12 January 2007

Fierman Out at DC Comics

NOTE: I've rearranged the updates, so if you're checking this for the first time, scroll all the way down for the original post.

***** UPDATE (1/16 @ 12:49m): The Beat's latest update stirs the pot a bit as former and current DC staffers debate the story. It's mostly he said/she said stuff involving Vinnie Costa's take on working for Fierman, but there's an interesting bit about Nellie Kurtzman's departure from a current staffer, Joe Castleman [not sure if that's his real name or not], that possibly sheds some light on things:

"...everyone in marketing worked with Nelie Kurtzman. Really nice person. Stephanie Fierman went out of her way to hire Nellie. I was kind of in the process - way out of her way. Nellie came for sentimental reasons because of her dad. When she quit, she told everyone that she had no idea that comics was such a backwards kind of business and that she knew right away that she couldn't get anything done. Stephanie asked her to stay - Nellie's question back was, why would anyone in marketng stay?"
I got a similar impression of the situation when I interviewed to be Kurtzman's replacement, that there were some logistical problems within the newly divided department (between sales and marketing, not pro- and anti-Fierman) and some potential friction as a result.

Kurtzman's alleged opinion that "comics was such a backwards kind of business" probably doesn't come as a surprise to anyone who is remotely familiar with comics and the direct market, and that was one of the challenges they faced in their desire to re-fill the position with someone from the traditional side of the industry. It's the kind of job that requires, almost demands, a love of the medium, because the sacrifices one must make to work in it are rarely offset by the salary alone.

***** UPDATE (1/16 @ 10:14am): A little industry tidbit to add some perspective to Fierman's fate, via a B-to-B Magazine article entitled, "Marketing job market 'sizzling'":

Meanwhile, marketing professionals at the top of the ticket continue to face enormous challenges--compounded by a shrinking time frame in which to prove their worth before being replaced.

According to research by executive search firm Spencer Stuart in August, the tenure for CMOs at the 100 top consumer branded companies continued to decline in 2006 to an average of a little more than 23 months. The average for 2006 was 23.2 months, compared with 23.5 months in 2005 and 23.6 in 2004.

"We are seeing that holding on to your current employees is going to be critical, because it is getting much more difficult to find good folks," said John Hollon, editor of Workforce Management (published by Crain Communications Inc., which also publishes BtoB ). "And, it's even more cirtical [sic] to hold on to the critical talent, those key contributors who represent just 15% of a company's work force." According to Towers Perrin, an HR consulting firm, the unemployment rate for those employees stands at a scant 1.7%.
Despite Paul Levitz' rather terse statement, it's quite possible, as some have speculated, that Fierman's contract was either up or close to it, and DC knew they weren't planning on renewing it. This time of year tends to see a lot of movement as employers retrench for the new year and employees, fresh off cashing in end-of-year bonuses -- or still clenching their teeth over the lack thereof -- explore new opportunities, so it would be in both parties best interests to move forward as quickly as possible.

I'll be interested to see how quickly they replace Fierman, either directly or via another re-organization, as I can't imagine they'll take as long as they did replacing Nellie Kurtzman, who was two levels lower on the org chart.

***** UPDATE (1/15 @ 1:44pm): Vinnie Costa, a former DC staffer, goes on the record about his experience working under Fierman:

I'd been loving my job in Sales and Marketing for over a year when Stephanie was brought in. We all had one-on-ones with her and I admit, I was impressed with her answers to my outlandish comic book related testing and felt her hiring was going to be good for the company -- I'd be proven wrong rather quickly.

There wasn't a mass exodus of underlings as expected, just one or two and a massive restructuring of the department; nothing I couldn't handle, I thought.

But, then the knives came out and everyone watched their backs...

What started as a hey-folks-we-work-in-comic-books-how-freaking-awesome-is-that! job, a job I was proud of and good at, under Fierman's reign, it quickly became clear that those who cared the most (the people earning the least) were getting the short end of the stick.
More as this story develops...

***** UPDATE (1/31 @ 1:16am): Googled around a bit more and found this Newsarama interview with Fierman (and Bob Wayne, the old school guy she was installed ahead of in her then-newly created position) conducted a few days after she started.

Stephanie Fierman: As good a job as we've done to invite new readers into the franchise through the mass markets, the direct market will be the core of this business for a long time to come.

The core of this job, though, is how much more can we do? There's an explosion of new kinds of products-- graphic novels, manga, etc. We're learning that, to some extent, there are very different kinds of customers for these products, and these customers have different expectations; they shop in different places. We have to ensure that we reach those customers, and we have to bring in more of them. We want to do a better job of putting our marketing efforts for all kinds of customers under one roof, thinking more strategically about our customers and our channels and finding more of both. This will be the first time in a while that all of the sales and marketing functions are managed as part of a single team.

Bob Wayne: There have always been things that we have talked about that we'd have liked to do, but we didn't have the time to do them or the expertise to do them. Rather than try to by trial and error, it made a lot more sense to bring someone in who already had that skill set to accomplish those goals. We always wanted to bring more people into reading comics, not so much focused on the various channels of distribution; we wanted to attract people who were interested in the diverse ways we can deliver the comic book experience, from our superhero line to Vertigo to WildStorm to CMX to Humanoids to 2000AD. These don't always appeal to the same person; we're reaching out to find ways to appeal to those people. I'm a comic book guy from way back, but I don't always know how to reach those people; Stephanie can help us in that way.
Off the top of my head: Humanoids was dropped; CMX still isn't a major player in manga; Wildstorm is in the middle of big relaunch that isn't exactly burning up the charts; Vertigo is still Vertigo, treading water with a handful of relatively successful titles and a bunch of flatliners; and despite the success of Infinite Crisis and 52, and a broader range of offerings overall, DC is still running behind Marvel in the direct market.

On the positive side: MINX has some potential and actually has a legitimate marketing plan in place to help it achieve that potential; DMZ and Pride of Baghdad were both critical successes, receiving notable mainstream attention; V for Vendetta sold extremely well; um...they redesigned the logo; and, er, lesbian Batwoman made a big splash in the news...?

When I interviewed for their Marketing Director position last year -- vacated by Nellie Kurtzman less than four months after she was hired -- John Cunningham (Vice President, Marketing) was in the middle of an ambitious bit of rebuilding, shuffling people and positions, while still getting a handle on the various product lines he was responsible for. (He knew next to nothing about CMX or the toy line, DC Direct.) One of his bigger challenges was the difference in scheduling for the direct market vs. the mass market -- the latter requiring much more lead time and offering much less flexibility, and not being terribly compatible with the looser, less reliable schedules the periodicals are on -- and, as an example, I'm pretty sure I remember him saying they had to push Pride of Bagdhad to the fall in order to properly market it outside of the direct market.

I was a longshot candidate, lacking the book industry experience they were seeking, so I wasn't surprised that I didn't get the job, but I was surprised to find that two months later (four months after Kurtzman had left) it still wasn't filled and had been reposted on Time Warner's site. I never noticed a press release but a Gayley Carillo is listed as "Director - Marketing" in DC's lineup of staff attending attending Wizard World Chicago last August, so she was hired somewhere between April and then. Assuming it's the same person, Carillo came from Random House Children's Books where she was senior manager of trade marketing, so they ended up finding their book industry candidate after all, and even better, one who fulfilled the corporate diversity mandate.

With Fierman now out, the weight they put on her knowledge of the mass market, and the fact that, two years later, they haven't made a dent there yet raises an eyebrow. Was it as simple as her not playing well with others finally wore thin, or is there something bigger afoot?

To his credit, Cunningham comes from the book world, too -- noting that one of the reasons he made the jump was because graphic novels were one of the only growth segments in the industry -- as does Carillo, and with Minx waiting in the wings, I'd be surprised if there was something bigger to come, but stranger things have happened at both Time Warner and DC in the past.

***** UPDATE (7:14pm): Poking around for more information, I just noticed an interesting comment at The Beat's announcement of Fierman's hiring back in January of 2005:

Maybe this doesn't belong here but I don't really care. Remove it if it's a problem. Anyway, I worked with Stephanie for a year and I wish anyone who works with her the best of luck and a Valium. She is harsh, sarcastic, unpleasant, dictatorial, overly sensitive, governed by radical mood swings and generally impossible to work with. Her 360 degree performance reviews were among the worst I had ever heard of. Now, all of this would not be a problem if she actually was great at what she did, but alas, she was not. She has had about 400 jobs in 10 years and I expect she will be at DC for about 2 years as publishers are notoriously slow at catching on. Again, good luck to her subordinates and believe me that's just what they are to her.

Posted by: Mykal San | February 15, 2005 11:13 PM
While harsh [and surprisingly prescient], that pretty much jibes with what I've always heard behind the scenes.

Oddly, her [presumed] firing comes on the heels of DC's announcement of their MINX line of graphic novels aimed at teenage girls, for which they're investing a significant amount of marketing $$$ to promote in partnership with Alloy Marketing. That's a pretty big project to have in the works -- and a relatively high-profile one, too -- to turn around and make such a big staffing change.

***** (Original Post, 1/12/07 @ 5:17pm): From PW Daily:

PW Daily has learned that Stephanie Fierman, senior v-p of sales and marketing at DC Comics, is leaving the company.

Paul Levitz, president and publisher of DC Comics, confirmed that Fierman, "is not going to continue in her present position." Levitz added that Fierman, "could work on other projects at Time Warner" the parent company of DC.

Fierman joined DC in January of 2005 to oversee sales in the comics market and as part of the comics publisher's efforts to expand its presence in the book trade. Before joining DC, Fierman was chief sales and marketing officer at Zagat Survey.
Wow! I'm not totally surprised since her tenure has been controversial, to put it mildly, as old school clashed with new school, and she was generally disliked by most of her colleagues and notoriously difficult to work for/with.

There's no question that 2006 didn't quite go the way they'd hoped in the Direct Market, and they're still a minor player in bookstores, so she's presumbably taking the fall for that, but it will be interesting to see who else gets axed in the coming weeks as she had a few avid supporters who bought into her no-nonsense style, and many more who didn't.


Tim said...

Nice roundup of coverage as it develops, Guy. Thanks for the effort and insight.

--Tim O'Shea

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

Yikes! I had no idea so many people would find these late-night ruminations so interesting, as links from The Beat, Comics Worth Reading and now Journalista are spiking my traffic to "Speakeasy implosion" levels.

Someone -- Johanna at CWR, I think -- referenced my comments as being unattributed and I just want to clarify that everything I wrote here is my own opinion of things based on a combination of first-hand knowledge and conclusions I've come to based on a variety of sources over the past couple of years.

Anyway, thanks for stopping by, and thanks Heidi, Johanna and Dirk for the links.

Anonymous said...

Just filling in the gaps...

Post Nellie/Pre Gayley

I was offered the Director of Marketing job and turned it down. Too little money, too little reward. Based on the marketing plan I wrote, as part of my job interviewing process, for the then unnamed graphic novel imprint (I was told think Gossip Girl in grahic novel), I was offered and accepted a consultancy to execute my marketing plan. I wrote a proposal suggesting a partnership with Alloy to execute the plan, since there would be no full time marketing staffer on this project. I coordinated and finalized all elements of the plan and went on maternity leave. When I returned, Gayley had been hired and I was asked to remain a consultant and help define, design and build the MINX website and online community. I worked on this for three weeks and was about to present mockups when I was told not by Stephanie, by whom I was retained, but by Gayley, that my services were no longer required.

That's gratitude!

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

Thanks for filling in that gap, Anonymous. While I never got to the point of talking money in the interview process, all indications from Cunningham were definitely pointing towards "Too little money, too little reward." He stressed many times his desire to find someone who had a passion for comics because it was the only thing that could make some days there bearable.

I've been on a couple of interviews in the past where part of the process was putting forth a marketing plan for a specific product and was always skeptical about the idea. Kind of like writing on spec with no protection for your ideas or concepts. At least it sounds like you got paid for the work you did, though.