Helping Media Companies Face Today's Business Issues

An interview with David Amidon of Burns & Levinson.

CCBJ: Tell us about your background and your practice.

David Amidon: After law school at SMU, I worked in Dallas for a couple years at a mid-sized business firm. I moved to Boston and worked for several years at Gadsby Hannah, now part of McCarter & English, doing M&A, finance and securities work. After making partner and heading up the firm’s securities practice, I left private practice to help run two different business media companies, where I spent over nine years in a variety of management roles. I then returned to private practice, joining Burns & Levinson as a partner in the Business Law group, where I now have a transactional and advisory practice, with a highly specialized industry emphasis in the business media space.

That’s an interesting trajectory. How does that experience inform the work you do now?

Having helped run a couple media companies and having been a client myself provide me with a big differentiator over most other outside legal advisors. My clients tell me that I have a clear understanding of their businesses. I know the right questions to ask and how to focus my clients’ attention on the important issues they need to think about. What are their strategic objectives? What are their challenges to growth and efficiency? In their business relationships, what is their risk tolerance? What’s happening in their industry and markets that drives their strategic, tactical and operational decisions? I have yet to come across a situation or scenario that I haven’t seen before.

What type of business media clients do you represent?

My clients in this space are quite broad and varied, ranging from stand-alone event/expo organizers to publishers, digital media concerns and integrated business media companies. My team also works with many of the vendors and technology providers that support business media companies. We have been doing a lot of M&A on both the sell and buy sides, involving both strategic and financial buyers. Once the M&A deals are completed, we are often asked to provide advice and counsel around integrating combined businesses, such as rationalizing diverse legacy contract systems. We’ve negotiated several joint ventures and alliances – domestic and international – for parties collaborating on a wide variety of initiatives, such as event co-production and events co-location. We’ve also established vendor relationships, negotiated services agreements, tech-enabled solutions and provided a myriad of day-to-day advice and counsel around personnel and contract matters.

How do you add value for your clients?

We are very proactive with our clients. This manifests itself in many ways, from keeping up with relevant legal and business developments to identifying potentially valuable relationships. Recently, we were able to help a client fill a key senior leadership role with a candidate that wasn’t even looking for a new position, simply by “opening our Rolodex” for the client’s benefit.

We also operate in a highly collaborative manner across disciplines at the partner level. Our clients often come to us for solutions to very complex problems. In order to develop effective solutions in an efficient manner, we bring together the necessary subject matter experts and those with relevant domain experience. A good example would be a recent project for a global integrated media company to address upcoming European Union data security regulations. Our team included partners with expertise in privacy, corporate, intellectual property and human resources. We crafted a comprehensive support proposal and have begun implementation of a plan.

Another way we add value is offering training to clients to help them “in-source” matters. This has covered areas as diverse as contract administration, intellectual property management and best employment practices. One recent example involved setting up ongoing training of a tradeshow organizer’s staff on responding to customer comments on venue licenses. The idea was to make the contract administrator self-sufficient in completing these agreements, which we’ve done on a fixed-fee basis.

What’s the most interesting project you’ve worked on?

It’s hard to pick just one, since I’ve had the opportunity to work with so many great companies and wonderful people. I’d say getting tapped to be a part of the senior management team that started and grew an integrated business media company from an idea to a $100 million-plus global enterprise in under four years has to be very near the top.

Another really interesting project – more on the legal services side of things – is a recent effort helping a client that’s an organizer of tradeshows and conferences to respond effectively to efforts by “rogue” internet marketing companies that were promoting themselves as offering “official” lists of the client’s event attendees. We created a response strategy that has resulted in a significant drop-off in rogue efforts and a much more informed customer base.

You work with some family-owned businesses. What challenges do you see there that you don’t see with other clients?

The big difference is that in family businesses, it’s sometimes difficult to leave the work at the office. Another challenge is around managing family expectations about who’s best suited to run certain parts of the business, or whether “cousin Bob” ought to be in the business at all. Perhaps the thorniest problem is dealing with succession issues. Is it simply a generational consideration, or should current leadership be bringing on outside professional talent to maintain and grow the family business?

We recently worked with a business that was owned by the soon-to-retire father, who was struggling with succession involving his three adult children, only one of whom was truly qualified to run the company. We helped establish a multidisciplinary team – with tax, accounting, insurance and financial planning people – that could develop and implement a plan to transition the business to the next generation in a way that provided liquidity and financial security to the retiring generation, while allowing autonomous management by the successor manager and preserving passive economic involvement by the other “outside” adult children.

What are the three biggest issues that your business ­media clients are dealing with right now?

Consolidation is the number one issue they are grappling with. Larger companies are looking for scale through strategic acquisitions and are competing with financial buyers – including private equity firms – that are sitting on seemingly endless piles of cash to invest. This has created a bit of a “deal frenzy” over the past few years.

The second big issue is the migration to digital platforms. Many historic brands, publications and properties are seeking to leverage digital platforms to initiate, maintain and sustain engagement with customers. And many traditional players, particularly in the traditional print publishing space, have found that adequate preparedness for the shift to digital has been a challenge. The demographic shift to millennials, with their much greater reliance on social media and other digital platforms, creates significant challenges for business media companies, particularly in print media.

Last, but certainly not least, is data security and privacy. Much of the traditional and evolving business model for business media companies centers on both creating and sustaining “demand generation” for their customers and clients. In other words, how can their various platforms help their customers meet, engage and close business? As more and more personal information is collected and disseminated, real concerns have arisen about how much and how effectively this information is being safeguarded. Failing to do so can cripple a business media company’s effectiveness at helping its customers with these engagement objectives.

What are the biggest drivers for private equity firms that are investing in business media companies?

Private equity firms are looking to find and nurture companies that have achieved or have clear prospects of achieving both a dominant position in their markets and clearly defined and sustainable competitive advantages. This gives the private equity sponsor an excellent starting field position in
a competitive marketplace. First and foremost, private equity investors are looking for companies that can grow under their sponsorship.

Right now, the most attractive business media portfolio company includes multiple platforms, top presence in market segments with significant growth potential, strong in-place management, and a solid ROI or entry price-to-exit consideration.

What are the biggest business media opportunities you see on the horizon?

One of the biggest opportunities is leveraging and monetizing content across multiple platforms. For example, we recently worked with a client that used cutting-edge website development and social media management to build a system of “private labeling” industry-relevant content within an industry niche or vertical, using content created at the top of the segment’s food chain and rebranding it for individual campaigns by the OEM’s customers. The beauty here is that they’re leveraging existing content to drive demand lower on the food chain, thereby growing demand at the OEM level. Our group spends significant time staying current on developments in these areas, and we are constantly looking for similar tools and models that our clients can use to leverage existing assets in new ways.

Another opportunity is the move to migrate or expand traditional platforms – think print magazines – to digital outlets and social media. Millennials represent the fastest-­growing segment of today’s readership and visitorship, and they increasingly serve in advertiser and editorial management roles, as well. Business media companies that position their platforms and content delivery systems to meet this demographic’s preferences will capture the lion’s share of their business. We are helping our clients do this by establishing robust protections for their burgeoning content portfolios, and putting in place privacy and use policies that ensure necessary permissions while promoting responsible marketing practices – which in turn helps preserve brand goodwill with the client’s customers.

The future also points to “all-in” adoption of social media. I just read a fairly recent study that found that almost two-thirds of today’s consumers use social media for customer service, and an equal percentage actually stopped doing business with a company due to poor social customer service. If a company is not looking at social media as an important tool in managing its customer experience and relationships, then it’s missing out.

You’ve built many long-lasting client relationships. What is the secret of that success?

I’m not sure it’s such a big secret. It’s all about building and nurturing those relationships. As I said, I was in-house for several years, so I know what clients want and don’t want. I’ve sat in their chair and faced their pressures, issues and challenges. Over three decades now, I’ve boiled this down to a simple goal: If a current or prospective client can affirmatively answer four questions about me – Does he understand my business? Has he done this before? Can I work well with him? Will he add value to my bottom line? – then we have a strong foundation for building a successful partnership.

David Amidon is a partner at Burns & Levinson, where he chairs the Business Media Group. He has nearly 30 years of experience serving as both general counsel and transactional counsel to a broad and diverse group of entrepreneurs, startup and emerging ventures, middle-market companies, private equity and venture capital funds, investment banking firms, private investors and public companies. He is based in Boston and can be reached at [email protected].

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