Audience first, and not platforms, is the number one secret behind the success story of Dwell magazine media. In the shelter magazine industry, no new (if you can call a ten-plus-year-old, new) publication is more revered and respected than Dwell, and for more than a decade, Michela O’Connor Abrams has steered the wheel of this visually-driven design ship with foresight, skill and downright gut-instinct, guiding her vessel across unknown waters successfully. Between Dwell the magazine, and the powerhouse events the media company hosts, Dwell has stood the test of time and proven itself to be a bulwark against the downturns of the magazine media business.
The reasons O’Connor Abrams gives for the company’s continued success: her background in technology media and the focus on the audience and the communities Dwell has built and serves faithfully.
With their cornerstone of print and O’Connor Abrams’ supreme belief in digital integration and innovation, Dwell Media’s future looks as bright as any sun reflected in their rear-view mirror.
And when you’re known as the “pornography of interior design” among top designers, well, that’s when you know your visual panoramas are beyond stunning and border on the sublime.
So grab your imagination and let your creativity flow freely as you prepare to enjoy Mr. Magazine’s™ interview with the woman behind the driving success of a shelter magazine that takes the visual to unbelievable levels and proves that with courage and backbone a magazine can sustain more than a decade in an industry that can sometimes be as uncertain as the future it strains to see – Michela O’Connor Abrams – President of Dwell Media.
But first a Mr. Magazine™ Minute with Michela Abrams, followed by the sound-bites and the lightly edited transcript of the full interview.
The Mr. Magazine™ Minute with Michela O’Connor Abrams, president, Dwell Media
And now for the sound-bites:
On Dwell being much more than a print product and whether the future lies with such print/digital integration: Yes. We now have 10 platforms at Dwell Media. The magazine is about 55% of the business and four years ago it was 94% of the business. But the magazine and the SIP’s for the newsstand remain very healthy. I’m happy to say this is turning out to be an incredible year.
On the reason Dwell has “Out-Dwelled” the other magazines that were launched at the same time: Because everybody else was putting the magazine in the middle with all these ancillary products hanging off of it. I remember seeing a very senior executive at TIME Inc. put the magazine in the middle with all of these different, and he called them “arteries of revenue.” I had probably been here, maybe two years. So it was 2004 and I’m thinking, ‘That’s crazy!’
On the main focus of Dwell Media: The magazine is a platform and the audience is who you should concentrate on. And we had done that; we had adopted that in 2002. The driving mission was bringing modern design to everyone, anywhere, anytime, anyplace and in any form.
On how Dwell is using their cornerstone of print to expand their empire: The print vehicle – because we are a design brand, the paper we’re printed on, the quality of the photography, just everything about that experience is very tactile. And that helps to really spur the excitement and the growth on other platforms, because the magazine still sets expectations for the greater audience, not just the subscribers, but the newsstand buyer and the pass-along reader.
And now for the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ Interview with the President of Dwell Media – Michela O’Connor Abrams.
Samir Husni: After 10+ years with Dwell and Dwell media, your director of communications said that print was still your cornerstone, but that Dwell was much more than print. Is this the future?
Michela O’Connor Abrams: Yes. We now have 10 platforms at Dwell Media. The magazine is about 55% of the business and four years ago it was 94% of the business. But the magazine and the SIP’s for the newsstand remain very healthy. I’m happy to say this is turning out to be an incredible year. Last year was better than the previous, and this one is wonderful.
We have continued to develop the brand on all these platforms. Dwell on Design, which is our large conference and exhibition, is now the largest design event in America. It is at the end of June and we expect a little more than 30,000 people. We have about a 1,000 brands that take up 220,000 square feet at the L.A. Convention Center and the city has declared it Dwell Design week for the entire week. The event is huge, and digitally we would have spent a long year, meaning fiscally, from about March 2012 until now, migrating off of an arcane content management system that served us just fine about 7 or 8 years ago, but was no longer terribly helpful in the growth of digital for Dwell for the last two years.
So we migrated to Drupal and we have begun to see the fruits of the efforts of the team. We have tablet and mobile. I haven’t announced this to anybody, but we have just recruited a very senior executive out of Yahoo to be the EVP of digital for Dwell Media. He has done 4 start-ups in digital pure plays and run content and commerce for Yahoo. And he starts May 1st. It’s very exciting. And that is to digitally transform the whole company, not only to continue to grow our commerce platform, which has been a partner strategy for the last three years, but to really step up our game. You will be able to fundamentally shop Dwell so it is contextualized commerce. It’s not a flash sale. It’s not trying to sell Chach-Keys and every little widget known to man. It’s still highly-curated, just as you would expect to find from Dwell. So he is coming in to lead that entire effort, as well as work on the digital transformation of the company.
Digital and events are the future of Dwell Media and yet because, thankfully, we have always had a profitable circulation model with Dwell, I don’t expect print to be gone in five years, ten – a different story.
This is a very exciting time for us. We’ve been taking digital very seriously for years now, but not really able to do the kinds of things that we wanted to do. If you just look at what’s available to publishers on the tablet; the promise of enhanced digital versions on the tablet, from years ago, is just now really becoming a reality in the sense of a profitable business model. It’s not that we couldn’t use the technology to enhance the digital experience of the tablet, but now we can really maximize the opportunity in a fundamental way.
Samir Husni: When Dwell was started, there were so many other magazines of a similar genre launching too; however, Dwell is the lone survivor of all those other entities. What’s the secret of success behind Dwell?
Michela O’Connor Abrams: Three things. I think that my background in technology media for all those years, which was way ahead of consumer publishing at that time, made sure that the model that we adopted 10 years ago was one of understanding the audience that we serve and almost behaving like a research company, and believing that the community that you serve, the audience, subscriber, and the newsstand buyer, add them all up, were in the center of the business model. And everybody kind of said, “Isn’t that a nuance?” And I said no, it’s not a nuance.
Because everybody else was putting the magazine in the middle with all these ancillary products hanging off of it. I remember seeing a very senior executive at TIME Inc. put the magazine in the middle with all of these different, and he called them “arteries of revenue.” I had probably been here, maybe two years. So it was 2004 and I’m thinking, ‘That’s crazy!’
The magazine is a platform and the audience is who you should concentrate on. And we had done that; we had adopted that in 2002. The driving mission was bringing modern design to everyone, anywhere, anytime, anyplace and in any form. With that as your guiding principle, then you not only know how to serve the reader in print, but you understand how to serve them digitally, at events, and with research, because of that mission statement. And we sell homes; I mean we have ten platforms.
Another reason that I believe we weathered everything others didn’t, was because I knew enough, again from my technology media background, to sustain the audience that we served that was affluent, was 50/50 male-female, 40% trade, 60% consumer, and that was unique. Everybody else in our category was largely 80% female, lower income, and very low trade.
So I thought in order to preserve that very thing that makes us unique, if we put the circulation to half a million or more, and everybody wanted me to, the advertisers in Detroit who said we’re not going to look at Dwell until you pass that 500,000 mark, and I said, “Well, we’re not going there.” I knew that 300,000 was my goal, and this was when we were at 150,000. We went to 325,000 and it was still a profitable circulation, it still maintained that composition I just spoke about.
And that is what fundamentally happened to the people who started those other businesses: the House & Garden, the Met Home, and the Dominos; they were so dependent on advertising; the model was to push circ as far and as fast as you could. Then when advertising fell apart, there was nothing to hold them up. Because they were losing so much money having circulation at those levels, that when advertising went down, the house of cards fell.
Thankfully, we kept the model, we’re still profitable there, the composition is still what I wanted it to be and it’s been a saving grace for so many reasons.
Samir Husni: I hear so much chatter about offers that have come your way, but it’s always, “No, thank you.” Are you happy being an independent blip on this big media company screen, or can you see yourself one day as part of a TIME Inc. or a Meredith Corporation?
Michela O’Connor Abrams: I can only see Dwell Media being a part of one of the very large, still traditional publishing houses. I don’t think anybody in that realm of that size has really turned themselves into a media company yet. They’re huge; they’re battleships. So they’re turning diligently and obviously very smart people run those companies, but you can only turn so far in so much time. I don’t see being a part of that until we would be convinced that they really understood the opportunity and that fundamentally they saw why focusing on communities of people and serving them on multiple platforms makes the most sense.
I would say Hearst is making the most progress and is the company that we see making the greatest strides there.
But honestly, I’ll tell you, people ask me this all the time; does it really make sense to continue this quest by yourself? Well, I don’t know. Here we are almost 12 years into our founding and we’ve continued to grow, we’ve certainly had to stay scrappy to do it, but at the same time, we’ve innovated faster than any of our colleagues. So, who knows? I wish had that crystal ball to tell you. We love partnerships and we do it often. I think that we would want to probably form some kind of joint venture and date before we married anybody.
Samir Husni: One of the secrets that I hear from people about the success of Dwell is a lot of interior designers refer to it as “pornography for interior design.” The magazine, from its very beginning, has been very visually appealing and visually driven. In this ever-changing business model; what do you see the role of print today, and no one knows the future, five or ten years down the road. But how is that visual appeal of the magazine, the paper you print on, the entire physical aspect; how are you using that cornerstone, as your director of communications called it, to expand the empire?
Michela O’Connor Abrams: The print vehicle – because we are a design brand, the paper we’re printed on, the quality of the photography, just everything about that experience is very tactile. And that helps to really spur the excitement and the growth on other platforms, because the magazine still sets expectations for the greater audience, not just the subscribers, but the newsstand buyer and the pass-along reader. There’s still this great fuel, if you will, at the print level expectation for people to experience this brand online, on the tablet and mobile at Dwell in Design. It still remains a really fundamental part of that experience.
This house-porn of which you speak, yes, we’ve been known by that for a long time. And what’s true is that the digital media and the technologies that enable the experience will clearly continue to get better, more refined, more portable, more extensible and more immersive. And as that happens, then of course the role of print continues to evolve. I don’t think it will devolve. I truly think it will evolve. Will it grow and go back to anytime like we knew in the late 90s or the mid-2000s: no, I don’t think so.
It’s important to note that the reason I don’t think so is not because technology hasn’t caught up, it’s because the rest of our model is so arcane and so broken; we have the post office being propped up by the government to the tune of, I don’t know, I’ve lost track – $15 billion now, we’ve excused? The newsstand economy is a joke. The wholesalers are going broke, the distributors are feeling held hostage by the wholesaler, the retailers are being marginalized and yet, they aren’t ever creating a good reading experience or place to buy a magazine. Our bookstores are going out of business, so all those things are conspiring to have a much harder impact than anything to do with the technology.
Samir Husni: In 2008, when the economy busted and technology burst, the traditional American magazine business model completely died. If someone came to you and asked what they should do today, in 2013, to have a sustainable business model, or if Dwell is the working example; could they start as a print entity like Dwell did and then expand, or would they have to start everywhere right from the beginning?
Michela O’Connor Abrams: I don’t think you have to start everywhere. And I do have people calling me all the time. I’m always, I don’t know, humored that people are dying to start a magazine. And my advice always starts with the question, “Well, do you really want to start a magazine? Or are you interested in creating a brand and an opportunity for an audience that you believe is somehow underserved in a particular area, an enthusiast category, a news category” – doubtful, but…
So I keep pushing people back to focus on the audience, not the platform. And the truth of the matter is you see digital pure plays starting magazines. And there’s no doubt in my mind Fab is now raising money at a billion dollar evaluation and all they do is sell stuff. Not curated, just stuff. They’re going to start a magazine. Net-A-Porter, brand new magazine. Guilt was about to start a magazine and I think they didn’t because they have other problems.
So you’re going to see a lot of print fueled by digital pure plays because the role that print can play, which is still going to be partnered with technology, is very important. We published an augmented-reality-infused, if you will, magazine, small, but with our partner AHAlife. You downloaded the app off the cover and you could shop everything. Not a QR-code, you literally just put your iPhone there and clicked buy.
So these kinds of embedded technologies that use print for a different purpose, and as I said, contextualize the experience, so content and the creation of it is still king, but the context of course is what creates the financial model, is alive and well.
So I say to people, if you know you’re dying to tell an audience something that you think they can’t get someplace else, and you’ve got the right brand to do it, then go ahead and make sure that you’ve got a web strategy with a complementary print component, and you should have some kind of events that if for anything, are good for press and market-makers.
You really do have to have a mission that is first, the name of the brand, what it is that brand is to do and it follows with anywhere, anytime, anyplace and in any form. To start a media brand in this day and age and not have that as your driving principal is frankly a death knell. It would be a mistake.
Samir Husni: Can you recreate the success of Dwell should you start a new publication today?
Michela O’Connor Abrams: Yes, I believe we could. I absolutely believe we could. Now, would we start just as a magazine and wait two or three years to do anything else? Absolutely not.
So it would be this concurrent strategy because I have a technology that I didn’t have 10 years ago. I’ve got a forum for events that we didn’t have in the way that we now produce Dwell in Design. I very much believe that there is a strategy that if I thought there was, again – a message, an area that was really underserved by anybody else, or maybe it was being served, but not very well, I would take it on.
I mean, think about it. There were 341 magazines in the home-design, broadly-speaking, shelter category when I started. So who needed another home magazine? Was modern enough of a differentiator to really make a big company that would be alive twelve years later? I would argue yes, but not without all of the other business principles in place because if we had followed a traditional publishing model and many times Laura would say to me, “Are you sure you’re not just happy being publisher of this magazine?” And I’d say I love the magazine, I’m a print person. But it isn’t about what I’m satisfied with, it’s what the opportunity is that we have with this brand and we will be successful if we follow this and focus. And we did.
Whereas, as I say, Domino, House & Garden, Met Home and the whole list didn’t have a chance because of the model. And Domino is the best example of one that was totally a mistake on the part of Condè Nast to close it. That was just ridiculous. They had a voice online, they had a rabid community of fans and followers, they had a chance to be doing commerce, and they had a great chance to do events. But they blew it up because it didn’t match the old model of pump up the circ to 900,000 and lose money there in order to get a $40,000-$70,000 ad page.
Samir Husni: What keeps you up at night?
Michela O’Connor Abrams: Wow, just one thing? It’s a very good question and I should be able to answer it so easily, but honestly I feel so good about where we are in the industry and how we are executing. And that doesn’t mean I think we’re doing everything perfectly, or have all the answers at all. But we’ve been so diligent in following this model of focusing on the community that we serve that we’ve got a model that is resilient, that I won’t say is economy-proof, but we’ve proven during some downturns that we can make it through. And now with the hiring of the gentleman from Yahoo, we complete a phenomenal executive team that I am so privileged to work with, and it’s so exciting.
I guess I would have to say the answer to the question is that the market rewards digital pure plays with no business model and no profitability in any future time, just as they did in the dot com boom and we saw what kind of disaster that was. We’ve created artificial markets and artificial, kind of irrational exuberance that I fear is another bubble. Now, the silver lining may be that we’re certainly not there and that is not who we are and we will prove that being rooted in real assets with real IP and value will win out. But, also making sure that innovation is constantly at the root of everything that we do.
Samir Husni: Do you consider print as the real IP address or is it the events, the shows, the people? You said you have a real IP address; are you saying that digital is not real, or it’s not felt? So far no one is making money on digital.
Michela O’Connor Abrams: I’m saying that the real IP is the audience and the content, but the opportunity, of course, is the context on all these platforms. And if you look at the digital pure plays, what are they trying to do? They’re trying to engage an audience with content. And hiring editors and syndicating content and buying content so that they will remain an engaging brand and build their own communities.
And up until now the unbelievable and truly inexplicable, in my mind, behavior on the part of the largest publishing companies has been to just freely license and syndicate content without thinking about the brand that they have that is relevant on these other platforms. Go figure.
Hearst spent $458 million on iCrossing, which is in our building, right below us, and hasn’t executed their own commerce strategy. The common sense part would be if we could understand that millions of people still love to read and we have cleansed the retail experience of any meaningful, engaging reading place, except the rare exception of your local coffee house. The bookstores are beleaguered; wholesalers take a pound out of your skin every time you turn around and they want you to pay them more just to put your magazine front or forward. It’s a joke, an absolute joke.
I keep thinking if there was a separate delivery system where you bypass the post office, put a separate magazine box outside a house, start a great franchise chain of great reading places, we would fix a whole lot of problems.
Samir Husni: Thank you.