There is Nothing Lean about the Food Network Magazine Sans Its Team. Mr. Magazine’s™ Delectable Conversation with Vicki Wellington, Publisher, Food Network Magazine.October 22, 2013
Before there was Dr. Oz, The Good Life and HGTV magazine, there was the Food Network Magazine… It is not the first magazine born from the womb of a television network, but it is the first such successful magazine, if not THE most successful magazine launch in the last five years. Born in the midst of one of the worst economic times; the magazine has increased its rate base 11 times so far and is not showing any signs of a slowdown.
The woman behind the magazine is Vicki Wellington, vice president, publisher and chief revenue officer of the Food Network Magazine. Ms. Wellington was my guest at the CPR for Magazine Media held in New York City last month.
Who says you can’t publish a successful print magazine in this digital age? Certainly not Mr. Magazine™ and even more certainly not Vicki Wellington!
And for your savory enjoyment, here are the sound bites and highlights from her conversation with me and the audience at the CPR for Magazine Media conference in New York City on Sept. 25:
On why print is still relevant today:
How many times have you heard that traditional media is dead? Television, magazines, radio, you name it. They are still here and they are relevant to consumers. It’s that content that keeps each media platform relevant and for those of us in magazines, our challenge moving forward is looking for and finding the big ideas, the new and exciting ideas that consumers are looking for.
There’s never ever a bad idea to launch a good idea. In the last decade, we’ve seen the successful launches of magazines that stimulated old categories and created new ones. Oprah, Lucky — in its heyday was a big new idea — Real Simple, HGTV, which launched only a year ago; they’re following in our footsteps. They’re doing very well and they’re making money and Food Network of course.
Then there are the recently announced Dr. Oz magazine (Dr. Oz The Good Life magazine), which will have a different name but a similar kind of format. It’s really all about hitting the sweet spot of a consumer’s imagination.
Food Network Magazine is an example of how a great idea can and will succeed if the content is right regardless of television, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Vine. Real magazines and I mean the print versions, not the digital, will be launched well into the future and it can make money, which I know is very important.
On the power of the Food Network stars:
We had just witnessed the collapse of major financial institutions. The economy was in a tailspin. Social media was all the rage. The perfect storm? Not exactly. It was more like the stars were aligned. And by stars, I mean of course, Bobby Flay, Ina Garten, Giada De Laurentiis — the Food Network stars.
Considering the power of the Food Network brand, along with the loyalty of their viewers and the growing pop of celebrity chefs we knew we were onto something. But when we attended the Food Network South Beach Food and Wine Festival in early 2009, that’s when it really hit me. Everybody was getting fired from their jobs, the banks were going bankrupt, and I go to South Beach and literally thousands of people are paying hundreds of dollars to get into these events. And I worked at Rolling Stone years ago, so I knew what it was like to see fans with the Mick Jaggers of the world, but this was crazy.
People were just dying to get close to the Guys. They were dying to get close to Alton — just to get an autograph, to get a picture. What was different is people feel like they know them. They’ve been in their kitchen. They know what they’re like. And you know what, they do. And you think of like a Brad Pitt or a Jennifer Aniston and you don’t really know what they’re like really. You know them as their characters in movies. But these people, you do know. I mean, Guy, I can tell you some funny stories about him. He’s really like that. And that’s nice and that’s comfortable and happy for people.
On Food Network as a pop culture obsession and food becoming part of pop culture:
Food Network had become a pop culture obsession and pop culture had become all about food. And celebrity chefs had really branched out, bringing attention to food in new places. And so really Food Network elevated food to a pop culture sensation.
I always say food is the new black. So what’s always surprising to me is that no matter who you are, if you’re old or young or if you don’t even cook, they all love this brand and they love this magazine.
On the beginnings of Food Network Magazine:
Our editors had a funny challenge — how do you translate this brand and make it all work? And the funny thing is, and I won’t get into it, our editor had created a magazine and he went to focus groups and they ripped it apart. It wasn’t even named Food Network Magazine. It was named Spoon brought to you by Food Network. So women in the group said we’re going to call it Food Network Magazine, so why don’t you call it that? And we were like that’s a good idea. They said they wanted cooking for weekdays, cooking for weeknights. It was all different, different cuisines, different personalities.
On early worries about whether or not Food Network Magazine would succeed:
The first thing was, of course, the cover. We talked about that. You know, no one knew what that was going to sell. In fact, food magazines do not sell well on newsstands.
And we put this out and again the banks had closed, everyone was a nervous wreck and I thought, am I crazy to have taken this job? And the people at Food Network said, we know this audience, trust me they’re going to buy this magazine. And they did.
And once we did that, once we saw those numbers we knew we had a compelling proposition for consumers. And that was the point. This wasn’t created for an advertising base, it was created because there were consumers who wanted it. And that’s why we’re making money.
On the importance of making the food look aesthetically pleasing in the magazine:
How did we stand out? First thing is, to make the food look real and tasty. It sounds crazy but a lot of food magazines don’t use real food and you can tell and you see this.
And the other challenge was, and I hear this a lot, is that a lot of advertisers change the way that they even shoot food. Look how beautiful it can look. I mean it’s beautifully photographed and beautifully designed. It’s a very clean, simple background. I think we made a lot of people change the way they do things. So that is just a feel for that. We do top-50 booklets. Again, beautiful, real food and it’s fun.
On the success of Food Network Magazine:
We had the highest direct mail response to an issue in all of our company’s history. 10,000 subscriptions sold in 6 hours. That is unbelievable. And we’ve sold about 1500 subscription orders a day on Foodnetwork.com.
Now those numbers have changed of course because we’ve been around 5 years. But they’re still very strong. Right now our magazine is the 2nd largest monthly on newsstands. Think how large that is. Cosmo is the largest, which our company owns and then you’ve got Food Network Magazine. We are No.1 on newsstands within the Epicureans set selling more than all the other food magazines combined.
We had 11 rate base increases since launch and we’re going up again as you can see in 2014 and I’m sure we will in 2015. And I will say right now you can see we are at 1.55 million, we will deliver 1.8 million in our November/December issue. So it’s big.
On Food Network Magazine’s diversity when it comes to advertising:
We’ve got a very large breadth of advertising. We have lots of categories. 54 percent of our business is from non-food advertisers. And again, we basically just play off the consumers and how obsessed they are and of course the power of the brand overall and the entertainment place.
On the magazine’s digital replica and differences in audience between print and digital:
Digital, I’m sure you’ve probably talked about while you’ve been in here. We do have a digital replica; it’s the exact same thing as the magazine, and we are right now the third largest selling digital magazine and soon really to be second largest.
And you can see those numbers are big, we’re on a number of platforms, and you know it’s a different experience. And from what I understand from the data, it’s a different reader, so we’re not losing readers, we’re gaining other readers, and they’re enjoying it in a different way, which is nice.
On the pricing of the digital version of Food Network Magazine:
Same rate. You pay for everything. Nothing’s free … And the way David Carey (president Hearst Magazines) describes it is if you go to a movie and you like the movie and you want to have the DVD, you don’t get that free, you have to pay for that. It’s the same amount.
On a case study of an integrated marketing campaign that Food Network did with Lexus:
I won’t talk but a minute about this, but just one quick case study. Lexus, obviously everybody’s familiar with — it’s a fairly upscale automotive vehicle. They were one of the sponsors of Robert Irvine and Restaurant Impossible: Holiday Impossible.
And so what we did is we basically all-integrated. There was a whole in-book piece, we actually ran 16 pages, so a number of very creative units. They were roll units, they were shutter units — just ways to sort of be impactful in the magazine and of course on air there were a number of vignettes and Lexus was the car he drove and online they did a number of pre-roll and post-rolls and a lot of interviews with their culinary talent but everything pushed back.
So every medium basically played off their best attributes, which is the point. And what I will show you just quickly, and I won’t read it, believe me, but we did follow-up research — did it work or did it not?
And what I will show you, down at the bottom is the sum of the parts is really greater than the whole. And we just met with the Lexus client in fact this week at our favorite restaurant and we are doing something with them moving forward. So I think that is a big piece of our success.
On the magazine’s readership:
Well, we’re quite a bit younger than anybody else. We’re like 40. And typically, in this category, people are a bit older. I will be honest — we’re a very big mass brand. So our household income is not as high as some of them, but we’re not as old as them so that makes it lower. I will say we’ve got different pieces so if you look at our digital version, that’s a bit younger. If you look at our database, which we keep in-house and that’s subscribers that are a bit younger. The age is young and that’s nice.
On the magazine’s male readership:
We have a lot of male readers. What our editor would say is that she edits not for male or female. She’s got sort of a neutral kind of position.
That being said, we’ve got 3 million male readers. That’s more than Esquire and that’s more than The Wall Street Journal. So it’s impressive.
We also produced this year sort of a men’s only editorial section. It wasn’t to say that the whole magazine would be read by men, but it was a little more focused.
What I find is that younger men love cooking and we noticed this. Younger men love to cook and a lot of times they’re the ones who are cooking and now a lot of grocery stores are set up by men. And I can tell you that men don’t always buy magazines so it’s a nice position to have.
On Food Network Magazine’s “hidden demographics:”
We have a lot of hidden treats. We do a whole “cooking with your kids” so that’s really focused on mothers and fathers — how to cook with your kids and get them involved in the kitchen and that’s kind of a whole different demographic.
We’ve got a travel edition that we do. And that is again traveling, you’re thinking about where you want to eat, so again it’s the beauty of this large sort of mass brand that we can easily cut and deliver in all these ways.
More on the magazine’s diversity of advertisers:
With our business plan I always saw this as a diverse opportunity. My first schedule that I broke was Clinique, which if you know Clinique, it’s a mass prestige beauty advertiser. And it came into issue. Now why did they? Because they got it. They saw the power of what this magazine could bring. Another thing; they are still not on air or online. But they loved the translation of this magazine. So, interestingly that was our first.
And again if you look, we’ve got Lexus, we’ve got Mercedes, and we have a lot of food too. But again, I feel like this is how everyone lives now. You shouldn’t be so compartmental in your thinking because that’s not how life is. And when you look at the consumer and you look at the obsession, to me it’s about whether this consumer is going in and buying Clinique or buying a Mercedes or a Lexus or whatever. And the answer is yes and that’s why they should be here.
On Food Network Magazine’s lean team:
I will also say that we’re a very lean team. From the beginning we were structured very differently than traditional magazines. We do not have a lot of people. And at first, I came from Condé Nast, I thought, “Oh my God, how are we going to do this?” And here’s the thing — We do it and it’s remarkable to me. If you hire the right people and you’re just smart about who does what and who you hire, it’s done and we don’t miss much.
On advice for those looking to start a magazine:
I’m a magazine believer. I have everything digital, but I love touching and feeling a magazine. I think you have to launch it for a real reason. With the research that we did, we knew that they wanted it and we knew that they would pay for it.
I think you just have to do your research and your homework and know that you’re bringing something that’s a different point and something that doesn’t exist and I know that’s hard. I think that’s the reason for the success.