YP CEO: Tech Companies Have Required ‘More of Our Clients Than We Need To’

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It’s been a long road for YP. A multi-decade transformation has taken the company from its roots as a print Yellow Pages publisher into a digital and mobile future — with plenty of growing pains along the way. But through all of that the company has remained a giant player in the local landscape, with a massive SMB sales funnel and a huge audience.

In August, the company announced that former Cox Automotive Media Solutions Group President Jared Rowe would take the company’s helm as CEO, replacing David Krantz who had led the company out of its AT&T spinoff in 2012. Rowe held a number of leadership positions at Cox Digital, heading up Autotrader, Kelley Blue Book, and Dealer.com.

We recently caught up with Rowe to talk about how he’s found the first few months on the job, how he thinks local is evolving, and when he thinks the last print Yellow Pages will eventually be printed.

Tell me a little bit about your perspective coming in as CEO at YP earlier this year. How have your previous jobs informed the way that you’re now thinking about YP’s business?
When we think about YP and we think about the Yellow Pages, the real Yellow Pages, it’s a media business and it’s a historic and iconic media business, not dissimilar from businesses that I’ve had a chance to participate in. I did grow up inside of automotive, but it was mainly on the digital media side of the business, and then I did have a chance to lead a team in Kelley Blue Book that had an iconic brand as well, and did have a print and digital component to it.

I’ve grown up inside of a world where I’ve stayed focused on that delicate balance between consumers and clients — really understanding client needs, also understanding consumer needs, and then figuring out the right way to balance that interaction and engagement because that’s ultimately the value that we deliver on both sides.

I love the fact that YP has an iconic and historical brand. I love the fact that we focus on helping small and medium-sized businesses be successful. There are few businesses in the world that are more honorable than that and more noble than that, because this is the fabric of the American economy. I love the fact that we have a very large consumer base. We touch north of 60 million people a month between print and digital. I love the fact that we’ve got a big sales team that is really well-skilled and schooled in helping small and medium-sized businesses be successful.

And I love the fact that this is still a business that is evolving, becoming an integrated media solution provider and mining both traditional and digital to the benefit of clients and the benefit of consumers is really interesting challenge that I don’t think anybody has really figured out just yet. So having an opportunity to contribute in a small way is exciting to me. So those are the reasons why.

YP’s massive network of local salespeople has long been one of the company’s major advantages, and YP has channel sales relationships with lots of companies in the local space. Is that a sustainable long-term role for the company — as a seller that aggregates the best solutions form around the industry and then brings scale to them?
Our sales team is a very important part of who and what we are because it really does allow us to know our clients in an intimate way, and that’s important in this business because these aren’t just cookie-cutter businesses. So, really understanding the unique needs of the clients I do think is a competitive advantage and will always be a component of who and what we are.

But really also framing our discussions with them in ways that we can bring the most value, I think is important as well, and that does go back to the audience that we bring to the table. That is the key advantage. Again, it is big, it is rich, and it is ready to buy and it has been that way for over 100 years. The Yellow Pages, the real Yellow Pages, we’re known for making the phone ring and the only way you can make the phone ring is to really match buyers and sellers in a meaningful way, and our sales team is an important component of that.

I’ve often thought it’s a blind spot that many companies in local try to craft marketing or tech solutions for SMBs broadly, when clearly a plumber’s local marketing needs are very different from those of a restaurant or those of a dry cleaner. How do you create a product that’s specific enough to be responsive to needs within these kinds of verticals?
We think that meeting the unique needs of the different vertical categories is incredibly important, and it’s actually something that we’ve been doing for a long time and it’s something that we think we’re pretty good at and we’re going to continue to get better at. I don’t think you can ever go wrong by understanding the needs of your clients and meeting them. So one of the things that I am passionate about is really understanding the challenges that small and medium-sized businesses have every single day, and then figuring out how YP can meet those needs uniquely through our audience.

YP CEO Jared Rowe
YP CEO Jared Rowe

I do think understanding their needs and then creating unique solutions for them is important — but it’s not just important for our clients, it’s also really important for our consumers. If you look at where we really excel and where we’ve historically excelled, it’s in verticals that are really more considered purchases. They’re things that I want to know about and I need to go to a trusted brand to help me figure out. If I need a plumber, it’s not because I’m normally doing normal upkeep, right? I need a plumber because I have a real and specific need, and we can help connect with the right plumber.

If I need a roofer, if I need a dentist, if I need any of these folks. As well as the dry cleaner — I need a specific kind of dry cleaner. Maybe I want my dry cleaning delivered versus a local. Maybe I want an eco-friendly dry cleaner. These are all specific questions that we can help answer to the benefit of consumers.

Some of the research that we’ve had recently has shown that SMBs are still lacking in digital strategy. Do you think local tech is getting better at making its products and services approachable for small businesses, or is it still too fragmented and overwhelming?
I think we’ve got a unique opportunity here at YP to actually help with that because if I’m a small business owner, do I really want to do the work necessary to become an expert on these different forms of media? Or do I really just want my phone to ring and do I really just want people to show up? Ultimately, I want to do that in an efficient and effective way.

I think a lot of technology partners, us included in certain regards, have required more of our clients than we need to. I think the real sweet spot with small and medium-sized businesses is helping them meet their needs in a simple, efficient and effective way… which does lead me back to our field sales team. The only way you can really do that is if you understand them and can help them apply the right tactics to achieve the right outcome.

I think sometimes we ascribe our own goals and thinking to small and medium-sized businesses more than we should, as opposed to listening and then helping them meet their goals because again, a small to medium-sized business: do they really care where the leads come from, where the qualified buyers come from? Or do they want a blended approach that is really efficient and effective and helps simplify their life? Ultimately their success or failure is not derived from choosing the right technology, it’s really derived from doing the best job that they can every single day with every single consumer that shows up at their front door.

Nearly a year and a half ago, YP split off its print from digital — creating two separate entities that would nonetheless be sold by the same staff.  It was seen as a sign at the time that the digital business had finally overtaken print. Where is that project (of the split) now and are there any changes you are thinking of making to it?
In the end, 70% of our clients buy print and digital together. Operationally, we work as one team because it is how we deliver value to our clients. In fact, despite our split, moving forward you’ll likely see us work better together, in a more integrated way.

Are some communities more likely to stick with print (urban vs. rural), and are there things you’re doing to create interplay between the print and digital products?
In general, book usage/retention has more to do with demographics. For example, millennials want useful content that is relevant to them and meet their immediate needs whereas less tech savvy households go to the book consistently for plumbing, roofing and emergency needs. Overall roughly 40% of adults still use the directory regularly. Importantly YP, the real Yellow Pages, has the most robust digital and print publishing assets of any competitor in our market. Our offerings allow our customers to reach nearly 100% of household types/needs. With respect to geographic nuances, we see our print usage and retention index higher in more rural versus urban settings, or for example in the Midwest versus the coasts. We will continue to evolve how we deliver on print and digital experiences so each demographic and household gets what they need in a way that is convenient and useful to them.

How many years do you think there are left until the Yellow Pages will no longer be printed?
In terms of the future of our print business, it is not going to zero anytime soon. There are various forms of print that are doing very well, like direct mail, which is projected to be stable for many years to come. We also hear some segments of our consumers asking for more content and greater utility, which can be fulfilled either through improvements in our core directories or through complementary print products such as quarterly or monthly print offerings focused on specific vertical, seasonal or geographic needs. YP has been around for a 100 years — we’ve got the expertise to drive us ahead for many more years to come.

David Hirschman is co-founder and COO of Street Fight. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.