YP Industry Pledges Counteroffensive

The leadership of the Yellow Pages Association came out swinging against its growing number of critics and doubters at yesterday’s kickoff of the group’s annual conference in Las Vegas.

Chairman Dave Swanson (also CEO of R.H. Donnelley) gave a passionate defense of the directory industry, making a strong case that much of the criticism it has received has tried to pass off assertion as fact, while the facts often paint a different picture.

“Don’t look at share prices as an indicator of the health of our industry,” Swanson said, taking on the idea that his own company’s steep fall is in effect a referendum on the viability of Yellow Pages. Swanson argued that RHD’s and rival Idearc’s losses in enterprise value measured as a multiple of EBITDA are similar to what other media have experienced, including Google. However, because RHD and Idearc both have such high debt loads, the brunt of that “multiple compression” was absorbed by the companies’ stock.

While acknowledging changes, including the emergence of search and the new dynamic of empowered consumers who demand choice and customization, Swanson said the print product remains sound and continues to drive value. He took aim at the widely held view that print and online have a zero-sum relationship, with gains in online coming at print’s expense, when in fact many consumers use both products.

“Usage is not binary,” Swanson said. “Print and online both play a role.”

To drive his point home, Swanson showed a front-page photo from a Chicago-area newspaper in which a woman was walking out of her flood damaged home carrying a copy of the Yellow Pages. His point was clear. Life events, good ones and bad ones, still drive usage.

“We need to set the record straight on print,” Swanson said, yet he acknowledged that the industry’s future can’t be tied to print.

“No one can argue that local search is fragmenting, and the dominance of any one [player] is fading,” he said. “We need to understand that and adjust to it.”

The solution, Swanson argued, is to “create value, not products.” And whatever is being offered, it has to be sold to small-business owners, who as Swanson noted, don’t wake up thinking about buying advertising. And of course, Yellow Pages organizations have enormous sales channels, which Swanson believes are being “grossly underestimated” as assets.

His final point was that the game is far from over and many players lauded today could easily be a pile of dust tomorrow.

“The future is just as uncertain for a social networking site as it is for the local newspaper,” he said. “They are just starting from different points.”

What we heard yesterday made it clear that at least some of the industry’s leadership believes it’s time to fight back. As in politics, any assertion by the opposition that goes unchallenged ends up being accepted as fact. It’s a good thing the industry sees this and plans to do something about it.

Our view on Yellow Pages is that print is and will remain a strong foundation for a multichannel business. We believe print revenues will decline gradually over the next several years. It is also true that investment, better sales training and belief in the product could alter this outlook in a positive way. Later today at the conference, executives of the Australian publisher Sensis will talk about how they turned around print sales with a focus on execution and selling value.

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