Executive Q&A: Gary Shenk CEO, Corbis Corporation

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

EDUCATION: I always loved journalism and worked at the college paper [at Harvard.] One summer, I started a newspaper in Washington, D.C. The idea was to empower inner-city kids by teaching them to write and publish a newspaper. I took that same idea to Russia in 1992, where I started a youth-oriented newspaper called Glagol. That paper remained as an insert in a Moscow daily [and trained many veteran journalists]. While in Russia, I was hired by a large investment fund to analyze deals and partnerships. When I went to business school [at Wharton], I specialized in finance. I went to work for the Boston Consulting Group, where I helped people making big investments in Eastern Europe.

 

DIGITAL MEDIA: In 1998, I moved to Los Angeles, where I worked for Universal Pictures. My job was to figure out a digital strategy. Before Apple got it right, all the [large music companies] spent millions of dollars on solutions that did not get it right. I worked on one of those. We tried all kinds of digital offerings, including a DVD release of all the great scenes from horror movies. It got a cult following and sold half a million copies. To do the project, we had to license movie clips and clear the music and actors’ guild rights. We became known for clearing rights and built a branded entertainment division. A year later, our whole team moved to found Corbis Rights Services, now called GreenLight.

 

LEADERSHIP TRANSITION: In 2006, I was asked to be CEO. I talked with Bill Gates, who made it clear that he was absolutely committed to Corbis. Bill likes that we’re a midsize company in a relatively small sector, so it’s like a chess game in which you have relative control. Bill started Corbis [then Interactive Home Systems] with the idea of selling art images to display on plasma TVs in homes. Then the company started selling largely to advertisers and publishers. When I moved to Seattle in 2007, three things happened at once: The long-term shift from print to digital accelerated and expanded to include cell phones, tablets and other devices; we saw the rapid rise of user-generated images that sold for $1 to $5 a pop when our price point, historically, was $150 to $500; and the recession reduced overall demand.

 

ONLINE ORDERING: Our big shortcoming was the way we served customers. We prided ourselves on having 30 offices around the world and having this very high-touch customer sales approach. That was costly. In this industry, customers search for images or videos digitally and get the products digitally. We were able to cut costs while improving service by making our website better. It’s about training customers to do what retail banks did when they trained their customers to use ATMs. We shut down offices, laid off salespeople and centralized administrative functions in Seattle. We now have 750 employees, of whom 350 are in Seattle. We have office locations in 10 countries and do business in 50 countries.

 

COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE: We’ve established success in each of our three verticals and now we are in the growth phase. In the commercial space, we still have an emphasis on customer service that goes back to the early days at Corbis. In media, our partnership with The Associated Press, announced last year, combined with our archive [of historical photos] gives us unprecedented breadth and depth. During the earthquake in Japan, people didn’t want just imagery of the earthquake, but also images of previous earthquakes to provide context. Last year, we also acquired Splash, a world leader in entertainment photography that fills the insatiable demand for celebrity pictures. We also have our own portfolio of celebrity content, which includes dead celebrities like Albert Einstein, Steve McQueen and Charlie Chaplin. We just signed Martin Luther King Jr. (Note: Corbis manages rights and representation for the estates of Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr. and Charlie Chaplin. This includes their likeness in advertising and merchandise.)

 

BRANDED ENTERTAINMENT: We are the leader in the $4 billion branded entertainment business. This is the business I came from and I love it. We acquire content that brands need [such as music for Hallmark greeting cards]. We recently launched GreenLight music, which allows customers to go to a website to search and acquire the rights to a million popular iconic songs. Earlier this year, we acquired Norm Marshall Group, which places products like Puma shoes or Heineken beer into media outlets such as Hollywood films and Xbox games. Getty [Images] has nothing like that. It’s an entirely new market area that really differentiates us.

 

SPEED: News travels at the speed of light. Splash, which has a freelance network of 3,000 to 4,000 photographers, has the ability to get images from a photographer’s camera to a customer’s website in less than 10 seconds. We are bringing that news culture to the rest of the company. We’re building a 24/7 news operation. We have media desks with news editors in New York, London, Los Angeles and Sydney, so we can cover every time zone. We have a big share of Demotix, which has 20,000 to 30,000 capable amateur photographers who cover news events. They can get more quickly to a lot of places where professional organizations don’t have photographers stationed.

 

CORPORATE CULTURE: The culture that gets you through a turnaround, where you focus on profitability and strategy, is not necessarily the culture that allows you to be a high-growth company. We are now putting a huge emphasis on the culture and people. In 2011, we launched a formal team of 30 people from all geographies and all functions. They [audio conference] monthly to talk of how to make Corbis a more inspiring place to work. They came up with the notion of ACT: accountability, creativity and teamwork. We are now in the process of defining it and taking it to offices globally. Everyone will have daily reminders of how to act: That is the number one goal in 2012.

 

LESSONS: However fast you think things might change, they will change 10 times faster. You have to always be five steps ahead in terms of being more aggressive than you think you need to be because that is where things will land. You have to always think how you will be different in the evolving landscape. Don’t think of how to be like a competitor, but how can you be different in that evolving landscape.

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