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Nifty At Fifty: The Never-Aging, Always-Rocking Cosmopolitan Magazine. The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Donna Kalajian Lagani, Senior Vice President, Publishing Director & Chief Revenue Officer, Cosmopolitan…

March 5, 2015

“The whole idea of this one-to-one; she (Helen Gurley Brown) used to say that she wanted to have a one-to-one conversation with millions of women at the same time. So that whole idea of community, which is now what everyone is talking about, that’s something that Cosmo has always had. We’ve always said that we were the first interactive medium. Before there was an internet, there was Cosmo.” Donna Kalajian Lagani

Cosmo April '14 Cover Addictive content, beautiful models that articulate style and fashion to readers, and a core concept created by the woman who started it all – Helen Gurley Brown – that is based on relationships and the ability to openly discuss every aspect of the male-female, family-to-family connection. That is the definition of success; that is Cosmopolitan.

Recently, I was in New York and had the chance to speak with Donna Kalajian Lagani, Senior Vice President, Publishing Director and Chief Revenue Officer of Cosmopolitan. Donna is an open, friendly and totally animated person who welcomed me in her office on the 38th floor of the Hearst Tower. She shared her thoughts on Cosmo’s upcoming 50th birthday and its past and, more importantly, the brand’s future.

We talked about what it takes to keep a magazine fresh and successful with its readers after 50 years on the newsstands and how the brand is pivotal in its presentation, in terms of its digital/print relationship. The conversation was lively, fun, and totally a joy to participate in. I hope you have as much enjoyment reading it as I did visiting with the inimitable Ms. Lagani. Cosmopolitan is a world filled with beauty, fashion and advice that you might not necessarily get from your mother, but you’d definitely get from your best friend.

But first the sound-bites…

Sound-bites:

donna1 On the secret ingredient that continues to make Cosmopolitan click, tick and stick with its audience: I think it’s that we understand in this country and all around the world, one of the most important things to women is to talk about their relationships. Relationships with their family, boyfriends and their girlfriends; and if you look at any pop culture today, any television shows or movies; it all comes back to the relationships.

On Cosmopolitan’s sense of community that has been going strong for 50 years: You brought up something great when you talked about Helen; the whole idea of this one-to-one; she used to say that she wanted to have a one-to-one conversation with millions of women at the same time. So that whole idea of community, which is now what everyone is talking about, that’s something that Cosmo has always had. We’ve always said that we were the first interactive medium. Before there was an internet, there was Cosmo.

On whether the brand would exist without the print component: Sure, I think the community would exist. Of course it would. It would be a different community and certainly shaped differently. But the magazine isn’t going anywhere. I like to say when the earth is over there will be cockroaches and there will be Cosmo. We are an enduring brand through thick and thin.

On the major stumbling block the magazine faces today and how she plans to overcome it: What we often hear from advertisers is digital, digital, digital. I think one of the stumbling blocks is that younger marketers coming up in the business are being brought up by digital media. That’s what they know the best and that’s what they’re the most comfortable with. And we just need to be sure that we continue to educate them and have them understand that when someone crawls into bed at night or boards a plane or goes to the beach, and they’re reading a magazine, there is something very close and intimate about that.

On why she believes Hearst never stopped investing or believing in their print product: It’s that the consumer demand was and is still there. As long as we have 17 million women every month who are reading Cosmo; that’s really powerful. So, why shouldn’t we invest in something that consumers are showing incredible demand for? And innovation is just part of what we always do.

On how she combats the stereotype of sex-only that the magazine seems to have cultivated: I think that stereotype comes from people who don’t read the magazine; that may be their perception and we know that perceptions are very difficult to overcome. But what we have to do is to show people what we’re actually doing.

On her most pleasant moment over the last 20 years at Cosmo: Maybe because it has just happened, but I would have to say standing up on the stage in Times Square and looking 360° around and seeing Cosmo everywhere put a shiver up my spine and tears in my eyes.

On what keeps her up at night: Just thinking about all the fun and exciting new things that we can continue to do with the brand. What’s next and what’s new?

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Donna Kalajian Lagani, Senior Vice President, Publishing Director and Chief Revenue Officer of Cosmopolitan.

Samir Husni: You have a brand that’s 50 years old, yet it’s still going as strong as ever. What’s the secret ingredient that makes Cosmopolitan continue to click, tick and stick with its audience?

Donna Kalajian Lagani: I think it’s that we understand in this country and all around the world, one of the most important things to women is to talk about their relationships. Relationships with their family, boyfriends and their girlfriends; and if you look at any pop culture today, any television shows or movies; it all comes back to the relationships. And that’s what differentiates Cosmo from any other women’s media brand that’s out there. We really understand that relationships are the heart and core of everything.

If you’ve been around for 50 years that also means that you have had to adapt, change and stay very modern. And I would say Helen Gurley Brown, of course, who was the founder of our brand and the long-time, four-decade editor set the standard. Three years ago when Joanna Coles, our editor-in-chief, came over, she elevated everything about the brand. She kept the heart and the core and the DNA of Cosmopolitan the same as Helen had it, which was important. And remember when Helen launched our magazine, she was at the beginning of the women’s movement, the beginning of the sexual revolution and believed that women could have it all, believed that our mission as a brand was to empower women to have whatever they wanted.

Joanna comes onboard three years ago; she dusts off the original mission and brings back the original DNA of our brand to be all about empowerment. And she’s brought smarter voices into the magazine; she’s just elevated everything. So, on one hand, we’re 50 years old and on the other, we change every moment. The photographers, models and the stylists; everything has been elevated in the magazine and that has kept us really fresh.

And it’s not just about the magazine. It’s about the community of Cosmo, which is so much bigger than just the magazine. On our website; we’re up to 30 million unique visitors a month, that’s huge, and 9 million social followers.

Samir Husni: I remember a quote from Helen Gurley Brown where she was telling her husband after she published the book, Sex and the Single Girl, that she was getting all these letters and having to spend a lot of time answering them, and he asked her why she just didn’t do a magazine so that she could respond to everyone at the same time.

Donna Kalajian Lagani: That’s exactly right.

Samir Husni: So this sense of community has been going strong for 50 years. And Cosmo is still, by far, the leading selling magazine on college campuses; the second or third largest-selling monthly on the newsstands; yet you hear people in ad agencies and other places saying young women don’t read anymore. We don’t have anyone coming to us to advertise in print any longer. Why do you think there is this stereotype that’s as far from reality as you can get? Do you face those problems when you call on advertisers, telling you that young women no longer read print anymore?

donnaandsamir Donna Kalajian Lagani: We face it, but it can also be just a negotiation ploy. They’re using that as a way to negotiate with us, perhaps. But you brought up something great when you talked about Helen; the whole idea of this one-to-one; she used to say that she wanted to have a one-to-one conversation with millions of women at the same time. So that whole idea of community, which is now what everyone is talking about, that’s something that Cosmo has always had. We’ve always said that we were the first interactive medium. Before there was an internet, there was Cosmo.

So, are women reading magazines? Of course they are. We’re selling 3 million copies a month; we’re reaching 17 million women every month. But we have to do more than that; we have to be everywhere that 18 to 34-year-old is; we have to make sure that we’re intersecting with her. So when she wakes up in the morning and rolls out of bed, reaches for her phone; the first thing she wants to see is cosmo.com.

And what we’re doing now with Snapchat is very cool. We’re not supposed to be telling numbers, but I can tell you this; we guarantee 700,000 views per day and we’re over-delivering above that, 700,000 views per day of Cosmo on Snapchat. That tells us that our community has a thirst for this information, not only monthly with the magazine, but daily online and certainly daily on Snapchat.

Samir Husni: Do you think that community would exist without the print magazine?

Donna Kalajian Lagani: That’s a great question. Sure, I think the community would exist. Of course it would. It would be a different community and certainly shaped differently. But the magazine isn’t going anywhere. I like to say when the earth is over there will be cockroaches and there will be Cosmo. We are an enduring brand through thick and thin. You said it: we’re the number one best-sold magazine on college campuses and yes, we still are the best-sold magazine on the newsstands.

Samir Husni: What is the major stumbling block that you’re facing today and how do you plan on overcoming it?

Donna Kalajian Lagani: I would say what you said, what we often hear from advertisers is digital, digital, digital. I think one of the stumbling blocks is that younger marketers coming up in the business are being brought up by digital media. That’s what they know the best and that’s what they’re the most comfortable with. And we just need to be sure that we continue to educate them and have them understand that when someone crawls into bed at night or boards a plane or goes to the beach, and they’re reading a magazine, there is something very close and intimate about that, especially for beauty and fashion advertisers where it’s all about the color and seeing and touching and being able to rip out; I don’t think that’s ever going to go away, that whole tactile experience. Do you think that’ll ever go away?

Samir Husni: Oh, I agree, it never will. In fact, I’m known in the industry as the one who defines a magazine as: if it’s not ink on paper, then it’s not a magazine. I even trademarked that phrase.

Donna Kalajian Lagani: There you go; I love that. I think what we have to keep doing is showing marketers all the innovative things that can be done in our magazine that does break through.

TSq15-Horizontal-ScrnSize Two things: it’s our 50th birthday, so we thought OK, we knew it was coming; it wasn’t a surprise. We planned on it and said, OK – let’s celebrate our 50th and we are Cosmo; we only know how to do things in a very big way; what could we do that would make a very big brand statement? Do you know what we did on New Year’s Eve? We went to Times Square on New Year’s Eve and we had 30,000 pink hats and balloons, we had two musical stages; everywhere you looked that night was Cosmopolitan. And every single person that I have spoken to since saw what we did on New Year’s Eve, because it was live-streamed on Cosmo.com everywhere around the world. So, that was sort of a big, big brand way to say: here we are, this is Cosmo, and we’re powerful. And everyone got that.

Then every single month this year, and there are such cool things that you can do with print; we’ve done special sections or units every month in the magazine. We did this in partnership with Cover Girl. And what we did is took their Colorlicious brand, which is their new line of lipsticks that have four different shades, we took the colors to make it really native, you’ve heard of native advertising for digital, we did native advertising for print, and we took the background of the colors of the magazine and made it into the same color family as the lipstick.

And we just did a cover peel-off where with the subscriber covers we actually take the ad and put it on the front cover of the magazine with the Cosmo logo. It’s very intrusive and it really stands out. And that’s the kind of thing that can really be done only in print.

For the March issue we did a multiple cover with Lancome. In April, and it’s not out yet; with Unilever, we developed a big section on hair. So their ad: Cosmo cover hair secrets inside, which tells the consumer to open up the magazine, and then becomes what we call a nested booklet; it’s 24 pages of content, all with advertising from Unilever brand. Then it can be removed and held onto.

Samir Husni: Why are Hearst Magazines in general and Cosmo specifically, doing a lot of this innovation in print? If you look at the paper quality of your magazines and the size; Hearst did not ignore print while running after digital. Hearst invested in print, and went after digital, providing the customer with both. Why?

Donna Kalajian Lagani: It’s that the consumer demand was and is still there. As long as we have 17 million women every month who are reading Cosmo; that’s really powerful. That’s bigger than the top-ten network television shows, in terms of a GRP. If Cosmo were a rating point in magazine brand alone; we’d be bigger than the top-ten TV shows. So, why shouldn’t we invest in something that consumers are showing incredible demand for? And innovation is just part of what we always do. That’s what makes me wake up in the morning; what am I going to do today that’s different from yesterday? And that’s what makes my job so much fun. I have so much fun at my job, if you can’t tell. (Laughs) I love my job. And part of what is so much fun about it is that I’ve been here for 20 years and I’ve never had the same job two years in a row. Every year we’re doing something different; every year we’re recreating something. And that’s what a media brand is and does; we’re this living, breathing thing that we have to keep nurturing and coming up with new things to do to keep the audience and the advertisers delighted.

Samir Husni: Give me a synopsis on a day-in-the-life of Donna.

Donna Kalajian Lagani: I wake up in the morning and roll out of bed; I look at Cosmo.com, download what I’m going to read for the day onto my tablet; I make breakfast every morning for my 17-year-old son, when he’ll let me. (Laughs) And then the day gets really busy; I spend a lot of time out of the office and with clients. I spend a lot of time ideating about all of the cool new things we could be doing with the brand and I’m out on the streets all the time with our salespeople. And that’s why I have fun.

Samir Husni: Does your 17-year-old son read Cosmo? Just so he can know the mind of the opposite sex, maybe?

Donna Kalajian Lagani: He does sometimes. But his 17-year-old girlfriend does. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: How do you feel about the fact that when most people think about Cosmo, they think about sex, when we know that there is much more to Cosmo than just sex. How do you combat such a stereotype?

Donna Kalajian Lagani: I think that when Joanna Coles came onboard and pivoted the editorial, it made that objection pretty much go away. We are reporting on Washington; we’re reporting on politics; we’re reporting on women’s health issues; we just won an ASME award last year for the excellent piece we did on contraception.

I think that stereotype comes from people who don’t read the magazine; that may be their perception and we know that perceptions are very difficult to overcome. But what we have to do is to show people what we’re actually doing. I’ve always said, and I don’t know whose quote this is, but I’ve stolen it and it’s a good one; you’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts. And the facts are that of course we cover relationships; sex is an important part of what we do at the magazine; it’s an important part of what all girls are about today, but the amount of beauty, fashion and journalism and health that we do exceeds that. So, those are the facts.

Samir Husni: In 2008 we were hit by a double whammy: the economy crashed and technology really came onto the scene. Do you recall how life was before 2008 and then right after?

Donna Kalajian Lagani: Oh, yes, definitely. (Laughs) Before 2008 people were marketers who spent more in advertising-to-sales in overall advertising. I think after that everyone really tightened on the amount they were doing as an advertising-to-percentage-of-sales ratio. And the internet was there, but it didn’t come up in every conversation.

But that doesn’t bother me because it’s such an important part of our brand. We love the internet; I love mobile and I love the tablet and what we’re doing on Snapchat; it’s just part of who our community is. And what’s fascinating about it is the duplication is practically nothing. The duplication between our magazine brand and our digital brand is only 3 or 4%, so that says to me that the community of Cosmo is only getting larger. And isn’t that a good thing for us at the Hearst Corporation and isn’t it a great thing for marketers too?

Samir Husni: I know that the duplication of content is very little.

Donna Kalajian Lagani: Very little.

Samir Husni: Is their audience duplication, or do you know?

Donna Kalajian Lagani: That’s what I’m saying; 3 to 4% duplication is it. So that’s why the footprint is just getting larger.

Samir Husni: Five years from now, you and I are sitting and talking about Cosmo at 55; what will you tell me?

Donna Kalajian Lagani: That it’s as beautiful and young as ever. We will continue to have a very large print footprint and probably an even larger mobile footprint.

Samir Husni: Many publishers had put a lot of odds and wagers on the iPad; on the tablet, and then five years later nothing really came from it. Now are we moving our wagers from the tablet to mobile?

Donna Kalajian Lagani: Well, I wouldn’t count the tablet out. We still have about 200,000 subscriptions that are sold – paid for. And I would suppose as the tablet increases in just the percentage of Americans who own one, that that number will probably continue to grow. Mobile is a big play. Right now, 65% of all of our traffic comes from mobile. So, girls that are reading Cosmo.com; they’re all doing it either on their mobile phone or on their tablet. It’s very important today and will probably be more important five years from now.

Samir Husni: You’ve been at Cosmo for 20 years; what has been the most pleasant moment for you? An experience that you can remember thinking: Wow!

Donna Kalajian Lagani: Maybe because it has just happened, but I would have to say standing up on the stage in Times Square and looking 360° around and seeing Cosmo everywhere put a shiver up my spine and tears in my eyes. I was literally teary-eyed thinking, oh my goodness, Helen, you’re up there in the universe looking at this great brand. It was a very proud moment for our brand. (See Times Square picture above).

Samir Husni: Anything else you’d like to add?

Donna Kalajian Lagani: We’re doing a lot of really fun stuff to celebrate 50 years; we touched on Unilever and next month in Austin, Texas, South by Southwest, for the first time, is doing something called South by Style, which is sort of the convergence of technology and fashion and Cosmopolitan is the their media partner. We have a 1,000 sq. foot space where we’ll be having incredible speakers come in and talk and it’ll be a place where women can come and listen to those great speakers and at the same time get their hair touched up and get their nails redone; just a place to unwind a little. And our sponsors for that are Intel and Cover Girl.

And in May, we’re doing two big birthday issues; why have one birthday per year, when you can have two? In that May issue we have an iconic cover; I can’t tell you who it is. But for that same issue we have a spectacular opening that’s done by L’Oreal Paris; they’re doing a butterfly gate of advertising, adjacent to a very interesting, cool cover model.

In November is our other big issue for the year and we’re going to celebrate with a heck of a party; I hope you’re in New York; you can come and hang out with us.

Samir Husni: Just send me an invite and I’ll be here. Now, my typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Donna Kalajian Lagani: Just thinking about all the fun and exciting new things that we can continue to do with the brand. What’s next and what’s new? What’s going to delight the reader and the advertiser?

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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