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Simplifying Women’s Lives For 15 Years – A “Real Simple Magazine” Success Story – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Editor Kristin van Ogtrop

March 19, 2015

“I really can’t imagine Real Simple without a print product. I mean, we are thrilled to see the growth that we’ve experienced in other areas, but I can’t imagine us never being a magazine. And I happen to know that you define a magazine as something that exists on paper.” Kristin van Ogtrop

Real Simple scanned at 72 for blog-2 In April 2000, Real Simple magazine launched with the purpose of making women’s lives simpler. The content between the covers was inexplicably created to provide busy women, whether executives or stay-at-home moms and all women in between, with alternatives to the noisy, sometimes stressful environment of their worlds. And 15 years later, Real Simple is still proving that uncomplicated point.

No celebrities, no sex and, for the most part, no chocolate, has been a manifesto that the magazine has adhered to and succeeded with. Over the last decade and a half, Real Simple has evolved into what could only be described as the definitive authority for women who want to make the most of their time and enjoy doing it.

Kristin van Ogtrop is Real Simple’s editor and has guided the successful magazine into a multifaceted brand harbor, with print, digital and numerous marketing brand extensions. She is a woman who knows what it means to need a little “real simple” in her life.

I spoke with Kristin recently and we talked about the simplistic simplicity of Real Simple’s formula and how when something is truly valuable to the audience, it will succeed no matter what the doomsayers might cry. And that’s just what they did 15 years ago when Time Inc. launched the magazine into the women’s lifestyle place. How could a magazine with no celebrities, no sex, and no chocolate gracing its cover ever survive on the newsstands? 15 Years later, Real Simple shows them how.

I hope you “simply” enjoy this lively and fun conversation with a woman who exudes joy, contentment and excitement about the future of the magazine and all its brand components, including print, as you read the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Kristin van Ogtrop, Editor, Real Simple.

But first the sound-bites:

Kristin van Ogtrop, Editor, Real Simple magazine.

Kristin van Ogtrop, Editor, Real Simple magazine.



On whether her life is simpler now than it was 15 years ago when the magazine started:
I think you already know the answer to that one, Samir. (Laughs) No, it’s not; it’s a lot more complicated because consumers expect to find you everywhere and you’re trying to find them everywhere.

On how you could launch a women’s magazine without at least a celebrity on the cover:
Going back to your original question about whether or not you can launch a magazine without a celebrity on the cover; I think we are a break from that, particularly as celebrities infuse our culture more and more on social media and reality TV shows. I think a brand like Real Simple, where we really are a celebrity-free zone, solidifies our identity, but also continues to provide a nice break from that.

On whether or not she believes Real Simple could exist without a print component:
No, never. When you talk to people who read the magazine there are consistent things that you hear over and over about what they love about the magazine. But one of the first five always is the paper; they talk a lot about the paper.

On whether she feels the need to ensure that each extension of the Real Simple brand has the same DNA as the magazine:
Yes. I mean, I look at myself as a content steward. But content could be what the packaging on a box at Bed Bath & Beyond looks like. It’s about the expression of the brand that consumers see, whether that’s on the website, on packaging, something written, or a picture.

On the biggest stumbling block that she’s had to face and how she overcame it: What has been hard for Real Simple, and this isn’t unique to us; I think big brands like us have to learn to fail fast, to try new things and to know when to cut your losses and move on to the next thing.

On her most pleasant surprise during her career at Real Simple:
There have been huge highlights over the years. The brand has grown exponentially since 2000. But I would say my personal highlights, and they come with some frequency, is when you encounter someone who is really passionate about this brand and is very happy to tell you why. Those are the best parts.

On what makes her look forward to going to work:
One of the great things for me about working here is that there is so much of what we do that deals with problems in my own life and I think you could say that about a lot of the people on staff here. So, you come to work, but you’re also kind of making your own life easier, more beautiful, better, more delicious, and all of that’s fun.

On the type of person the magazine would become if struck by a magic wand:
I am a Real Simple woman, but I’m not sure I’m who would spring from the pages, but maybe. I think a lot of people could. Part of what works for us is that, and I talk about this a little in my Editor’s Letter in the 15th anniversary issue, with every story that we publish, whether it’s on realsimple.com or in the magazine, we try to cast as wide a net as we can.

On why the attempts of copycatting Real Simple have never worked:
In terms of why we have succeeded where others have failed, it’s a lot of factors, and a fair amount of the reason has to do with Time Inc. The company is very supportive of its editorial endeavors, obviously. It invests a lot in consumer research; it’s a big, healthy machine. Time Inc. has believed in this magazine from the beginning and we’ve gotten a lot of support.

On anything that she’d like to add about the magazine or brand:
The only thing that I would add is that we’re so proud when we look at what we’ve done over the last 15 years. And we’re excited about the future of this brand, including in print and all our other areas too.

On what keeps her up at night:
Worrying about my children keeps me up at night. I would say having three boys and two of them being teenagers keep me up at night.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Kristin van Ogtrop, Editor, Real Simple…

real simple list Samir Husni: On page eight of the 15th anniversary edition of Real Simple, you asked the question is life simpler now than it was 15 years ago in 2000 and you listed seven different areas where you compared that year to now – 2015; my first question to you is that I want to add one more area for comparison; is life simpler for a magazine editor today than 15 years ago?

Kristin van Ogtrop: I think you already know the answer to that one, Samir. (Laughs) No, it’s not; it’s a lot more complicated because consumers expect to find you everywhere and you’re trying to find them everywhere.

People like me came up through our childhoods, college, and in some cases, graduate school and entered the magazine business when the whole enterprise was all about words on paper, and finding your customers at the newsstands or in their physical mailboxes. And now it’s a much more diffused relationship. It’s more interesting for that reason, but it’s also, I think, more confusing and you have a lot more balls in the air.

Samir Husni: Let’s go back a bit in history; when Real Simple was launched everyone asked the question: how can a women’s magazine survive without celebrities, sex and chocolate on its cover? And yet, over the last 15 years, not only have you survived, you’ve thrived and Real Simple has turned into a huge success story for women’s service magazines. What do you believe has been the magical ingredients that have propelled Real Simple to such success?

Kristin van Ogtrop: I do want to point out that we have had chocolate on the cover once as a test; maybe three years ago, we put chocolate pudding on the cover and chicken pot pie too. And I must say, the chicken pot pie killed the chocolate pudding. (Laughs) I don’t know if we’ll ever have chocolate on the cover again.

When the magazine launched in 2000, it obviously launched to a lot of fanfare because Time Inc. doesn’t do launches lightly or in a small way, frankly, and I believe there was this market there that people in the magazine industry and advertisers didn’t even know was there, which was women who are a lot more overwhelmed than anyone knew. And they just want a calming, really clear informational delivery system. And I think that’s what Real People delivered.

Recently, in fact, I was getting my hair cut and there was this really adorable woman working at the hair salon. And she came up to me and said, “Oh my gosh, I know who you are and I’m so happy to meet you.” I felt kind of strange because I thought she thought that I was somebody else. (Laughs) Then she said, “I love Real Simple magazine.”

Now, this is a woman who works at a New York City hair salon. Usually, when you go to a hair salon, you see a lot of celebrity and fashion magazines. So, I started asking her questions about herself. She told me that she was 29-years-old and that she loved Real Simple because it didn’t have celebrities in it. That kind of conversation, which I’m lucky enough to have from time to time, just affirms Real Simple’s engagement with women.

Going back to your original question about whether or not you can launch a magazine without a celebrity on the cover; I think we are a break from that, particularly as celebrities infuse our culture more and more on social media and reality TV shows. I think a brand like Real Simple, where we really are a celebrity-free zone, solidifies our identity, but also continues to provide a nice break from that.

I read People magazine more than probably just about anybody in this building, but I still like that we don’t have that kind of content. And I think that readers do too.

Samir Husni: Real Simple has evolved from a print magazine to a brand; it’s everywhere, on the web, social media, the brand extensions, the products; you name it. But can you envision Real Simple existing without the print component?

real simple first cover at 72-3 Kristin van Ogtrop: No, never. When you talk to people who read the magazine there are consistent things that you hear over and over about what they love about the magazine. But one of the first five always is the paper; they talk a lot about the paper.

Dick Parsons, the former head of Time Warner had this expression that he always used, magazines would exist as long as the three B’s were around: bedroom, bathroom and beach. And I think that tactile experience with the matte paper and a very controlled design, that physical experience makes people feel very calm.

I really can’t imagine Real Simple without a print product. I mean, we are thrilled to see the growth that we’ve experienced in other areas, but I can’t imagine us never being a magazine. And I happen to know that you define a magazine as something that exists on paper, right?

Samir Husni: Yes, that’s true.

Kristin van Ogtrop: We are still very much a magazine and I can’t imagine Real Simple ever not being a magazine.

Samir Husni: Do you feel as though your role has changed in 2015 since Real Simple has become a brand with a multitude of brand extensions out there, such as Wayfair.com, 1-800-FLOWERS and Bed Bath & Beyond; do you feel you’ve moved beyond editor and are now a brand keeper that needs to ensure everything that has the name Real Simple on it meets the DNA of the magazine?

Kristin van Ogtrop: Yes. I mean, I look at myself as a content steward. But content could be what the packaging on a box at Bed Bath & Beyond looks like. It’s about the expression of the brand that consumers see, whether that’s on the website, on packaging, something written, or a picture; we just launched four new podcasts with The Slate Network recently, so content could be something consumers hear on a podcast or something downloaded from iTunes.

I will say though, that as brands like Real Simple grow and other bigger magazine brands, a lot of that informs how you hire people, because it’s impossible for an editor, and using Real Simple as an example, it would be impossible for me to put my individual stamp of approval on every single expression of the brand that goes out every day, whether in a store or on social, and I guess those are probably the two biggest ones that happen constantly. So, you have to have a team in place that understands the brand DNA in the same way that you do. And we’re lucky enough at Real Simple to have that.

We’re not just magazine editors anymore; although that’s still a part of my job that I really love, that’s why we all got into the business. And as it goes beyond that it gets more interesting, but you don’t lose the thing that you love.

Samir Husni: Throughout the 15 years of the magazine; what has been the biggest stumbling block you’ve had to face and how did you overcome it?

Kristin van Ogtrop: What has been hard for Real Simple, and this isn’t unique to us; I think big brands like us have to learn to fail fast, to try new things and to know when to cut your losses and move on to the next thing, because some of what makes us successful as a brand is a sense of control; a controlled message; a controlled look, and when you hand our consumers something that feels controlled it makes them feel calmer. It’s hard to fail fast when you want to be in control.

Over the years, from a 30,000 foot level, that has probably been our biggest stumbling block and probably always will be. But that doesn’t mean we can’t keep trying to do it better.

Samir Husni: And what was your most pleasant moment in those 15 years, the one that made you say, wow, and how often do you have those moments?

Real Simple Subscriber cover gatefold April 2015Kristin van Ogtrop: That’s a really hard question to answer. My most pleasant moments would be like the one that I had with the woman from the hair salon the other day. When I meet someone who says to me Real Simple is the only magazine that I ever read or I’ve started listening to your podcasts and I have my whole office hooked or you talk to media planners who tell you that Real Simple is the only magazine they read, they get a lot, but Real Simple is the only one they actually read.

There have been huge highlights over the years. The brand has grown exponentially since 2000. But I would say my personal highlights, and they come with some frequency, is when you encounter someone who is really passionate about this brand and is very happy to tell you why. Those are the best parts.

Samir Husni: If you had the opportunity to travel back in time and speak to all of the media critics and those prophets of gloom and doom who blasted Real Simple when it was launched and thought Time Inc. was out of its mind and asked why would Time Inc. publish something like Real Simple; if you had the gift of time travel what would you tell them?

Kristin van Ogtrop: I would tell them to just wait. (Laughs) I would tell them that they don’t understand women; that’s what I would tell them. Or they don’t understand a certain kind of woman and to just wait and they’ll see what we can do.

Samir Husni: What makes Kristin click and tick every morning; what makes you want to get out of bed and go to work?

Kristin van Ogtrop: Well, coffee is what makes me want to get out of bed. (Laughs) What makes me want to run to the office? I’ve worked in magazines now for about 20 years and I just really love this brand. I understand this consumer and I am this consumer. My life is very similar to many of the readers’ lives; I have three kids and I live in a house and I’ve got two dogs and I always have car problems and I can’t find black pants that I really like (Laughs); just all the things that bring people to a wonderful brand like this.

One of the great things for me about working here is that there is so much of what we do that deals with problems in my own life and I think you could say that about a lot of the people on staff here. So, you come to work, but you’re also kind of making your own life easier, more beautiful, better, more delicious, and all of that’s fun.

Samir Husni: One of the questions that I often ask editors is, if I gave you a magic wand and you struck Real Simple, the magazine, with it and a flesh and blood human being materialized, who would that person be? Would it be Kristin? Are you a Real Simple woman?

Kristin van Ogtrop: Definitely, I am a Real Simple woman, but I’m not sure I’m who would spring from the pages, but maybe. I think a lot of people could. Part of what works for us is that, and I talk about this a little in my Editor’s Letter in the 15th anniversary issue, with every story that we publish, whether it’s on realsimple.com or in the magazine, we try to cast as wide a net as we can, because we have almost 2 million subscribers or monthly readers and millions upon millions of visitors to our website every month.

The women who engage with Real Simple are from all over the country; they have different lifestyles and are different ages. So, I think that I represent the brand really well. That way maybe when the magazine is hit with the magic wand, I would pop out, but I believe that we’re much broader than just me.

Samir Husni: Our industry is known to be a copycat industry; why do you think that other publishers haven’t copied Real Simple? There have been a few attempts here and there, but they have been short-lived. Is it the simplicity of the magazine that makes it hard to replicate or imitate?

Kristin van Ogtrop: First of all, I think people over the 12 years that I’ve been here have tried to copy Real Simple. But as you said, those efforts tend to be fairly short-lived. I think that our formula has crept out into the women’s magazine culture a little bit. If you look at cover lines on some other women’s magazines, you see the word organizing, for example, or clutter control, something like that, and you definitely didn’t see those before this brand existed.

In terms of why we have succeeded where others have failed, it’s a lot of factors, and a fair amount of the reason has to do with Time Inc. The company is very supportive of its editorial endeavors, obviously. It invests a lot in consumer research; it’s a big, healthy machine. Time Inc. has believed in this magazine from the beginning and we’ve gotten a lot of support.

Samir Husni: You’ve done a wonderful job with the magazine. I still remember that first issue and the reaction it received and all the changes that took place after you came, which solidified the brand and made it the powerhouse that it is today. Is there anything else that you’d like to add about Real Simple or the brand?

Kristin van Ogtrop: Thank you. The only thing that I would add is that we’re so proud when we look at what we’ve done over the last 15 years. And we’re excited about the future of this brand, including in print and all our other areas too. All of us here still really believe we have a lot of opportunities with Real Simple; it’s just up to us to find them.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Kristin van Ogtrop: Nothing related to work keeps me up at night, actually. (Laughs) I would say having three boys and two of them being teenagers keep me up at night.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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