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GQ – The Magazine & The Brand: Much More Than Just Two Letters – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Howard Mittman, Publisher, GQ.

October 12, 2015

“I think forever and always there will be an audience for print. I don’t think the inevitable path for print is to go away, I don’t even think the inevitable path is for print to be some sort of retro-iconic version of what records are to music lovers. But what I do think is print will evolve and print will change and I believe the path that we’re on, expanding the size and the weight and increasing the experience for consumers as opposed to decreasing, which is what most of our competitors are doing, is the right path.” Howard Mittman

Ryan Reynolds Cover The pinnacle of men’s fashion and lifestyle, GQ Magazine is looking to the future with creative innovation and boldness, both with its print product and all of its digital facets. And the man leading and driving the brand into the future is celebrating his one year anniversary with the magazine this month.

Howard Mittman is gregariously passionate when he talks about the brand he now calls his own. Coming from Wired after serving as vice president and publisher; Howard took the technologically savvy magazine to new heights under his guidance and he’s doing the same with GQ.

I spoke with Howard recently and we talked about the changes that have already been implemented at GQ and a hint about a few that are in the works. It was a lively and enjoyable discussion that made me feel as if I was talking with Howard in the comfort of his living room at home. The man is personable, open and very knowledgeable when it comes to the role of publisher of a major magazine.

So, straighten your tie and polish your shoes (ladies too) and get ready to enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Howard Mittman, Publisher, GQ.

But first, the sound-bites:

Howard Mittman GQ Publisher-Pablo Frisk On why if print is dead, the October issue of GQ is filled to capacity with advertising: Let me say first; print is not dead, a statement I’m fairly certain that you agree with. I truly think that print is evolving, and really all of media is evolving. So if you’re lucky enough to have the opportunity to work at a brand like GQ that is clearly number one in its category, whether you’re looking at fashion, style or just general interest for men, I have a really strong notion that we’ll be able to capture a significant part of the, not only advertising dollars, but the consumer mindset and attention that comes along with having a brand that’s more than a brand; it’s an adjective.

On how his approach has changed from being chief revenue officer at Wired to becoming chief revenue officer at GQ:
One of the opportunities afforded to me at Wired was to be deeply immersed inside the digital culture. And the opportunity to take that kind of culture and bring it here is enormous. GQ, from a digital perspective, has a fair amount of really good things going on. Think about it this way for a second and this almost translates back to your first question about print being dead; every 60 seconds a consumer types in #GQ into Instagram. Every 30 seconds a consumer types in #GQ into Instagram and Facebook and every 20 seconds a consumer types in #GQ across all social media. That means consumers are associating their pictures, their friends and themselves with our brand. That’s a really powerful statement about what GQ is, what it means and the relationship it has with not only it’s current consumers, but with millennial and Gen Z consumers.

On whether he believes the tablet and the homepage are dead:
So often in the industry things are cool, and shiny new objects get our attention, like dogs with firetrucks that go down the street, inevitably we realize that we can’t catch them. One thing I will say though, what happens is maybe tablets haven’t realized their full dream, in terms of transforming the entirety of our business, but they’re a really smart component to print. The whole direction of the future of Condé Nast and the industry of print has not been changed by tablets, but we still have 85 or 90,000 subscribers a month and it’s a really healthy component to print. And I think that’s the difference; we’re too quick to anoint new things as the next savior, or the next end-all-be-all versus the reality of them as just being a part of a larger story.

On whether GQ is doing anything different with its print product:
We’re doing a few things that I think you might find really interesting. In September we pushed the cover price from $5.99 to $7.99. And we’ve seen no negative impact at all on sales; it’s been a really wonderful test that gives us a sense of the potential of elasticity on the consumer side. In December, we’ll be doing the same thing, but in addition to pushing the price, we’ll also be pushing the size of the folio. It’s going to be a larger folio and a heavier paper stock. Again, testing the consumer side’s demand for a product that we think can be more luxurious and look more like a coffee table book than a magazine. And I think the inevitable future of print is that it will become an enthusiast’s product; people who love it will love it.

On why it took so long for publishers, using Jim Nelson’s (editor, GQ) quote to “make print printier,” when it wasn’t too long ago everyone was decreasing their print product instead of increasing it:
That’s a good question. I think ultimately like all businesses and all mediums everywhere, like television or radio, when you’re the only game in town; you tend to do things that work for that moment as opposed to building for the future. Who could have predicted that GQ’s Instagram feed would have 2 million followers or that Taylor Swift would have 50 million, right?

On any major stumbling block he’s faced and how he overcame it:
The challenge has been transitioning the mindset and the behaviors of the team. What I’ve been really excited to find is that there was and is this absolute thirst to learn the secret sauce of what it means to exist in a multi-platform business and a digital environment. And I’ve seen this team, on both ad and edit, and not all because of me, run toward this opportunity to transform themselves in so many different ways.

On how his role of publisher/chief revenue officer has changed over the years since the dawn of the digital age and is it easier or harder: We’re competing with startups that don’t care about profit, but care about evaluation. In video we’re competing against broadcast, networks and cable networks; in digital we’re competing against social networks; in events we’re competing against event spaces. So as we continue to grow this footprint, to grow this brand, we’re seemingly in competition with everyone. That’s the challenge. And there are only so many hours in a day and you have to figure out how and where to focus your attentions. So, it is harder; I think it’s significantly harder. The flip side is this kind of challenge or opportunity, or these kinds of distribution mechanisms, digital and otherwise, interest you; I don’t think there has ever been a more interesting or exciting time to be in this seat or have this role.

On whether he can ever envision the GQ brand without the print component:
I can envision it, but I don’t actually think it will ever happen. I think forever and always there will be an audience for print. I don’t think the inevitable path for print is to go away, I don’t even think the inevitable path is for print to be some sort of retro-iconic version of what records are to music lovers. But what I do think is print will evolve and print will change and I believe the path that we’re on, expanding the size and the weight and increasing the experience for consumers as opposed to decreasing, which is what most of our competitors are doing, is the right path.

On what motivates him to get out of bed every morning:
I set the alarm for 5:23 and I go to SoulCycle most days before work, so that truthfully is what gets me out of bed. What gets me showered and to work is there’s a genuine level of enthusiasm here for this brand at GQ and for the opportunities that lay ahead. And some days I’m just completely left in awe at the level of intelligence and passion and dedication of the team here at GQ. They are some of the smartest people that I’ve ever worked with. And I think that what you find throughout this floor is that the cheekiness and the irreverence and the humor, the intelligence and the style that exists in the magazine and in the content online permeates the offices and the cubicles here in a way that I’ve never seen before.

On anything else he’d like to add:
I’d like to talk about young talent for a second because we hear a lot about millennials and the challenges of working with millennials, but I’ve found the complete opposite hear at GQ. We’re surrounded by so many 20-somethings who work incredibly long hours and are passionate and dedicated and are the complete opposite of what popular culture and mass media would have you believe about that generation.

On what keeps him up at night:
Finding a private school for my son. (Laughs) To be honest, I’m sleeping soundly with GQ, but the private school admission process in New York City is a daunting one for sure.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Howard Mittman, Publisher, GQ.

Samir Husni: If print is dead; why do I have to wait until page 56 to find the Letter from the Editor in the October, 2015 issue of GQ? It’s filled to capacity with advertising, what’s going on?

Rob Lowe Cover Howard Mittman: Let me say first; print is not dead, a statement I’m fairly certain that you agree with. I truly think that print is evolving, and really all of media is evolving. Television is probably going through what print went through three or four years ago. There are a lot of seismic shifts happening.

But from a print perspective, gone are the days when men are going to subscribe to three, four or five magazines. There’s just an infinite amount of choice and there’s an ability to find likeminded content almost anywhere these days, from your laptop to your phone to the screen inside your elevator.

So, I think what’s happened is men specifically, and I’ll speak about men since I know that market better, are looking to maybe invest in one magazine brand. And they’re looking at it not as a magazine; they’re looking at it as a media property that they can go deeper and wider into.

So if you’re lucky enough to have the opportunity to work at a brand like GQ that is clearly number one in its category, whether you’re looking at fashion, style or just general interest for men, I have a really strong notion that we’ll be able to capture a significant part of the, not only advertising dollars, but the consumer mindset and attention that comes along with having a brand that’s more than a brand; it’s an adjective. GQ is a heck of a lot larger than just two letters, it’s an actual representation of what it means to be an American gentleman; it’s a compliment.

From my perspective, magazines are evolving but strong brands and brands that even outpunch their weight, such as GQ, have a real opportunity in a variety of different ways and places.

Samir Husni: Coming from being publisher of Wired, you were used to working with people and technology. When you were offered the job of publisher at GQ, where you would be dealing more with humans-only and men specifically; can you take me back to that particular moment when you took the job and what you were feeling?

Howard Mittman: Probably wow; I’ve got to buy some new suits. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: (Laughs too).

Howard Mittman: (Laughs again).

Samir Husni: Can you tell me the difference in your approach from being the chief revenue officer at Wired to now the chief revenue officer at GQ? How has your modus operandi changed when it comes to selling, marketing and just taking care of your new brand?

Howard Mittman: One of the opportunities afforded to me at Wired was to be deeply immersed inside the digital culture. And the opportunity to take that kind of culture and bring it here is enormous.

GQ, from a digital perspective, has a fair amount of really good things going on. Think about it this way for a second and this almost translates back to your first question about print being dead; every 60 seconds a consumer types in #GQ into Instagram. Every 30 seconds a consumer types in #GQ into Instagram and Facebook and every 20 seconds a consumer types in #GQ across all social media. That means consumers are associating their pictures, their friends and themselves with our brand. That’s a really powerful statement about what GQ is, what it means and the relationship it has with not only it’s current consumers, but with millennial and Gen Z consumers.

It also speaks to the opportunities inherent from a social and digital perspective to us should we put ourselves in a position to capitalize on it. And I’ve spent the better part of the last year, along with Jim Nelson and Mike Hofman and a lot of really talented people here, doing just that.

We revamped the entirety of our web program from the CMS (Content Management System) the site runs on, to the homepage, to the article pages, to the mobile platform, the recirculation modules and the slideshows, to say nothing of the massive amount of content we’re now producing. We’re doing maybe 35 to 36 unique stories per day on GQ.com. We’re publishing across multiple platforms and doing it seamlessly and we’ve seen our track click increase from 6 million uniques to 11 million uniques. These are some miraculous jumps inside of a year and I think they hint at just the very beginning of what opportunities that we have digitally.

Wired helped me because I knew how to do this; GQ helps me because the enormity of the brand is unlike anything else, I think, in this entire industry. There are very few brands, maybe a Vogue that has that kind of presence, and so capitalizing on that and being able to stand on the shoulders of it is fun.

Samir Husni: The first time you and I met you were at Wired and you were showing me the Wired app.

Howard Mittman: I remember that, yes.

Samir Husni: Now I hear people in New York telling me that the tablet is dead, the homepage is dead; why do you think we’re so quick to welcome all of these new digital devices and platforms, yet so quick to bury them as well? Do you really believe the tablet and the homepage are dead?

Howard Mittman: So often in the industry things are cool, and shiny new objects get our attention, like dogs with firetrucks that go down the street, inevitably we realize that we can’t catch them.

One thing I will say though, what happens is maybe tablets haven’t realized their full dream, in terms of transforming the entirety of our business, but they’re a really smart component to print. And I think that what we’ve found is ultimately the tablet is in between a desktop and a laptop, but moreover it’s really much more of a consumption device than a production device. And in that, it’s more akin to a digital magazine than it is a mobile phone or a desktop, so sure, the whole direction of the future of Condé Nast and the industry of print has not been changed by tablets, but we still have 85 or 90,000 subscribers a month and it’s a really healthy component to print.

And I think that’s the difference; we’re too quick to anoint new things as the next savior, or the next end-all-be-all versus the reality of them as just being a part of a larger story.

Samir Husni: Why do you think now, more than ever before, that we’re seeing this resurgence of life to the print product, specifically GQ, it’s becoming bigger and fatter. Is it the whole combination of your process or are you doing something specific with print that you haven’t done before?

Howard Mittman: We’re doing a few things that I think you might find really interesting. In September we pushed the cover price from $5.99 to $7.99. And we’ve seen no negative impact at all on sales; it’s been a really wonderful test that gives us a sense of the potential of elasticity on the consumer side.

In December, we’ll be doing the same thing, but in addition to pushing the price, we’ll also be pushing the size of the folio. It’s going to be a larger folio and a heavier paper stock. Again, testing the consumer side’s demand for a product that we think can be more luxurious and look more like a coffee table book than a magazine. And I think the inevitable future of print is that it will become an enthusiast’s product; people who love it will love it. And what we’ll find inside that reaction of enthusiasts is that they’ll be willing to pay more for a product that has a greater level of luxury that gives them more of what they love about the medium and as Jim Nelson is fond of saying. “Makes print printier.”

We’re testing this now actively on the newsstand; we’re testing the size and the weight of the issue in December and I believe that will help us transition the kind of experience we deliver in print at the same time that we increase our digital offerings and make sure that we push content out across a variety of distribution mechanisms, because ultimately it’s the consumer who decides if they want to interact with GQ. We just happen to be fortunate enough to be in a brand they want to interact with in all these different places. Print will still be a big part of that.

Michael B Jordan Cover Samir Husni: I’m delighted to hear that because I’ve always wondered why magazine publishers as a whole went through a period where they were decreasing the quality of paper and almost giving the magazine away. Why did it take us so long to quote Jim, “Make print printier?”

Howard Mittman: That’s a good question. I think ultimately like all businesses and all mediums everywhere, like television or radio, when you’re the only game in town; you tend to do things that work for that moment as opposed to building for the future. Who could have predicted that GQ’s Instagram feed would have 2 million followers or that Taylor Swift would have 50 million, right?

We used to own the printing press, literally and figuratively. Now, there’s a printing press in Taylor’s pocket; there’s a printing press in my pocket. As the world evolves, I think some of those decisions to decrease the point of entry for the price of the magazine to increase the scale of the audience and have that subsidized by advertisers, well, that model doesn’t work in the same way that it used to.

And so what we’re doing, in terms of pushing price and trying to move the brand out, is get it into a space where we can probably transition subscription through membership. That’s our goal. A subscription is $20 per year and someone sends a check. A membership is $60 or $100 or $200 or even $500 and it involves product boxes, samples or access to events and concierge services, and just a whole host of other things. All of those opportunities are being explored around this moment of disruption. And in spite of the disruption, it brings a ton of opportunities if you have a strong brand and strong connections with your community and GQ has both.

Samir Husni: Just from hearing you, it would seem that it’s been smooth sailing and full steam ahead during your first year as publisher of GQ. Have you had any moment that you would call a major stumbling block during this past year, and if so, how did you overcome it?

Howard Mittman: The challenge has been transitioning the mindset and the behaviors of the team. What I’ve been really excited to find is that there was and is this absolute thirst to learn the secret sauce of what it means to exist in a multi-platform business and a digital environment. And I’ve seen this team, on both ad and edit, and not all because of me, run toward this opportunity to transform themselves in so many different ways.

So, making sure you have the right people in place; making sure that you have the right mindset in place; these things are never easy and they take time. But from a digital perspective, whether it’s traffic or the KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) we’re delivering for advertisers or the revenue that we’re bringing in, we’re so far ahead of where I thought we’d be at this time. But like always, there’s still work to do.

Samir Husni: Speaking of more work to do; comparing your job of publisher/chief revenue officer prior to 2007, prior to the dawn of the digital age, to today’s role; do you think the job has become easier or harder? How has it changed?

Howard Mittman: I was promoted to publisher in February 2009 at Wired, so I wouldn’t know what it was like before that. And that was the worst time to be promoted as far as the economy goes, by the way. (Laughs) But the job is significantly different. It’s significantly harder.

We’re competing with startups that don’t care about profit, but care about evaluation. In video we’re competing against broadcast, networks and cable networks; in digital we’re competing against social networks; in events we’re competing against event spaces. So as we continue to grow this footprint, to grow this brand, we’re seemingly in competition with everyone. That’s the challenge. And there are only so many hours in a day and you have to figure out how and where to focus your attentions. So, it is harder; I think it’s significantly harder.

The flip side is this kind of challenge or opportunity, or these kinds of distribution mechanisms, digital and otherwise, interest you; I don’t think there has ever been a more interesting or exciting time to be in this seat or have this role. We are in this wonderful position where we get to look out onto the horizon and chart the course for what this business will look like in the next five,10 or 20 years. And that’s a really enviable position. And it’s probably the most fun thing we do. The decisions that we’re making now are building the foundation for what GQ will look like in the next 50 years and what the magazine will be. That definitely means longer days and a little less sleep and it means the era of the three-martini lunch is long gone and won’t be coming back. But I love my job and I think it’s so much fun to have this opportunity to do more than just sell a page for a color bleed.

Samir Husni: Can you ever envision the GQ brand without the printed magazine?

Howard Mittman: I can envision it, but I don’t actually think it will ever happen. I think forever and always there will be an audience for print. I don’t think the inevitable path for print is to go away, I don’t even think the inevitable path is for print to be some sort of retro-iconic version of what records are to music lovers

But what I do think is print will evolve and print will change and I believe the path that we’re on, expanding the size and the weight and increasing the experience for consumers as opposed to decreasing, which is what most of our competitors are doing, is the right path.

And when you look at things like GQ Style, which is our biannual magazine that we produce; we’ve seen enormous consumer success with that, and it sells for $13.99 on the newsstand and it’s up 30% every year. So, again there are opportunities for expansion in print if you can find the right opportunity to hit the cross-section between advertiser and consumer interest. And I think some of those specialty properties like GQ Style are doing a really nice job of that.

Samir Husni: Can you expand a little bit on the whole idea of the GQ membership; are you going full-force with that and testing it now as we speak?

Howard Mittman: We are testing it now, but I probably don’t want to get too far down the path with that, but we are in the middle of doing a handful of tests that are producing great excitement about the possibilities of what this could do to transform the subscription model here.

Samir Husni: As you celebrate your first anniversary as publisher of GQ; what motivates you each morning to get out of bed and say it’s going to be a great day?

Howard Mittman: I set the alarm for 5:23 and I go to SoulCycle most days before work, so that truthfully is what gets me out of bed. What gets me showered and to work is there’s a genuine level of enthusiasm here for this brand at GQ and for the opportunities that lay ahead.

And some days I’m just completely left in awe at the level of intelligence and passion and dedication of the team here at GQ. They are some of the smartest people that I’ve ever worked with. And I think that what you find throughout this floor is that the cheekiness and the irreverence and the humor, the intelligence and the style that exists in the magazine and in the content online permeates the offices and the cubicles here in a way that I’ve never seen before. And so there’s a collegiality and a level of dedication and pride for what we do that I’ve never had the opportunity to work with in that level of intensity before. Coming here to work every day is a treat and I’ll do it as long as Bob and Chuck let me.

Samir Husni: If I met you on the streets of New York today, would I say that you’re definitely a GQ man?

Howard Mittman: (Laughs) It’s funny; I laugh because I think the power of the GQ brand when it comes to fashion and style is such that the things I wore at Wired that no one noticed, I think they’d notice now. I have a feeling that I could come in wearing tuxedo pants and a Knicks jersey and people would think that’s in style just because I work at GQ. (Laughs) It’s hard for me to say.

But if you’re lucky enough to see folks like Jim Moore, Mark Anthony Green, Will Welch and Jim Nelson come in everyday, you can figure out ways to copy a little ebit of what they do so you look better than most, but never as good as them.

Samir Husni: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Howard Mittman: I’d like to talk about young talent for a second because we hear a lot about millennials and the challenges of working with millennials, but I’ve found the complete opposite hear at GQ. We’re surrounded by so many 20-somethings who work incredibly long hours and are passionate and dedicated and are the complete opposite of what popular culture and mass media would have you believe about that generation.

And I think part of the reason that we’re able to have that is because while startup brands and places like Google and Twitter seem like wonderful opportunities for young talent, the truth is that in the same way that it was true in the 70s, 80s and 90s coming with us is an incredible experience and incubated unlike anything else we’ve ever seen.

And the way that this company, and not just GQ, but this entire company is pushing out into digital and social, events and licensing and a whole host of other places, the access and the opportunity you get on these brands is unmatched, I think. We don’t produce people or brands that stay in one specific vertical. We don’t produce linear opportunities for knowledge and I think I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by so many smart, talented young people who see that. And I wish that was spoken about a little more frequently inside of magazines and with the popular press because these jobs are a treat, a pleasure and a privilege and we’re always looking for smart people.

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

Howard Mittman: Finding a private school for my son. (Laughs) To be honest, I’m sleeping soundly with GQ, but the private school admission process in New York City is a daunting one for sure.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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