Bill Ziff

Bill Ziff
6/24/30-9/6/06

When I answered my phone that day a detached female voice said, “Mr. Ziff wants to see you . . . come to his apartment at the UN Plaza . . . now.”

It was a meeting I shall never forget. Bill Ziff was not just the owner of Ziff-Davis, one of the most powerful magazine publishing houses in the country, he was the man who had led his company from near bankruptcy to industry leadership after the death of his father forced him to leave his studies at the Sorbonne so he could manage the family publishing enterprise.

My only previous meeting with Bill was a handshake at a company event, so the phone call and meeting request was a bit intimidating. But when I got there, he made it comfortable – sort of: “You have become important to my company, so I need to know more about you. Tell me your story.”

Bill Ziff was no ordinary company owner and manager. He had an innate ability to develop insights into people, and to discern their professional and personal strengths, weaknesses, and needs, a skill that enabled him to position and manage them very effectively.

The First PC Lab was in a back hallway — Me with reviewers Jim Forney, Charles Petzold, & Vinnie Puglia.

He was always well-prepared for a conversation, so he knew that I was Director of PC Labs, the product testing unit of PC Magazine that put the magazine way ahead of the competition by giving readers reviews of massive numbers of products. Readers could make informed buying choices based on the consistent testing and evaluations performed by the labs. No other computer magazine’s editorial content came close.

Bill also knew that I had started the labs by creating uniform product testing scripts and review templates, then assembling a crew of tech reviewers into a back hallway where they did the testing and writing while I assembled the data and edited the product reviews. You may imagine all that piqued Bill’s interest in me, and he wanted to assess whether my work at PC Labs was just a flash in the pan or whether I had the skills and insights to make more valuable contributions to his company.

Me in PC Labs a few years later at the time of my first conversation with Bill Ziff.

As the conversation moved along, I filled him in on what I had done in the past, where I had done it, and how I had succeeded and failed on a career track that got me to Ziff-Davis. He made it clear that my personal life was just as important to him, so I shared it all, including my sobriety story. He told me that his own experience included helping people at his company and in his family deal with alcoholism. That conversation established a bond of mutual respect between us based on shared experiences and interests.

PC Labs tested every product in a category.

Our mutual business interest was clear: I could help his business while he helped my career, and that became the foundation of the many different jobs I held during my years at Ziff-Davis. Each job was more senior than the last, and all of them led to the growth of my skills as a technologist, manager, editor, and writer. The result was that I found myself moving ever further into the circle of leadership that drove the company.

Some of the jobs were great fun. For example, when he acquired Computer Shopper, Bill charged me with transforming it from a hobbyist magazine where readers found cheap computer gear, into one used by businesses to make volume buying decisions from the mail order computer vendors that advertised there – all without losing the hobbyist readership.

Computer Shopper issues were as big and heavy as telephone books and set circulation records.

I assembled and led an editorial team that produced content so successful that the magazine set circulation records despite being the size of a telephone book of the advertising volume the sales team was able to produce. That job was so much fun that I went home most nights wondering why I was getting paid.

Others were just awful. Just after Bill asked me to help the company’s attempt to start an online service in competition with AOL, the Internet came along to render our nascent efforts moot and destroy AOL’s previously successful business as well.

Rebuilding Computer Shopper was awesome fun!

Every assignment, even the awful ones, had something new for me to learn. My time at Ziff-Davis was nothing short of an intensive training program in publishing, with a heavy dose of personal growth thrown in. Every assignment also carried opportunities to try out new ideas and, so long as Bill ran the company, there was little or no risk of punishment for failure because the safety net of his paternalistically managed company was always there.

I think Bill believed that punishing people for failure would set an example that deterred others from taking chances on new ideas that might be successful. My successes at the company were always the result of creative thinking and good teamwork, a style that I continued long after my stay at Ziff-Davis – although I missed Bill’s safety net now and again.

There were many more conversations with Bill during my years at Ziff-Davis. When he retired and sold the company, it changed and not for the better. But I remain eternally grateful for the experience of working for and knowing Bill Ziff. He was one of the smartest people I met in the very intelligent crowd of publishing and technology executives I came to know at that time, and being in Bill’s orbit with access to his insights and intelligence was a privilege for which I am forever grateful.

I began writing as a freelancer at PC Magazine in 1984 and worked on various Ziff-Davis publications until 1998.

17 thoughts on “Bill Ziff

  1. I got to meet him a few times, first as a ZD client and then as part of the corporate sales team. He was something special alright. Thanks.

  2. Great post, JD!

    One month we turned out an edition of Shopper that hit 1,000 pages. I can’t recall the exact percentage of editorial content we turned out but it was a LOT! 🙂

    1. Charlie, you were so instrumental in the success of the Shopper transformation! No other tech news hound came close to your tenacity and skill!

  3. Thanks John. A great read and a story told by a few greats outside the company like Ted Waitte. Hope you are well and stay safe. Ping me when next in Mill Valley!!! Miss seeing you and Nancy on your walks through the village and cascade! Warmest. JoeG

  4. A very interesting and (as usual for you) well written piece. Although we were close friends during your employment at Ziff-Davis, I learned a lot about your career there that I had not known about before. Your time at Ziff provided you with a ringside seat from which to observe and influence the infancy and growth of the PC, Thank you for jogging my memory of those days.

  5. I was on the ad side of the “telephone book!” Driving to appointments was no problem, I just threw the issues in the trunk. But when I had to fly up to Boston for the day for four calls, only brought one issue, (I’d have had to check a bag just for the magazines!), and the last call of the day got to keep it, as I wasn’t bringing it back on the plane! Repping Shopper was an unmitigated joy. And yes, it was certainly fun to show the clients that we not only had edit, LOL, but how good it was.

  6. Great story. Bill was one of the true pioneers of tech publishing (and earlier of special interest publishing in general), and a fascinating person. He knew a lot about a wide range of subjects. Thanks for sharing.

  7. I miss him and the standards of excellence and integrity he brought to the business. Like you, I had great and “not-so-great” roles in my years under his leadership, but the opportunity to grow professionally and personally was the constant through it all. I’m a better person, a better manager and a better business exec because of him, and the team he’d assembled.

  8. John: I enjoyed your commentary…

    Bill made the company in his image… smart, quirky, innovative, alive with possibilities. He was a great mentor… did not put up with BS.

    It was a joy to work at the company for 11 years of my life; never a dull moment and I learned something new every day.

    Hi to those whose paths crossed mine. There’s a place in my heart for all of you. I am grateful.

  9. I will never forget the day that you joined PCC, it signaled that we had made it…..and then you took us to another level….and the PC Mag reps were a little worried…:)

    Be safe, be well…Cheers

    Kinger

  10. John, well-posted. I was on the marketing side of Shopper and Sources, and you continually ridiculed my choice of formal business attire. Shopper was quite an experience and you certainly assembled an impressive staff. Even getting Dvorak to add his back-page meanderings on Direct. I remember doing focus groups and listening to buyers talk in reverent terms about THE Computer Shopper. And I will never forget the tradeshows when we barely had time to cut the wrapping off a pallet of Shopper magazines before the vultures descended and and grabbed every copy in what seemed like seconds. I know well of the ZiffNet/ZDNet effort to launch a service over a proprietary network as I was at a competitor during those proprietary days.

    1. Funny, I thought I was complimenting you! I also remember seeing the pile of Shoppers disappear at the newsstand in Grand Central Station as we walked to the train! Good to hear from you!

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