Are You Ready To “Attack and Disrupt” Your Company And All That Is Sacred?

I have a weakness for certain industries. The hotel industry, for instance. It’s the stuff novels are made of. Also media companies, I have a weakness for those too. So, if you’ll indulge me, let’s take a look at the success story now underway at The Atlantic.

Adweek and The New York Times both put reporters on this venerable media brand’s turnaround. It is a good story. David G. Bradley, having profited handsomely from the research company he started in his 20s, reinvested by buying the National Journal Group from the Times Mirror Company in 1997, and followed that purchase in 1999 by paying $10 million for The Atlantic.

Bradley wondered, “How hard could magazine management be?” He soon discovered. The Atlantic lost $4.5 million in its first year under Mr. Bradley’s ownership, and that figure grew worse from there. After losing the magazine’s celebrated editor, Michael Kelly — killed while on assignment in Iraq — Bradley decided to move the magazine from Boston to Washington. The Atlantic was losing close to $7 million a year at that time.

Bradley focused on hiring top talent to steer his ship into more inviting waters. One key hire was Justin Smith from The Week. Smith is president of Atlantic Media, responsible for the National Journal Group and a third, smaller unit, Government Executive, a biweekly trade magazine and website.

The executive team at The Atlantic (which also includes publisher Jay Lauf from Wired, and Editor James Bennet from The New York Times) found their salvation by rethinking everything about the company. “We imagined ourselves as a venture-capital-backed start-up in Silicon Valley whose mission was to attack and disrupt The Atlantic,” said Smith. “In essence, we brainstormed the question, ‘What would we do if the goal was to aggressively cannibalize ourselves?’ ”

Is there a lesson here for the ad industry? For sure. We’ve been doing things one way for so long, many of us are stuck in the old paradigm, despite the fast moving changes in media and marketing that demand rapid and constant adaptability.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.