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Steven Kotok: Bauer Media Group USA’s New CEO Is A Champion Of The Consumer & A Strong Believer In The Power Of Audience First – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Steven Kotok

October 14, 2016

womans-world“We’re week in and week out fighting it out for people’s attention and for the last experience they had with that title. And they bought it a week or two before and now they’re coming back to it again. I guess I only believe in it because that’s where the readers are, where they’re being satisfied and engaged. These days people have to Tweet while they’re watching TV; just the multitasking, and I think print is one of the last mediums, whether it’s books or magazines, that people actually devote 100% of their attention to.” Steven Kotok (On why he still believes in print in this digital age)

Bauer Media Group USA publishes a multitude of titles; from Woman’s World to In Touch, the company has its finger on the pulse of American magazine media, even though they’re a German-based entity. When CEO Hubert Boehle decided to leave the company after more than 30 years, Bauer reached out to another man who knows a thing or two about magazines with European parents: Steven Kotok.

Steven was with Dennis Publishing for 18 years, during which he was CEO of brands such as Mental Floss and The Week. Since his stint at Dennis, he has been serving as president of the website, The Wirecutter. So, Steven has been at both ends of the spectrum; print and digital. And he is a firm believer in both.

I spoke with Steven recently and we talked about his thoughts on taking over the helm of the American division of a company with such a vast array of titles as Bauer USA. His first and foremost priority hasn’t changed throughout his career; his faith and concerns are in and with the reader. He is adamant about that yesterday, today and tomorrow. Luckily, Bauer has the same mentality, so the two should get along famously.

If something isn’t broken, Steven has no plans on fixing it. And there are many things “right” already at Bauer, such as their successful stable of magazines. Steven is savvy enough to see that, so his concentration is in study mode for now. After all, he’s only completed his first week there. Mr. Magazine™ will revisit his thoughts a bit later, when he’s had time to settle in.

So until then, I hope you enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Steven Kotok, CEO, Bauer Media Group USA.

But first the sound-bites:

steve-kotok

On why he thinks when it comes to European companies starting businesses in the States, he seems to be the go-to guy: No, I think that my orientation even before I was in the publishing business has always been just transacting with consumers. That’s what I like and it’s more of a European model than an American model historically. So, it’s where I’ve gravitated and where they’ve gravitated.

On his future strategy for Bauer’s vast array of titles: That’s a good question. Definitely on day seven; I haven’t completely figured it out, but clearly there is a lot that these guys are doing that’s working. The U.S. Company has nine figures in revenue and nice financial results, so certainly they’re satisfying the readers’ needs wherever they are.

On his definition of a successful print product in this digital age: My philosophy has always been that financial success can’t be the goal; it’s more of an outcome of doing everything else right. So, when people aim in anything, even a restaurant, which is always my metaphor; if they’re just trying to make it a financial success as the primary focus, they’re generally going to fail. That’s when the waiters are trying to upsell you to get 20 appetizers; it just all goes wrong. So, success to me is something that really resonates with the audience and really engages people.

On whether he thinks Bauer can continue at the level of new launches of weeklies that they’ve been doing in the past: I don’t know that we’ll be necessarily launching a lot more weeklies. I think that the frequency of anything that we do is coming as a response to the reader need in the market. What we’re seeing, like I said with J-14 Decorate, are very specific needs; very high engagement. People are actually taking action based on what’s in that magazine. If we saw a reader demand for a weekly, that would be where we went next; I think weeklies are just as viable as anything else, but we don’t start with an idea of frequency as much as we do with an unanswered reader’s need.

On whether there will be a veering of course toward more male-targeted publications at Bauer with his experience at Maxim and The Week: No, I think my experience is more about seeing how our counterintuitive idea can succeed by connecting. I don’t consider myself a male edit expert. You made the observation about the European companies; it is ironic that it takes companies from across the ocean to recognize the unsatisfied need. Clearly Maxim addressed a huge underserved group of people thought to not even read magazines. The week as well went into a category that people thought was completely mature. And with both of those products, the lesson to me isn’t how to connect with men; the lesson is you can really bust open a category by focusing on what’s missing.

first-for-womenOn why he still believes in print in this digital age: There’s no guarantee and there’s no one who has booked a ticket in advance. We’re week in and week out fighting it out for people’s attention and for the last experience they had with that title. And they bought it a week or two before and now they’re coming back to it. I guess I only believe in it because that’s where the readers are, where they’re being satisfied and engaged.

On the most pleasant moment he’s experienced in his first week as CEO of Bauer: By far, meeting the editors. There has been this whole process and obviously I’ve been studying the magazines and thinking about them. There has been so much pre-anticipation to coming here and then to actually sit down with the person who is spending 50 to 60 hours per week producing each magazine. And editors are the most fun people to talk to anyway. It’s like you’ve been reading about Paris your whole life and then you finally get to go.

On the biggest stumbling block he’s had to face and how he overcame it: Thankfully, for these first seven days there hasn’t been a stumbling block, but I think definitely the retail channel is very, very challenged. What the digital publishers are facing with like a Facebook is that it has become kind of a gatekeeper for them as they talk about platforms and things. We have our own gatekeepers standing between us and the consumer, and you want to have that direct relationship as much as you can. Anytime a third party can stand between you and your customers; it’s difficult.

in-touchOn what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly at his home one evening: Probably cooking and having a glass of wine; that’s kind of my relaxation. I love cooking and thankfully my wife lets me do the cooking and she does a lot of the other stuff that I should be doing, so I would say that if it’s a night I can get home at a reasonable hour and don’t have some other commitment, cooking something weeknight-simple and the two of us sitting down with some wine is kind of our favorite thing.

On what keeps him up at night: (Laughs) That’s a good question. To expand on my earlier answer, I guess it’s anything that’s out of our control that comes between us and the readers. The companies that have put their faith in the reader have always done very well. We can’t control the reader, but we can engage with the reader and to that extent, our fate is in our own hands. It’s shame on us if we can’t produce content that makes them happy, but the things that aren’t in our own hands, what stands between us and the reader is the scariest part.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Steven Kotok, CEO, Bauer Media Group.

Samir Husni: Congratulations on your new position.

Steven Kotok: Thank you very much. It’s a match made in heaven as far as I’m concerned. It’s been really fun so far.

Samir Husni: This is the second company that you’ve been at that has its headquarters in Europe. Are you the guy to go to when companies from overseas want to come to America and start their businesses here?

Steven Kotok: I must be a European’s idea of an American is all I can figure out. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: (Laughs too).

life-and-styleSteven Kotok: No, I think that my orientation even before I was in the publishing business has always been just transacting with consumers. That’s what I like and it’s more of a European model than an American model historically. So, it’s where I’ve gravitated and where they’ve gravitated.

Back when I was in the food business, as you and I have talked about many times, being able to just make something, give it to the person, and see if they eat it or not when the plates come back, and you see one of the dishes completely eaten. That’s the exciting part.

It’s the same with print media, where the European companies are much more oriented toward the consumer revenue, and even my last two years in a digital role, we were 95 percent revenue from consumers. It wasn’t an ad-supported digital company at The Wirecutter either.

So, it’s really how certain people orient toward the business. It’s not always about this hierarchy. You’re only going to be successful if you’re aligning with people who share your values about how to do things. It’s not always one right way, but everyone should kind of agree on what is the right way if they’re going to be successful

Samir Husni: And how was your first week?

Steven Kotok: Busy.

Samir Husni: I noticed on social media that you said you were happy to see a phrase often spoken by Felix Dennis, God rest his soul, in the office when you arrived.

Steven Kotok: It was amazing; it really was. I did a double-take. It surprised me. He didn’t coin it, but if I have heard that phrase 100 times, 99 of them were from him. It being a sort of unfamiliar environment and me having butterflies; just to see that on the wall was the best feeling.

Samir Husni: You came from Dennis Publishing, where you had two or three different titles to deal with; now at Bauer, you have a vast fleet of titles, from the weeklies to the monthlies. What strategies are you planning for this large array of magazines?

Steven Kotok: That’s a good question. Definitely on day seven; I haven’t completely figured it out, but clearly there is a lot that these guys are doing that’s working. The U.S. Company has nine figures in revenue and nice financial results, so certainly they’re satisfying the readers’ needs wherever they are.

closerThey have their kind of champion products, Woman’s World, First for Women, In Touch, that have larger circulations. But they’ve been launching more and more titles like J-14 Decorate, which you were kind enough to recognize as one of the 30 Hottest New Launches; so more and more, the same as you see in cable TV and every other part of the world; there’s this fragmentation, where maybe there’s not going to be another five million circulation magazine in our future, but maybe ways to satisfy each audience where we can own that audience and put out products that really answer a consumer need. Even if you’re doing a lot of that with each of the smaller audience magazines, you can build a level of loyalty and engagement that is maybe tougher in a more competitive environment.

So, I think that certainly on the print side, we have a lot of stuff in the works that we like and we have such good relationships in the retail channel and with our readers that we have the ability to put stuff out in a way that if it works, the up side is very high, or if it’s something that is a misfire, in terms of our sense of what readers want; we’ll let the readers tell us what works for them. We’re not taking a huge risk on every single thing, so if you’re hitting singles and doubles at a nice rate, it’s very scalable and sustainable.

I think the big launches, you know, where you put all of your chips on one title, may be a thing of the past. I think mass general interest is tougher in all media.

Samir Husni: Can you give me your definition of what you consider to be a successful print product in this digital age?

Steven Kotok: My philosophy has always been that financial success can’t be the goal; it’s more of an outcome of doing everything else right. So, when people aim in anything, even a restaurant, which is always my metaphor; if they’re just trying to make it a financial success as the primary focus, they’re generally going to fail. That’s when the waiters are trying to upsell you to get 20 appetizers; it just all goes wrong.

So, success to me is something that really resonates with the audience and really engages people. It’s something where you can get repeat readership and I think out of that comes all of the other types of success.

We’re not so naïve or such hippies that we’re not thinking about the financial implications of everything we’re doing, but you have to focus on really engaging the reader, not just getting the casual attention, because we’re trying to get them to take a moment from everything else they’re doing and pick something up at the newsstand and plunk down their own hard-earned money week in and week out, or month out. At the end of the day, that’s the number one metric of success. There are beloved TV shows that get cancelled, so, there are plenty of things that can resonate with people and not be a financial success, but success with the reader and really grabbing and engaging them is the only thing that brings you everything else.

cbs-soapsSamir Husni: Since Bauer’s inception, they’ve been one of the few daring publishers of weeklies, with Woman’s World, In Touch, and Life &Style, and Closer Weekly. Do you think that you can continue that level of new launches with weeklies in this day and age?

Steven Kotok: I don’t know that we’ll be necessarily launching a lot more weeklies. I think that the frequency of anything that we do is coming as a response to the reader need in the market. What we’re seeing, like I said with J-14 Decorate, are very specific needs; very high engagement. People are actually taking action based on what’s in that magazine.

If we saw a reader demand for a weekly, that would be where we went next; I think weeklies are just as viable as anything else, but we don’t start with an idea of frequency as much as we do with an unanswered reader’s need.

A lot of the big categories where weeklies are successful, women’s and celebrities were there. I don’t know if there is another category crying out for a weekly as much. So we don’t start with the frequency or start with the market as much as just figuring out where the need is and how we can fill it. Even in terms of format, one of our newer launches is Simple Grace, which is in a digest size, which we didn’t start with the idea of a digest-sized publication. We started with some observations about our readership and an unfulfilled area of need, and then kind of backed into what would best satisfy that need.

Samir Husni: When you look at all of the titles that Bauer has, and in fact I selected Simple Grace as last year’s Hottest New Launch, but if you look at the variety of the titles; they’re trying to fill in the gaps between the age groups, from Pre-K, all the way to older women. With your experience with Maxim and The Week; are there any plans to veer more toward the male audience publications?

Steven Kotok: No, I think my experience is more about seeing how our counterintuitive idea can succeed by connecting. I don’t consider myself a male edit expert. You made the observation about the European companies; it is ironic that it takes companies from across the ocean to recognize the unsatisfied need. Clearly Maxim addressed a huge underserved group of people thought to not even read magazines. The week as well went into a category that people thought was completely mature. And with both of those products, the lesson to me isn’t how to connect with men; the lesson is you can really bust open a category by focusing on what’s missing.

This company from Hamburg, Germany is the one connecting with people, whether you want to call it the underserved type of audience, the mass audience. If you said there’s a hot new magazine from Germany, you might picture some high-end design magazine or something. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that people from the outside are able to identify the underserved needs.

animal-talesI don’t have a preconceived notion that we’re going to suddenly start launching a bunch of products aimed at men as much as just sticking with the method that’s worked for us, which is focusing on where the needs are. The talent here clearly is oriented toward that female audience and that’s what we’re satisfying. So, there are still a lot more products that we can develop for that audience that are really going to engage them in a way that they will be coming back again and again.

Samir Husni: Why do you believe in print in this digital age? You spent two years in a digital company, and before that you were with Dennis Publishing, and before that you were in the tactile business of restaurants; so why do you still believe in the future of print in this digital age?

Steven Kotok: It’s interesting; my first job at Dennis was actually at a CD-ROM magazine. I went there to do digital. And I was kind of back and forth my whole time there. I wouldn’t say that I believe or don’t believe in print; I don’t want to be a broken record, but I really believe in the reader. I love digital and I’m a digital consumer. Bauer has a very fast-growing digital division, but I guess I can’t say that I don’t believe in it, in the sense that week in and week out we’re putting out products that go on the newsstand where zero copies are presold.

There’s no guarantee and there’s no one who has booked a ticket in advance. We’re week in and week out fighting it out for people’s attention and for the last experience they had with that title. And they bought it a week or two before and now they’re coming back to it again. I guess I only believe in it because that’s where the readers are, where they’re being satisfied and engaged.

Simple Grace-5These days people have to Tweet while they’re watching TV; just the multitasking, and I think print is one of the last mediums, whether it’s books or magazines, that people actually devote 100% of their attention to it. You can’t really drive a magazine while you’re driving your car.

So, I believe in it empirically from observation that it’s something, with all of the distractions in the world, that people come back to and plunk down their own money for, even when there’s this entire free media available in other mediums.

I wouldn’t say that I come at it from a theoretical or ideological point of view, but I believe in it the way that you have faith in other things in your life. And as long as the readers are there and are deeply loyal and engaged, I’m going to believe in what I see in front of me.

Samir Husni: What has been the most pleasant moment for you this first week as CEO of Bauer?

Steven Kotok: By far, meeting the editors. There has been this whole process and obviously I’ve been studying the magazines and thinking about them. There has been so much pre-anticipation to coming here and then to actually sit down with the person who is spending 50 to 60 hours per week producing each magazine. And editors are the most fun people to talk to anyway. It’s like you’ve been reading about Paris your whole life and then you finally get to go.

I spent my second day here just meeting with the top editors for each category, so that was so enjoyable. There’s a reason that those of us who do this aren’t gifted enough to be great editors still stay in this business, because it’s more fun to hang out with people who do this than people who work for the insurance companies or something. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: And what has been the biggest stumbling block that you’ve had to face and how did you overcome it?

Steven Kotok: Thankfully, for these first seven days there hasn’t been a stumbling block, but I think definitely the retail channel is very, very challenged. What the digital publishers are facing with like a Facebook is that it has become kind of a gatekeeper for them as they talk about platforms and things. We have our own gatekeepers standing between us and the consumer, and you want to have that direct relationship as much as you can. Anytime a third party can stand between you and your customers; it’s difficult.

So, that’s where it’s so much fun to talk to the people who make the product, and you meet people who read one of the products and they love it; that’s obviously super-fun. But then there are people who are your partners; Facebook is a partner with digital publishers and they’re also a gatekeeper; the path to your reader goes through them and it’s really difficult because everyone needs to thrive. Anyone who thinks they can outsmart a partner, they’re going to be in for a surprise because everyone has a share and thrives. But it’s really tough when anyone stands between you and your reader.

Samir Husni: If I showed up unexpectedly at your home one evening after work, what would I find you doing; reading a magazine; reading your iPad; watching television; cooking; or something else?

Steven Kotok: Probably cooking and having a glass of wine; that’s kind of my relaxation. I love cooking and thankfully my wife lets me do the cooking and she does a lot of the other stuff that I should be doing, so I would say that if it’s a night I can get home at a reasonable hour and don’t have some other commitment, cooking something weeknight-simple and the two of us sitting down with some wine is kind of our favorite thing.

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

Steven Kotok: (Laughs) That’s a good question. To expand on my earlier answer, I guess it’s anything that’s out of our control that comes between us and the readers. The companies that have put their faith in the reader have always done very well. We can’t control the reader, but we can engage with the reader and to that extent, our fate is in our own hands. It’s shame on us if we can’t produce content that makes them happy, but the things that aren’t in our own hands, what stands between us and the reader is the scariest part.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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