Ex-CEO Rips Digitrends Chairman's Allegations

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A dispute between former employees and the chairman of failed online marketing magazine publisher Digitrends LLC has turned ugly.


In an e-mail sent Aug. 6 to subscribers, Digitrends chairman Andrew Batkin accused unnamed individuals of stealing the magazine's database. Rick Parkhill, who was Digitrends' CEO until he was dismissed by Batkin in November, thinks the e-mail hints at him.


"It's an outrageous allegation," Parkhill said from the Laguna Niguel, CA, base of his new conference planning and marketing firm. "It's one thing to call someone and tell something, but to broadcast to tens of thousands of people industrywide is a very damaging act."


Though the e-mail's distribution is not known, Parkhill said Digitrends' e-mail newsletters had more than 30,000 subscribers as of November.


"From the re-sponse I'm getting from people far and wide, it's gone out to a very general circulation," he said.


Repeated calls to Batkin were not returned. Batkin's e-mail to Digitrends' online subscriber list alleges misuse of the publisher's database for a competing conference.


"It has come to my attention that the Digitrends database that we spent millions of dollars and four years to develop, to bring interactive media buyers and sellers together, has been improperly removed from Digitrends' offices," Batkin said in the e-mail.


This database, he added, was being used to market an event that competes with Digitrends' Media Buyers Summit.


"I appeal to your sense of fair play, our longstanding reputation, as well as our attempt to protect and secure the value of the assets of Digitrends and urge you to not support this competing event!" Batkin's e-mail said.


On July 30, Parkhill issued a press release saying his company, Parkhill Productions, of which he is president, would organize an iMedia Summit in Colorado in October.


"I did not launch the iMedia Summit until after all the employees were gone from Digitrends," Parkhill said. "It was on July 25 that all of the employees were let go, which was a Wednesday, and we didn't announce anything about the iMedia Summit until the following week. I've been gone from Digitrends for about eight months and have not done anything competitive with Digi-trends until all the employees were let go."


Parkhill, one of the founders of Digitrends in 1997, has teamed with former colleagues to launch Parkhill Productions. Those colleagues are Kurt Indvik, Mike Pubentz and Jo Jacobsen, formerly Digi-trends' president, vice president of sales and conference manager, respectively.


"I've been in this industry for over 12 years, and during that time I've established deep, industrywide relationships with hundreds or thousands of people," Parkhill said. "To suggest or accuse that I've stolen property is outrageous and damaging to my good reputation in the industry."


A former employee who requested anonymity said Parkhill had every right to call contacts, which is not the same thing as swiping a list of names.


"Batkin has opened himself to an incredible amount of legal action," the executive said. "He didn't point a finger [at] anyone, [but] we're considering getting together and forming a legal action. Nothing's been removed from there."


Batkin may view Parkhill's new venture as conflict of interest. Parkhill said that to his knowledge, he and the others never had to sign a non-compete contract.


Digitrends' magazine was a monthly in fourth-quarter 2000 and then a quarterly this year until publication ceased with the March issue. The publisher also offered e-mail newsletters and conferences aimed at marketing executives. Recent Digitrends conferences ran under names such as the Media Buyers Summit Spring, Media Buyers Summit Fall, Camp Interactive and Digitrends Brand Leadership Forum.


"On Nov. 30, we were at breakeven or better," Parkhill said. "We had 37 employees the day I left, and we exceeded our plan for 2000, both top and bottom line."


Batkin is the only employee left at Digitrends, Manhattan Beach, CA. The former worker said 10 employees were laid off July 25 and are still owed back pay, commissions, expenses and compensation for vacation time.


"Not to mention that in California, according to labor law, every day that goes by, Batkin is incurring a penalty of a day's pay on each employee," the former employee said.


These employees allegedly were laid off for lack of funding and cash flow, the former employee said. But Batkin's e-mail states, "We have worked out a plan for the Media Buyers Summit and the Brand Leadership Forum to continue to serve the industry."


In his e-mail, Batkin said he is preparing to go to court to defend his stance and the alleged misuse of the Digitrends database, writing, "We are taking legal action against the company and those individuals that are responsible for the theft and improper use of our database."


Parkhill refused to tip his hand as to his next course of action.


"I haven't heard from him. I haven't heard from his lawyers," he said.


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