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Harvard Business Review: A Magazine That Readers Care About. The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Adi Ignatius, Editor-In-Chief.

April 24, 2015

“When I’ve worked at legacy publications, we’d create this content that was basically designed to be an adjacency to advertising. Whatever, fine. Then the advertising disappears. Advertising definitely comes and goes; you have to make sure that you have a product at the end of the day that your readers actually care about, because the advertising dollar today will disappear tomorrow.” Adi Ignatius

Apr15 Cover 300dpi Focusing on areas such as leadership, finance, marketing and the art of managing people, among many other business-related topics, Harvard Business Review (HBR) is a magazine dedicated to improving all facets of management in today’s fast-paced world.

Adi Ignatius is editor-in-chief, or as he likes to refer to himself, the balancer-in-chief of HBR. He came to the magazine in 2009 from TIME, where he was deputy managing editor, helping to oversee the week-to-week editing of the magazine and was also responsible for many of TIME’s special editions, including the Person of the Year and TIME 100 franchises.

After coming onboard at Harvard Business Review, Adi set about reinventing the academic read into more of a consumer-type magazine, one that has seen circulation growth and subscription prices increase since his joining the team.

I spoke with Adi recently and the discussion was both fun and informative. He has definite opinions on where HBR is heading and the future of magazine media in general.

So, I hope you enjoy this conversation with a man who believes in the timelessness of his brand and the collectability factor he thinks all magazines need today, the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Adi Ignatius, Editor-in-Chief, Harvard Business Review.

But first the sound-bites:

Adi Ignatius On the transition he had to make in 2009 when he came to HBR right after the Market crash: When I came on in 2009, Harvard Business Review hadn’t written a word about the recession and that seemed odd. I understood that the magazine always wanted to be timeless in everything it did, but it seemed that this was a different period; readers were desperate for information about the worst economic situation that we’ll all hopefully face in our lifetimes. Luckily, the people who run this place wanted somebody who had that kind of metabolism, someone who could bring a sort of timely sensibility to the timeless tradition and deal head-on with some of the topics people were worried about.

On the advice he would give media leaders about the future of print today:
I think getting past the sense of a lot of things that we thought were traditionally important like print, front pages, home pages, viewing yourself as only a destination site; I think you have to let go of these assumptions and really follow where the market is going and where readers are going. And make sure your content is unique and valuable and make sure you are maximizing every possible connection and platform that you could be on.

On some of the stumbling blocks that would prevent magazine media from implementing his common sense advice:
We all know where this plot line is heading; we all know that we are moving rapidly toward a more digital, or even fully digital, future. The problem is we’re in the present. And the present is still in some ways attaching more value to the print part of our operations than is likely to happen in the future. So, it’s very difficult to handle that transition when we’re still relying on print for the bulk of our revenue and ad revenue, in some cases. It’s very hard to forego the short-term revenue that we all depend on to make the sort of long-term future digital.

On whether he thinks publishers are placing too much dependence on social media these days:
We used to depend on LinkedIn for a huge amount of traffic, but when LinkedIn realized they weren’t simply a place for people to search for jobs, they decided to have content and stickiness, and a lot of that content was HBR. Then they sort of realized that they could be developing their own content and didn’t really need partners. So, that was a moment of panic, but I think as long as you’re creating content that’s valuable to your audience, whether it’s a big or a niche audience, you can adapt to these things.

On whether he can ever see a day when HBR will not have a print component: In theory, yes; it’s not a part of any of our plans at this point. I can imagine a reduction in print, in the number of print copies, and I would say that’s probably likely for us. And that would be driven by two main things: the decline in print advertising, which is real and profound and we see no sign of that being reversed, and more interestingly, a kind of shift in consumption habits.

On the cover price of HBR: Yes, we are higher-priced, but this magazine is for people who love ideas and you’ll find ideas in this publication that can improve your company and your career, well beyond what we’re charging. That’s essentially our value proposition.

On whether the collectability factor is important in magazine media today:
I think we’ve all realized the value of the archives. We have an archive that goes back 25-30 years and subscribers get full access to anything that we’ve published during that time. And we tested that a couple of years ago and found out that subscribers were willing to pay significantly more when they realized they had access to that archive.

On anything else he’d like to add:
That was a reinvention in 2010 and by any measurement that you could use, it worked. Our circulation has risen and is now at a record level, about 300,000. We have to do this again. We have to reinvent the business model again for all the reasons that our colleagues in the industry are doing it.

On what keeps him up at night:
Our situation is a little more complicated because we also need contributors to feel like we’re the best place for them to publish their ideas. We’re this hybrid; we’re somewhere in between a normal magazine and an academic journal. And that sometimes keeps me up at night; whether I can keep that balance intact, while still driving the business forward. That’s what I do; I’m balancer-in-chief.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Adi Ignatious, Editor-in-Chief, Harvard Business Review.

Samir Husni: You’ve been at Harvard Business Review since 2009, so you had just come onboard when the Market crashed. Can you describe how the transition for you was during that precarious time?

Adi Ignatius: I interviewed for the job in 2008, so when I came on in 2009, Harvard Business Review hadn’t written a word about the recession and that seemed odd. I understood that the magazine always wanted to be timeless in everything it did, but it seemed that this was a different period; readers were desperate for information about the worst economic situation that we’ll all hopefully face in our lifetimes. And a publication like Harvard Business Review could provide insight.

Luckily, the people who run this place wanted somebody who had that kind of metabolism, someone who could bring a sort of timely sensibility to the timeless tradition and deal head-on with some of the topics people were worried about.

We took that opportunity to kind of reinvent the magazine, the website and set out a path for growth from that.

Samir Husni: If you were going to apply the same formula that you did for the Harvard Business Review on its business side to magazine media today, in 2015; what type of magazine would you create to help magazine publishers and editors adapt to all the changes that are taking place and what advice would you give those media leaders about the future of print today?

Adi Ignatius: I wouldn’t necessarily get hung up on print. I don’t think the answer for all of us is finding out a way to maximize print; some of us will be print; some of us will be digital, and then some of us will be a hybrid.

I think getting past the sense of a lot of things that we thought were traditionally important like print, front pages, home pages, viewing yourself as only a destination site; I think you have to let go of these assumptions and really follow where the market is going and where readers are going. And make sure your content is unique and valuable and make sure you are maximizing every possible connection and platform that you could be on. That’s obvious maybe, and the hard part might be actually implementing that. I guess that would be my first bit of advice.

Samir Husni: What do you think are some of the stumbling blocks that are stopping people from implementing that common sense solution?

Adi Ignatius: I guess some of them you’re probably very familiar with. We all know where this plot line is heading; we all know that we are moving rapidly toward a more digital, or even fully digital, future. The problem is we’re in the present. And the present is still in some ways attaching more value to the print part of our operations than is likely to happen in the future. So, it’s very difficult to handle that transition when we’re still relying on print for the bulk of our revenue and ad revenue, in some cases. It’s very hard to forego the short-term revenue that we all depend on to make the sort of long-term future digital. And we all think that we can manage that transition and jump from one to the other and do it at the perfect time versus our knowledge of a company like Kodak, which knew very well the digital future was coming, didn’t handle the transition well at all. And that’s what happens if you don’t.

But I think one big problem is simply the fact that print remains hugely important for most of our business models and, as I said, it’s very difficult to forego the short-term revenue.

The second thing is just the landscape is moving so quickly. If you look at social media, the Harvard Business Review is very successful in social media. We have a huge number of shares and a huge number of followers; we generate a lot of traffic through social media. What will our relationships be with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and others in a few years; it’s impossible to know. Probably very different from what they are now.

There’s a fundamental uncertainty that means we’re all experimenting a lot, but it’s somewhat difficult to have as much confidence in precise, future digitally-focused plans because it’s such a moving target.

Samir Husni: Do you think we’re making the same mistake as we did when we put all of our dependence upon advertising, because now we’re trying to depend so much on social media? What if Facebook decides to listen to the rumors I’ve been hearing and becomes an enclosed website, where it won’t take you to your website?

Adi Ignatius: I think we have to be open to that possibility. I think the most important thing is not to panic. There will be surprises like that. We used to depend on LinkedIn for a huge amount of traffic, but when LinkedIn realized they weren’t simply a place for people to search for jobs, they decided to have content and stickiness, and a lot of that content was HBR (Harvard Business Review) and I think HBR was some of the best performing content on that site.

And then they sort of realized that they could be developing their own content and didn’t really need partners. So, that was a moment of panic, but I think as long as you’re creating content that’s valuable to your audience, whether it’s a big or a niche audience, you can adapt to these things. So, we don’t have the same kind of relationship with LinkedIn now, but we’re working on developing other relationships with LinkedIn. Facebook and Twitter are great referrals to our site. If they’re cut off, we’ll figure something else out. A good brand with good content just has to be nimble. And if some of these things happen, we’ll figure something else out; I really do believe that.

Samir Husni: Can you foresee a day when HBR will not be in print?

Adi Ignatius: In theory, yes; it’s not a part of any of our plans at this point. I can imagine a reduction in print, in the number of print copies, and I would say that’s probably likely for us. And that would be driven by two main things: the decline in print advertising, which is real and profound and we see no sign of that being reversed, and more interestingly, a kind of shift in consumption habits. The challenge for us is to truly make digital a long-form reading experience that is as effective as print is now. And that involves new personalization, new utility, kind of a reinvention of what a long-form article is online, which is what we’re doing.

You talked about advertising before; the trap that many legacy publications have fallen into over the years is the pursuit of advertising at the expense of the relationship with the reader and the creation of quality content.

Nowadays, native advertising is viewed as a panacea for a lot of publications and a lot of native advertising solutions are great. We at HBR haven’t plunged into that yet, but we will and that’s fine. But I worry when I see some legacy publications, when they talk about what they’re doing; all they seem to be able to discuss is native. And my only feeling on that is advertising comes and goes, that is fact.

When I’ve worked at legacy publications, we’d create this content that was basically designed to be an adjacency to advertising. Whatever, fine. Then the advertising disappears. Advertising definitely comes and goes; you have to make sure that you have a product at the end of the day that your readers actually care about, because the advertising dollar today will disappear tomorrow. And there will be a new model, fine, you just have to make sure that you’re creating content that people actually care about and that isn’t just being created or advertising dollars.

Samir Husni: Somebody recently told me that the magazine industry doesn’t have an ink on paper problem; it has an advertising problem. Do you agree?

Adi Ignatius: Meaning what, exactly?

Samir Husni: That advertising is disappearing from print.

Adi Ignatius: Well, yes, that’s true. There are other models; some of the magazines that you and I love most are essentially subsidized by, I don’t know, a wealthy benefactor, maybe, something like that.

Samir Husni: (Laughs)

Adi Ignatius: And that’s also a good model. At HBR, just so you know; we’re not subsidized by the school, quite to the contrary. I’ve worked at Dow Jones and I’ve worked at Time Inc. And at HBR, we’re as commercially focused as any other publication that I’ve ever worked at. And we have to be successful on the bottom line and we have to be significantly profitable and the money that we make goes back to Harvard Business School to fund its case studies and research.

So, we’re very much in the real world and we’re very aware that advertising dollars have disappeared, but we’re a premium-priced subscription. Advertising is an important revenue source for us, but subscription is a more important source. What we’ve been able to accomplish in recent years is to increase circulation and increase the average price of a subscription and we want to keep doing that. So, I think there are ways if you have the right model and a target audience.

Samir Husni: With the price of the newsstand edition for just one copy, you can buy a year’s subscription to other magazines.

Adi Ignatius: Yes, that’s true. But I think if you get a subscription offer from Time magazine for $20 for a year and a half, it feels a little like the magazine is saying this publication has no value, please subscribe. And that’s not our approach. Yes, we are higher-priced, but this magazine is for people who love ideas and you’ll find ideas in this publication that can improve your company and your career, well beyond what we’re charging. That’s essentially our value proposition.

Samir Husni: One of the things that you mentioned earlier in our conversation was the need to create this timely, yet timeless, content. Do you think this is the future of print, that the printed word has to have a collectability factor and that it can’t be something described as disposable?

Adi Ignatius: I think we’ve all realized the value of the archives. We have an archive that goes back 25-30 years and subscribers get full access to anything that we’ve published during that time. And we tested that a couple of years ago and found out that subscribers were willing to pay significantly more when they realized they had access to that archive. And I think other publications are doing the same thing and unearthing archival ways that are proving valuable, informative and fun. I think in that sense, a smart curation of archives is a way to prove the timelessness of some of the ideas that we publish. And we want to do more of that.

The Harvard Business Review in the past was only about timelessness and I think the brand has proven adaptable enough that now, particularly on the web, we do things that are really timely.

Samir Husni: On a personal level with the magazine; what has been the biggest stumbling block that you’ve faced and how did you overcome it?

Adi Ignatius: When I came in 2009, we decided that we were going to reinvent the magazine. The company had just hired a consultant who had done focus groups and research and who had talked to people and concluded that the way we used to produce our covers, I don’t know of you remember it, but HBR used to be like an academic journal or like National Geographic in the old days, where the table of contents was fully listed on the cover.

And the consultant concluded that the table of contents on the cover was as iconic for Harvard Business Review as the red border is for Time magazine. And that you mess with that at your own peril. And I wasn’t sure that I bought that. (Laughs) And I saw the focus groups and heard what they were saying, things like, yes, I’m a marketing guy and I can see the table of contents, check out if there’s anything for me and if I’d really like to read it.

But to me that meant they were looking at the table of contents and if there wasn’t anything that appealed to them, they weren’t even going to open the magazine or even tear the plastic covering off, so all that work that one does to produce a magazine, the photos, the layout, the headlines and callouts; they weren’t even going to see any of that.

And our readership was pretty much going to decide that they should just go online and research what they wanted and buy articles there and they weren’t even going to subscribe.

So, we decided to do nothing that was revolutionary, but basically remake HBR more like a magazine. Maybe it was late in the era of print magazines, but it was still very important to us to create more of a personalization. HBR articles are hard going, so we wanted to make them somewhat more accessible, in terms of the art, headlines and presentation, because that’s it, right? You want people to read the articles they didn’t think they wanted to read from the table of contents, but they’re drawn into it for some reason and realize how interesting it really is.

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

Adi Ignatius: That was a reinvention in 2010 and by any measurement that you could use, it worked. Our circulation has risen and is now at a record level, about 300,000; our newsstand sales, even in this climate, basically have risen every year from 2010 onward, we average about 40,000 on the newsstand at $17.95, so by any measure, that’ s been successful.

We have to do this again. We have to reinvent the business model again for all the reasons that our colleagues in the industry are doing it. We’re kind of in the process of a strategic rethink to redefine what it means to be a subscriber, a member who belongs to Harvard Business Review. And I believe we’ll have some pretty interesting things to talk about in a few months.

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

Adi Ignatius: (Laughs) Business thinkers often say that you need to focus on one audience primarily and that would be readers, focus on your readers and keep your eye on them. But our situation is a little more complicated because we also need contributors to feel like we’re the best place for them to publish their ideas. We’re this hybrid; we’re somewhere in between a normal magazine and an academic journal.

And maintaining that sweet spot requires us to play this game of wanting HBR to be more accessible, but it also needs to sustain its level of rigor so that we remain true to who we are, but we also remain the place for the kind of authors that we want, who come up with the great ideas and that we remain the place they want to publish them. And that sometimes keeps me up at night; whether I can keep that balance intact, while still driving the business forward. That’s what I do; I’m balancer-in-chief.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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