ProQuest Goes Global
Text and photos by Dick Kaser
ProQuest is going global. Global in the sense of crossing product categories to bring a universal user experience, global as in “multinational,” and global in that the company is not limiting itself to a single library market segment or user group.
At least that’s what ProQuest CEO Kurt P. Sanford told me in an interview during the Frankfurt Book Fair last fall. Our conversation lasted only 30 minutes, but in that short span of time, Sanford spoke 5,000-plus words. I can share only half of them here, but hopefully that’s enough to reveal the truth, because what’s so clear about the full narrative is that Sanford’s a man who knows his business. He speaks with the unhesitating assurance of someone who has really thought about markets, products, and trends to put together a cohesive strategy.
Unifying a House of Brands
Having just stepped into the busy ProQuest booth at Frankfurt emblazoned with all the product logos of the 15 or so brands that the company has amassed, I led with the question that was begging to be asked: Now that ProQuest has acquired all these brands—and it’s a marvelous set—what’s the integration strategy?
Sanford reminded me that the brands I saw on the booth’s header were the result of an acquisition strategy of its owner Cambridge Information Group (CIG) prior to CIG’s acquisition of ProQuest in the mid-2000s as well as ProQuest’s acquisitions in recent years, with most brands operating as stand-alone businesses in the academic market sector.
Sanford: The one thing they all had in common was they were usually leading solutions, applications, or products in a particular market. They came with a legacy of innovative breakthroughs to create new categories and they tended to lead the market. … They were assets of value.
Up until about 2.5 years ago, the CIG board was quite comfortable running them as a portfolio of related businesses. But … when I came on board [about 2 years ago], the thing I was charged with was, to, say, go out, do your research, spend your time with our customers, but tell us if this is really optimizing the portfolio for us and is it really helping our customers.
We did a lot of research. We talked to hundreds of customers. Had some third-party people do research with us, and all that. It was pretty clear customers would prefer a more integrated customer experience.
So we announced [in late 2012] the integration of all of these businesses. With respect to specifically the “brand,” we said that we would go to a master brand, “ProQuest,” instead of a house of brands—which is all the brands you see on the booth outside—and that over a period of years, we would maintain the brands we had acquired, but they would come under the ProQuest master brand. So you would not see Serials Solutions standing alone by itself. Over time you would see it as ProQuest Serials Solutions. …
This is Year 1 of that brand journey, and I think—over about 3 years you’ll see the full brand shift happen. It will happen in products, it will happen in product naming, it will happen on the UIs [user interfaces] … it happens on business cards, it happens in marketing literature, it happens in advertising, etc.
I think that helps to some extent, but that wasn’t the heart of the integration strategy. The heart of the integration strategy is really twofold. One, is make the management of the account relationship much easier for our customer. …
Whether [academic libraries] are buying an aggregated database or historical newspapers or Summon, the discovery service, or Academic Complete, an ebook collection, or whether they are buying RefWorks Flow or whatever, the buyer is the same. And we had, because of all those acquisitions, many different sales forces calling on that buyer. We had many different ways that we invoiced. We had many different ways of providing customer support and fulfillment and technical support. So a librarian might have a whole handful of 1-800 numbers to call in the United States depending on which product they were talking about.
So at the beginning of this year  under the strategy, we actually integrated all of our sales forces. We have one global sales force now. Every account in the world has an account manager who is responsible for the totality of our relationship with that account, including all the products. And that’s gone on very, very well. The market has said if you did anything right, that was it.
That’s the customer sales and marketing touch piece. The bigger value to the customer though is [Part 2 of the integration strategy] to get all those products to work better together and make them interoperable. We are not going to take all those different products and put them on one big monolithic platform. I think that would dumb down the products and diminish the user experience. Journals and newspapers and ebooks are very different. We think you can have a superior research experience on some of these different products by maintaining them but that you should be able to make moving between the products simpler and the navigation a more common look and feel.
We’ve also said you ought to be able to find all content. Even though you’re in a journal or news aggregated database file, why shouldn’t you be able to find other content that’s related to that topic? So we’ve made over a half million ebooks discoverable in a single search. …
You know, the holy grail is single authentication. That’s really what the integration strategy is all about. … And the branding is part of the messaging that tells people that these things all come from the same place.
Kaser: Well, in my humble experience, it’s a brilliant collection of products that rather position you as the market leader, so it’s interesting to see you integrating them in this way.
Shifting With Global Markets
Kaser: ProQuest has always been sitting in this library/higher education space, and I just can’t hear enough about how higher education is being transformed. How do you see that playing out for you?
Sanford: We have the one big shift that’s happening—and I’m giving this in the context of how we think about it in our business; I’m not trying to cover the waterfront of everything that’s going on in higher ed—but there’s a shift in seats. For decades people have been coming to the west or the U.K. to go to universities. What you are seeing is the growth of seats shifting. You are going to continue to see growth of seats of people who are attending higher education in the west. But you see a rapid growth of seats in Brazil, the Middle East, China, and Asia. … The reason that’s important for the west is a lot of those people who paid those bills are going to be sitting in other countries going to universities there.
Another thing that’s happening is the scholarly output … in the next decade or so, the amount of output from Asia or China will make up a substantial percentage of the amount of scholarly research that is being published in the world. Whereas, if you go back 10 years most of it was coming out of universities in the West.
What’s important about that? How do you then make sure that your products and services are in those markets and that you have local adaptations from a language standpoint, that you have the unique local content that those markets need, that you don’t just have salespeople but you provide technical support?
So, literally right in Abu Dhabi, right in Saudi Arabia, right in Tokyo, and Shanghai, etc.
Over the past 2 years what we’ve been doing is physically moving people into other countries to make sure we’re in the markets that will be growing, to make sure we’re getting the direct feedback from the institutions and the users on what to continue to develop and adapt.
I mean, 40% of our business is already outside the United States, but in a decade it should be well more than 50%.
The U.S. isn’t going to go away. The U.K. isn’t going to go away. Australia isn’t going to go away. Canada isn’t going to go away. Those are big markets. But many of the other markets are going to grow exponentially in their seats, the number of students who are attending those universities. So for us it means we have to be there.
For the universities in the west, the big challenge for them is just going to be financial pressure … because a lot of those students who came from outside the United States were not the ones that were getting a lot of student aid. They were not the ones getting discounts. These were a lot of people paying full tuition. So you’re going to have pressure there. Secondly, I don’t think they can sustain the tuition increases indefinitely. So you’re going to just see continued increased pressure on budgets—information budgets, library budgets, IT budgets, etc.
It puts a premium on companies like us to be very innovative and able to demonstrate return on investment. How are you really adding value? I think libraries will be much more discerning about what they spend on. You’ve always had library professionals managing the library, but what you see is a financial layer being applied on top of that, where they have to demonstrate and justify ROI and capital spending.
Kaser: And you even have a solution for that …
Sanford: We have some solutions that are supposed to help them with that.
Differentiating Market Segments
Kaser: Well, that was a very interesting observation you made about the higher ed space. I wasn’t coming at it from that angle, but I appreciate the insight. … [E]arlier … you used the term “scholarly research.” Is that how you would position the company?
Sanford: Certainly, that’s the business we are in for academic, that’s about two-thirds of our business. Then in corporate, with products like Dialog … it’s about things that are mission-critical to running their businesses … patent research—that’s not about scholarly research—that’s about prior art search, getting patent applications or patent defense. Or, if it’s in pharmaco vigilance, making sure you understand everything that’s been written about your drug in the market, and are you making all of your appropriate filings? Or, say an engineer staying abreast of all of the innovations in R&D happening in a specific area. That’s not scholarly research.
Our public library business is not about scholarly research. That’s about genealogy and news and information for patrons of public libraries.
Our K–12 business is not about scholarly research. That’s more about reference material, principally kids 9th to 12th grade—although, we have some products that younger kids will use.
But we make ebooks available in public libraries and schools as well, like the big public libraries in New York and Chicago and Houston. They’ll buy large bodies of ebooks, but we’re not in the trade ebook business. We’re not going to sell you Harry Potter; we’re going to sell you reference or scholarly titles that come from publishers—like across the hall here—from Elsevier or Baker & Taylor and Taylor & Francis.
Kaser: Well, that’s part of why I observed earlier [that] the lineup of brands was brilliant, because you have e--books, but you have the right ebooks for your marketplace.
Sanford: Yeah, so you don’t see us going head to head against OverDrive in the public libraries. We’re in the universities. I would say that universities, colleges, and community colleges would make up in excess of 90% of our ebook sales. The rest of it is opportunistic, where we might have a niche vertical collection that seems really appealing to a particular engineering group in corporate. …
Taking a Global Approach to Content Discovery
Kaser: I saw in the press literature I picked up this morning something about Serials Solutions version 2.0 and the discovery layer. It is kind of a contrast because you own all-powerful Dialog—where you can Boolean logic your way through it—but you’re also leading with this discovery layer. How is that going for you?
Sanford: I think we actually created the category in ’09—web-scale discovery, instead of federated search. It’s a single index, where you index hundreds of millions if not billions of records. You try to replicate the holdings of libraries so that when a patron comes in to that library, instead of them having to do source selection to figure out which databases or which publishers’ content [to use] to do their research, they can start at a single screen with a Google-like search box. …
I think that discovery layers like Summon—whether it’s Primo, or it’s OCLC or EDS [EBSCO Discovery Service]—ultimately they will all replace federated search. Federated search has certainly had its day, but it’s a very inefficient way to do what a single index can do.
Kaser: For the user, in many cases Summon’s going to be your brand’s public face?
Sanford: One of our guys calls it the front door of the library. I call it one of the doors of the library.
When you have researchers—undergrads or grads or faculty—who become more information literate and they know where to start their search, they won’t necessarily go to Summon. They may go directly to a particular database or a specific A&I file. …
Or if they have developed an expertise in an area, they still might go to Summon because they say: “I want to socialize my understanding a bit more about it. I actually want to see all the news about this topic as well. And I want to see all the conference proceedings and gray literature that’s out there and not just the journal articles.” You don’t have to pivot just to one or the other.
We see nothing but higher [usage]. The more someone uses Summon, the more they use Summon and the more they use Summon, the more the content inside the university gets circulated or used or cited or referred to. What it does is, it helps the discovery of all the other assets that that library has.
Summon always positioned itself—they did a nice thing from the beginning—very much as Switzerland. It’s not there to just drive activity to ProQuest. We are a small part of a university’s holdings. This is a stand-alone application that helps with everybody’s content.
Bringing It All Together
Kaser: I’ve taken nearly a half-hour of your time, so I don’t want to keep you too much longer, but … where do you go from here? What happens next?
Sanford: With our new strategy, we’re focused on No. 1, improving our whole go-to market [strategy]. So that involves getting our account management, our brand structure, our inter-operability, our pricing sorted out because everything was priced on a product basis. We are three-quarters into a multiyear strategy. I think we’ve got a ways to go. We’re getting better and better. This quarter was better than last quarter. The quarter before that was better than the previous quarter. Feedback from the market is that you’re on the right path. I think interoperability is the big lift—how do you make the ability to move and navigate between the various products easy and seamless so once you’re in the network, you stay in the network.
The second thing we really focus on is that we’ve identified certain product categories that we think are absolutely mission-critical to the university’s ability to acquire, manage, and circulate information. So we’ve identified those as areas to invest in both organically and through acquisitions. We will continue to make acquisitions to either close gaps we have or participate in a bigger way in a part of the market that we think is critical, where the relationships of that product [are] complementary to the assets we have.
Third, we’ve really been modernizing our technology. We are investing more in mobile, we’re investing more in analytics and usage, we’re modernizing a lot of our infrastructure to move things into the cloud in a secured way so we can then shift dollars to product.
Fourth, we have identified library management and Summon, the discovery space, as core cloud-based services that every library needs. So that’s an area that’s getting investment.
Finally, in the fifth part of our strategy, we’ve identified parts of the portfolio that were under-invested or under-leveraged. We’ve identified that either as countries or segments. So we’ve identified Brazil, the Middle East, and India and China. Not surprising. But it’s not just because they are BRIC [Brazil, Russia, India, and China], but it’s all that seed analysis that suggests that that’s where the students are going to be. So you better skate to where the puck’s going to be, not where it is today.
We’ve identified certain parts of our portfolio that we thought were not getting enough investment: our public library and our schools business. … Academic being as big as it is, schools and public libraries were not getting enough attention. So, we’ve put a group together and said: “Help us win there. Help us go and improve that customer experience.”
That’s our strategy in 60 seconds.
Kaser (taking photos): Well, I wish you good fortune as you go forward. It really is an impressive company. You occupy a good piece of real estate in the industry. And I think you gathered together a fine set of assets.
Sanford: There are a lot of opportunities too.