During the Super Bowl you’ll see a commercial for one of the Top 5 local online advertising companies. That fact won’t be touted in the commercial, and you’ll be too deep into a belly laugh to realize that what you just saw represents an amazing success story for the newspaper industry. (If you’d like your belly laugh now, read on and I’ll give you a link to the commercial.)
The company is CareerBuilder, which has defied both gravity and business history to become the nation’s No. 1 recruitment Web site in terms of revenue. Anyone with an understanding of disruptive technology would never have predicted this. CareerBuilder has been tied to the newspaper industry via ownership (Gannett, McClatchy and Tribune) and by on-the-ground management. Everyone thought ownership by big newspaper companies meant that CareerBuilder’s destiny was to protect print help-wanted advertising, which peaked at $8.7 billion 10 years ago and didn’t even break $1 billion last year. A decade ago, the likelihood of CareerBuilder’s failure against the unfettered Monster.com was high.
They were wrong. Last year CareerBuilder hit about $550 million, 10% more than Monster. According to our records, CareerBuilder was the fifth largest revenue-producer of all local online advertising companies we track.
If anything is worthy of a case study, it’s the determination of a few newspaper companies to become the biggest digital cannibal of all to their own recruitment advertising. The war between the industry-owned CareerBuilder and its archenemy Monster.com is an amazing story worth deep analysis. And after 15 years, CareerBuilder is definitely in the lead.
Perhaps the greatest expert on all this is Ira Gordon. Ten years ago he became the Benedict Arnold of the newspaper industry, having spent 19 years helping the industry build and protect its recruitment advertising base, only to switch sides in November 1999 to become a vice president at Monster, the industry’s arch-enemy.
Shortly after that, Ira began showing up in local markets on behalf of Monster. He started off the free seminar for local recruiters with a flip charts showing that town’s newspaper circulation (inevitably down) and another showing its recruitment advertising rates (inevitably up).
While skirmishes between the newspaper industry and Monster had taken place since 1995, Ira’s move – and the deep loss of jobs during the dot-com recession of 2000 – marked the official start of the war. He’s now a recruitment consultant in New York, and he now believes that CareerBuilder “has got to be called a success.” With Monster having a formidable brand and being so close in revenues, however, he comes short of declaring CareerBuilder the winner. “I’d call it a tie.”
“There’s absolutely no doubt that CareerBuilder has also catapulted itself into the No. 1 position,” he said. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean their success will continue.” Niche boards, like those run by trade associations, could be a significant threat to both job boards. “What I try to say,” Ira said, “is that niche boards have a natural audience that gravitate toward them. The only thing the niche boards have to do is get their act together. They haven’t done that … yet.”
Still, I believe it’s an amazing success story for the newspaper industry. I can be a pretty funny guy during my presentations, and having spoken to thousands of newspaper executives over the past decade, I can tell you they are the least likely to give up a laugh. They’re generally a serious crowd compared with the TV people (great hair, best dressed), radio people (more Hawaiian shirts per capita) and Internet people (more art or piercings per square inch of skin).
Which makes the Super Bowl commercials even more amazing. CareerBuilder represents an example where the newspaper industry really “got it” and stepped out of the way. You should vote for one of their commercials, and be thankful that some newspaper editor didn’t immediately axe the one marked “too hot for TV.”