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John French: Putting Audience First Instead Of Platform Using A 360 View Of Your Customer, Shows The Power Of Print Is Stronger Than Ever – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With John French, Co-Founder, French LLC…

July 17, 2017

“How I look at that is, decisions of print frequency, distribution, going to digital-only formats and dropping print entirely; those decisions are being made in the finance department and I believe that those are decisions that really should be made in the editorial and audience departments. Let the audience tell you what they want; how often they want it; and in what format they want it.” John French…

“I think the future is bright and I think it’s bright in print. Fifteen years ago people were saying that publishers were going to be losing their jobs and print would be dead. You’re still hearing some of that today. Not as verbose and not as much, but you can still hear it. And I don’t believe it. Again, I think the audience is saying that if you do it right; if you customize it to what their area of interests are; if you make it look pretty, and you make it an experience that the audience can be proud of; make it theirs and something they can take ownership of, then they will read our print.” John French…

In April of this year, the Magazine Innovation Center here at the University of Mississippi hosted its annual ACT Experience. This year was number seven. And among the many luminaries and leaders in the magazine media industry, from printers to distributors to CEOs of companies who attended, John French, former CEO Penton and former CEO Cygnus Business Media, and now co-founder of French LLC, was also one of the keynote speakers. John talked about adding value to your brand and how growing your top line, through organic or non-organic growth, could prove to be the hardest thing a brand would have to do, but also how it was invariably the most important too.

I spoke with John again very recently and this time we talked about the optimism he feels about print, and how if you put your audience first (something Mr. Magazine™ agrees with wholeheartedly and always has) you may discover something shockingly apparent, even to the print naysayers, the audience has never abandoned the print experience, nor is there an imminent exodus in the near future.

John thinks that if you do print right, the way the audience wants it, when they want it, the audience will respond. And as a B to B man, John knows the pitfalls of trying to infuse a different life’s blood into your creation to do it right, but he also knows that it can be done, even with B to B magazines. And in our interview, he shares many insights and the optimism that he so believes in.

So, I hope that you enjoy this enlightening conversation with a man who has seen what the power of print can do, if it’s done the right way, which is putting your audience first, the Mr. Magazine™ interview with John French, co-founder, French LLC.

But first, the sound-bites:

On balancing between his optimistic point of view and the industry’s pessimistic point of view regarding print: The point is, I think that people in our industry, and I think that you’re one of them, and I’m certainly one; I’ve always been kind of a contrary investor when it came to my personal investments or when it came to my professional choices, jobs and companies, things like that. And I’ve had pretty good success, but when everybody is going in one direction I tend to go in the other direction, because I want to find out why and is there an opportunity there. And I think that’s what’s happening in the print industry now. Everyone is going in that one direction that says it has less value and they’re going to sell it, and they’re not going to get a premium for it. And there are some of us in the industry that are going in the other direction and saying, “Wait a minute. How do we understand or normalize some of the statistics that are out there?”

On whether he thinks media reporters as a whole are looking through the prisms of cuts their own publications have made and projecting that onto the entire print industry: To be fair, I’m not in their shoes, and I don’t look at the numbers and I don’t see the cost that they’re incurring, and things like that. But if I had to take a gut-feel, I think in general, the answer is yes. To some extent, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy to say that everything is going south in print. I mean, I get it. You sit there in budget meetings and you say, “We’ve got 12 issues and it costs X amount of dollars to print and then there’s the distribution and the postage; we have to put them on skids and there’s presorting, all that kind of stuff.” But at some point are they being colored by what they believe as opposed to going back into the audience and saying, “What if we customize this for you? It will cost you some money, but wouldn’t you pay a little more to get this in print if it was customized?”

On why he thinks the media never reports on the successes in print, such as The Magnolia Journal and The Pioneer Woman:
That’s an excellent question. I did reference that in the interview I did with Adweek. I also used HGTV. And again, this is a broad, and probably dangerous observation, but if you’re on the side of the fence that’s not growing in print, the world looks dire. And you start to believe all of this negativity that’s out there.

On whether he believes the B to B business will see a print resurgence or is that era over: With the Cygnus turnaround, and that’s probably been the most famous thing that I’ve worked on; one of the things that we did when I got to Cygnus in 2010, we brought it out of bankruptcy in 2009, and we still had a lot of magazines and we were trying to grow the trade shows, but we were really trying to grow the digital and the data businesses, spending a lot of our money there. We redesigned our B to B publications at a very difficult time in the company; J.C. Suarez did it and it worked successfully and they were beautiful magazines. And by the way, when we sold the company those magazines had a higher valuation because they looked damned good. And if we hadn’t done it, they would have looked like tired, old B to B magazines, and they would have been viewed that way.

On where he thinks magazine media is heading: I think the future is bright and I think it’s bright in print. Fifteen years ago people were saying that publishers were going to be losing their jobs and print would be dead. You’re still hearing some of that today. Not as verbose and not as much, but you can still hear it. And I don’t believe it. Again, I think the audience is saying that if you do it right; if you customize it to what their area of interests are; if you make it look pretty, and you make it an experience that the audience can be proud of; make it theirs and something they can take ownership of, then they will read our print.

On his belief in taking a 360 view of the audience instead of the brand:
That’s exactly right. We have a couple of clients right now, and one of them does fulfillment. They take a 360 view of that audience, not the brand, but the audience. Who is Samir? What more can we know about Samir that we don’t know now and will help us to serve him better? And if we serve him better, the advertisers that come in on that with us will also be better served.

On what he would have tattooed upon his brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about him:
I think I probably touched on it earlier. If they remember anything, and not in an egotistical way at all, in fact, in the most basic and humble way possible, just when everyone was going one way, I’ve managed to at least look, and very many times run, the other way.

On what keeps him up at night: Fortunately, not a lot, which is great. But from a professional standpoint, I think that it’s trying to keep up with the technology, not be a slave to the technology and developments, but always be a half step ahead. If you’re going to be a leader, especially in the media industry today, you have to be a half step ahead of the technology and not leave it to your tech people, after the fact.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with John French, co-founder, French LLC.

Samir Husni: I saw your comments in Adweek, where you were talking about audience first and why people in magazine media should focus on this more, rather than the platform. At the same time, I noticed a bit of bias with the caption under the picture; people aren’t selling magazines because print is in decline. How do you balance between your optimistic point of view and the pessimistic industry point of view?

John French: I didn’t see the article, but Tony Silber (vice president, Folio) saw it and I was talking with him recently and I mentioned the fact that I’d done the interview with Adweek, and he told me that he’d read it. And he commented that it seemed kind of weird. And I asked him what he meant. And he said that the author started out with such pessimism and seemed to be going doing the road that print just doesn’t have value. And you’re right by the way, I think the caption with the Men’s Health cover and the other one, was just a real downer. Then Tony said, however, with the second half of the piece, my part, it was much more upbeat. And Tony said that he actually agreed with the upbeat part of the article.

And the way I explained to him about the article was that when I got the call from the reporter and she asked me would I give her my views on what’s happening in print, and I said sure. And during the interview, the reporter was very professional and very smart, but it seemed we were going down this certain road, and I sort of mentally held up my hand and said, “Wait. Hold on a second.” And I told her that I wasn’t that pessimistic, which I think surprised her a bit. But to her credit however, she took great notes and reported it pretty accurately.

The point is, I think that people in our industry, and I think that you’re one of them, and I’m certainly one; I’ve always been kind of a contrary investor when it came to my personal investments or when it came to my professional choices, jobs and companies, things like that. And I’ve had pretty good success, but when everybody is going in one direction I tend to go in the other direction, because I want to find out why and is there an opportunity there. And I think that’s what’s happening in the print industry now. Everyone is going in that one direction that says it has less value and they’re going to sell it, and they’re not going to get a premium for it. And there are some of us in the industry that are going in the other direction and saying, “Wait a minute. How do we understand or normalize some of the statistics that are out there?” And just so you know, I asked the reporter is she’d ever heard of Mr. Magazine’s™ ACT Experiences or Mr. Magazine™ himself and what’s going on at the Magazine Innovation Center in Oxford, Miss. and she said that she hadn’t. So, I told her about the ACT 7 Experience that I had attended.

I said that I had went to this conference, and I’ve always felt this way about print, but it was reconfirmed when I visited Oxford; I told her that when you go this conference and people are presenting real data that said the demographic of roughly 18-30 year olds, are probably having more interactions with print magazines than ever; how do you explain that? And I told her that my theory was that people are looking at print as a very generic category.

And by the way the origin of this, I believe, and it’s not the only one, but I think it’s one of the beginning ones, was that certainly in the B to B industry for the last 10 to 15 years, private equity has come in and bought and sold a lot of sets of assets in companies. And they’re really the scorecard. They’re the people who have established the worth of a platform. And correctly so, they value data businesses and especially trade show businesses very highly.

So, it comes down to the multiples. They’ll pay 10, 11, 12 percent times ebitda, and they’ll do it gladly because they think that if they can build a platform on it and sell the company later on, they can make even more money. They’ll pay for digital businesses, maybe eight to ten times ebitda. Data businesses up around events, because that’s pretty hot right now.

But they have become convinced, because they were burned in the last recession, 2006, 2007 and 2008, when print really took a beating, they just said, you know what, there’s no worth here at all. And they put multiples there of one and two percent ebitda, and that was kind of a signal to the rest of the world saying, “Okay, the money guys established the value of print, so we ought to go down that road because they know what they’re talking about.” And I think it’s time to put up our hands and say no, it’s the audience that values what platform and what protocol they want to use to receive the information. And if the audience is saying, “We’re not bankers; we’re not in private equity, but we do know what we like. We still like the magazine experience and we want that magazine to be as customized and tailored to me personally as possible. And if you do that I will give you that 30 or 40 minutes per month or per week, or whatever it may be.” So, my premise is if you take the whole category and say it’s devalued, then I think you’re making a serious mistake because the audiences are not behaving that way.

Now, as I said in the Adweek article, and I may have inflated the numbers, but going back in time, there were Time, Life, Saturday Evening Post-type magazines that were going into households, and I think the last statistic I saw was that People magazine claimed to be read, or at least passed along to doctor’s offices and other places; that one out of every three adult consumer in the United States has exposure to the People brand.

Now, I’m not doubting that’s the case, but that may not continue going forward, because that’s a mass audience and what I do believe is that audiences want, not unlike surprisingly the web behavior, they want to be part of the community and they want theirs to be represented. So, In content, they want to consume. They want to do it in print; online; they want to do it possibly at live events, but they want to self-select. And so, bigger magazines, I think will continue to morph into more enthusiast industries, whether it will be fashion for young women, or hunting, or just whatever it may be, passionate interests, those magazines will continue to flourish as long as they’re surrounded by the necessary satellites of digital and interaction and multiple-channel delivery.

That may be a long answer to your question, but how I look at that is, decisions of print frequency, distribution, going to digital-only formats and dropping print entirely; those decisions are being made in the finance department and I believe that those are decisions that really should be made in the editorial and audience departments. Let the audience tell you what they want; how often they want it; and in what format they want it.

John French speaking at the ACT 7 Experience at the University of Mississippi in Oxford

Samir Husni: Do you think media reporters as a whole, whether it’s the folks at Ad Age, which cut its print publishing from 52 issues to 24, or Adweek, which is now like a shadow of its former self, or Folio that cut its print edition to once a year; do you think those reporters are looking through the prism of their own publications and projecting that to the entire industry?

John French: To be fair, I’m not in their shoes, and I don’t look at the numbers and I don’t see the cost that they’re incurring, and things like that. But if I had to take a gut-feel, I think in general, the answer is yes. To some extent, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy to say that everything is going south in print. I mean, I get it. You sit there in budget meetings and you say, “We’ve got 12 issues and it costs X amount of dollars to print and then there’s the distribution and the postage; we have to put them on skids and there’s presorting, all that kind of stuff.” But at some point are they being colored by what they believe as opposed to going back into the audience and saying, “What if we customize this for you? It will cost you some money, but wouldn’t you pay a little more to get this in print if it was customized?”

Daniel Dejan, who also spoke at your ACT Experience, talked about the experience of touching a magazine and the interaction, and I take it one step further and make it personalized. With the technology that’s available in printing today, with cover-wraps and all kinds of other technologies that I don’t understand, but I do understand the output.

For example, if you were to get a copy of a magazine and it literally said “Good afternoon, Samir,” and we knew that you loved this part of the industry, and we know because we’ve been tracking your offline and online behavior, that you’ve been visiting our website; you’ve been on our portal and you’ve been on certain subject areas, etc. What if there was a magazine that was customized for you? One that said, if you go to page 37, it’s a roundup of all of the things that you’ve been looking at. And granted that may be a little too much pie-in-the-sky, but we could do that today.

So, I think before any decision is made to cut all print and go all digital, I would go back to the audience and ask them the question would they be willing to pay for it if it were customized? Would they find an appetite for a more customized print vehicle and at least give it a shot? It doesn’t cost a lot to research and find out what that answer might be, as opposed to, I think there is some self-fulfilling prophecies where people on the print side of the business are saying they believe all of that, but I don’t believe they’re listening to what their audiences are telling them. And frankly, I think it’s just a hangover from the rotten recession we had a few years ago. People are still skittish and I think the value of print has fallen dramatically in the views of the financial people.

Samir Husni: Recently, I interviewed the publisher of the Food Network Magazine; they just launched The Pioneer Woman, and she actually asked me the same question; why do you think media reporters do not tell our print success story, which is now 10 years and growing? We’re the largest food magazine in the country, and we just launched The Pioneer Woman. Meredith just launched The Magnolia Journal and it went from zero to one million. She noted that you never read about those stories, only the negative ones, such as Rodale is thinking about selling the magazines. Or Rolling Stone is selling Men’s Journal.

John French: That’s an excellent question. I did reference that in the interview I did with Adweek. I also used HGTV. And again, this is a broad, and probably dangerous observation, but if you’re on the side of the fence that’s not growing in print, the world looks dire. And you start to believe all of this negativity that’s out there.

But you brought up two magazines, and The Magnolia Journal is one of them, that husband and wife fixer-upper team down in Texas, and now the wife is emerging to sort of take on the role of the new Martha Stewart, because she’s not just telling people how to fix up houses, she’s telling people what clothes to wear and what food to eat and what their kitchens should look like, and how they should entertain and many other things. But she’s doing it in print after spending years on television, so I don’t buy this “print is dying” thing. And it’s the same thing with The Pioneer Woman.

And the other example I’ve brought up many times, including at your seminar in Oxford, is Airbnb. Yes, they fell down the first time because they called it Pineapple. I knew what Pineapple meant, back in Colonial times it was a symbol of welcome. But frankly, most people in the demographic they were gearing to, was much younger, and most of those folks didn’t have a clue that a pineapple represented hospitality. How the research agency or whoever they hired got away with that, it was horrible.

However, they’re restarting it and when they wanted to dramatically broaden their ability to promote their brand across an industry, they did it in a beautiful, in this case, sexy-looking magazine. And by the way, the Pineapple one was geared toward the people who owned an apartment or a condo.

But they decided they needed to get the message out to all of the people who are consuming the product, which is a much larger audience. And when they needed that larger distribution, this expansion of their branding, they went to print. And they spent money. And that front cover is, I believe, a very attractive women, and she’s in a bathing suit on a beach in Los Angeles, and it’s saying if you rent an Airbnb property in Los Angeles, then we, Airbnb, recommend you go surfing. And this is where you should go surfing. And this is how you can learn to surf , and it’s a whole lifestyle thing.

And maybe people are doing something that they always secretly wanted to do; they wanted to be a surfer on the West Coast and they’re capturing all of this great imagination and they’re doing it in print. On paper; beautiful stock paper that says I am different than the average person. Airbnb has targeted me to rent a luxury property in L.A. And I’m going surfing. And they did all of this in print. And I don’t think that’s changed in 100 years.

Samir Husni: With your background in the B to B business, do you think we can bring to fruition a new type of print magazine that will serve the B to B market, or do you believe that era is over?

John French: With the Cygnus turnaround, and that’s probably been the most famous thing that I’ve worked on; one of the things that we did when I got to Cygnus in 2010, we brought it out of bankruptcy in 2009, and we still had a lot of magazines and we were trying to grow the trade shows, but we were really trying to grow the digital and the data businesses, spending a lot of our money there.

However, in 2010, which was at the very beginning of the turnaround, the tricky part where we were trying to see if we were going to be able to stay in business; I met a guy named J.C. Suarez, he was introduced to me by one of our board members. And unfortunately, J.C. passed away a couple of years ago, but quickly we became very good friends, and he was one of the best magazine designers in New York. He worked on everything. He worked on Martha Stewart’s magazine; he helped design Michael Jackson’s Thriller album, and he knew Michael Jackson. For a long time, he was also the art director for the cover of Shape Magazine. So he was very well-known in New York circles.

The reason I tell you this is at the time I had no money. (Laughs) I said to him after we became friends, and he gave us a bargain because he liked me and he liked the company, I said J.C. it’s 2010 and I’m looking at all of these other things, but I still have like 25 magazines. And they’re not going anywhere soon, and I think they’re old. And no one has touched them. I’d like to infuse a fresher sense of pride in the people who are writing for these magazines. So, what I’d like for you to do is come in and run a bunch of seminars on how to turnaround magazines and design, make the B to B magazine look like consumer magazines. I asked him that even though we were B to B, would he mind coming in and doing this? And he stayed with us for two years, before he unfortunately passed away.

He made the B to B magazines that we had look like they came out of Meredith; they were beautiful. And what I found was the editors then took pride again in their magazines, and what it enabled us to do was to then get more productivity out of them and also they moved more easily from print to doing the digital stuff. J.C. put together cover rules with the B to B magazines. I don’t remember them all, but one was the cover story had to have two bullets. And he would rewrite all of the cover tags for all of the magazines. Originally, it might say “Pickup Truck Roundup.” When he got through with it, the cover would read in big letters, “What you need to know about buying your next pickup.” Now, that’s consumer, but it was also our B to B.

So, to answer your question, we put our money where our mouth was. We redesigned our B to B publications at a very difficult time in the company; J.C. Suarez did it and it worked successfully and they were beautiful magazines. And by the way, when we sold the company those magazines had a higher valuation because they looked damned good. And if we hadn’t done it, they would have looked like tired, old B to B magazines, and they would have been viewed that way.

Samir Husni: As you have more time to reflect on the future, where do you think we’re heading?

John French: I think the future is bright and I think it’s bright in print. And people would have hesitated, even myself, to have said that five years ago because you didn’t want to be labeled a dinosaur.

When I got to Prime Media in 2002, we had a digital department there. We had around 50 magazines in all different industries. And we had a digital department that had 25 or 30 people. When I got there, there was a real discourse between the digital people and the publishers. And I had to find out why.

The digital people in that department in 2002 were telling the publishers that they had to listen to them, that they had no idea what the hell they were doing, and that they were a print publisher and in all probability within two years, maybe less, they would all be out of a job and the digital department would be running all of the properties.

That was 15 years ago. (Laughs) And those people did not lose their jobs in two years. In fact, we went on a string of digital growth over those five years, from 2003 to 2008. Our keg of growth was 52 percent on digital. A keg of growth incorporates an ever-increasing base. So, we were growing at a real 52 percent per year on an average of five years in digital. Far outstripping, I think, most of our competitors.

The point is that’s ancient history. That was 15 years ago and people were saying then that publishers were going to be losing their jobs and print would be dead. You’re still hearing some of that today. Not as verbose and not as much, but you can still hear it. And I don’t believe it. Again, I think the audience is saying that if you do it right; if you customize it to what their area of interests are; if you make it look pretty, and you make it an experience that the audience can be proud of; make it theirs and something they can take ownership of, then they will read our print.

Now, the next question would be do you abandon digital and data and everything else that isn’t print? No, you don’t do that at all. In fact, what I’ve been working with companies on is a 360 view of that customer. We don’t just want to know why they’re reading that magazine, we want to know what else they’re doing. What are they doing online; where are they going for more information; how do they make the decisions; when can we get those decisions?

But to answer your question, I think the initial future of print is still good because I can’t shake the one fundamental belief that a lot of this communication between editors and readers is still based on the fundamental magazine presentation. And if you really want to get out into a mass market, especially in the consumer end, it’s going to cost you money, and you’ll have to save money up to fund the launch; you can’t do those things on a shoestring.

But if you really want to dominate and own a part of the market of enthusiasts or hobbyists, whatever it may be, if you want to go out there and do it right, the audience will respond. And I think that’s why I’m very optimistic about print. And there are going to be more Magnolias and more growth in things like boating and hobbyists and skiing. Those magazines have gone through changes and they’ve had problems, but they’re still strong. I see more and more that passion in print going forward. And I think if someone has the guts and the entrepreneurship to do it, I think they’ll be successful.

Samir Husni: You’ve turned the tables on almost everyone I’ve talked to. They talk about making their brand 360, you talk about audience 360. How can we really be an audience first community if we focus more on the brand than the audience?

John French: That’s exactly right. We have a couple of clients right now, and one of them does fulfillment. They take a 360 view of that audience, not the brand, but the audience. Who is Samir? What more can we know about Samir that we don’t know now and will help us to serve him better? And if we serve him better, the advertisers that come in on that with us will also be better served. Now, this has yet to be proven, by the way, so this is all developmental.

But I do believe that if I’m a consumer of information, I’m an audience member, and I have an affinity for a brand, and in this case it could be a magazine or online, but let’s say it’s a magazine. If I have a great affinity for this magazine, and I’ll use an example; say I love fly fishing, once a month this magazine talks to me about fly fishing, not only about what the new equipment is, but the experience. And these people are just like me and I want to know more about them. And again this is unproven, but I think people would be more freer to give up their information to that type of environment, because of the trust and the connection they’ve made with the magazine.

I’ll talk to people and say you’re going to the consumer industry, by and large, so when you have a subscriber, and a B to B magazine may have 25,000 subscribers, but we know a lot about those people. And they will tell us information about themselves, because it’s professional information. So, they’re less protective and less secretive. And they know if they can get better information, it could help their careers and all of the other things we know about B to B.

But when you go the consumer end, you don’t have 25,000 subscribers. What if you have 250,000 subscribers? You look great in bulk, but what do you know about each one of those 250,000? And I believe the consumer industry is starting to come around to the understanding that the 250 is good, but I have to know a hell of a lot more about Samir Husni than I do right now, which is basically this is where he gets his magazines delivered to. And we know his credit card information because he paid a subscription to us.

If I want to know more about Samir, I need to establish some type of trust or bond, or whatever that may be, and come back and prove to him that if he tells me the products that he’s most interested in, or the content that really forces him to open up and look forward to receiving my magazine, he has to tell me more about himself so that I can service him better. And of course, I promise I will not give his name to just anyone, but if he tells me more about himself, I can service him better, in terms of his informational needs and we’ll have a better relationship. And I really believe that’s where consumer print needs to go. It’s a tough road, but I think it’s worth it.

Samir Husni: If you could have one thing tattooed upon your brain that no one would ever forget about you, what would it be?

John French: I think I probably touched on it earlier. If they remember anything, and not in an egotistical way at all, in fact, in the most basic and humble way possible, just when everyone was going one way, I’ve managed to at least look, and very many times run, the other way. What is going on that would force people to go away from this, and is there an opportunity there? That’s probably be the thing that I would be the most proud of, because to me it’s a lot easier when the crowd is going right, but you take a left anyway. It’s also a hell of a lot more interesting. We do it because we get paid, but the real juice here is this curiosity to ask, if someone doesn’t like something, why is that, and can I look at it differently? So, if anyone remembers anything about me, that would be it.

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

John French: Fortunately, not a lot, which is great. But from a professional standpoint, I think that it’s trying to keep up with the technology, not be a slave to the technology and developments, but always be a half step ahead. If you’re going to be a leader, especially in the media industry today, you have to be a half step ahead of the technology and not leave it to your tech people, after the fact.

So, if there’s anything keeping me up at night, it’s that I think about what’s going on in social media and I know it pretty well, but is there something that I missed? Is there some new platform or new application or new company that I don’t know about? Am I going to get surprised by a client or someone two months from now saying, “I can’t believe you don’t know that.”

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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