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InStyle Stays In Touch with its Audience and Proves that Knowing Your Brand and Why It Should Exist is Not Only Important; It’s An Absolute. Mr. Magazine’s™ Interview with InStyle Editor, Ariel Foxman.

March 3, 2014

“If you don’t know why your brand needs to exist and how it exists in all those other arenas, whether it’s on social media feeds or digitally or on mobile; if you don’t know your voice and how you’re different than everybody else, you’re really screwed.” Ariel Foxman

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Fashion and style, with a sense of mystique and fantasy; InStyle Magazine remains a compelling leader in the category today. Editor, Ariel Foxman believes the brand says it all and that giving your customers what they want, when they want it and via the relevant platform secures their top spot among the elite. As a magazine connoisseur, Foxman follows his competition set closely, especially new launches.

“If it’s in print and it’s in our world, I definitely want to look at it,” Foxman said.

From experimenting with covers and colors – the daring move of using the no-no of green and making it work, to testing shiny versus matte; InStyle spins the chamber of the magazine, hoping for a bullet that hits and resonates with its audience. And proving that taking chances pays off when you know your audience and your brand intimately.

Ariel took time between his trips to Milan and Paris to talk with me about the magazine, the future, and the reasons behind InStyle’s success. What follows is a conversation between one self-proclaimed magazine junkie to another:

But first – the sound-bites.

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Ariel Foxman’s Sound-bites:

On the importance of a magazine’s point of view…

I think the inherent challenge of any editor or anybody who is creating content for an audience that’s hungry for news or hungry for service is to make sure your point of view is really differentiated.

On the fashion and style world…
Fashion and the world of style have to have an element of mystique and fantasy in it to remain compelling. In order to draw people in, the world of fashion has to be mysterious, it has to have allure, a sex appeal and it has to have an element of what’s around the corner.

On keeping tabs on the other fashion/style magazines in Instyle’s competitive set…

You know, it would be disingenuous for me to say that I don’t look at everything that’s in the category at large because not only am I an editor but I’m also a magazine junkie like yourself. If something is in print and it’s in our world, then I definitely want to look at it.

On the assumption that green on a cover is a no-no on newsstands…
Magazines start to blend into each other after a while. And green really was striking because no one does green.

On the importance of a magazine brand being unique…
If you don’t know why your brand is unique in your field, what it has to say about your category and how it says it, you’re having a very hard time right now.

On native advertising being a new term for an old practice…

I’m happy that there are conversations now about native advertising and that everybody in the room and then some now has a word for this sort of thing because it’s not a new idea. Sponsored content is not a new idea, it’s a very old idea and it’s existed in every media including print.

On whether a new venture should start in print versus other platforms…

Once you know that audience exists you can answer the question then; where is that audience primarily looking for the content? If it’s digital start there, if it’s print start there.

On what keeps Ariel Foxman up at night…

What keeps me up at night? From the magazine it really has to do with our readers. I really want to make sure that our magazine stays fun and fresh.

And now Mr. Magazine’s™ lightly edited conversation with the Editor of InStyle Magazine, Ariel Foxman.

Samir Husni: This is the largest March issue of InStyle and in September you had the largest September issue — this has been going on and on. Do you think we have a problem in print, in general with ink on paper or do we have a problem in content?

Ariel Foxman: When you say that we’re experiencing our newest issues and it’s going on and on and on, I don’t see a problem with that. I think that my challenge as an editor is always to make sure that we are remaining relevant and useful and entertaining in an environment that is getting more and more fragmented and louder and louder.

I think the inherent challenge of any editor or anybody who is creating content for an audience that’s hungry for news or hungry for service is to make sure your point of view is really differentiated so that with everything that’s being served to you whether it’s for a fee or free is very clearly differentiated and I know InStyle is enjoying the success that it’s enjoying because InStyle’s point of view is incredibly clear.

It’s equal parts inspiring and informative, so if you like style and you want that to be a part of your everyday experience, you know that InStyle, whether it’s digital or print, is going to give you that experience, where you’re taken to a fantasy place but at the same time you’re able to experience that piece of the world of style in reality.

SH: So in this world of inspiration and aspiration and mixing service and fantasy; do you think this is the secret recipe for the success of InStyle?

AF: You know I don’t think there is one secret to our success, but I think it’s a very big piece of why we resonate with millions and millions of women.

Fashion and the world of style have to have an element of mystique and fantasy in it to remain compelling. In order to draw people in, the world of fashion has to be mysterious, it has to have allure, sex appeal and it has to have an element of what’s around the corner. And that’s not true of every industry, so inherently there’s this tension in fashion and style that to draw people in and make it compelling — there’s mystery.

But along with mystery comes confusion, there comes the potential for alienation so InStyle is able to take that magnetism that is inherent in the mystique of style and turn that inside out and take you to the next level. So is it a secret ingredient? I don’t know, but it’s what we do best. We inspire you but we don’t just then drop you off a cliff.

It’s very easy to inspire people with gorgeous images — it’s very easy to show people a gorgeous dress on a beautiful woman — people have been doing that for hundreds of thousands of years. What’s not easy is to inspire somebody and then explain to them — knowing what their life is all about — that they can do something like that that makes sense for their everyday. That is what we do and I think that’s one of the secrets to our success.

SH: So, that’s one major issue that differentiates InStyle from the rest of the crowd in this category. However, in this category it looks like there are more newcomers coming. I’m sure you saw the media reports, that Porter is now a threat to Vogue, and all these media pundits are suddenly issuing their usual predictions of doom and gloom. It went against the trend that print is dead almost with no exception; yet all these magazines are growing in print and expanding their brand. What do you think about newcomers like Porter or Editorialist — are they enhancing the category, are they making your job harder or are you just going on doing your own thing with blinders on?

AF: You know, it would be disingenuous for me to say that I don’t look at everything that’s in the category at large because not only am I an editor but I’m also a magazine junkie like yourself. If something is in print and in it’s in our world, then I definitely want to look at it. To say I don’t look at anything would be just an out and out lie.

So I’m looking at everything not only as an editor but also as a consumer — a consumer of style news and a consumer of style period. I think you blur the lines when you broaden the category of our set to include everything that looks like a magazine to be a magazine.

But to answer your question about blinders, InStyle is a very unique proposition and I’m very focused on making sure that InStyle remains differentiated and deliver to our readers and our users what they love about InStyle the best. Do I look at the competition? Of course. Do I try to do an InStyle version of the competition? Absolutely not. Nobody wants that, nobody needs that and quite frankly we’re in the No. 1 position so it’s my job to make sure that we only grow our market share, it’s not my job to make sure we do a little bit of this and a little bit of that.

And I also think the sort of competition that a lot of the articles are about in our competition set is really media writing about the set in a way that isn’t even necessarily what’s happening. I think the set is a lot more supportive than is really even reported.

InStyle November 2013 Cover (2)unknownSH: Lately, I’ve noticed that you’ve been doing a lot of testing with the covers. I see one place where InStyle is in red, and I see once place where it’s in silver. What’s the idea? What are you trying to achieve by manipulating the colors on the cover?

AF: We’ve been doing a lot of market testing for years now. We’re celebrating our 20th anniversary and over that time, Time Inc. has afforded InStyle the opportunity to pre-test covers and that’s always happened and we’ve had a history of that which is wonderful.

It doesn’t select the cover ultimately, but it definitely helps us fine-tune cover lines and maybe one iteration of an image over another. In terms of live market testing, it’s really interesting for us to be able to test our own conventional wisdom about certain things.

For instance, when you’re talking silver over red, that is a very specific situation where we had an idea in our head that foil on a cover may or may not attract more readers to newsstands. Conventional wisdom would argue that if it’s shiny more people will notice and more people will buy it, right? But you really don’t know that until you put it out in the market with a non-shiny alternative. So that’s why you see it in some markets with shiny covers and some markets not. And you have to do it a few times before you can really say that that was statistically significant. That’s what you’re seeing.

Another interesting live market test that we just did has to do with the conventional wisdom amongst editors that green covers do not sell. Don’t put somebody in a green dress, don’t put green type on. Like people have an aversion to green on the newsstands.

Well, we shot Taylor Swift in November 2013 in this gorgeous green Burberry sweater and skirt and we shot her in a bunch of other things, the film came back, and I was like “that’s the outfit, that’s the image.” And rather than fighting it and trying to balance the green, we designed a cover, our creative director created this gorgeous very holistic green, all green cover and we thought to ourselves “Wow we’re really crazy.” Not only are we having green on the cover, we’re going full-throttle.

And we loved the cover and we all responded to it, and I said, “Look, how can so many of us be wrong? Somebody else is going to respond to this on the newsstand.” And I thought this is a great opportunity to test this conventional wisdom. Let’s put the majority on the newsstand all green and then let’s put a small sample of it out on the newsstand live market with the green outfit and do a crimson InStyle logo and the reality is the issue was up eight percent year over year and the green cover overall was up eight percent year over year.

So it performed really well, people did love green. And when you look at the green versus the crimson cover, the green outperformed the crimson. So it’s less about throwing things out there to see what will stick or uncertainty and more about using the live market to test hunches that we’ve grown accustomed to having and saying, “Why do you think that and is it even true?”

SH: It stopped me on my tracks when I saw the green cover with the green logo.

AF: Magazines start to blend into each other after a while. And green really was striking because no one does green. But when I came on board six years ago, one of the covers that I had worked on was an April issue with Renee Zellweger in a bright, bright green ball gown and I remember everyone saying we might as well not even deliver these copies to the newsstands, not because Renee Zellweger is not appealing, but because it’s this big green dress. It sold so many copies.

So if green is done great or at the right moment in time depending on what’s on the newsstands in comparison, green can do really well.

SH: It’s time for me to change my lecture on design when I tell the students never ever use green on your cover.

AF: Well, we’re the outlier.

SH: How did your job change over those six years. We’ve seen a massive change in the magazine industry, in the magazine media industry — how did the job of the editor change to become the chief content officer with everything else that surrounds that job?

AF: Things changed immensely. If you don’t know why your brand is unique in your field, what it has to say about your category and how it says it, you’re having a very hard time right now.

It was one thing to be able to put out a magazine, if you had skills just to be able to put out a print publication — which is no small task — your skills were really just about creating and picking beautiful images and flow of magazine, all still things I have to do, but if you weren’t really sure of this is what we say and how we say it and why we say it and why do we all that differently, now with the explosion of all the different platforms, if you didn’t know all those things, you don’t know why your brand needs to exist and how it exists in all those other arenas, whether it’s on social media feeds or digitally or on mobile; if you don’t know your voice and how you’re different than everybody else, you’re really screwed.

A good chunk of my job, and it wasn’t the case three or four years ago, is making sure our brand maintains those values and shows up in those places and delivers the content in that voice to the women who want that brand experience either in addition to print or outside of print. And that is the challenge. So you love what InStyle delivers, how we are delivering it to you wherever and whenever you want.
The second change is the brand is a business, it’s not a magazine. The magazine is a very big piece of our business — like 616 pages, our largest ever — but the growth is not only coming from year over year growth in print, it’s coming from additional revenue streams. Now the magazine always had extensions, we’ve always had special issues, we’ve always had foreign publications, we had TV shows, all that. But now the expectations of the editor are what else are you putting out there for a consumer?

So just last year we launched a shoe line, a collaboration with Nine West. We launched a shirt collection. This year we’re looking to grow both of those. We’re looking at a way to evolve our subscription offerings. We’re re-launching our website with a completely fresh design that will allow us to produce additional content with more native opportunities.

So it’s really about putting on that hat where you’re thinking OK, yes the business has to have multiple spokes which honestly, that should have been the job of the editor many years ago. If you weren’t planting the seeds ultimately you would have hit a wall in terms of growth. There’s only so many ads that any brand can carry without diversification. If a brand doesn’t show diversification in other places, it really doesn’t show vibrancy. Without vibrancy you’re not going to attract more ads, it’s very cyclical.

SH: You mentioned briefly native advertising. As a journalist, as a chief content officer, do you think there’s more pressure on editors now from the business side to incorporate native advertising, to do something with advertising or are you still safeguarding the print and putting native advertising on the web? What’s your philosophy?

AF: I don’t think there’s more pressure, I feel like the pressure is the same. There’s always pressure to make money, which I think is a very healthy pressure.

The delineation is very clear; who is selling and who is creating. I think that everybody including the sales team has a very strong respect for the consumer without whom there is no business. If there isn’t a consumer who respects the product and comes back repeatedly for the product you have no business, you have no client that is attracted to any product. Everybody has a very clear and articulated respect for that.

So I think we’re very, very good about that. I think any pressure you have to make money; the foundation is based on a respect for the consumer. I’m happy that there are conversations now about native advertising and that everybody in the room and then some now has a word for this sort of thing because it’s not a new idea.

Sponsored content is not a new idea, it’s a very old idea and it’s existed in every media including print. Advertorial, content solutions, every big publishing company has had a content solutions department for years, you’ve seen native advertising for decades. You ask, and I know you ask this knowing the answer, is it just digital only?

We’ve had advertorial in print for many, many, many years and I’m happy to run advertorial. Why? Because they’re well executed, they fit firmly in the book, they bring revenue, and most importantly they’re clearly marked. Promotion, sponsored advertising, whatever it is. And native advertising, digitally, will also be clearly marked. And you know what? Sometimes they have really good content. Sometimes now that they’re brought into the light, there will be an opportunity for more attention, not to the sacrifice of editorial attention, but more attention can be brought to them to up the quality of these enterprises. I think that serves the consumer and the client as well. I think talking about it only helps. And you know backroom conversations about do we think the consumer will know the difference is not helpful, the more people talking about it the better.

SH: What advice would you give someone who came to you today and said, “I have this great idea! Can I start in print or do I have to be on all the platforms from the very beginning?” I see all these digital companies are coming to print. What would you tell the person?

AF: I would never tell anyone who had a good idea that they were crazy. First I would ask them what is the reason that your voice needs to exist? If the person could clearly define what is the differentiated voice in that category then it’s not only a good idea, it’s an idea that needs to exist.

So if that idea needs to exist that means there’s a disenfranchised audience somewhere. There’s an audience that’s hungry for that voice in that category sphere. Once you know that that audience exists you can answer the question then; where is that audience primarily looking for the content?

If it’s digital start there, if it’s print start there. If they’re looking for a certain type of execution in different spheres, figure out where is going to be the easiest to launch. I think you have to decide also where the client base is. But meet your audience where he or she is going to be. It’s much easier than creating something and moving people to a place.

Find a need, create a voice, and meet them where they are. But people are launching things all the time and the only reason why they do is they see a need, a disenfranchised audience and they know a way to reach them. I’m always happily surprised when you see a digital enterprise decide you know what it would be nice to create a quarterly magazine based on the aesthetic, the voice, the audience that we’ve created primarily.

SH: Here’s the question, you are at home, sitting on your favorite chair or lounge with a glass of wine in your hand reading a magazine. Forget about InStyle; what other magazine would that be?

AF: What would that magazine be? That’s a good question. It’s either New York Magazine or Departures.

SH: My last question to you… What keeps Ariel up at night?

AF: What keeps me up at night? From the magazine it really has to do with our readers. I really want to make sure that our magazine stays fun and fresh. The biggest concern I have about the magazine is when do we retire something that I know is very popular in the magazine or online and introduce something new that I think they would really get a kick out of. That’s the type of thing I’m always kind of struggling with.

SH: Thank you.
© Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni, 2014.

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