Madonna Complex

What do National Lampoon and Lillian Vernon have in common? ZelnickMedia.

Yes, the media management firm that will be responsible for putting the venerable cataloger back in the black also owns a minority interest in the entertainment brand that brought you Politenessman, Chicken Gutz, and Bluto Blutarsky.

I’m a big fan of classic Lampoon. I’ve seen Animal House more times than I care to admit, and in the 1970s National Lampoon produced one of the best magazine covers of all time: a photo of a dog with a gun being held to his head, accompanied by the headline “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog.”

I’m also a big fan of Lillian Vernon. We always had a copy of the catalog in our house when I was growing up, and its toys are fabulous value for the money. But I’m a bit wary of the family-friendly Lillian Vernon and the scatalogical National Lampoon being part of the same business empire.

In our story on page 7 about the sale of Lillian Vernon Corp. to ZelnickMedia and Ripplewood Holdings, Strauss Zelnick downplays his company’s, and Ripplewood’s, lack of experience in the catalog industry. “We see direct marketing as media,” Zelnick says.

Zelnick knows a lot more about media than I do. He’s a former CEO of BMG Entertainment, and by most accounts he helped the company build its share of the U.S. recording market. Before climbing the corporate ladder at BMG, Zelnick was president/chief operating officer at 20th Century Fox. Nonetheless, a catalog company is glaringly different from a record company or a film studio.

“We think there are a lot of extension opportunities to other media, such as home shopping on TV and expanding its Web presence,” Zelnick continues. And that may well be true. But is the current lack of visibility on HSN the reason that Lillian Vernon hasn’t turned a profit in two years? Might not circulation miscues, for one — a nonissue in the record industry — be more to blame?

As for expanding the cataloger’s Web presence, a March 2002 article in the Los Angeles Times said that BMG “was forced to write off more than $40 million in Internet investments, direct-marketing schemes and other botched ventures launched by Zelnick and [fellow BMG exec Kevin] Conroy…”

Of course, you have to take the Times report with a pinch of salt: History is rewritten by the victors, who in this case would be the executives who remained at BMG after Zelnick stepped down.

Don’t get me wrong — I’d love to see ZelnickMedia turn Lillan Vernon around. But Zelnick’s talk brings to mind the plethora of entertainers who think that because they can succeed in one medium, they can do equally well in all media. Yes, pop music and movies are both media, but while Madonna’s records typically top the charts, her films…well, did you pay cash to see Swept Away?

And much as I love that old Lampoon cover, I don’t want to see a photo of a dog being held at gunpoint on the cover of a Lillian Vernon catalog alongside the headline “If you don’t buy this personalized pencil holder, we’ll kill this dog.”

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