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“The Core Is Always Going To Be Magazines And Print And I Think That’s As Far As The Eye Can See,” Michael Clinton, President, Marketing and Publishing Director of Hearst…The Mr. Magazine™ Interview

May 29, 2014


“What probably keeps me up at night is the dynamic relevance of printed magazines and what they mean to the consumer and making sure that a generation of advertising and media professionals appreciates the value of the medium.”
“I think about magazines and magazine media all the time.”
“More Print Products are coming from Hearst in the coming years.”
Michael Clinton

Screen shot 2014-05-27 at 9.40.38 PMA pilot, an accomplished photographer, a philanthropist who started his own charity, Circle of Generosity, a publishing director, an author of several books, a marathon runner, a traveler to more than 120 countries, an executive, a magazine rabbi and a high priest in the eyes of those who know him and work with him… In fact, there is no shortage of adjectives to describe Michael Clinton, who is also the chairman of the MPA — The Association of Magazine Media.

He and David Carey, the president of Hearst Magazines, seem to be among the few magazine executives who are not closing any magazines, downsizing, or just reducing the weight of the paper. No, actually they’re doing just the opposite. Hearst magazines has been acquiring magazines, launching very successful print products, without forgetting digital which as of today only represents 3% of the total circulation of Hearst Magazines.

So when I had the opportunity to engage in a conversation with the multi-talented Michael Clinton, my brain was racing with a million questions I was ready to fire at Michael and my eyes were roaming his office observing the pictures on the walls and the model Air-Force One on the round table among many other memorabilia scattered around his office.

I asked Michael about his favorite picture from all the photos he has taken over the years. He was quick to point to a picture on the wall facing his desk of a plane off the coast of Namibia. The same picture is also adorning the cover of his book The Globetrotter Diaries.

I chose that spot in Mr. Clinton’s office on the 43rd floor of the Hearst Tower in NYC as the backdrop for The Mr. Magazine™ Minute with Michael Clinton. I asked Michael Clinton why more publishers aren’t following in the footsteps of Hearst Magazines? Click the video below to listen to his answer:

And now for the sound-bites…

On whether he thinks about magazines when he wears his other, innumerable hats: And so I think about magazines and magazine media all the time. And actually some people around here laugh at me when I say, “I was out for a long run the other day.” And they know that that means that I concocted some idea in my head while I was running that I was about to lay on them.

On the most challenging moment in his career: For many people, a dark moment was in the depths of the recession because as businesses really cut back in their spending, and it was across all media, part of my job is to keep the troops motivated.

On what he believes the other magazine professionals are doing when it comes to why Hearst seems to be one of the few publishers promoting and launching new magazines: That’s a great question, but I don’t know. We’d love more of our peer companies to step out and put out a new magazine and a new concept. But we’re happy to continue to innovate on that front.

On whether he’s a believer in print: Big time.

On what he believes is the most problematic issue we have today in the magazine marketplace: I think that we’re in a state of confusion and disruption in the media landscape in general.

On a solution for the newsstand problems: I think to do innovative things at newsstands such as working with retailers. We’re doing some really innovative things on the shopper marketing front where we’re creating customized units that are combinations of gift-with-purchase.

On what keeps him up at night: I think that what probably keeps me up at night is the dynamic relevance of printed magazines and what they mean to the consumer and making sure that a generation of advertising and media professionals appreciates the value of the medium.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Michael Clinton, President, Marketing and Publishing Director of Hearst…

Samir Husni: I’ve been doing some homework, checking around the building and talking to people; three things I learned about you, some I knew before, some I did not. One is your philanthropy, which hasn’t been covered much, but people do know about it. Two is your marathons, which you cover yourself on your tweets. And third is that you’re the rabbi to most of the magazine publishers and editors in the building, they refer to you as Rabbi Michael. So as the high priest of magazines, especially the ones that you’ve been really involved with – the three most successful launches of the last five years, from the Food Network to Dr. Oz; how do you combine those three entities and juggle between them? Is it always magazines on your mind whether you are teaching, running or giving away your money?

Michael Clinton: That’s a great, great question. I think that fortunately for me I still love the magazine industry; I’ve been in it a long time. So I’m one of the lucky people who wake up every day and am excited to go to work. And I think regardless of what industry you’re in it’s great to be able to have that sense of drive, commitment and interest in your chosen profession.

And so I think about magazines and magazine media all the time. And actually some people around here laugh at me when I say, “I was out for a long run the other day.” And they know that that means that I concocted some idea in my head while I was running that I was about to lay on them.

I often find that my down time of going and running a marathon or training in the park is actually great for clearing my head to come up with new ideas or solutions, solving problems or thinking about new ways to go at what we do.

To answer your question, a lot of what I think about with regards to magazines, a lot of it solves problems, not necessarily in the Hearst Tower, but outside doing a lot of the other things that I do.

Samir Husni: And what has been a most challenging moment in your career? Maybe a time you had to run extremely far to get it out of your system and come up with a solution.

Michael Clinton: For many people, a dark moment was in the depths of the recession because as businesses really cut back in their spending, and it was across all media, part of my job is to keep the troops motivated.

And so when you see the kind of business downturns everyone faced during the recession, especially younger professionals who never experienced a recession, for some of us we’ve been through different business cycles, but for younger people it’s harder for them to see the other side and younger publishers who were coming off of those phenomenal go-go years and 2007 being kind of the penultimate one and keeping people motivated and focused, making them try and appreciate that it wasn’t the end of the world, that business cycles happen and there would be a leveling out and a rebuild, that proved challenging.

So there were a lot of long runs during that time.

Samir Husni: With the Food Network it was smooth sailing from day one. Dr. Oz was a bit rocky in terms of staffing, correct?

Michael Clinton: Yes, we had an editor change and she left on her own to go back to California. I think the thing that was very interesting in 2008 when we decided to launch a magazine, obviously it was a very bold and daring statement, and I think what happened was we were counter-contrary to the marketplace and we went out and launched Food Network Magazine in a very strange way, talking about my earlier comment. It kind of lifted the whole organization because when you do bold things in tough times, what happens is often it not only lifts the entire organization, but when you have the success, it really shows there is clear view out there for other businesses to grow. So you’re right Food Network was an instant takeoff.

Samir Husni: And why is it that you and David Carey are among the very few who have been promoting new magazines, talking about new launches; what’s the rest of the industry doing?

Michael Clinton: That’s a great question, but I don’t know. I think that as the chairman of the MPA, we always talk with encouragement when it comes to new product launches and bringing new magazines to the marketplace, because we now have new proof points that if you put out a great product, the consumer will come and the consumer will pay. We now have three proof points on that.

We’d love more of our peer companies to step out and put out a new magazine and a new concept. But we’re happy to continue to innovate on that front. We now have the perception in the marketplace that we are the innovators in regards to new magazines in this time period. That we’re the ones that will innovate and put out new products and feel strong about new print products as well as all the other things that we’re doing digitally.

Samir Husni: You are one of very few companies that never lost its focus on print, just to swim in the digital ocean. That you actually kept both print and digital.

Michael Clinton: And don’t forget we acquired Hachette. So at the same time, aside from launching new products, we made a very big print acquisition also coming right off the heels of the recession.

Samir Husni: So are you a believer in print?

Michael Clinton: Big time. I think what we see, and once again I’ll go back to today, Dr. Oz, we have 300,000 subscriptions in hand. It has been one of the fastest ramp ups, one of the highest pay rates, where the consumer actually wrote the check; and as you know we sold out on the newsstand and went back to press.

So I think even if it was 2008 when it was Food Network, people might say, well OK, that was then and then we did HGTV in 2011 and people might say, that was then, but it’s 2014 and it’s happening again people. I think the trick is in finding a fresh voice in a cluttered marketplace and I think those three examples really had a fresh voice in their market.

Samir Husni: What do you think is the most problematic issue we have today in the magazine marketplace?

Michael Clinton: I think that we’re in a state of confusion and disruption in the media landscape in general. And I think that if you’re a CMO today of a brand and you think about everything that is coming at you, the big headline in Adweek: is TV dead? Video is taking over. What’s happening in the digital marketplace with programmatic and view ability.

Every media platform seems to have big issues as part of the overall media ecosystem that marketers are challenged with. So the print medium has a long history of tried and true audience and audience measurement, but in a world of disruption everything is sort of up for grabs.

So I think what a lot of marketers are finding and what I’m seeing is that it’s all about the media mix and magazines play a part in that mix. That when you have the correct media mix in your media spends it can actually lift all boats.

There’s a lot of noise and disruption and I think the overall noise and disruption affects all media, not just magazines.

Samir Husni: Putting the rabbi hat on and talking to the future generations, people interested in our business, in journalism, in magazines; if you’re teaching a class, what do you tell the students?

Michael Clinton: You know I think that the good news is that magazine brands used to be just print. And if I use an analogy in the retail world, I call that our bricks & mortar business. Even though E-commerce is ubiquitous, bricks & mortar is not going to go away. It’s a different experience. So when someone is in the pages of Esquire, Oprah or Cosmo, they’re having a very unique and different experience.

It’s part of the bricks & mortar story. The beauty we’ve had and I think that what gets lost in the conversation and I talk to publishers about this all the time, is that the brand footprint now for Cosmo can live in many different places. So the core is always going to be magazines and print and I think that’s as far as the eye can see. Cosmo.com, Cosmo – social media, Cosmo events, Cosmo won-off-TV-things; we now have the ability to take our brands out to other brand and media platforms that before we didn’t really have the opportunity to do.

So I think that for young people I like to say, think about it as a horizontal experience, not just a vertical experience. Because whether you’re on the publishing side or the editorial side, and this has already happened in the news marketplace, if you speak to a young reporter now, they’re producing their story, filming their story, and posting on the dot com, doing their social media; so they’re multitasking with different content and we’re doing the same thing, so it’s a big opportunity.

I think magazine media’s core is still going to be the printed page.

Samir Husni: Do you think we can ever succeed with a digital-only magazine? Even though I don’t call anything but print a magazine…

Michael Clinton: I think you have to clarify that question; are you talking about web-based or tablet-based?

Samir Husni: Can you name a tablet-based digital magazine that’s making money?

Michael Clinton: Well, that’s a great point. I think that the opportunity is there for a magazine that is a tablet-only magazine. I think the tablet world may have to mature a bit. But in our May issues we did a test; we took 10 of our women’s magazines and we embedded a 12-page beauty supplement that ran in 800,000 copies of those paid circulation magazines. Now that’s a bit of a scale play that never really existed before. You know, could that become its own magazine, who knows.

But I think that we’re in the very early days of testing whether something could have a circulation of a half million, but only live as a tablet distributed magazine. I think we’re too early in the product life cycle of magazines on tablets, but five or ten years from now it could be possible. But I think that we have a long way to go.

As you know we only have three percent in total magazine subscriptions on the tablet to begin with, so I think you almost need to have the consumer have a deeper learned experience in how they’re getting their content.

Samir Husni: Which leads me to say you are the only company that doesn’t bundle…

Michael Clinton: We do not bundle, no.

Samir Husni: If you want Cosmo on the tablet, you pay $19.95 or $14.95 and if you want the magazine, you buy the magazine…

Screen shot 2014-05-27 at 9.36.23 PM Michael Clinton: Why do we do that? We have an expression: fee not free. Let me first talk about authentication. The analogy we would make is I went to go see Godzilla on Saturday night, but when you walked out of the theater they did not hand you a free CD because you just paid for your ticket or when you buy a book, say the new Hillary Clinton book, you don’t get a free download on your tablet. If you want it then you buy it two different times.

I think what’s been great about iTunes, in particular, is if you wanted the content you paid for it, hardcover book versus download book. So we took that position very early on and as a result we have about a million, almost a million-four, paid subs that are tablet-based subs and it creates a level, from our perspective, of wantedness from the consumer and also a story we can tell the advertiser. So it’s choosing your distribution.

Samir Husni: Talking about distribution; how’s Next Issue doing?

Michael Clinton: It’s coming along. It’s a fantastic consumer proposition. In their next round, where they need to go next as they continue to build their brand is a big marketing and promotional play. At a certain point they have to get the message out to the consumer marketplace at large, because while it’s growing, they need to get that lift-off. They’re going to have to get that funding to be able to promote it in a big, big way to the consumer.

Samir Husni: What can we do about the newsstands? With closings and rumors of closings…can we have a magazine industry in this country without newsstands?

Michael Clinton: It’s 10 percent of magazine circulation, so it’s small, but it’s an important piece; forget the economics because it’s an important economic contributor. But it’s an important piece for sampling, to get that magazine in front of the consumer’s eyeballs.

So the good news is as doors shrink, borders go out of business; on the flip side there are other doors and stores that are actually growing their magazine presence such as Costco and Dollar General; points that didn’t have magazines. So the answer is yes, it’s important to have newsstand.

And also I think to do innovative things at newsstands such as working with retailers. We’re doing some really innovative things on the shopper marketing front where we’re creating customized units that are combinations of gift-with-purchase. So if you buy a skincare product and if you buy a copy of Marie Clare, Elle or Cosmo and we align ourselves with the skincare product, there can be a dollar off somewhere.

Creating these customized incentive packages at floor level, which is what happens in general with retail anyway, aside from just being in the traditional slots that magazines occupy.

I think the next generation is going to be doing more inventive marketing programs at floor level, so you’re stimulating sales as opposed to magazines just sitting there stagnant. We’re doing a lot on that front here.

Samir Husni: Do you think that will solve the mobile blinders problem?

Michael Clinton: I heard a stat the other day about how many times someone checks their mobile phone, but you have to think at a certain point it’s going to be overload. So I guess the answer is probably not, but the mobile blinders affect any impulse purchase if you think about it. Unless you’re going to just buy something specifically, you’re going to have that.

But I think about something like Hudson News at the airports; when you go into that store, you’re basically going in because you are looking at the magazines versus a check-out. The mobile blinders are a big issue for every business category.

Samir Husni: This question is for you, the photographer; what’s the best picture you’ve ever taken?

Michael Clinton: There it is, on the far left. The story behind that picture is that I’m a pilot and I was on the famous Skeleton Coast of Namibia, which is in the country just north of South Africa, on the West Coast. It is a spectacularly beautiful landscape. You’re flying along the coast and the sand dunes hit the water and this is where you find these hulls of ships in the flat sand dunes because that’s why they call it the Skeleton Coast because of all these boats.

So I was literally flying up this coast for a couple of three hours, I wasn’t the pilot the entire time, there were six of us on board, but I happened to be then, and it was very difficult to see another plane in the air throughout the whole week that we were in Namibia and all of a sudden I saw that plane coming beneath us and I asked the other pilot could you please take the controls because I was flying at the time, grabbed the camera and I yelled, “Come on, we have to keep up with him.” So we tracked him and just the image of that airplane against that backdrop with the shadow is a very romantic shot. It’s actually a shot that, when I’ve had gallery exhibits, it’s one of my most popular.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps Michael Clinton up at night?

Michael Clinton: I’m a good sleeper. I go to sleep with a clear head. No, I think that what probably keeps me up at night is the dynamic relevance of printed magazines and what they mean to the consumer and making sure that a generation of advertising and media professionals appreciates the value of the medium. And we do a lot of things to innovate to keep that message front and center, but it is a very dynamic and growing medium with new products. And from a circulation and audience standpoint, it’s been very consistent even during the recession. You’ve heard the famous line during the recession: we didn’t have a consumer problem, we had an advertising problem.

But remarkably, from circulation and an audience standpoint, it’s been a very consistent story and that sometimes gets lost in the whirlwind of the whole media ecosystem. So how do we get that embedded into the brains of younger professionals?

Samir Husni: Thank you.

© Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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  1. […] the whole article “The Core Is Always Going To Be Magazines And Print And I Think That’s As Far As The Eye… on the website Mr. […]



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