Over the past few weeks, as Prometheus Global Media, the owner of b-to-b trade magazines Adweek, The Hollywood Reporter, Billboard and Back Stage, has continued to find the right formula for its various titles, the company has seen a number of top executives exit, suggesting that the changes in design and focus have left many staffers uncertain about the direction of the business, especially at Billboard, which is in the midst of a revamp.
Among the executives who have departed in the past month are Howard Appelbaum, president, Brand Development, who returned to Nielsen as president of Entertainment Group. Applebaum had been with Nielsen since 2000 before the audience researcher sold the b-to-b trade titles to e5 Global Media (which ultimately turned into Prometheus ) in December 2009 for between $70- and $80 million. Applebaum had been closely involved with Billboard before than after the sale.
It’s not clear what Applebaum, a career magazine guy, will be doing at the Entertainment Group — it’s unlikely, but it’s worth wondering whether or not his return suggests that Nielsen may once again getting into publishing.
In addition to Applebaum, who left the company about a week ago, Debi Chirichella, Prometheus’ COO, left two weeks ago to become CFO of Hearst. Before that, another Billboard alum, Josh Engroff, departed in September to join mobile ad exchange startup Everyscreen Media.
Billboard is currently in the middle of a makeover, similar to the ones that The Hollywood Reporter and Adweek have undergone. The idea was to take a traditional, straightforward b-to-b property and somehow make it more appealing to a more general business and consumer audience.
However, unlike those last two, the Billboard’s changes are likely to be much more low key. The reason for that, primarily, is that the man who had sought to shift the ground under those publications so abruptly is now in another position.
In July, Prometheus CEO Richard Beckman, the former Condé Nast salesman who brought in Michael Wolff to reimagine Adweek in Oct. 2010 and was then ultimately ousted last month, found himself out of his original role of overseeing Prometheus’ trade magazines. Instead, Beckman was put in charge of a new division devoted to branded content. Beckman had championed the notion of making these magazines appealing to “influencers” within the wider luxury, business and technology market versus the trade magazines’ traditional audience of ad men, marketing and managers, and studio executives.
That shift was sorely tested at Adweek from an editorial standpoint in particular. There was an intense tug of war over the direction between Prometheus Chairman Jimmy Finkelstein and Wolff over Adweek, with the latter executive creating a colorful, buzzy media magazine property that garnered enormous attention for hot-blooded profiles of industry icons along with splashy, expensive visuals. But with ad pages largely flat the past year, and the conference business struggling to attract traditional ad industry clients who felt alienated and abandoned by the new focus, Finkelstein ultimately reined things in and has dialed back the publication to something closer to its roots.
Billboard faces an even tougher challenge than Adweek. After all, the music business that looked to Billboard’s Top 40 and Top 10 lists and industry news has seen much deeper upheaval and crisis than the ad agency business. The role of Billboard, which was founded in 1894, at time when the habits of consuming and accessing popular music has changed so greatly, focusing on the business of major labels and concert promoters seems like a losing proposition no matter the direction.
Relatively speaking, Billboard isn’t doing too bad compared with its Prometheus sibling. According to stats from MagazineRadar, Billboard’s ad pages were up 3 percent between January and September, while Adweek was down 17 percent during the same period. THR saw its ad pages rise 34 percent between the start of the year and November, though that probably has more to with the change in publishing frequency, as the daily magazine was relaunched as weekly title last year.
Perhaps at some point, a new audience around the business of selling music will coalesce. But until that time, Prometheus will have to think a little longer and a little harder about what Billboard’s place as an industry voice is. And it will have to do it without a number of individuals who have been through the start of the music business’ painful transition.