Not too many people are able to buy a stale 48-page black and white magazine and turn it into a very successful 200 plus all color pages monthly magazine. Not too many people are able to continue to thrive in the midst of one of the worst economic downturn in the magazine business history. And not many can and will continue to enhance the editorial content without sacrificing a beat in terms of quality or quantity of the editorial product. Creating a magazine that people really want and are willing to pay almost $28 for a yearly subscription is what makes Bernie Mann, publisher of Our State in North Carolina, tick and click as he publishes one of the most successful state and regional magazines in the country today. If you are in the magazine business or thinking of starting a magazine and getting into this business, Our State magazine should be the model of your business plan and the magazine to imitate and learn from. It is a thriving, living and captivating magazine that can teach both big and small magazine publishers a lot of lessons on how an ink on paper magazine can thrive in today’s digital age.
“I am not in the content or information business,” Bernie told me. “I am in the beauty business.” His mantra is simple, indeed very simple, “I want to be an oasis; I want to be a place where, when you pick up my magazine, you can have 2.5 to 3 hours of unadulterated pleasure.”
As I was interviewing Bernie on the phone, I could feel the passion in his voice as he talked about the magazine and its audience. He practices what he preaches and he preaches what he practices. A consumer-centric publisher whose puts into practice the tag line he uses for his magazine over and over again. “If you like North Carolina, you will love Our State magazine.” Yes indeed.
In a typical Mr. Magazine™ Interviews, here are the sound-bites first, followed by the entire, lightly edited, transcript of the interview:
On his secret success strategy: The key is putting out a magazine that people really want.
On a state magazine success strategy: What we try to do is hold up a mirror and let them see their own state in the most positive light.
On the value of advertising and marketing: I think it’s outrageous to tell people they should advertise and we don’t.
On lessons learned form successful companies: They create great products and they are also good at marketing these products. You’ve got to start by creating a great product.
On his web strategy: We are using the website to enhance the magazine. We do put our stories on our website, but we don’t put our photography.
On his advice to someone starting a new magazine: What is this unique feature that you have that is going to make people want this magazine?
On what makes Bernie tick: Mostly what energizes me is the thrill of being around some of the most wonderful people. I’ve been fortunate in collecting a staff of terrific people. I love watching them do terrific things.
On the future of magazines: I think the magazine business is getting the short stick – The thrill of reading a magazine, of seeing stories, of having the pleasure of carrying it with you and reading it where you want to.
And now for the full interview with Bernie Mann, publisher of Our State magazine in North Carolina:
Samir Husni: What’s your secret for success? Why even in this economy are you still publishing 230-page magazines?
Bernie Mann: Let me start by saying we value the product. We start everything with “How do we make the product better and how do we make sure the reader gets full value out of each magazine?” I think there are too many magazines that are published because they are a way to sell advertising. The key to me is that I almost feel it is a fiduciary responsibility because I have 147,000 people who send me $27.95 every year. I feel an obligation to give them terrific value so at the end of the year they vote to send me another $27.95. I think the key to quality is not putting out a magazine that is full of advertising. The key is putting out a magazine that people really want. I often say to my friends in the magazine business “Besides your family and your employees, if you stop publishing, who would care?” I think you have to put out a magazine that, if you were 5 to 6 days late in getting it to their mailbox, people would be in an uproar and would be desperately upset that they don’t have their magazine. If you can create that desire for quality, by the fact that you have touched their lives, by the fact that everything you do gives them pleasure, now you’ve got something.
We have a variety of things that we do. Everything about our magazine is positive. We never have a negative word. That’s why we don’t review restaurants. We review 5 books a month, but if we don’t like the book we don’t run the review. Everything is positive. I think in this world with so much negativity, when you pick up a magazine or turn on the television or read a newspaper, it’s just one bad story after another, and you say, well maybe tomorrow will be better. Well, tomorrow is worse. I want to be an oasis; I want to be a place where, when you pick up my magazine, you can have 2.5 to 3 hours of unadulterated pleasure. We are fortunate that in North Carolina the North Carolinians are very proud of where they live. What we try to do is hold up a mirror and let them see their own state in the most positive light.
It’s hard to give you one answer. We spend a lot of money on marketing. I think it’s outrageous to tell people they should advertise and we don’t. If I think advertising is so good then why the hell don’t I do it? I do it. I advertise in other magazines and on television, but we are very selective about where we advertise. We think it is very important to advertise to whoever we think our best prospects are. We do the usual direct mail, but we do a lot of other things to help us build our circulation.
SH: You came from a completely different background. Can you recreate the move that you made from radio to magazines? What were you thinking?
BM: I used to own radio stations. We would buy radio stations that weren’t doing well because I didn’t have any money, so I couldn’t buy a successful station. I would buy stations that were in poor health and looked crummy and did poorly. I would build it up, then sell it, and then do it again somewhere else. I had 12 radio stations over the course of 25-30 years. The radio business changed and was no longer an entrepreneur business. The FCC rules changed. So then I was out there looking for something else to do.
Over the course of a couple of years looking, I couldn’t find anything. Then I was offered the chance to own this magazine and it looked like one of the crappy radio stations. It was 48 pages and it was black and white. It had no appeal. I had seen Arizona Highways and I had seen what you could do to show the beauty of a state. I thought, “Well, Arizona Highways is nice, but Arizona is not more beautiful than North Carolina. We don’t have deserts, but we have beautiful oceans and mountains.” I thought what the heck, I know a little bit about how to sell advertising, and it had virtually no advertising in it. I knew something else – I knew that if you can create a great enough product, you could make a big difference. I have studied enough companies to know that. Whether it’s Proctor and Gamble, who create great products and are good at marketing, or whether it’s Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons that create great service, or Starbucks that creates a great atmosphere and also high quality product. You look at the best companies; Toyota, Rolex, etc., – they create great products and they are also good at marketing these products. You’ve got to start by creating a great product.
You can never ever let anything happen to deteriorate that product because you don’t have a second chance. We always say every issue has to be better than the last. When I see my friends who only have a little bit of advertising so the magazine gets thin in January and February, I say to myself “Gee, that’s like Proctor and Gamble putting a sticker on the box of Tide, that says ‘we have very little detergent in the box this month because we didn’t have a lot of sales last month. Next month when sales get better we’ll put more detergent in the box.’” Every month you’ve got to produce a great magazine. Sometimes we produce a magazine where the relationship between advertising and editorial is skewed higher towards editorial than I would like it to be. I can’t not do that. I’ve got to put out a great magazine. I’ve got to put out a magazine that is always fulfilling to the reader. Or normal ratio is 60/40, 60 editorial, 40 advertising but sometimes it becomes 70/30 when sales are lousy, but I’m not going to put out an 80 page magazine. How could you do that? I’m fortunate in that I own it and I don’t have to report to some group who’s trying to make quarterly dividends and announcements. I can take those shots.
SH: What was the turning point after you bought the magazine? When did you flip it?
BM: I bought the magazine in 1996. We really felt that we were starting to be recognized and make some headway after about 4 years. It takes a while. You know the old theory of entrepreneurship, “It always takes longer and costs more than you expect.” If you have deep pockets like some magazines, like Garden and Gun, who had a $10 million budget started – I didn’t have that. I had to do it with money that we generated.
SH: What was the most pleasant moment in your history of ownership of Our State? What was the day you felt vindictive that you had done that or proud that you’ve done that?
BM: We started using a phrase that we use in everything. “If you like North Carolina, you’ll love Our State magazine.” After about 4-5 years, it takes a long time. People who think you can put out something and all of a sudden everybody knows about it, it takes a long time and a lot of advertising and a lot of promotions. Finally, people started saying to me, “I love your magazine.” Now we hear that all the time. We had a staff meeting about a month ago, and I said to our staff of about 45 people, “When you go anywhere and you meet somebody for the first time and they ask you where you work and you say ‘I work at Our State Magazine’, What is the first thing that people say to you?” It was like a great chorus. Every one of the 45 people answered the exact same thing “Oh, I love that magazine.” When you can get people to say they love something, that’s strong. I use toothpaste twice a day and I don’t even know the name of it. My wife loves Starbucks but very few people say I love American Airlines, or I love CBS. There are very few inanimate objects that people will truly say they love. If you can get that love brand going, boy that’s something. People loved Saturn, the car, but they screwed it up. So now people don’t love it anymore. They had it going for them, they had these “love fests” and people would go to Tennessee and all meet there and love their Saturns. It was wonderful. Then GM screwed it up. As quick as you get it, you can lose it if you don’t maintain it. The addiction is a result of their love.
SH: Did you have any down moments?
BM: Of course. We couldn’t find sales people. At one point we thought we would put out a magazine and just try to get subscribers. When you don’t know the magazine business, you don’t know what to do. We all thought “What the hell are we on newsstands for?”, because at one point newsstands were 25% or 28%. Even we knew that was crazy. Throwing away about 72% of what I send to someone makes no sense. It takes a while and it takes gunning it out. We haven’t always done well but we have never backed off the idea of people paying for the magazine. I think that is crucial. I get mailings for $5 subscriptions to magazines that come out every month. It costs them more than that to mail the dang thing and they’re going to let me have it for $5? To me that say “We don’t care that much about this product, we don’t think it’s worth anything. We’ll give it to you and all we want is advertising revenue.” I don’t think any worthwhile company would give their product away. Even when we had a little cell phone business we would say we would give the cell phone away because all we wanted was the usage. Kodak used to say they would give away the camera because all they really wanted was for people to buy film, but they never did. The cell-phone companies keep coming out with different cell phones to make you want to buy the cell phone. You’ve got to put a value on it.
SH: In this “Digital Age” is there a need for print on paper?
BM: If I were a magazine that had news in it, that would be a little different. The Internet is an incredible way to get timeliness to people. I’m not in the news business. We produce the plan for 2012 in August 2011. We know what each issue is going to be like no matter what the hell is going on in the news because we are producing issues that have no relevance to the timeliness of things.
Our website carries things about our magazine, I felt it had to. I really like this because the magazine is 2-dimensional, and with the website I can add 2 more dimensions – the dimension of sound and the dimension of movement. If we have a story about a man who makes violins, then I can show, not only how he carves the violin, but the sound that it makes. We are using the website to enhance the magazine. We do put our stories on our website, but we don’t put our photography. The photography is not as attractive on a screen and it doesn’t give the same feel as holding a glossy piece of paper. This is not true for everyone. There are a lot of magazines, particularly city magazines, where they want to convey a lot of information. We’re not an information source. I don’t think of myself as being in the magazine ink-on-paper business, I’m in the beauty business. I produce something that is so beautiful that people keep it, that they put it on their coffee table, and they save it. That’s not traditional ink-on-paper stuff.
SH: If somebody came to you today and said, “Mr. Mann I want to start a new magazine,” what fatherly advice would you give him or her?
BM: So many people who have ideas for a magazine are like the people who have an idea for a book. They have a life or interests that are so fascinating that other people want to know about it. I would start off by saying; “We use a phrase for ourselves that says burr of singularity.” I borrowed this from Lee Barnett, who is a great Chicago adman. He used to talk about a burr of singularity in advertisement. I would say to anybody who wants to start a magazine, “What is this unique feature that you have that is going to make people want this magazine?”
Secondly, “How are you going to fund it for three years?” Don’t tell me you are going to sell it on the newsstand or that you have a lot of friends and family who will buy subscriptions. Tell me how you are going to fund this without any income coming in for at least three years. That’s the failing for a lot of people. Often we get people who come to us with editorial ideas but they don’t have a business plan. I think the business plan is what keeps them afloat.
SH: What makes Bernie click and tick? What gets you up in the morning?
BM: I’m fortunate to be doing something I love. Even in 2008 and 2009, when our advertising revenue turned sour. To me it’s a challenge. How do you keep your business afloat? How do you keep your employee? We’ve never had to dismiss a single employee. We cut back on things like fresh flowers in the lobby, a refrigerator stocked with soft drinks. We use to have a big candy jar. We asked our own staff for ideas of how to save money. We would print on the back of paper that had already been printed. We tried to save money in a lot of different ways. Mostly what energizes me is the thrill of being around some of the most wonderful people. I’ve been fortunate in collecting a staff of terrific people. I love watching them do terrific things.
SH: You are known for keeping your office human, real folks answering the phone, etc. Do you still have the same practice of always having a real person answering the phone all the time?
BM: Without a doubt. I read a survey in Consumer Reports about things that aggravate people the most in business. First were the little charges that they didn’t expect and second was calling a company and not getting an answer. We have six people ready to answer the phone in case someone is busy. Within three rings you are going to get a person answering the phone. I’m in a service business, how could I not provide a service to the people that are calling me? That’s their first impression. They get a voice, a friendly voice, and a person who gives their name and tells the caller they are anxious to be of help. I think that’s crucial.
I think the magazine business is getting the short stick – The thrill of reading a magazine, of seeing stories, of having the pleasure of carrying it with you and reading it where you want to. There are too many twenty-something’s that think this is an old business that’s going the way of the horseshoe. They’re stupid because they don’t understand. One business never replaces another. Television never replaced radio. Businesses don’t get replaced; they change. The magazine business is changing. I don’t think it will ever go away. Too many people love it. I think that magazines need to improve by constantly making themselves more appealing. Look at This Week, what a terrific concept for a magazine. They are doing news in a way that allows them to fit into people’s lifestyles. That is a change. People’s lifestyles are constantly changing and you want to be aware of that, but you have to separate the fad from the trend. For example, I think Groupon is a fad, not a trend. I don’t think they are going to be in business five years from now. But, Steve Jobs’ business is no fad. That is really solid. He put out an iPad without doing any research. I love my iPad.
SH: Thank you.