Just weeks after noting the newspaper industry's on-again off-again love affair with yellow pages, I see an announcement by Hearst that it's acquiring White Directories, one of the nation’s largest independent yellow pages publishers, and that White will become part of the Hearst newspaper group.
Is this a case of another newspaper publisher getting an expensive and painful lesson that local ad sales expertise and local directory ad sales expertise are not synonymous? Perhaps not. I spent some time flipping between a list of markets served by White and markets served by the Hearst newspapers, and found very little overlap. What we probably have here is Hearst making an investment in a growing and dependable stream of profits, just like the bevy of private equity funds that have discovered the yellow pages industry over the past few years.
So why don’t newspapers and directories mix?
The primary problem is that directory salespeople aren’t like other salespeople, and I offer that observation as high praise. There was a time when it was widely believed that yellow pages salespeople, particularly those with the benefit of Donnelley sales training, were among the best salespeople in the media business. But that’s not the same as saying they could sell any medium equally well. Directory salespeople are indeed a breed apart, and the general experience to date is that they don’t do well selling other forms of media. It's not for lack of yellow pages publishers trying to make it so. Part of this is a natural salesperson’s tendency to focus on what they know best and are making money at today.
But the larger issue is that the directory sale is almost totally opposite to the sale of most other media. With yellow pages you sell retention, discovery, saturation distribution and response. Add in an annual frequency and rates so high they have to be expressed in terms of the monthly cost, and you can easily see the challenge. Yellow pages salespeople can't sell newspaper ads, and newspaper people can't sell yellow pages ads. That’s why the potential sales synergy that looks good on paper has never worked in reality.
Consider too the cultural divide. Newspapers provide important news and have a strong and proud journalistic tradition. They sell subscriptions and they sell advertising. Yellow pages sell advertising and give their publications away. In the yellow pages business, the advertising is the content. That’s simple to say, but hard to absorb, particularly if you grew up in the newspaper business. Add into the mix that yellow pages and newspapers have different pre-press needs, are manufactured differently and distributed differently, and you knock out loads more potential synergy.
Finally, there is the "grass is greener" issue. When newspapers look enviously at yellow pages, they look at the market leaders, the Verizons of the world. But when they finally take the plunge and buy yellow pages, they buy independents, the scrappy competitors, the "we try harder" publishers. Nothing wrong with that, as these independents can be both large and profitable. But what it does mean is even more emphasis on advertising sales in a highly competitive, take no prisoners environment. That can be a real eye-opener for newspapers, many of which operate with effectively no competition.
Does yellow pages make great media investment vehicles? Yes. Should they be acquired by newspapers to build "a highly synergistic, integrated local media advertising platform" (I just made this up, but doesn't it sound so ... plausible?). No.