Executive of the Year: Jeannine Shao Collins

There are lots of stories told in the halls of Meredith Corp. about Jeannine Shao Collins, and they usually go something like this: At an Association of National Advertisers conference a couple of years ago, she and a group of her associates cornered the chief marketing officer of a major packaged-goods company that Meredith had been trying to woo. A few minutes into the conversation, Collins, svp of Meredith 360, the company’s integrated marketing arm, discovered that she and the CMO were graduates of the same high school in Potomac, Md. A connection, and subsequent business relationship, was born.

“If Jeannine rides the subway down here, she’s had three conversations and met someone who can help our business,” cracks her boss Tom Harty, who is president of Meredith’s National Media Group’s consumer magazines, which contains 23 magazine brands including Better Homes and Gardens and Ladies’ Home Journal.

Collins shrugs off such encounters as typical: “Some people have six degrees of separation; I have two.”

Be that as it may, in a business built on relationships, Collins’ knack for making connections isn’t insignificant. It’s part of the reason AdweekMedia’s Publishing Executive of the Year — and Meredith — have been able to weather the ad recession relatively well while other publishing companies have seen their business drop precipitously.

While industry ad revenue fell 25.6 percent in 2009, per the Publishers Information Bureau, company executives say Meredith’s 360 unit doubled its revenue last year — Collins’ first full year running it. The unit — which uses research, experiential, interactive, magazines, books, mobile, broadcast and digital assets — represents close to 10 percent of the National Media Group’s advertising revenue. Through the first quarter of this year, 360’s revenue is already half of what it was in all of 2009, says Collins.

Meredith used to be set up in silos like many of the media agencies with which it does business. But advertisers increasingly have shifted dollars from traditional media and demand more customized programs. Meredith president Jack Griffin created the 360 unit to capitalize on that shift. He also acquired a string of interactive marketing firms like O’Grady Meyers in Los Angeles and Big Communications, a Ferndale, Mich.-based healthcare marketing firm. Last summer, the company issued a new positioning to reflect this evolution.
Its publishing unit was rechristened the National Media Group to reflect its marketing capabilities and broad reach with American women.

Under the new model, Meredith’s corporate sales group continues to sell multititle deals across the magazine brands, dealing mainly with print-buying agencies, where most of the buying decisions are still made. Collins and her 20-member 360 staff take multiplatform ideas directly to clients, who are better able to push through complicated programs.

With demand for large-scale deals growing, Harty in April 2008 tapped Collins, who was then leading Meredith’s lifestyle group, to be svp, client solutions. That November, she was named to lead the unit after a reshuffling that saw her boss, Jack Bamberger, exiting the company.

In Collins, Harty saw a natural leader for the role. She had joined Meredith in 1993 to work in ad sales at Ladies’ Home Journal and knew its brands well, having held executive roles at many of the company’s biggest titles. Collins had also brought a multiplatform sensibility to the company’s magazine brands. While overseeing More, the lifestyle title for women age 40-plus, she conceived of key marketing programs like the More Marathon, billed as the only marathon for women over 40; More Model Search; and More Reinvention Convention series, a day of career and personal enrichment seminars. Finally, Collins was an “external client animal,” someone who had great relationships with senior-level executives at Meredith’s clients, says Harty.

At 360, Collins has plied those relationship skills to triple the number of clients served to about 50, including blue-chip advertisers Maybelline, General Mills and Kellogg’s. Her single-minded focus on beauty advertising has helped Meredith grow its share in that category, resulting in increased spending by Procter & Gamble and L’Oréal last year. Clients say her consultative approach sets her apart from other media sales executives.

“A lot of conversations begin with partnership and quickly go to ‘How much money are you going to spend and how many impressions are we going to deliver,’” says Doug Moore, vp of advertising and media for General Mills. Its high-quality conversations with Collins led General Mills to give Meredith a deeper role in managing its nutrition Web site, Eat Better America, than it usually gives outside partners on its sites.

To help Maybelline launch a new lipstick line, Collins masterminded an original Webisode series, The Broadroom, written by Sex and the City author Candace Bushnell. For Macy’s, Meredith put together a multiplatform program for its First Impressions private-label layette line that involved sponsoring cover model contests for Parents and its Spanish-language counterpart, Ser Padres. It was so successful that the retailer protected its
spending with Meredith even while cutting its overall media budget.

“Rarely do we find media companies that think the way we do,” says Jennifer Kasper, vp of marketing for Macy’s merchandising group. While many like to focus on the assets they’re selling, she says, “Jeannine thinks the way we think as marketers. At a certain point, the ideas were bigger than our budget.”

Jeff Fischer, senior vp and managing director of the print activation group at Universal McCann, has worked with Collins on the brand level over the years and now has several clients who work with the 360 group. Fischer calls Collins a good listener who is solution-oriented. While other salespeople are barely hiding their desperation to sell pages, he says, “I feel she’s generally trying to solve a business problem.”

At Meredith, Collins is blazing a trail that the rest of the industry could do worse to emulate.
“Roles like hers are critically important as brands try to figure out how to create consumer experiences that are not limited to the pages in a magazine,” Fischer says. “And she’s a good person for that given her skill set.” His admiration spans the personal as well as the professional: “Every time I talk to Jeannine, she remembers what we last talked about. For 10 years, she remembered every relationship I’ve been in.” (They’re two degrees of separation: Fischer and Collins’ husband grew up in nearby towns in New Jersey.)

Collins grew up in Maryland, where she was ever the extrovert, whether selling cookies for her Girl Scout troop or running for student government. Her Shanghai-born parents wanted their only child to become an engineer, but in college, on a biomedical engineering track, Collins found lab work isolating. She got a degree in economics instead and eventually found work at an ad agency and ultimately her first magazine position, a $27,000-a-year ad sales job at Woman’s Day. There, Collins found an outlet for her outgoing personality (and the salary to support a growing shopping hobby). Collins’ passion for her work even carries over to her personal life; she’s married to Chris Collins, a vp of multimedia sales at The Wall Street Journal, with whom she has three children. The couple live in New York City, where they often practice sales presentations in separate rooms.

A lot has changed since those early days of selling magazine pages. The types of programs Collins works on today can take 12 months from start to finish, in which time marketing executives on the client side can turn over, killing the deal. The presence of multiple stakeholders can make it challenging to come up with a program where everyone’s interests are aligned. And marketers’ interest in big-scale integrated programs has ebbed somewhat in the current ad downturn. To avoid client “sticker shock,” says Collins, “we probably came out with smaller-ticket items than we originally put out there. People want to know their dollars are working harder for them.”

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