was upbeat and relaxed, and at the same time his comments were very precise, as if he had been thinking about what he wanted to say for a long time.
"Absent any hyperbole, this has turned out to be the most extraordinary experience of my life," he said. "I never thought it would happen. I was in the business for 25 years, if you add it all up, and I was ... on the main line, working in a corporate environment, moving up the ranks, focused on the business and focused on the next step and focused on developing a career."
So far, he's working with six clients, including a digital-content company, a technology company, a newspaper company and a magazine publisher, as well as investors and equity companies "trying to figure out the space."
The former Meredith and Parade exec has also formed "a substantial relationship" with global management consultant AlixPartners, which has done turnaround work for Chrysler and worked with the Tribune Co. and Reader's Digest. Alix wants to build "a substantial media practice" with Mr. Griffin's collaboration, he said. The website for his new firm went up last week.
"I dare say I would have never taken myself off the main line. I think few do. Obviously it was a shock, it took a while to absorb, but subsequent to that , pretty quickly I started focusing on the future because really there's no other way.
"When all of this was happening," Mr. Griffin said, he had "a torrent" of calls and letters from people he knew but many from people he didn't know. "I had this tremendous number of people coming toward me seeing if I could help them with problems. I think that the Meredith success was very visible and the period at Time Inc. was very short, and I think I'm someone who's able to deal with complexity and make it simple, someone who's able to build new things, often within established organizations, and I think someone who is eternally optimistic."
Mr. Griffin said he still has great admiration for Time Inc. He said his grandfather was editor in chief of the biggest newspaper in Boston, and his first job was as a reporter. "I was tremendously privileged to work there. So when I say I read the magazines, I'm proud of that .
"Nobody was more surprised than me that this happened. ... I'm disappointed that it happened. But I've made the best of it and I've moved on. And I wish every one of them well. I worked with some great people there. And it's a separate thought that this has turned into the best period of my life, not cause and effect."
Mr. Griffin sees a challenging time ahead for magazines. "I love this business, but there's no silver bullet. And if you look at the history of the business until a short time ago, really until 2007, advertising was fundamentally growing. What happened in 2008 and 2009 revealed some serious structural issues because the downturn was so severe. ... The challenge that magazines have is the whole business structure was predicated on the direct relationship with the customer and you know who your end user is all the time, except on newsstands.
"And now what I think the industry has to do is operate in a world where there are a lot of intermediaries. Certainly Apple's going to be the biggest at 200 million credit card [numbers]. People talk about digital now, and digital is really mobile, and mobile is really tablets and smartphones. And so the way that I think consumers are starting to consume magazine-based content, and certainly the next generation, is going to increasingly be in that environment. But at the same time the tablet is a tremendous opportunity for new products, for derivative products. The forces of externally driven change are unprecedented and moving extremely fast," he warned.
Mr. Griffin believes he did what he was hired to do at Time Inc., which has yet to name a successor. He thought he had a mandate, and he said he acted on it.
"Meredith had done much better than the industry overall for a lot of different reasons, and so I went to Time Inc. with what I thought was a pretty clear mandate to do some things, and to my knowledge the things that I did remain intact. I promoted a whole bunch of people. I created the office of chief revenue officer. That was kept. I created the post of chief digital officer, which is now quite common. I named someone to be editorial director, and that 's intact. I realigned some publishers, and those are in tact to my knowledge. And I named a chief marketing officer and with that the general direction to expand marketing services, which was done very successfully at Meredith .
"So change is the watchword and my track record has been about results and new models and building teams and cultures very successfully for 20 years. And that 's what I was doing at Time Inc. in the manner I did it at other companies."
Mr. Griffin was the chairman of the MPA at the same time. He said he was very externally focused. And he was spending a lot of time with advertisers and listening to their issues and concerns. "And so I was doing the things I thought I was hired to do ... and that would fit with the changes that were going on in the industry and the very difficult two years that preceded 2010.
"I've always been a results-oriented manager. I was focused on the business transformation. I believed that the changes that were changing the industry were much more secular than they were cyclical, and that there was much to be done.
"Could I have spent more time selling things in? Probably. But I did what I thought was right at the pace I thought was appropriate given the circumstances of the industry. I'm very disappointed it didn't work out. But I also point to the results for the period I was there. It was a short period, but if you look at Time Inc. results in the first two quarters of 2011 they were quite good. It speaks to a 20-year track record of results. ...I did what I thought was right in a manner that was successful at other very important companies.'"
At the time of his termination, Mr. Griffin issued a statement that he had received "consistent and documented acclaim" that he was on the right track, but he declined to go into further details about what he meant by "documented."
"I spent a tremendous amount of time on the inside and on the outside. I thought obviously there was more alignment than there was."