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Linda Thomas Brooks: Making Magazines & Magazine Media Great Again – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With The President & CEO Of The Association Of Magazine Media (MPA)…

December 21, 2016

Inside The Great Minds Of Magazine Makers…

linda-thomas-brooks-960x960

“I understand the phrase and the sentiment behind “print is not dead,” but what happened is every time somebody, and not only my own team, but our publishers, and I’ve tried to make them aware and we’ve provided a lot of information to them as well, because every time that somebody from the industry said, “print is not dead,” what I think it did is it reinforced the idea that the person they were talking to either did think that print was dead or maybe they should have thought that print was dead. So, all it does is take you backward and reinforces that negative stereotype that actually has no basis in reality.” Linda Thomas Brooks

“I didn’t come here because I’m anti-digital. Digital does some things really, really well. But digital media doesn’t do everything really well. And as advertisers, and again what we’ve seen in conversations last month, consumers have realized that too, and there has to be a mix. So, I’m not here because I’m anti-digital; I’m not here because I’m a Luddite. Many of our magazine brands have fantastic digital properties. But those properties, and that’s why I mentioned the research that we’re looking at right now, resonate more in the marketplace because they’re tied to a magazine brand. That brand, whatever format that it’s on, print, digital, mobile, social; whatever, that brand name is a sure cut to quality to consumers. They know that they can trust it wherever it appears. And so what I want to do is validate the business model that perpetuates those brands, because the quality in those brands is really what this whole thing is about.” Linda Thomas Brooks

mpa-logo-2016The Association of Magazine Media (MPA) has been an advocate for the magazine media industry since its inception in 1919. And for the last year, the helm of the organization has been steered by a woman who believes in media to the fullest, all media, print included. Linda Thomas Brooks has let it be known that the phrase “print is not dead” is one that, while she understands the sentiment behind the term, does not benefit magazine media in any way. By referring to that statement it communicates that at one time print was dead, and in Linda’s own words, that simply has no basis in reality.

I spoke with Linda recently, once while I was in New York City, and just the other day on the phone for this interview. It was without a doubt one of the most productive and inspiring conversations that I’ve had and left me with such an infusion of hope and enthusiasm about the industry that I love and study, I was fairly reeling with excitement. It’s no wonder that the MPA chose her as its leader; her passion for the business and for magazines is totally contagious and magnetic.

Linda has already, in less than one year, made a huge impact on magazine media by amplifying the strengths of magazines with the implementation of the “Magazine Media Tells and Sells” presentations, which has her MPA team members spending time with many member companies and ensuring that their teams are armed with powerful and compelling facts and insights, among many other facets of open communication and research.

Linda believes in promoting and supporting the value of brands and the quality and trust that consumers have for those brands, and elevating the business models that are their foundations. It’s a large responsibility, and not one that she takes lightly, but it is one she welcomes and thrives on.

So, I hope that you enjoy this Mr. Magazine™ interview with a woman who is determined to be an influential and effective voice for the magazine media industry by promoting innovation in all forms of media, but who also believes wholly that the foundation of print is a powerful one, Linda Thomas Brooks, president and CEO, MPA.

But first the sound-bites:

On an accomplishment she’s most proud of in her first year as president and CEO of the MPA: Well, there are two things that come to mind that are similarly related. One is that I’m really excited that we pulled together all of this information from outside leading industry research that points to the way that magazine media works for both advertisers and consumers, and having that broad and deep perspective all in one place and being able to present that both as the MPA and the industry is something that I’m really proud of. And I think it’s something that has started to make a difference for us.

On the biggest challenge that she had to face and how she overcame it: I think the most challenging thing, and this is really funny to say because you know the people involved in this business and they are not generally-speaking a shy group of people, but I think as an industry we got shy for a few years when it came to talking about the benefits of magazine media. And that was something that we had to overcome.

On what she considers to be the top business drivers in magazine media: We have a lot of research that talks about lower funnel and sales; the sales driving ability of magazine media. That’s a business driver; moving to sales. And we have Millward Brown who looks at a lot of different lower funnel metrics, the things that are sort of immediate antecedents to sales, because Millward Brown doesn’t track sales in the same way. We have Nielsen Catalina that does track sales and has over 1,400 case studies that point to print moving packages off of the shelves. And then we have all of the sales guarantee results, where specific campaigns were measured and every, single one of them delivered positive ROI’s for the clients. Back in my days on that side of the desk, being able to tell your client or your boss that you actually sold stuff was a key business metric.

mpa-logo-2016On whether she feels her idea of the magazine media sells and tells presentations are a natural storytelling byproduct of her years involved with the industry: Yes, absolutely. It’s a little bit of both. It’s a hybrid of all of the great storytelling and information that I can pull from my members and really amazing people. When I first came onboard, I just went out and talked to all of them. How did they talk about it? What words did they use? What information did they have? So, absolutely; I begged, borrowed and stole all of their good ideas from all of our member companies.

On removing both phrases “print is not dead” and “print is dead” from her team’s vocabulary: What we wanted to do was to give our members the language to talk about what does work and what are the compelling properties of print. Luckily for us, not only did we develop some language and awareness around that, but in the last month and a half, the whole world has come to where we are. All of those messages that we were saying about quality information, professionally-edited, written and researched, produced and curated content and the value of that media ecosystem? That’s all anybody is talking about right now. So, it’s like the whole world came to where we are.

On what’s next for her and the MPA: I think part of what’s next will be based in where we’ve been and we’ve had to be very careful about how we think about that information. In my past I’ve written, I don’t know how many hundreds, probably thousands, of strategic communication plans and we’ve really been thinking about tells-and-sells and the research and all of the information that we’ve been sharing sort of as a strategic communications plan, because we’ve been doing it for a year and the danger is that we start to get tired of it, but the fact of the matter is, there’s a lot of people who are still hearing it. And sometimes, because the information is a little bit different than what they expect, they need to hear it more than once before it totally sinks in.

On if and why she thinks the magazine medium isn’t promoted as it should be: I think there are a whole bunch of different reasons; I used shy because you know the executives of all of our companies, and I don’t think they’re a group of people that are generally scared about much. (Laughs) I think in part because the value of the medium had been so long established that sometimes you forget to talk about how good you are because you assume everybody already knows it. So, I think that it was a whole mix of reasons. I’m not that worried about looking backward and asking did publisher “A” send the wrong message, or did they do something wrong? It doesn’t matter; they did what they did and we’re here now and we have to figure out how to talk about the value of it going forward.

On whether she thinks the major success of some magazine titles should be a good base for promoting future storytelling: Absolutely. The both good and bad thing for me is that there are so many stories to tell. You mentioned The Magnolia Journal and the launches that have come from Hearst and there is great news at The Economist, their subscriptions were going up sort of crazily post-election; it’s like everywhere you turn there are interesting and really good stories to tell. So, there is no shortage of ways that we see consumers reacting to what is happening in the marketplace.

On when she was offered the job at the MPA she knew immediately it was the job for her or she had to ask herself if she really wanted to do it: (Laughs) Well, it’s funny because to be honest when I first got the phone call on this job, I thought that some of our board members, who I’ve known over the years, were calling me to help make some connections or get some names, so it didn’t actually occur to me that they were calling me for this job, because I’ve never been a publisher; I’ve never run a trade association, and I had been either mostly or fully digital in my jobs for the last ten or twelve years. And so it was a lovely and very fantastic surprise, but it definitely was a surprise when I found out that they did actually want me to come and talk to them about this job.

On whether she feels that her digital background may be just what the world of print needed when it comes to leading the MPA: I didn’t come here because I’m anti-digital. Digital does some things really, really well. But digital media doesn’t do everything really well. And as advertisers, and again what we’ve seen in conversations last month, consumers have realized that too, and there has to be a mix. So, I’m not here because I’m anti-digital; I’m not here because I’m a Luddite.

On what someone would find her doing if they showed up unexpectedly to her home one evening: In my dream life you’d find me cooking a wonderful dinner and enjoying a glass of wine and relaxing. The reality is I have two kids at home, so usually I’m running around to their activities or helping them with just the logistics of their lives. They’re both old enough that I’m not really helping them with homework, but just logistics.

On what keeps her up at night: I found a button recently at a bookstore and it said, “Make America read again.” And everything that’s happened in the last couple of months has really made me reflect on how people get information, how people assimilate information and how they value information. And I guess what keeps me up is, wanting to make sure that people continue to value the learning, understanding and the perspectives that we can have on our place in the world by getting that kind of information.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Linda Thomas Brooks, president and CEO, MPA.

Samir Husni: You’re nearing your first anniversary as president and CEO of the MPA (The Association of Magazine Media).

Linda Thomas Brooks: Yes, it’s coming up at the end of January.

Samir Husni: If you reflect on your first year at the MPA and select one thing that you’d like for people to know that you’ve accomplished, what would you share with them?

Linda Thomas Brooks: Can I have two?

Samir Husni: (Laughs) Yes, it’s Christmas; you can have two.

linda-thomas-brooks-960x960Linda Thomas Brooks: (Laughs too). We just started and I’m already breaking all the rules. Well, there are two things that come to mind that are similarly related. One is that I’m really excited that we pulled together all of this information from outside leading industry research that points to the way that magazine media works for both advertisers and consumers, and having that broad and deep perspective all in one place and being able to present that both as the MPA and the industry is something that I’m really proud of. And I think it’s something that has started to make a difference for us.

And the other thing that’s sort of related and that I’m proud of is all of our members who have recently been doing a very good job of working together and pulling together have been very unified in talking about this and presenting this and incorporating it into their information, so it’s not just me doing my thing, or the MPA staff out there; it’s the entire industry being unified and proud of what they stand for. And that makes me really excited.

Samir Husni: So, not wanting people to think that your first year was just simply a walk in a rose garden, what was the most challenging thing that you had to face and how did you overcome it?

Linda Thomas Brooks: It was totally a walk in a rose garden for the entire year. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: (Laughs too).

Linda Thomas Brooks: No, I think the most challenging thing, and this is really funny to say because you know the people involved in this business and they are not generally-speaking a shy group of people, but I think as an industry we got shy for a few years when it came to talking about the benefits of magazine media. And that was something that we had to overcome.

The other hard part, which will be a continuing effort for the coming year, is getting advertisers and agencies focused on the right metrics; focused on a measurement that really drives to sales effectiveness and driving business results for them. And that’s what all of our research points to. But you know there are a lot of different conversations happening every day in the industry about view ability and an incredibly high number of impressions and what that means, and people get derailed a little bit. Frankly, it’s been harder than I thought sometimes to get people focused on the real business drivers.

Samir Husni: In your opinion, what do you consider the top business drivers?

Linda Thomas Brooks: We have a lot of research that talks about lower funnel and sales; the sales driving ability of magazine media. That’s a business driver; moving to sales. And we have Millward Brown who looks at a lot of different lower funnel metrics, the things that are sort of immediate antecedents to sales, because Millward Brown doesn’t track sales in the same way. We have Nielsen Catalina that does track sales and has over 1,400 case studies that point to print moving packages off of the shelves. And then we have all of the sales guarantee results, where specific campaigns were measured and every, single one of them delivered positive ROI’s for the clients. Back in my days on that side of the desk, being able to tell your client or your boss that you actually sold stuff was a key business metric.

And then on top of that if you go back up the funnel, what print is also good at is essentially filling the top of the funnel; awareness and consideration. And I think what a lot of clients have seen, and that you’ve seen in these recent announcements from P&G and others, that they sort of overspecialized or over targeted and they basically focused too much on in market buyers and forgot to put anybody back in the top of the funnel. And we know from the research that print is good at both. Therefore, print can help you move your in market people to sales, but it can also establish that awareness and consideration in those upper funnel metrics, so it helps you in both the short and the long-term.

Samir Husni: I’ve talked to some people in the industry within the last year and I’ve heard a lot of compliments to you regarding the show-and-tell or the magazine media tells and sells presentation; you’ve done more than 100 of those presentations, to clients, agencies, leaders in the industry and decision-makers. Do you think this idea came to you as a natural storyteller? Magazine people are storytellers, so do you feel as though you’re taking a page from your own involvement with the magazine industry when you do those presentations?

Linda Thomas Brooks: Yes, absolutely. It’s a little bit of both. It’s a hybrid of all of the great storytelling and information that I can pull from my members and really amazing people. When I first came onboard, I just went out and talked to all of them. How did they talk about it? What words did they use? What information did they have? So, absolutely; I begged, borrowed and stole all of their good ideas from all of our member companies.

Then in addition, prior to coming to the MPA, I spent my entire life on the other side of that desk, so I knew what kind of information resonated. I knew that you needed outside voices and industry-leading research; it’s not enough for me to go to a client and say that I believe this. Or even that my members believed it. What they needed was that research credibility and those data points that they could look at and say, wow, this is real. So, it’s a combination of everything that my members offered and my own background knowing how skeptical I was when I was on the buy side, of information that came in and what information did I need to share with people.

Samir Husni: When I was visiting your office recently while I was in New York, you mentioned something that really stuck with me; you said that you don’t even allow your team to use the phrase “print is not dead,” let alone “print is dead.” You took both phrases from the vocabulary. Can you expand a bit more on that?

Linda Thomas Brooks: I understand the phrase and the sentiment behind “print is not dead,” but what happened is every time somebody, and not only my own team, but our publishers, and I’ve tried to make them aware and we’ve provided a lot of information to them as well, because every time that somebody from the industry said, “print is not dead,” what I think it did is it reinforced the idea that the person they were talking to either did think that print was dead or maybe they should have thought that print was dead. So, all it does is take you backward and reinforces that negative stereotype that actually has no basis in reality.

So, what we wanted to do was to give our members the language to talk about what does work and what are the compelling properties of print. Luckily for us, not only did we develop some language and awareness around that, but in the last month and a half, the whole world has come to where we are. All of those messages that we were saying about quality information, professionally-edited, written and researched, produced and curated content and the value of that media ecosystem? That’s all anybody is talking about right now. So, it’s like the whole world came to where we are.

Samir Husni: It’s refreshing to hear that coming from the head of the leading magazine media group in the country. Now, as you look forward, you have a good list of accomplishments that you’ve worked with your team and the membership to achieve, as you outlined very well in your letter to the members. What’s next for Linda and the MPA? What’s going to be your big headline for 2017?

Linda Thomas Brooks: I think part of what’s next will be based in where we’ve been and we’ve had to be very careful about how we think about that information. In my past I’ve written, I don’t know how many hundreds, probably thousands, of strategic communication plans and we’ve really been thinking about tells-and-sells and the research and all of the information that we’ve been sharing sort of as a strategic communications plan, because we’ve been doing it for a year and the danger is that we start to get tired of it, but the fact of the matter is, there’s a lot of people who are still hearing it. And sometimes, because the information is a little bit different than what they expect, they need to hear it more than once before it totally sinks in.

So, we’re not going to walk away from what we’ve been saying and what we’ve been talking about, I’m starting to hear it back in the marketplace, but I don’t think we’ve worn it out yet.

That being said, we will also have a lot of new information that gets added. We’re in the midst of reviewing some research that comes from comScore that talks about premium digital display and anything that our publishers are producing and selling to their premium bucket. And you’re looking at the ad effectiveness of that over everything else out there and the differential is enormous.

We’re finishing a review of that, so that information will get added. And we have some other research partners who are talking to us about some other ideas they have or information that they have, so it’ll sort of be rooted in things you’ve seen and then we will continue to evolve as we have new credible information that points to more ways that magazine media works.

Samir Husni: Part of the magazine media mix, other than focusing on the audience and the reach, is to me the livelihood of the magazines; the ever-changing nature of the actual, printed magazine and its titles. When I did the interview with the folks from Hearst, they have magazines that have been published continuously for 170 years.

Linda Thomas Brooks: I know; isn’t that incredible?

Samir Husni: So, why do you think the industry as a whole failed, and excuse me if I use the word fail, but failed in promoting this idea of not only longevity, but of the entire industry, not necessarily specific titles? I’m reading a letter from the editor of Coronet magazine from when it was relaunched in 1961, talking about the dynamics of a magazine. “It passes through many heads and hands: writers, artists, editors, engravers, printers, distributors, dealers.” And then at the end of the day when I have this magazine I can say that this is my magazine. That sense of ownership. You used the word “shy,” but was it really shyness or we were scared? Why do you think we don’t promote the medium as it deserves to be?

Linda Thomas Brooks: I think there are a whole bunch of different reasons; I used shy because you know the executives of all of our companies, and I don’t think they’re a group of people that are generally scared about much. (Laughs) I think in part because the value of the medium had been so long established that sometimes you forget to talk about how good you are because you assume everybody already knows it.

And I think they’ve all been trying to evolve and figure out what the right mix is. Nobody is just relying on their printed properties anymore; they’re trying to reflect what the consumers of their specific title wants, and what formats they are going to go to.

So, I think that it was a whole mix of reasons. I’m not that worried about looking backward and asking did publisher “A” send the wrong message, or did they do something wrong? It doesn’t matter; they did what they did and we’re here now and we have to figure out how to talk about the value of it going forward.

Samir Husni: And going forward, when you hear stories from Meredith, with The Magnolia Journal or Hearst with the Food Network magazine, and how much success those titles have garnered, and I don’t know if their own expectations were as high as the market delivered, but do you think we are going to start selling those success stories? You’re a storyteller; do you think that should be a good base for some great storytelling?

Linda Thomas Brooks: Absolutely. The both good and bad thing for me is that there are so many stories to tell. You mentioned The Magnolia Journal and the launches that have come from Hearst and there is great news at The Economist, their subscriptions were going up sort of crazily post-election; it’s like everywhere you turn there are interesting and really good stories to tell. So, there is no shortage of ways that we see consumers reacting to what is happening in the marketplace.

And that’s both good news and bad news for me because there’s all of this input and we have to figure out how to help our members get all of that out into the world.

Samir Husni: When you were first offered this job; what did you think? Was it, wow, that’s definitely the job for me, or did you ask yourself if you really wanted to do this?

Linda Thomas Brooks: (Laughs) Well, it’s funny because to be honest when I first got the phone call on this job, I thought that some of our board members, who I’ve known over the years, were calling me to help make some connections or get some names, so it didn’t actually occur to me that they were calling me for this job, because I’ve never been a publisher; I’ve never run a trade association, and I had been either mostly or fully digital in my jobs for the last ten or twelve years.

And so it was a lovely and very fantastic surprise, but it definitely was a surprise when I found out that they did actually want me to come and talk to them about this job. (Laughs again) At the same time, and I’ll give you a story, Samir, that some of my team knows, but one that I haven’t talked about very broadly. At the same time that the MPA board members were talking to me about this job, somebody else had approached me about something else that was very interesting to me. And I took some time over the holidays; it was about this same time last year, and tried to clear my head, and I was spending time with my family, and a lot of people who know me know that I’m a runner and that’s when I get a lot of my ideas. So, what I was doing sort of unfiltered was I’d go for a run and then I’d come home and I’d write down all of the ideas that I’d had while I was running. And I’d do this for both jobs that I’d been offered.

At the end of a week of holiday time and being with my parents, everybody in my family is a runner, so we usually get a lot of miles in; the number of ideas and thoughts and potential initiatives that I had on this MPA job versus the other job was, the ratio was about eight to one.

There were just so many things that excited me and so many ideas that I’d had about ways that we could bring the story of this industry to life, and I think when you were here that I mentioned I had studied journalism as an undergrad and I was a newspaper journalist very early in my career. And I had such an inherent respect for the work that all of our members represent. And at the end of that week I looked at two yellow pads of what I could do at the MPA and what I could do at the other job, and I said I have to do this. And that’s what did it. A lot of running on the trail with my parents and my family and I came out of that week saying that I’ve got to go to the MPA.

Samir Husni: The magazine industry is lucky to have somebody like you, and I’m really, I don’t want to say that I’m taken aback, but it’s so funny because after your ten years in digital; it seems that you appreciate print more than some of the people who have been in print for decades. Maybe it needed somebody with a digital background to see what print has to offer.

Lina Thomas Brooks: And I didn’t come here because I’m anti-digital. Digital does some things really, really well. But digital media doesn’t do everything really well. And as advertisers, and again what we’ve seen in conversations last month, consumers have realized that too, and there has to be a mix. So, I’m not here because I’m anti-digital; I’m not here because I’m a Luddite.

Many of our magazine brands have fantastic digital properties. But those properties, and that’s why I mentioned the research that we’re looking at right now, resonate more in the marketplace because they’re tied to a magazine brand. That brand, whatever format that it’s on, print, digital, mobile, social; whatever, that brand name is a sure cut to quality to consumers. They know that they can trust it wherever it appears. And so what I want to do is validate the business model that perpetuates those brands, because the quality in those brands is really what this whole thing is about.

Samir Husni: And no one can deny that we live in a digital age.

Linda Thomas Brooks: Of course, but you know what? I’ve become an enormously popular person on planes, but other places too, because I always have magazines with me. And I look at them because I want to see what our members are doing. And if I’m on a plane, I often give them to my seatmates or the flight attendant. And to be honest, you’re not giving them a really high-ticket gift, it’s not like when I was at General Motors; I’m not giving out cars. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: (Laughs too).

Linda Thomas Brooks: I’m giving somebody something that costs a few dollars, but people get so excited and they either say they’ve never seen that particular title before, or they haven’t seen it in a while, but they get really excited about the content and what’s there. I get to be Santa Claus every time I go out, which is really, really fun. And you can see how much people value that content, so hopefully I’m doing my part when it comes to reintroducing them to magazines that they haven’t seen in a while. And again, I think the world is coming to us because they’ve figured out as the media ecosystem has gotten more and more populated and fuller, people are finding out that not every voice out there is delivering quality content. If you’re looking for a credible source and you only have a short time to find that; you’re probably not going to susan.com because you don’t know if she’s reputable source or not, no matter how much you love the site. Magazines are curated content that people trust.

Samir Husni: If I showed up unexpectedly at your house one evening, what would I find you doing; reading a magazine; having a glass of wine; reading your iPad; cooking; or something else?

Linda Thomas Brooks: In my dream life you’d find me cooking a wonderful dinner and enjoying a glass of wine and relaxing. The reality is I have two kids at home, so usually I’m running around to their activities or helping them with just the logistics of their lives. They’re both old enough that I’m not really helping them with homework, but just logistics.

I usually do wind down in the evening with reading. That’s my time. And oftentimes my boys will be sitting on the couch with me and we all read. They usually read books, but they do like the magazines that I bring home. I read a fair number of real books every year and try to set some goals for myself, but I also love reading the magazines. It kind of depends on how much time I have. And one thing you’ll find all over my house is bookcases and baskets; we have a lot of reading material at our house.

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

Linda Thomas Brooks: I found a button recently at a bookstore and it said, “Make America read again.” And everything that’s happened in the last couple of months has really made me reflect on how people get information, how people assimilate information and how they value information.

I learned very early on from my grandfather, who was not really a man of financial means by any stretch, but he was always reading. He read books. Most of which he bought at a used bookstore in Chicago, because again, he wasn’t a man of means and books were very dear to him. And because of his own limitations and his family, he didn’t get to have the education that he wanted, but he always talked about how much he could keep learning. He could take responsibility for his own education by reading. And he shared those books with us and he shared ideas with us. And I’ll never forget he used to point to his forehead and say, “Whatever you put in here, nobody can ever take away from you.”

And I guess what keeps me up is wanting to make sure that people continue to value the learning, understanding and the perspectives that we can have on our place in the world by getting that kind of information.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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2 comments

  1. Anything that sounds like Make America Great Again is very difficult to read or take seriously.


    • Well than get ready to read early next week my Mr. Magazine™ 2017 Manifesto with the same headline: Make Magazines Great Again… Cheers and happy holidays.



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