The New Media Domain

Taking a media giant digital with Meredith Corporation’s John Zieser

“We’re online, on social networks, and everywhere our consumers are digesting that information.” —John Zieser, chief development officer & general counsel

After an extensive career in acquisition and merger law with the multinational firm Sullivan and Cromwell, John Zieser joined Des Moines, Iowa-based Meredith Corporation—parent owner of media products such as Better Homes and Gardens, Parents, Eating Well, and, most recently,—as chief development officer and general counsel in 1999. In addition to his general counsel duties, he leads a group that focuses on new revenue through mergers and strategic partnerships. In this combined role, Zieser helps to identify new media property acquisitions to keep Meredith Corporation the leading media and marketing company that it is today.

The nature of my job has always been travel. I enjoy traveling, meeting other people, meeting people outside the United States, and learning different cultures. And in our type of business, you’re very much focused on new platforms and new business. I tend to spend a lot of time with entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, New York, and Boulder—the latter has become quite a digital hub for the United States.

That part of my job I find extremely attractive as well—being around entrepreneurs, people who are building new businesses and new ideas. Together, we try to make one plus one equal three. We provide our assets to them and provide their assets to us. To be general counsel to a public company is no small task. [It includes] running a legal department and managing all legal affairs. I’m fortunate to transcend from solely that role to someone leading the charge on new revenue, which is my chief development role.

I am in New York or on the West Coast almost every week, and I’ll be in Seattle later this week for the postacquisition of, even though historically the company has been based in Des Moines for 110 years. After law school [at Cornell] and my job with Sullivan and Cromwell, my wife and I have lived in Australia, London, DC, New York, Atlanta, and Omaha [due to work]. In that time, I worked with First Data Corporation, where I ran a $500 million subsidiary. I am originally from Iowa, but I had been out of the state 16 years, but was familiar enough with the Des Moines area.

As a company, we have been very active in transforming Meredith Corporation from a pretty traditional media company, with units being print and broadcast, to a multiplatform media-marketing company. The same types of skills I learned at Sullivan and Cromwell have truly carried with me my entire career. In terms of structuring solutions, negotiating, getting to efficient resolutions of issues—those sorts of skills are things I’ve continued to leverage to this day. The international exposure I had overseas was very useful as well. At Meredith Corporation, we’ve built out our international business in the last three to four years. I was pretty uniquely positioned to lead the charge as well. Things are certainly different when you think about media now [compared to] the mid-1980s. But, the skill set that I developed back then has not changed.

At the heart of what we do at Meredith Corporation is a [drive] to continue to be relevant to our consumer. Our consumer is the adult female anywhere from 25 years old into their ’60s and ’70s. Through different acquisitions and initiatives, we have made sure we are number one to that consumer in her major life stages, from moving into a home, having children, raising children, and managing a household as the CEO.

We reach 100 million households a month with [at least] one of our products. Six to seven years ago, print magazines were very important, where recently, mobile and tablets have become extremely important. No one would’ve estimated there would be 45 million iPads out in the world. As we thought about being relevant to the consumer, we have done approximately 75 different acquisitions and licensing agreements in the last four years.

We have a very attractive culture as a company. A lot of acquiring companies come in and try to integrate things or impose a monolithic culture to an entrepreneurial company. We respect the target company, we work with them, but we don’t legislate how they’re going to behave. As I look forward, we put our audience in the middle of different platforms and we look for different ways, whether that is social networking or photo sharing. We’ll be looking at all those different channels—like Pinterest [and Facebook]—to be relevant to that consumer. We won’t necessarily acquire those businesses, but we align with them.

I still read the Wall Street Journal every day, but I find that medium, by nature, as sort of stale. It’s hard to stay on top of things without exploring and constantly being exposed to all the other ways people get information. At Meredith Corporation, we have to not only be in print. We’re online, on social networks, and everywhere our consumers are digesting that information. We would be left out if we weren’t.