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Michael Clinton: Hearst Magazines’ Strong Belief In Its Core Print Product & Its Continued Dedication To Digital Innovation Makes For A Bright Future – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Michael Clinton, President, Marketing and Publishing Director, Hearst Magazines…

June 19, 2017

“Great ideas do get funded. You know, create and sell. Great ideas get funded. Oftentimes, what I would tell our team when they would say “Well, they don’t have a print budget.” I would say, “Let me ask you a question: do they have a budget?” Because every brand has a marketing budget, right? And, if you bring them a great idea, a great idea will get funding. And so we have many, many, many examples of business that has been created with no budget. The idea creates the budget. So, my mantra is “Great ideas do get funded” when you have the great, innovative idea.” Michael Clinton…

Hearst Magazines has been at the forefront of print since the dawn of the digital age. While never turning a deaf ear on what the innovations of the 21st century offered, Hearst also never gave their core product the cold shoulder either. Print was and still is the foundation of their company and no one has ever felt the need to apologize for that. Kudos to Hearst. Mr. Magazine™ has never felt that particular need either. Print remains the backbone of publishing and the only format that defines the word “magazine.”

That being said, we’re approaching that midway point in 2017, and I wanted to catch up with Michael Clinton, president, marketing and publishing director of Hearst Magazines, and ask him how things were going at this stage of the yearly game, and also what the future looked like for Hearst Magazines. Michael was in Paris recently and I spoke to him by phone to propose a few questions. He was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to talk to me about the company and about new things that are up and coming, which are both innovative and exciting.

From Hearst for Humanity to partnerships with companies like Airbnb and Pioneer Woman, Hearst is leading the way when it comes to new ideas and projects. As Michael himself put it, “Great ideas do get funded” when you have the great, innovative idea.” Enough said.

I hope that you enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ interview with a man who is both grounded in print, but open to all of the possibilities that the 21st century has to offer, Michael Clinton, president, marketing and publishing director, Hearst Magazines.

But first the sound-bites:

On where he thinks Hearst is heading in the future: It continues to be a very topsy-turvy time in the business world at large–all business, all media. You may have read recently that Amazon is buying Whole Foods, so you’re getting all sorts of interesting acquisitions and partnerships and all of that. You know, in the midst of it I think that we continue to have a very strong point of view about our business. Obviously, we believe in our core product—which is print. Why do we believe so strongly? It’s because the consumer believes so strongly in it.

On how he keeps up with the fast-paced changes in the publishing world today: I think that you have to figure out where you’re going to place your bets. You know, you have to figure out when the marketplace is shifting. For example, it was shifting to mobile first. It was really great [for us], because we were right there at that moment with all our technology and our digital team. So, it’s capturing the shift at the time that it [the current trend] begins to get stale and [the new trend] begins to gain momentum.

On why he thinks partnerships are the key to the future of magazines: Partnerships are a very important part of our strategy. And, you know, with a lot of noise and a lot of clutter out there, it’s always great to partner with a brand that has lots of touch points with consumers. Airbnb is a great example. Obviously, it is a community driven brand. The Airbnb community has a huge brand allegiance and is connected to the Airbnb world, and they learn lots of different things from Airbnb.

On anything that might be in the hopper for the future: We always have a couple of things that are, you know, “in the hopper,” but we do this process called the “discovery phase.” I think that before we even knew that we were talking to Airbnb, there was maybe a year of this discovery phase. You know, it is a way to get the name checker, the research, and really understand the plan, get the opportunities, talk to consumers, talk to advertisers, and so there are a couple of ideas that we have “in the hopper.” Oftentimes they never see the light of day, but, you know, a new idea is born.

On why Dr. Oz The Good Life became a bookazine: I think it has an enormous consumer following. And, you know, when we looked at the business model, and we looked at how we thought we could make a bigger business and profit, we felt that shifting it to the bookazine model would give us a bigger partnership together.

On what Hearst for Humanity is about: Well, first of all it won’t be every magazine every month. I had an observation, as many people have, that started about eighteen months ago. Many consumers, especially younger consumers, especially those “famous millennials,” like to buy products where there is a give back, a cause-relationship, an ability for them to participate in a way that they feel they’re a part of doing good. And so, I challenged our consumer marketing team—and it took about a year to put in place—to come up with what could be a unique cause-related platform for the Hearst magazines to create and develop. This is what has become Hearst for Humanity. So, if our editors, in any given issue, decide that there is a theme that has the potential, they will inform our consumer marketing department, who will then create with them a give back approach. We’re going to test it in the second half of this year with four magazines.

On anything else he’d like to add: I’m trying to think if there’s any sort of hot news that I didn’t cover. You might be interested in this. We’ve had a very successful—extremely successful—business with delish.com, so we began to look at other areas of other categories where we might be able to use that digital model. So, we’re going to launch later in the year a new site called Glo.com. Glo is going to be in the wellness/health/fitness space. It will be what delish is and it will be predominantly video. It’ll have a fun, quirky sense of humor, and it’ll be cheeky the way delish is—and fun. We’re going to see if we can create another digital business along the delish model with Glo later in the year.

On what he would tattoo on his brain that he would like people to remember about him forever: Great ideas do get funded. You know, create and sell. Great ideas get funded. Oftentimes, what I would tell our team when they would say “Well, they don’t have a print budget.” I would say, “Let me ask you a question: do they have a budget?” Because every brand has a marketing budget, right? And, if you bring them a great idea, a great idea will get funding. And so we have many, many, many examples of business that has been created with no budget. The idea creates the budget. So, my mantra is “Great ideas do get funded” when you have the great, innovative idea.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Michael Clinton, president, marketing and publishing director, Hearst Magazines.

Samir Husni: Michael, what’s your feeling now, as we hit that midpoint in 2017? You’ve launched two new magazines this year and you’ve relaunched other magazines last year. Where do you think Hearst Magazines is heading?

Michael Clinton: Well, you know, it continues to be a very topsy-turvy time in the business world at large–all business, all media. You may have read recently that Amazon is buying Whole Foods, so you’re getting all sorts of interesting acquisitions and partnerships and all of that. You know, in the midst of it I think that we continue to have a very strong point of view about our business. Obviously, we believe in our core product—which is print. Why do we believe so strongly? It’s because the consumer believes so strongly in it.

I think you know, because we’ve talked about this in the past, that magazine circulations have been surprisingly stable, in terms of consumer buying. It’s been a very, very stable part of the business. The audiences are actually growing in a lot of places, and there aren’t a lot of media that can say that. When you think of all media—television, cable, newspapers—magazine audiences continue to be very strong. Now, as we know, newsstands continue to be a challenge for a whole host of reasons, but we ask consumers to pay for our media. You know, that’s a big differentiator. So, it’s one of the reasons why we continue to test new products, like Airbnb and Pioneer Woman, and always innovate on our existing products, you know, evolve them. And then, as things become available, we take a look at products that might be available to buy.

So, that’s sort of part one, you know, continuing to believe in our core business. Then, of course, like everyone else, have a very significant build-out on all digital and social platforms. All that has to run parallel to our print issues. We want our brands living everywhere. Now we have six brands on Snapchat. We want our brands to be on Snapchat and on Instagram and on Facebook and on whatever is going to be invented in the next, you know, year or two. Somebody could invent something new and we’re going to want to be there too.

I think that’s a multiplatform approach, with the core always being very important.

Samir Husni: Tell me Michael, as you expand the brand on all platforms: for now everyone is saying “Video, video, video. We have to be on video. Mobile is the thing for now.” You know, ten years ago it was the tablet. Before that, it was the homepage. So, how can you, keep up with the pace of the changes that are taking place that we have no control over?

Michael Clinton: Well, I think that you have to figure out where you’re going to place your bets. You know, you have to figure out when the marketplace is shifting. For example, it was shifting to mobile first. It was really great [for us], because we were right there at that moment with all our technology and our digital team.

So, it’s capturing the shift at the time that it [the current trend] begins to get stale and [the new trend] begins to gain momentum. So, you know, right now everybody is talking about “voice first” as the next thing. At the CES Show in Las Vegas, it was all about Alexa and all about Siri and now Amazon has announced its product, so this is the next thing on the horizon; the “voice first” platform. But, it’s still in its early days, you know? At what point do you say “Okay, I’m going to spend time, money, and people to build out a “voice first” acquisition. You have to figure out when the market is going to be ripe to go in and make that move. Then you decide how you spend your resources.

So, you’re absolutely right. On the iPad—when the iPad was born–all the magazines had a mad rush to the iPad. Certainly, we were on the front, leading edge of that; we’re always going to want to try and be the first mover in the beginning, to test different things.

We created the “App Lab,” you might remember. And it was our little incubator for trying and testing and playing with different formats on the iPad. I mean, others did too. You know, we put the resources against it, to make sure we were tracking it, watching it, and, as you know, it didn’t have the big promise—or certainly hasn’t had the big promise yet—nor did it have the big promise that everyone thought.

You know, every year there seems to be a new “next thing.” We have to play in the space, and we have to know when to push forward or to pull back based on time and resources and people. And so that’s just the skill of it, I think. Yes, we always have to look at everything.

Samir Husni: One of the things that you looked at and that you did very well with were the partnerships you created. Since the launch of O, The Oprah Magazine, to the Food Network, HGTV, Dr. Oz; some are very successful and some, you know, are limping a little bit. Why do you think partnerships and launching new magazines is going to be the key to our future? Or do you think that?

Michael Clinton: No; as you point out, that has been a very important part of our strategy. And, you know, with a lot of noise and a lot of clutter out there, it’s always great to partner with a brand that has lots of touch points with consumers. Airbnb is a great example. Obviously, it is a community driven brand. The Airbnb community has a huge brand allegiance and is connected to the Airbnb world, and they learn lots of different things from Airbnb. Airbnb communicates with them, obviously through their site, but also through newsletters and email and social, so being able to join forces with them to talk to their community about a new magazine that they’re going to do with us has really been a great example. You know, the famous Pioneer Woman has twenty-six million blog followers.

So, when she puts out a communication to her followers, that sure does help, in terms of having a successful liftoff of a new product. So, I think today and in the future, it’s those brands that have lots of various touchpoints with consumers [that help us]. You know, comments that say like Food Network and HGTV. Obviously, there’s a big Cable channel play, and conversations when Oprah was on daily television. Airbnb is more of a digital communication. So, you know if you get the right idea and the right partner, it can all work very well.

Samir Husni: Last time I was in NYC, David [David Carey; President, Hearst Magazines] was talking about something in the hopper for next year?

Michael Clinton: Did he now? (Both laugh) You know, we always have a couple of things that are, you know, “in the hopper,” but we do this process called the “discovery phase.” I think that before we even knew that we were talking to Airbnb, there was maybe a year of this discovery phase. You know, it is a way to get the name checker, the research, and really understand the plan, get the opportunities, talk to consumers, talk to advertisers, and so there are a couple of ideas that we have “in the hopper.” Oftentimes they never see the light of day, but, you know, a new idea is born.

Samir Husni: Well, you were hoping for a trifecta with The Food Network, HGTV, and Dr. Oz The Good Life. What happened with Dr. Oz The Good Life?

Michael Clinton: You know, I think it has an enormous consumer following. And, you know, when we looked at the business model, and we looked at how we thought we could make a bigger business and profit, we felt that shifting it to the bookazine model would give us a bigger partnership together. Obviously that would give us a bigger plot structure than a magazine, a magazine staff, and all that stuff. I think that, when you look at the consumer and you do the research, when you see how we approach the bookazine, there’s going to be a deeper dive into a variety of different health subjects. So, we just thought that this shift in this business model, I think David [David Carey] was quoted, and it’s true, that, aside from regularly published magazines, the bookazine sector is very strong at the moment. We haven’t played a lot in that space, but we want to, and this was a really good opportunity to pivot.

How we see the future is: not all magazines will be [published] ten times [a year]. Some will be six. Some will be four. Some might be two, you know? I’m not saying necessarily our existing magazines, but, maybe. And maybe new magazines. I think that, when you look at where there’s consumer engagement and on what level, then you decide from there. We looked at the Esquire Big Black Book and, you know, we think it makes sense to continue to do that twice a year. We don’t think it makes sense to do it four times.

But, then again, we might look at something else and say that, okay, this is four times. So, we haven’t made the decision too early on our newest products: Pioneer Woman and Airbnb. But I think we have to break out of our traditional thinking that you go out with a new product and it automatically has to become a ten times a year product; that’s not necessarily so. So, we’ve been looking into different approaches.

Samir Husni: Yes, you know, the worst thing we can do is the same thing we did five hundred years ago. (Laughs)

Michael Clinton: Right, exactly.

Samir Husni: So, tell me a little bit about Hearst for Humanity. I was reading recently about you launching this venture, where every magazine or every brand would team with a charitable or humane organization. What’s the genesis of that? I mean I know your folks talk so much about your generosity. So, is this a reflection of you? Or is this a whole Hearst venture?

Michael Clinton: Well, first of all it won’t be every magazine every month. I had an observation, as many people have, that started about eighteen months ago. Many consumers, especially younger consumers, especially those “famous millennials,” like to buy products where there is a give back, a cause-relationship, an ability for them to participate in a way that they feel they’re a part of doing good. And so, I challenged our consumer marketing team—and it took about a year to put in place—to come up with what could be a unique cause-related platform for the Hearst magazines to create and develop. This is what has become Hearst for Humanity.

So, if our editors, in any given issue, decide that there is a theme that has the potential, they will inform our consumer marketing department, who will then create with them a give back approach. We’re going to test it in the second half of this year with four magazines.

So the first one, this year’s Country Living magazine, they have something called the ‘Water’ issue. It’s all about, not just the spawning of lakes and oceans and summertime and getting out on the water, but literally [it’s about] clean water, if your community water is clean, etcetera.

Throughout the magazine, there are tips about how you can conserve water, keep water clean, use water in an efficient and green way. Then, if you believe in this as a cause, you can participate by going online to donate to The Nature Conservancy Group. We have a big water initiative.

So, if someone is a reader of Country Living and they say “You know what, I really believe in clean water and good water and all this stuff they’re putting in the magazine. This is a really important cause to me. I’m going to go online and make a donation towards the cause, I’m going to learn a little more about the cause.” Obviously, we’ll connect that to a special offer to subscribe to Country Living if you’re not a subscriber.

Then when Marie Claire wants to do an issue on sustainable fashion or if Good Housekeeping wanted to do a theme on feeding hungry children in poor parts of the country, we can connect the stories directly to the charity that is their partner. So everybody wins. The magazine wins because it’s doing good, the consumer wins because they’re being informed and connected to an important cause, and the cause wins because they’re getting engagement and—hopefully—a donation and may talk to people who want to be a part of their world.

It all started with this observation that—and you’ve seen this research too—brands that are connected to causes have a higher level of brand engagement with their consumers. And some good examples of that in the product stage is the Iowa Company, Toms Shoes; there have been other one-off initiatives in media like “Stand Up for Cancer” in the television world, which you might be familiar with. You know, the old fashioned thing was the telethon. This is our way of saying, “How do we build out a cause-related platform?” And this is really through our editorial products. I mean, our editors have another arm.

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

Michael Clinton: I’m trying to think if there’s any sort of hot news that I didn’t cover. You might be interested in this. We’ve had a very successful—extremely successful—business with delish.com, so we began to look at other areas of other categories where we might be able to use that digital model. So, we’re going to launch later in the year a new site called Glo.com. Glo is going to be in the wellness/health/fitness space. It will be what delish is and it will be predominantly video. It’ll have a fun, quirky sense of humor, and it’ll be cheeky the way delish is—and fun. We’re going to see if we can create another digital business along the delish model with Glo later in the year.

You know, our big push in the last year has been on a lot of our global buildout, and so one of the reasons why I’m spending a few days in the marketplace here in Paris before I get down to Cannes, is that we’re doing a lot of big digital, global deals, which is very exciting. We’ve taken our platform media in the US and we’ve pushed it across the globe, [such as] all of our owned and operated companies, for starters. From a digital point, a brand can buy a digital campaign or a digital cobranded project across ten countries, and we can deliver it in a very seamless way because we have the technology now. We’re having a lot of success in that area. We’ve gone more global in our digital technology, in our digital abilities. So that’s a big area of development.

Samir Husni: My new final question; if you were to tattoo or engrave something on your brain that people would remember you forever for, and you would remember yourself, what would it be?

Michael Clinton: Well, it would be something we just did. We just did a fun session that we do every year in the company which is called Unbound 360, which is when all the magazines present to each other their best and most innovative projects of the year. And I can share with you that Harper’s BAZAAR won, because the whole company votes. You might be familiar with Harper’s BAZAAR’s Empire State Building project a while back. And, you know, Tiffany was the business partner; Tiffany was our advertising partner in this huge project. It was extremely innovative in print, digital, video, and all the above.

So, management all had a little piece of advice, and mine was, “Great ideas do get funded.” You know, create and sell. Great ideas get funded. Oftentimes, what I would tell our team when they would say “Well, they don’t have a print budget.” I would say, “Let me ask you a question: do they have a budget?” Because every brand has a marketing budget, right? And, if you bring them a great idea, a great idea will get funding. And so we have many, many, many examples of business that has been created with no budget. The idea creates the budget. So, my mantra is “Great ideas do get funded” when you have the great, innovative idea.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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