A Different Kind of Storytelling: Dan Brewster’s New Adventure From Magazine Publishing to DARA’s World of Ecommerce, Global Artisans and Digital Dreams. The Mr. Magazine™ InterviewSeptember 9, 2014
“The business model for what we’re doing is not entirely dissimilar from the magazine business model except we’re doing ecommerce instead of selling advertising. Customer acquisition, customer conversion rate and average order value are going to be the three critical leverage points on the revenue side.” Dan Brewster
With a background steeped in magazines and magazine publishing, Dan Brewster is certainly no stranger to storytelling and content. Having been the president-CEO of Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing and publishing president of American Express Publishing Corporation, the man knows a thing or two about what it takes to put out a product and make it work.
His newest venture, a website called DARA Artisans, dedicated to sharing the handmade work of incredible craftspeople worldwide, is beautifully done and connects artisans with a global marketplace where their work can be appreciated and sold throughout the world. The website’s name comes from his lovely wife, Dara, co-founder of the site, and coincidentally translates globally into many different words that reflect the project’s deeper mission: preserving ancestral designs and crafts that can enrich today’s world as well as mirror generations of art before they’re lost to time.
I recently spoke with Dan about this artfully done and very well-received website and about his thoughts and opinions on the magazine media world in general. The conversation was rich with thoughtful insights and lighthearted banter.
So, sit back and enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Dan Brewster and be prepared to be enlightened and entertained.
But first the sound-bites…
On switching from one type of storytelling in the magazine world to the art of DARA: I decided to embark on a new course when the light bulb went off in my head and it was something that combined my passion for storytelling, travel and for wonderfully handmade goods from around the world. That was the evolution.
On where the name came from: DARA is coincidentally my wife’s name. And we did retain a branding agency to develop alternatives and they said we can’t come up with a better name.
On whether DARA will ever morph into a print product: It’s a possibility. We’re certainly going to look at multi-platforms, which I think is probably the future for most brands.
On his major stumbling block with the new venture: Customer acquisition, customer conversion rate and average order value are going to be the three critical leverage points on the revenue side.
On how he plans to overcome that stumbling block: We’ve taken pages out of many case studies. We began developing our social media platform several months ago. We now have unique visitors from over 100 countries.
On whether the timing of the website’s launch was good or bad: You know, I really don’t make judgments according to timing, never have. Certainly the investment philosophy of our business helped.
On how he would grade the magazine industry as a whole today: Well, I don’t know how to grade it. I think that the magazine model for the future is going to have to be multi-platform.
On where he sees DARA three years from now: Three years from now; I can send you the executive summary of our business plan, but I see us actively involved with 500 or more artisans from around the world.
On what keeps him up at night: Well, I did anticipate that you might ask that. (Laughs) What keeps me up at night is my obligation to the constituencies that I serve.
And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Dan Brewster, Founder, DARA Artisans…
Samir Husni: Tell me a little bit about this move from one type of storytelling and publishing to another type.
Dan Brewster: Certainly the essence of what I’ve done most of my business life is storytelling. And after I left the magazine publishing business I ran a small privately-held investment firm that I had started a number of years earlier. And I just got less and less interested in that business. Even though several people had come to me, including private equity firms with the opportunity to reenter the publishing business, the change was so imminent and the future so unclear that I didn’t want to take that step.
I remember having a long conversation with Rob Garrett, who ran an investment firm, and he asked me to try and peer into the future of media and I said, Rob, it’s going to be the intersection of data and content. And how that’s going to manifest itself exactly, I don’t know. But I wrote a paper about it back in 2003. And we had done data regression modeling at American Express going back to 1993.
So, I decided to embark on a new course when the light bulb went off in my head and it was something that combined my passion for storytelling, travel and for wonderfully handmade goods from around the world. That was the evolution.
Samir Husni: And where did the name DARA come from?
Dan Brewster: Well, DARA is coincidentally my wife’s name. And we did retain a branding agency to develop alternatives and they said we can’t come up with a better name because interestingly DARA translates into Khmer, Gaelic, Arabic, Hebrew and a number of other languages and typically means strength, hope, wisdom, integrity; all the things that we wanted to express in this adventure.
Samir Husni: Although it may seem quite a departure from publishing and magazines, looking at the website and the ideas and stories on it, somehow it feels as though you’re flipping through the pages of an actual magazine. Are we going to see a Dara in print?
Dan Brewster: It’s a possibility. We’re certainly going to look at multi-platforms, which I think is probably the future for most brands. And we began this with the intention of creating a magazine-like feel, combined with ecommerce. And that was very deliberate. In fact, our graphic designer, who had worked with me at American Express and Travel+Leisure back in the 90s, had run a studio in Venice for 11 years. I called her and five days later she was here and she hasn’t missed a day of work since. And that’s been over a year ago. We really wanted to create that sensibility, the mix of content, commerce and community.
Samir Husni: And what do you think is going to be your major stumbling block?
Dan Brewster: The business model for what we’re doing is not entirely dissimilar from the magazine business model except we’re doing ecommerce instead of selling advertising. Customer acquisition, customer conversion rate and average order value are going to be the three critical leverage points on the revenue side.
Samir Husni: How do you plan to overcome that?
Dan Brewster: We’ve taken pages out of many case studies. We began developing our social media platform several months ago. We now have unique visitors from over 100 countries. We have a dedicated staff sending our messages out through email newsletters, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest and we have also talked to Carolyn Everson, who is the chief revenue officer at Facebook about using their analytics, as well as Google analytics, to find look-a-likes and as soon as we have a sufficient customer base we will have our own in-house regression modeling capabilities.
Samir Husni: Let me shift gears just a little bit; I looked at the website and its offerings and what really grabbed my attention is your picture with your wife in front of the Aleppo Castle. And your story, what you wrote about it; it was right before the so called Arab spring. As our global village becomes closer and closer, instead of hearing good news, we’re hearing more and more bad news. So do you think it’s the best of times or the worst of times to launch DARA? (Picture above: Dara and Dan Brewster in Aleppo with Adam (left), a Syrian artisan, before the war broke out. Reposted with permission from DARA’s website).
Dan Brewster: You know, I really don’t make judgments according to timing, never have. Certainly the investment philosophy of our business helped. We never attempted to time the markets; it’s an unusually perilous exercise. (Laughs) It’s something that no one can forecast. Fortune Magazine I believe was launched shortly after The Depression, if not during. Very, very difficult to make any judgments on that basis, certainly it’s the best of times in terms of technology evolving.
Samir Husni: I know you mentioned that you don’t want to get involved in the publishing industry again, but will we ever see Dan Brewster back in magazine media ventures?
Dan Brewster: What I was trying to say earlier is that at the time when I left Gruner+Jahr, I didn’t want to run another strictly publishing business. But do I believe that Dara can migrate into various print vehicles, a magazine being one option? Probably, with controlled circulation and a catalog would be another option.
Samir Husni: As an outsider now with all the experience, having been there and done that; if someone asked you to give a report card on the magazine media today, what grade would we get? A, B, C, D or is it an F?
Dan Brewster: Well, I don’t know how to grade it. When I was chair of the MPA in the 90s, I remember giving a speech saying that we’ve seen fairly steady quarterly profit growth at every major magazine publisher for about a decade now and what we’re overlooking is that growth has come from increased advertising revenue and spending. But if you look at the consumer economics, they have loaded over that period of time. The cost of acquiring a subscriber has gone up even though our ability to identify prospects has improved. And we’re at an artificially low price point for our revenues to drive advertising volume, and newsstand is dissipating. This is going to become a problem the moment we hit an advertising recession, we’re going to get caught in a whipsaw where the consumer economics are going to rapidly erode and the advertising revenue will follow. And that has certainly turned out to be the case.
So, I think that the pure magazine publishing model with very few exceptions, highly-targeted special interest magazines, controlled circulation luxury magazines and some other exceptions, enthusiast publications is certainly an exception; I think that the magazine model for the future is going to have to be multi-platform.
Samir Husni: If you look at the speeches and the talks from the 90s, everybody was forecasting something similar to what happened in 2008, once the economy collapsed everyone was saying that we need to be more consumer-centric. Do you think it happened or do you see that the magazine publishing model in the United States is still not consumer-centric, but rather advertising-centric today in 2014?
Dan Brewster: Well, if I go back to the early 80s I recall an editor at TIME magazine saying, we don’t edit the magazine for what people want to know, we edit the magazine for what they should know. And TIME magazine’s profits went steadily down. (Laughs) I think that we need to be much more responsive to consumer needs and tastes. The 80s and early 90s philosophy of cramming circulation down people’s throats in order to collect advertising revenue is obviously not a model that’s going to continue working.
And by consumer-sensitive, I think that one of the things that the technology age has given us is the adaptability to identify customer prospects much better than before and to deliver to them much more precisely exactly what they want.
Samir Husni: Where do you see DARA three years from now?
Dan Brewster: Three years from now; I can send you the executive summary of our business plan, but I see us actively involved with 500 or more artisans from around the world. I see the business model beginning to shift from our taking inventory in order to control the brand to one where we have relationships that enable artisans to drop ship from various parts of the globe. I envision the brand as being a very strong brand with multiple platforms, possibly including even retail.
We are going to be the most effective consumer-direct, high-end product company out there.
Samir Husni: Just drawing on your rich background in magazines and media publishing and all the other business models you’ve worked with; is there anything that if you had the opportunity to redo or not do you can identify?
Dan Brewster: Of course I can, but I prefer not to. (Laughs)
Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?
Dan Brewster: Well, I did anticipate that you might ask that. (Laughs) What keeps me up at night is my obligation to the constituencies that I serve and those constituencies are my investors and future investors, our staff, which is extraordinarily talented and committed to this project for both its likely business success, but also the sense of purpose that’s associated with it. And to the world of artisans who are carrying on ancestral traditions that are not as appreciated as I think they will become.
Samir Husni: Thank you.