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Forbes And The BrandVoice Match-Making: Mark Howard, Forbes’ Chief Revenue Officer And Chief Match-Maker Explains And Elaborates… The Mr. Magazine™ Interview.

June 5, 2015

“The types of content pieces that are created in the magazine, the opportunities that it affords us from an editorial perspective to continue to celebrate the entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial capitalism around the world that the world is increasingly moving to a place where those are the types of people that do tell the stories of business; it gives us access in a way that we would not have with just digital.” Mark Howard

forbes cover 061515Before native advertising, product placement and content marketing were terms that some holier-than-thou media critics and magazine pontiffs were using to cast aspersions and judgements on those that were practicing the model, Forbes Media was busy perfecting it. From content stories that were brand-produced, with their highly successful BrandVoice business model, to custom publishing done to an art form, Forbes has been leading the way in honoring their reader’s intelligence to know the difference between editorial and advertorial, with the act of transparency at the forefront of everything they do.

Mark Howard is chief revenue officer of Forbes and knows better than anyone that innovation and creative thinking when it comes to the execution of ideas is critical to the survival of any magazine media company in today’s digital world.

I recently spoke with Mark about the success of BrandVoice, the future of Forbes and where he saw the company heading. It was a very open and honest discussion about the idea of native advertising and content marketing that may have some rethinking their position on the subject. The transparent and highly savvy execution of Forbes’ business model presents another alternative to the revenues of legacies and offers a vision for the future many could use.

So, I hope you enjoy this illuminating conversation with Mark Howard, CRO, Forbes Media. And if you keep an open mind when it comes to something other mediums have been doing for generations; you may be surprised at the possibilities.

But first, the sound-bites:

HowardMarkOn anything negative he can visualize from the BrandVoice concept of telling different brand stories from the business world on Forbes’ covers: We do not and I’ll explain why. For many, many years we’ve believed that the cover of the magazine is the front door of the brand. For five years now, we’ve been embracing a people-centric cover strategy where individuals grace the cover of our magazine. And coinciding with that philosophy, five years ago we also launched the concept of BrandVoice, where brands tell stories through their lenses and from their points of view from the business world.

On why there seems to be a different set of rules for magazine media from other platforms when it comes to native advertising and product placement: I think for many years there were a set of rules that people for the most part followed, in terms of best practices for the industry. And quite frankly, I think that the times progressed faster than those rules, so we lived in an interim period where the way consumers behaved and certainly the way that those other mediums evolved was just quicker when it came to best business practices.

On the fact the Forbes’ model has been leading the way in programmatic buying and native advertising before anyone else was even talking about it: You know I think the driving force behind all of this was really when the Forbes family took a chance and acquired True/Slant, which was of course created by Lewis DVorkin, who has since stayed on and really transformed the overall vision for Forbes media.

On whether he thinks other media companies may replicate the Forbes model: In various forms there have been a lot of other companies that have replicated either digitally or in print the expansion of contributor-based content creation. I don’t think very many of them, certainly none that have the brand cache of a Forbes; none of the other brands at our level necessarily tout it the way that we do, where we put it front and center and we talk about the fact that the economics of content creation were broken and disruptions like digital media and programmatic media and social media were changing the way that you had to think about your business.

On whether he believes Forbes could have reached its present 70% digital revenue without a print component: When you think about the Forbes brand and you think about our history and the equity that the Forbes name carries in the marketplace; that has absolutely given us an opportunity to build our digital business in a way that we would not have been able to do otherwise without it.

On whether he can ever envision Forbes media without a printed Forbes magazine: Today, no, and in the near future, no, absolutely not. The types of content pieces that are created in the magazine, the opportunities that it affords us from an editorial perspective to continue to celebrate the entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial capitalism around the world that the world is increasingly moving to a place where those are the types of people that do tell the stories of business; it gives us access in a way that we would not have with just digital.

On the fear that a smaller company will look at Forbes business model and start selling their covers as cover stories: It’s always possible. I think what it will come down to is what value do readers place on that brand? If they’re starting from scratch, they don’t have the equity in the marketplace that a Forbes does. They certainly don’t have the cache.

On the definition of the term BrandVoice in the world of advertising today: It’s content that’s told in the voice of the brand, not something that’s been created necessarily in the Forbes voice on behalf of a brand.

On the difference between BrandVoice and the whole genre of content marketing and custom publishing: Obviously, custom publishing still represents a lot of business for us as well. That’s actually doing particularly well, which is exciting for us. But I think the big difference is the content is intended to read more like an article or be presented as an infographic or an online post in the same sort of format and read the same way that editorial content would be presented.

On the major stumbling block he’s had to face: I inherited the business at a time when the digital revenue had just, at that point, equaled print revenue. And of course, digital was continuing to grow. The big challenges in the marketplace surrounding the plateauing or slight decline overall of print advertising of course is something that we addressed as well as the continued migration of digital ad dollars in the programmatic.

On the fact that everything Forbes has done to improve their model and digital business has been with an eye on their print component as well: You’re absolutely right. We have tremendous readership; in fact, we’re at our all-time high in terms of average issue readership, according to MRI, with essentially seven million readers per issue. We actually had with our Billionaire’s issue, which was the last issue that was reported on; we had 7.4 million readers, which was the largest readership of an issue since 2009.

On media critic’s reactions, on a scale from one to ten, on Forbes’ BrandVoice model – ten being the opinion that Forbes sold out: In 2010 when we first launched this, I would say the reaction was a 10. There are articles online about how Forbes had officially sold itself out and this was the beginning of the end of premiere journalism. And the reaction was pretty intense.

On what he would tell Mr. Magazine™ a year from now about Forbes if they were having a conversation: I would tell you that the way in which we’ve used technology and design in both print and digital could further expand the way that brands are telling stories and creating content on Forbes.com and in Forbes magazine.

On anything else he’d like to add: All of these partners are looking at us as cross platforms, integrated partnerships for them. And I think that that’s really where we’re going to continue to see high value for our ability to work with which ever brands; when we can leverage live events featuring the content or at least content ideas; where we can use the magazine to beautifully lay out data that a brand is able to provide for our readership, in context with the flow of the book.

On what keeps him up at night: The biggest thing that I’m thinking about is mobile. It’s mobile and it’s also how do we continue to make sure that we’re quantifying value of the print product.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Mark Howard, Chief Revenue Officer, Forbes Media.

Samir Husni: Lately, magazine covers seem to have become very hot, most recently the Vanity Fair cover with Caitlyn Jenner comes to mind. No other medium that I can think of can deliver a topic with the same impact as a magazine cover. And when it comes to the cover of Forbes and what you’ve done with the NorthWestern Mutual voice; do you see anything negative that can result from that move?

AT&T on second cover 012014 Mark Howard: We do not and I’ll explain why. For many, many years we’ve believed that the cover of the magazine is the front door of the brand. For five years now, we’ve been embracing a people-centric cover strategy where individuals grace the cover of our magazine. And we think that it’s reflective of the way that we tell the stories of business through the lens of individuals who are doing interesting and amazing things in the world.

And coinciding with that philosophy, five years ago we also launched the concept of BrandVoice, where brands tell stories through their lenses and from their points of view from the business world. And because we’ve been consistent, in terms of the way that we’ve been presenting our content, labeling our content and calling out that material on the table of contents, as we’ve moved into this year and we had the second cover of the magazine, which was an AT&T BrandVoice, then in the following issue, the retirement guide; Fidelity actually got called out as part of our retirement package on the cover with their BrandVoice.

And now the execution with NorthWestern Mutual, which was a content experience that was very consistent with our Top Women’s issue; we feel that there’s a consistency here, in terms of the way that we’ve developed this program over the last few years and then their inclusion on the cover we believe fits with that concept of being fully transparent, connected with the issue seen, but also separated and identified so that the consumer knows that it’s different from a Forbes editorial product.

Samir Husni: For years other platforms such as television and movies have used the brand voice, have put product placement, native advertising, you name it, into their different environments; why is it when it comes to magazines, and anytime I refer to the word magazine I mean the printed product, why are we treated differently do you think?

Mark Howard: I think for many years there were a set of rules that people for the most part followed, in terms of best practices for the industry. And quite frankly, I think that the times progressed faster than those rules, so we lived in an interim period where the way consumers behaved and certainly the way that those other mediums evolved was just quicker when it came to best business practices.

And so I think it took a number of different executions and publishers to break beyond the governing rules that had existed for many decades and do things that weren’t necessarily accepted as being something the industry as a whole was comfortable with, but like any change I think somebody has got to go first and do things that are reflective of the times that we live in and the fact that consumers are able to comprehend the difference between an ad and editorial.

Samir Husni: For five years now you and Forbes have been leading that revenue strategy based on programmatic buying and native advertising even before anybody else was talking about it. What prepared you from your background to take this leading role and do you think it would have worked at any other media company other than Forbes?

Mark Howard: That’s a great question. You know I think the driving force behind all of this was really when the Forbes family took a chance and acquired True/Slant, which was of course created by Lewis DVorkin, who has since stayed on and really transformed the overall vision for Forbes media.

He really set out with this notion that he’s going to disrupt business journalism and that the tools of the web and the behaviors of consumers as a result of living their lives on the web, increasingly the social web, were capable of experiencing a different type of content-based media company.

Lewis came and shared that vision and at that time, 2009 and 2010, with all the challenges businesses were facing, but especially the business press. The market was right for disruption and Forbes being an independent, at that time family-owned business, we always celebrated that concept of entrepreneurship and entrepreneurism, so it was time for us to also embrace it ourselves, in terms of our own business. That was something that inspired a lot of people. It really did take somebody like Lewis who had a vision, understood where he wanted to go with it and could very clearly articulate that.

I think if you look at all of his posts dating back to 2010; he published our blueprint for what we were doing, not just what we had already done, but also looking forward. And he was fully transparent to anyone who read him about where we were going and that form of communication for the individuals, myself included, who were part of it at Forbes, was very inspiring. We really were a part of a change that was happening with a model that had yet to be proven, but it was absolutely a model that was differentiated.

Samir Husni: Do you expect that model to now be replicated by other magazine companies?

Mark Howard: In various forms there have been a lot of other companies that have replicated either digitally or in print the expansion of contributor-based content creation. I don’t think very many of them, certainly none that have the brand cache of a Forbes; none of the other brands at our level necessarily tout it the way that we do, where we put it front and center and we talk about the fact that the economics of content creation were broken and disruptions like digital media and programmatic media and social media were changing the way that you had to think about your business.

But I think that you see varying degrees of it and I think you see with a lot of the new media that they’re building similar types of businesses knowing that they’re not tied to some of the legacy infrastructure that exists with a lot of traditional companies.

The model has proven itself in that our print business has really stabilized, which is exciting. We’ve been able to hold where we are, and yet the digital business now represents about 70% of our revenue and we’re not in the situation some of the other traditional media companies and traditional publishers are, where they’re trying to make the lead to sustainable growth business; we’ve already made that transition and are profitable and are continuing to grow at a significant clip every year.

Samir Husni: Do you think you could have reached 70% digital revenue without the print component of Forbes as the brand’s cornerstone?

Mark Howard: When you think about the Forbes brand and you think about our history and the equity that the Forbes name carries in the marketplace; that has absolutely given us an opportunity to build our digital business in a way that we would not have been able to do otherwise without it. There is absolutely an expectation around quality of content, quality of organization and quality of audience that comes when you have a background like we do. And that does not necessarily exit with the new media startup companies. So, yes, I think it played a significant part in what we’ve been able to accomplish.

Samir Husni: Can you imagine Forbes media without a printed Forbes magazine?

Mark Howard: Today, no, and in the near future, no, absolutely not. The types of content pieces that are created in the magazine, the opportunities that it affords us from an editorial perspective to continue to celebrate the entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial capitalism around the world that the world is increasingly moving to a place where those are the types of people that do tell the stories of business; it gives us access in a way that we would not have with just digital.

And I also think that it gives us access to editorial talent that we might not necessarily get if we only had a digital property.

Samir Husni: One CEO of a media company was telling me that with the legacy brands it’s so hard to change. His thoughts were it’s easier to kill a legacy brand than start something new because with something new you can do so many different things that you can’t do with a legacy. But when you look at Forbes and what you’ve done; in fact, investing in the print editions and launching international editions all over the world; do you think that there’s a fear that a smaller company or an entrepreneur will look at your model and start actually selling their covers for cover stories?

Mark Howard: It’s always possible. I think what it will come down to is what value do readers place on that brand? If they’re starting from scratch, they don’t have the equity in the marketplace that a Forbes does. They certainly don’t have the cache.

From a reader’s perspective, I think the notion of being on the cover of Forbes magazine can carry such great weight from a business and cultural perspective that it would be very hard for somebody else to be able to replicate that. Now, would I see a place where other startups would take that approach and offer that? Certainly. But would consumers be accepting of that? Probably, as long as they understood that that’s why that individual or that company was placed there. Then it would come down to the merits of the story and if the story behind it was something that was relevant to whatever brand was telling that story, then you’re on to something.

But the worst thing is when your integration of the advertiser isn’t authentic to the way that your brand is positioned in the expectations of your readers.

Samir Husni: Define for me the term BrandVoice in the world of advertising today.

Mark Howard: The quick history is when we launched it as a product in 2010 it was called AdVoice, but AdVoice wasn’t an accurate description of what it is. It wasn’t intended to be an advertisement or advertorial; it was intended to be content told through the voice of a brand.

Almost three years ago there was a team: Lewis DVorkin, myself, Meredith Levien, when she was still at Forbes, Andrea Stegall, who was on Lewis’s team and then of course, with the guidance of Mike Perlis, our CEO, we decided in order to more accurately describe what the product is we were going to change the name from AdVoice to BrandVoice, which has been a tremendous success for us.

To boil it all down and answer your question, it’s content that’s told in the voice of the brand, not something that’s been created necessarily in the Forbes voice on behalf of a brand. And we believe that more and more brands are looking to tell good stories and connect with consumers through the content, but we really want the stories that are being told to feel like they’re coming from that brand, but they need to be nuanced so that’s it’s very appropriate to be consumed on Forbes or in Forbes magazine.

Samir Husni: I know this is a very obvious question and I know what you’re going to tell me, but how is this different from the whole genre of content marketing and custom publishing?

Mark Howard: Obviously, custom publishing still represents a lot of business for us as well. That’s actually doing particularly well, which is exciting for us. But I think the big difference is the content is intended to read more like an article or be presented as an infographic or an online post in the same sort of format and read the same way that editorial content would be presented.

The custom content still reads very much brand-centric, whereas the BrandVoice tells the story of the brand and its products. The BrandVoice is telling the story of the business marketplace or finance marketplace through the lens of the brand, but not necessarily about them.

It’s a nuance thing and sort of in the eyes of the beholder, but I think the other big difference is within context. So, a BrandVoice program, if you look at it in the magazine, always runs within relevant editorial content. An advertorial or a special section is its own thing that’s siloed in the magazine and is not really working to the flow of the content.

Same thing on the website; each of the brands select which editorial stream they want their content to flow through. So, if it’s an article by SAP on cloud computing, they would select something in our cloud computing stream; NorthWestern Mutual would select retirement or one of the other relevant investing streams.

It’s all about the contextual discovery of the content as well as the nuance approach to how it reads more about a topic as opposed to about a brand, if it’s going to be BrandVoice.

Samir Husni: Mark, since you assumed the job as chief revenue officer; what has been the major stumbling block that you’ve had to face and how did you overcome it?

Mark Howard: I inherited the business at a time when the digital revenue had just, at that point, equaled print revenue. And of course, digital was continuing to grow. The big challenges in the marketplace surrounding the plateauing or slight decline overall of print advertising of course is something that we addressed as well as the continued migration of digital ad dollars in the programmatic.

And then increasingly the biggest issue for all publishers is how consumers are now finding and consuming content more and more on mobile devices and yet, a brand advertising marketplace does not yet fully exist to capitalize on that traffic. So, there is very much a macro of factors that are weighing in on us that we’re addressing.

But to your point; we were very aggressive in 2010 on building out the BrandVoice product and creating a new revenue stream, even very aggressive since 2012 in the first quarter and hyper-aggressive with programmatic. And both of those debts have paid off and have continued to stay the course for the rest of our business and helped us to achieve the gross success that we have.

Samir Husni: One of Lewis’s famous quotes when I interviewed him when he was visiting with us here at the University of Mississippi was: “We do not have a magazine problem; we have an advertising problem,” when referring to the print product. And looking at what Forbes has done; it seems to me that you’ve also enhanced the print product; that all of this digital growth didn’t come at the expense of your print entity, but rather, it’s finding ways to ensure that there will be a future for print in this digital age. Am I right or am I wrong?

fidelity on cover 030215 (2) Mark Howard: You’re absolutely right. There are two things; one is that quote is absolutely correct. We have tremendous readership; in fact, we’re at our all-time high in terms of average issue readership, according to MRI, with essentially seven million readers per issue. We actually had with our Billionaire’s issue, which was the last issue that was reported on; we had 7.4 million readers, which was the largest readership of an issue since 2009.

So, the readership is strong and certainly if you look at the MPA 360 data to look at our overall brand footprint, depending on the given month, we’re either the 4th or 5th largest brand in the entire study, that’s with all magazine brands included. Certainly, the digital has given us exposure to a new audience.

We also think that the unwavering commitment that we’ve had to always represent entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial capitalism and the business world that we live in today, which is all about that, plays true to us as we’ve never had to chase trends or try and reinvent ourselves.

In terms of the print commitment to the product, I think that what’s been spectacular is that the editor of the magazine, Randall Lane, has been very methodical in terms of how he’s evolved the look, feel and flow of the magazine. And while we haven’t done any form of a full-fledged redesign, I think what you would notice is if you laid out an issue from April 2015 to April 2014 and April, the year before that; it’s a very, very different looking product and he puts it together very differently than he used to, but he’s been doing that through a series of small integral changes as opposed to any dramatic shifts, which has resulted in a completely differentiated product that we’re working with right now.

So, it’s been exciting to see that and yet we haven’t necessarily done the things that get some of the big splashes of attention like a full-fledged redesign. But to your point, we have been making very significant investments in photography and design that makes a big difference for the business.

Samir Husni: Since BrandVoice has been in the marketplace; how would you gauge the media critic’s reactions? What has it been on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the opinion that Forbes has sold out and journalism is dead and what in the world is Forbes doing? From your connections, what do you think the reaction has been?

Mark Howard: In 2010 when we first launched this, I would say the reaction was a 10. There are articles online about how Forbes had officially sold itself out and this was the beginning of the end of premiere journalism. And the reaction was pretty intense.

Just a couple of years ago in 2012 when native advertising really came onto the scene, all of those same publications and many of the same reporters were writing stories about how Forbes had created a new line of business understanding the new opportunities of the digital world. And then because everybody, every publisher at that point, had essentially built some form of a native content business; I think that the media world has gotten very comfortable with the various forms that native content comes in, but certainly in January and February, when we did the AT&T and Fidelity covers, people popped back up again. I would put it at a five on that go-round because it involved the cover.

But at the same time, there are also a number of phenomenal posts that said we don’t understand what all this reaction is about; it’s logical and transparent and Forbes has been consistent in the way that they’ve presented themselves over the years. So, that’s why I would put it at a five with this cover, because of the recent cover treatment.

Samir Husni: If you and I are engaged in a conversation one year from now, what would you tell me?

Mark Howard: I would tell you that the way in which we’ve used technology and design in both print and digital could further expand the way that brands are telling stories and creating content on Forbes.com and in Forbes magazine. It’s been very exciting in that a number of very interesting approaches and concepts have been released in the last year.

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

Mark Howard: What’s really exciting for us is that if you look at a partner who has participated in the BrandVoice spread so far this year; you have AT&T, Fidelty, NorthWestern Mutual and ADP in the last issue; we’re taking new approaches to how we’re having their content and usually their data presented.

But more importantly is that all of these partners are looking at us as cross platforms, integrated partnerships for them. And I think that that’s really where we’re going to continue to see high value for our ability to work with which ever brands; when we can leverage live events featuring the content or at least content ideas; where we can use the magazine to beautifully lay out data that a brand is able to provide for our readership, in context with the flow of the book.

We’re starting to see a lot more interest in brands in that level of equal partnerships and that’s very promising for media overall, especially print. And these high impact executions are important. We’re very excited. We have a whole queue of content now that we’re working on and I think you’re going to continue to see the evolution of what you have with BrandVoice, especially in print today, but digital as well. And you’re going to continue to see us push through with creative concepts that hopefully will be very interesting to the readers and will allow us to bring it forward with different advertisers.

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

Mark Howard: The biggest thing that I’m thinking about is mobile. It’s mobile and it’s also how do we continue to make sure that we’re quantifying value of the print product. If we can continue to build more data stats per print and our current readership, then that’s helpful and really the big frontier is a mobile world where most of the monetization takes place with apps and direct response. How do brands break through and use the medium as a brand-building platform and how do we as a publisher continue to create opportunity to do so.

And certainly, BrandVoice, because it’s optimized for mobile and it’s the first step in that process, but I really think that we’re at the first stages of figuring all of that out.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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