Lessons From The Top

Three of 11 Titans of the B.E. 100s share their trials and triumphs on the climb up

creditors and pounded the pavement in search of advertisers.

Ironically, Ebony became too successful. Its meager advertising base could not support the expense of printing and shipping 400,000 copies a month. It was a catch-22, though: if Johnson cut back on circulation, then he wouldn’t be able to entice future advertisers. To make matters worse, local banks would still not loan him the funds for working capital because they wouldn’t take a chance on a black businessman, despite his solid three-year track record. As he tried to cure his cash-flow crunch, he reminded himself that a businessman must always keep his options open. What if he could develop other businesses to generate additional revenues and support the magazine? With his network of distributors and a magazine that could promote products to thousands of black consumers, it could work. In fact, the crisis spawned Johnson’s lifelong business strategy of using publications to promote his other business ventures.

“I’ve never let the inability to get capital keep me from growing and surviving. I thought of all kinds of unique ways to survive. I sold lifetime subscriptions for $100 each. Since white advertisers would not advertise with Ebony, I started a group of mail-order magazines and advertised in my own magazine. The company was called Beauty Star. I sold vitamins, wigs, dresses and haircare products. I sold anything that I could sell in order to get enough capital to keep Ebony going.”

But he couldn’t sell enough subscriptions or novelty items to finance the publication long term. However, the tactic bought him what he desperately needed-time. Ebony’s survival depended on bagging major advertisers. Johnson resolved to snare them, telling himself, “If I can’t sell Ebony better than anyone else, I don’t deserve to be president.”

First, he needed to get the attention of major ad agencies. To reach top execs, he would woo the gatekeepers. “I cultivated secretaries. I would find out their birthday and send flowers to them. They appreciated my persistence and patience. This approach helped me when I tried to get a meeting with Fairfax Cone, the head of Foot, Cone & Belding advertising agency.”

Once an appointment was booked, Johnson used guerrilla-style selling techniques, which called for him to learn as much detail as possible about the CEO he planned to pitch. He would uncover the concerns, desires and idiosyncrasies of his intended target, and use them as tools to build a relationship. For instance, when he tried to sell advertising to Zenith, the leading manufacturer of radios, he learned that the head of the company, Commander Eugene McDonald, had explored the North Pole. Noting McDonald’s obsession with polar expeditions, Johnson tracked down Matthew Henson, the African American who beat Commodore Robert Peary to the Pole. He obtained Henson’s inscription on a copy of his autobiography.

After receiving the book from Johnson as a gift, McDonald asserted, “Young man, if you were putting out any kind of magazine, you would have something on Matt Henson.” As if on cue, Johnson pulled out an issue

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