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Bonnie Kintzer: The President & CEO Of Trusted Media Brands Explains Why It’s Always Consumer-First; Always Has Been & Always Will Be – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Bonnie Kintzer…

July 19, 2017

“Why do people feel this need to beat up on print, in particular people in the industry? We closed our fiscal year June 30; we were up on advertising for both Reader’s Digest and Taste of Home year over year. Print is strong for us. We have a great respect for print and we have a great respect for the print reader. Of course, we expect greater growth to come from digital advertising, but one does not preclude the other.” Bonnie Kintzer…

Trusted Media Brands prides itself on being genuinely connected to its consumers. In fact, the company’s president and CEO, Bonnie Kintzer, believes that in order for a media brand/company to have true success, it must put its readers and consumers first. No exception. And of course, anyone who knows Mr. Magazine™ at all knows that he is in total agreement. Audience first is a mantra of which no apologies are needed.

From Reader’s Digest to The Family Handyman, to the former Reiman Publications that TMB has under its umbrella; all are and have always been dedicated to the consumer. And for the most part, have also been filled with user generated content before the phrase was supposedly coined in the 21st century with the onset of digital. But remember, there really isn’t anything new under the sun. UGC has been a part of Trusted Media Brands’ collection of titles since the beginning.

I spoke with Bonnie recently and we talked about the success of print at TMB, and about the naysayers and gloom and doom prophets who still cry from their digital horsebacks that “print is in decline” or “print is on its way out.” And about Bonnie’s recently-written analogy that all of that incessant noise about print’s demise sounded like the clamor from a continuously running toilet. Again, Mr. Magazine™ would have to agree and maybe go so far as to add, that it sounds as though some are in need of a print plumber to unclog their thinking drains.

Be that as it may, I sincerely hope that you enjoy this uplifting conversation with a woman who believes in print and in her print audience. She hasn’t forsaken the core product of her company, nor its loyal and faithful followers, but at the same time emphatically embraces and believes that her company’s digital future is as bright as its print tomorrows. Bonnie said it very eloquently herself, “Print is strong for us. We have a great respect for print and we have a great respect for the print reader. Of course, we expect greater growth to come from digital advertising, but one does not preclude the other.” Indeed.

And now the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Bonnie Kintzer, president & CEO, Trusted Media Brands.

But first, the sound-bites:

On where the Trusted Media Brands (TMB) are today: As a company, we have finished our three-year turnaround plan, which is incredibly exciting. We have stabilized our core business; we have grown our digital ad revenue; we have brought in an incredible amount of digital talent into the company; and we are 100 percent debt free.

On whether brands under the TMB umbrella, such as Reader’s Digest and Reiman Publications, have always had that secret formula of consumers first: Yes, I think that both companies were founded on that; you’re right. Reiman and Reader’s Digest were always consumer first. They also sold other products to consumers. If you think about it, Reader’s Digest was selling books and music, and for Reiman it was the Country Store. So, we’ve never lost that focus on the consumer.

On why media industry and its reporters keep spouting the negative about print, despite the recent success stories of magazines from Hearst, Meredith and TMB: Your question is one that I think about often. Why do people feel this need to beat up on print, in particular people in the industry? We closed our fiscal year June 30; we were up on advertising for both Reader’s Digest and Taste of Home year over year. Print is strong for us. We have a great respect for print and we have a great respect for the print reader. Of course, we expect greater growth to come from digital advertising, but one does not preclude the other.

On how, in this age of fake news, Trusted Media Brands are providing trusted content:
We have a great history of fact-checking, as you probably know. So, we take that very seriously; we always have. We’ve always had fact-checking people on staff for Reader’s Digest to make sure that we were providing information that was factually correct.

On her belief that accountability is important and for whom: When I think about accountability, I actually think about it on an employee level, but I’m happy to talk about those other stakeholders too. Successful companies, successful company-cultures, really have to have employees who feel that they are accountable for moving things forward. And I do think one of the biggest transformations in our success has been the empowerment and accountability of our employees.

On the host of bookazines TMB has in its portfolio: It’s a very important part of our business. They do incredibly well. We’re also doing The Family Handyman and Birds & Blooms bookazines. Of course, Taste of Home leads the way for us. We have so many. We have digest-sized bookazines and full-sized. We were, I think, the first coloring book bookazines on newsstands. And we rode that very well. And now we’re doing Dot to Dot specials, and we’re doing Color By Numbers.

On whether bookazines have been a good return on investment for TMB: Bookazines have been a very good return, and we’ve been in them for a long time. And we’re expanding them. So, you’ll see more, particularly with The Family Handyman. We’ll be doing more of them, because the DIY space is a growing space and The Family Handyman has tremendous authority.

On raising the rate base for The Family Handyman: We’ve raised the rate base for The Family Handyman twice in 18 months, so yes, The Family Handyman has been an incredible circulation story.

On the fact that they’re hiring as a company, while most everyone else is reportedly firing: We are hiring everywhere. I am going to The Family Handyman soon, and we have 12 people there. We just had five new people start recently. We are really looking at where we believe the revenue is, and we believe there’s tremendous revenue opportunity in our core brands. And so we’re hiring a tremendous amount of digital talent, video talent and technical talent.

On whether her three and half year journey since she returned to the company has been a walk in a rose garden:
I came here on a mission to prove that we could grow again. I really did. I watched from afar those seven dark years, as I call them, when I was gone. And it definitely made me angry and made me want to prove to our employees and the market that we could grow. And doing that, it keeps you very focused. It keeps you very focused.

On one moment in time during that three and a half years where she absolutely knew she’d made the right decision about becoming president and CEO of the company:
What a great question. I think there have been a couple of moments. When I saw that we were going to be able to stabilize our renewal pool I was ecstatic. I thought, ‘Wow, we can actually do this.’ Because that takes time; your acquisition numbers have to be high enough to have a high enough renewal pool.

On anything else she’d like to add: Someone said something to me early on, when I got here, which was that unlike maybe other brands, people were really rooting for our brands. They really wanted to see Reader’s Digest, Taste of Home, and The Family Handyman succeed. And I’ll say that whether it was my competitors or former employees that I worked with, everybody has been rooting for us and always available to help or to talk. And I’ve been grateful for that, because it was quite the turnaround.

On what she would have tattooed upon her brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about her:
We grew this company.

On what someone would find her doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at her home: I’m probably outside, unless it’s freezing cold, with my husband. I just got remarried two years ago, so we’re usually outside, either having a glass of wine, or just talking about the day. We still have a little bit of newlywed in us, so it’s usually a very happy moment to reconnect at the end of the day.

On what keeps her up at night: I’m obsessed with how to grow as quickly as possible, and what kind of acquisitions can we afford? We still have cash on our balance sheet, even after paying down the debt. For the first time we’re starting to talk about whether we do some small acquisition. It’s a whole new world here now. Stabilization is now yesterday’s news. Now it’s how do we grow? What have you done for me lately? So, that keeps me up. But it’s a much more exciting reason to stay awake than before.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Bonnie Kintzer, president and CEO, Trusted Media Brands.

Samir Husni: If you were to give an 18 second elevator pitch about where the Trusted Media Brands are today, what would you tell me?

Bonnie Kintzer: As a company, we have finished our three-year turnaround plan, which is incredibly exciting. We have stabilized our core business; we have grown our digital ad revenue; we have brought in an incredible amount of digital talent into the company; and we are 100 percent debt free. Recently effective, we paid off the rest of our debt, and that was obviously a very big key initiative for us. So, we are poised for great growth and it’s a very exciting time for us.

Samir Husni: You mentioned in a piece that you recently wrote that the only way to move forward in this business is by having a consumer-first mentality; you have to focus on the consumer first, rather than the markets or the platform, or anything else. And the two main assets that you have, Reader’s Digest and the former Reiman Publications, were founded as consumer-first from the beginning. Reader’s Digest did not take advertising in its first 20+ years; Reiman Publications never had any advertising. The focus was always on the consumer. Do you think that you always had that secret formula and then something happened, and now you’re going back to it?

Bonnie Kintzer: Yes, I think that both companies were founded on that; you’re right. Reiman and Reader’s Digest were always consumer first. They also sold other products to consumers. If you think about it, Reader’s Digest was selling books and music, and for Reiman it was the Country Store. So, we’ve never lost that focus on the consumer.

We still provide a lot of value to advertisers. I would like to say that’s part of the value equation for advertisers, that we have very deep relationships with consumers. We will always be a consumer-first company. And I can say that emphatically. I love advertising dollars and I love advertising partners. I think they should be proud to work with a company that thinks about its consumers just like they think about their consumers. We are interested in all areas to satisfy our customers, that’s the way we think.

Samir Husni: In a recent article that you wrote, you compare those who keep incessantly saying that “print is dead” like the noise from a running toilet.

Bonnie Kintzer: (Laughs) Yes.

Samir Husni: Why do you think even today, when we are seeing big success in print, whether it’s from Hearst or Meredith or TMB; why do you think the media industry and its reporters continue to write about the negative when it comes to print? You rarely find an article that isn’t reporting “print is in decline” or “print is on its way out.”

Bonnie Kintzer: Your question is one that I think about often. Why do people feel this need to beat up on print, in particular people in the industry? We closed our fiscal year June 30; we were up on advertising for both Reader’s Digest and Taste of Home year over year. Print is strong for us. We have a great respect for print and we have a great respect for the print reader. Of course, we expect greater growth to come from digital advertising, but one does not preclude the other.

And I think that’s what people are missing. Why it isn’t a battle. It’s not a battle; it’s about serving consumers in the way they want to get their print. It’s serving advertisers in the way they want to reach consumers, and it should not be a duel between two different forms of media. They’re quite complementary to each other, as many research pieces have shown.

Samir Husni: Besides being consumer-first, another point you’ve mentioned is that you have to provide and value great trusted content. In this age of fake news, how are you doing that?

Bonnie Kintzer: We have a great history of fact-checking, as you probably know. So, we take that very seriously; we always have. We’ve always had fact-checking people on staff for Reader’s Digest to make sure that we were providing information that was factually correct.

And of course, we are the original UGC (user-generated content) people. If you think about Taste of Home, it’s 100 percent UGC. It was before people knew what that acronym stood for. So, for us, we’re really about the dialogue with our consumers, and that is a big part of our print.

When we’re writing stories, whether it’s a Birds & Bloom story, we’re using experts who are really experts in a birding or flower conversation. And as I said earlier, at Reader’s Digest we have always had fact-checkers on staff. We take that very seriously.

Samir Husni: You’ve also said that you must focus on accountability. To whom? You’re now a debt-free company. Is it accountability to the reader; the customer; to the advertiser; or to the investors?

Bonnie Kintzer: When I think about accountability, I actually think about it on an employee level, but I’m happy to talk about those other stakeholders too. Successful companies, successful company-cultures, really have to have employees who feel that they are accountable for moving things forward. And I do think one of the biggest transformations in our success has been the empowerment and accountability of our employees.

If you look at the amount of people that we’ve hired in the last 120 days, you would be wildly impressed with who we’ve been able to attract to this company. We recently hired someone from Vice, so we’re pretty psyched. We know that when people come here, they have accountability on their shoulders to make things happen. And we’re a small company, and that means that every individual that joins us really has the ability to make an impact.

So, I believe that’s where accountability starts. From my perspective, me personally, I’m very accountable to my investors. I may not have debt, but I still have equity holders here. I have a tremendous board of smart people; people who know media; people who understand companies. And they’ve been tremendously helpful to me. Before we paid off our debt, we invested tens of millions of dollars into acquiring customers. And that was because we had a board that understood.

And when I got here again three and a half years ago, I was very clear. I put it in black and white: the only way that we were going to turn around this company was by bringing in new customers. And thankfully, once we went out into the marketplace and let people know that we were asking them to come and buy our products, they happily said yes. But we have brought in a ton of new customers over the last few years. And that’s really at the core of the stabilization.

Samir Husni: When I spoke with Rich Battista from Time Inc., he mentioned the power of the bookazines and how many they’re doing and selling. What we used to call, and you mentioned in your recent article, special interest publications. You also have a host of bookazines or specialized magazines. From Church Dinners to Brunch, you have quite the collection.

Bonnie Kintzer: It’s a very important part of our business. They do incredibly well. We’re also doing The Family Handyman and Birds & Blooms bookazines. Of course, Taste of Home leads the way for us. We have so many. We have digest-sized bookazines and full-sized. We were, I think, the first coloring book bookazines on newsstands. And we rode that very well. And now we’re doing Dot to Dot specials, and we’re doing Color By Numbers.

We really look at the bookazine channel in a couple of ways. One is to test new product ideas, and the other is to really look at where consumers are spending their money, and capitalizing on that. So, we’re both opportunistic as well as strategic with our use of bookazines.

Samir Husni: Has it been a good return on the investment, especially in this day and age where everyone is saying that the newsstands are dying?

Bonnie Kintzer: Bookazines have been a very good return, and we’ve been in them for a long time. And we’re expanding them. So, you’ll see more, particularly with The Family Handyman. We’ll be doing more of them, because the DIY space is a growing space and The Family Handyman has tremendous authority.

Samir Husni: And wasn’t last year one of the biggest years for ad pages and an increase in revenue for The Family Handyman?

Bonnie Kintzer: Not in ad pages, but in terms of rate base. We’ve raised the rate base for The Family Handyman twice in 18 months, so yes, The Family Handyman has been an incredible circulation story.

Samir Husni: The final point that you mentioned in your recent article is to empower our content-creators. And by the way, your article should be a road map for the media industry. Everything you talk about is just common sense. And you just said moments ago that you’re hiring, but everywhere else, we hear people are firing. What gives?

Bonnie Kintzer: We are hiring everywhere. I am going to The Family Handyman soon, and we have 12 people there. We just had five new people start recently. We are really looking at where we believe the revenue is, and we believe there’s tremendous revenue opportunity in our core brands. And so we’re hiring a tremendous amount of digital talent, video talent and technical talent.

I think we have been very prudent, I’d like to say frugal and I say that with pride. And I think now we basically saw last year that we had gotten to that position of stabilization. We went to the board in February before the fiscal year ended and we said that we needed to invest $10 million in hiring. Here’s what we need to bring in, and here’s what we believe the return will be, and we got approval from the board. And we’ve been on a crazy hiring spree ever since.

We beat our bottom line numbers higher than budget. And we think we’re going to grow our bottom line by about 50 percent in this new fiscal year that’s just started. We’re very disciplined here and when we talk about empowering people, it’s also empowering them to use the metrics.

So, as you mentioned earlier, it’s a kind of return to our roots, thinking about what else the consumer wants. I would also say that we’ve returned to our roots of being highly disciplined with analysis. In today’s day and age with digital media, you can measure everything. And you know what? Every editor is empowered. They have the tools to see how their content is doing and to see how consumers are reacting to that content, and they can adjust accordingly. And to me, that’s the way to success. It’s not about managing on high. It’s about setting a vision and empowering your people and measuring.

Samir Husni: As you reflect on these three and half years that you’ve been back, there were rockier years before you, but since you took over, has it been an easy walk in a rose garden, or have you had some stumbles along the way?

Bonne Kintzer: (Laughs) There were a few moments that I remember in my first year, where I thought, ‘Oh my, what have I gotten myself into.’ But I would say that I came here on a mission to prove that we could grow again. I really did. I watched from afar those seven dark years, as I call them, when I was gone. And it definitely made me angry and made me want to prove to our employees and the market that we could grow. And doing that, it keeps you very focused. It keeps you very focused.

So, no, there have been dark days. Eric Schrier is the chairman of our board, and he was my boss when I was here years ago. And he was the person who called and asked me if I wanted to become the next CEO. And I remember calling him with a kind of, “Oh my gosh” type call, and he said he’d been waiting for that; what took me so long?

But I’m an optimist. Yet, there were definitely moments. But I have an incredible team of people, Bruce Kelley, our chief content officer, who I know you talked with in an earlier interview. Alec Casey, our chief marketing officer; Vincent Errico, our chief digital officer; Rich Sutton, our chief revenue officer; and many more. I have an amazing team, and everyone I bring in here, I have always told them the truth about the challenges. And if they wanted to come here, not so much now, but if they’d wanted to join us two or three years ago, they had to think challenge and fixing were actually fun as I do. And they’ve done a great job.

Samir Husni: If you could pinpoint one moment in time out of those three and half years that you absolutely knew you’d made the right decision, where you said to yourself, “I’m glad I took this position of president and CEO,” what would that moment be?

Bonnie Kintzer: What a great question. I think there have been a couple of moments. When I saw that we were going to be able to stabilize our renewal pool I was ecstatic. I thought, ‘Wow, we can actually do this.’ Because that takes time; your acquisition numbers have to be high enough to have a high enough renewal pool.

And I would say that I felt it again this past February when I asked the board for that investment money. And it was also funded, so I wasn’t asking them for money, but that we were strong enough to self-fund our own investment, that’s pretty amazing.

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

Bonnie Kintzer: Someone said something to me early on, when I got here, which was that unlike maybe other brands, people were really rooting for our brands. They really wanted to see Reader’s Digest, Taste of Home, and The Family Handyman succeed. And I’ll say that whether it was my competitors or former employees that I worked with, everybody has been rooting for us and always available to help or to talk. And I’ve been grateful for that, because it was quite the turnaround.

I think you have to remember that we have our challenges in our industry, but there wasn’t a single person that I couldn’t have called upon and asked for assistance. So, I’d like everyone to know that.

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

Bonnie Kintzer: We grew this company.

Samir Husni: If I showed up unexpectedly at your home one evening after work, what would I find you doing? Having a glass of wine; reading Reader’s Digest; on your iPad; watching TV; or something else?

Bonnie Kintzer: I’m probably outside, unless it’s freezing cold, with my husband. I just got remarried two years ago, so we’re usually outside, either having a glass of wine, or just talking about the day. We still have a little bit of newlywed in us, so it’s usually a very happy moment to reconnect at the end of the day.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night? Since you’re debt free, do you sleep better?

Bonnie Kintzer: No, now I’m obsessed with how to grow as quickly as possible, and what kind of acquisitions can we afford? We still have cash on our balance sheet, even after paying down the debt. For the first time we’re starting to talk about whether we do some small acquisition. It’s a whole new world here now. Stabilization is now yesterday’s news. Now it’s how do we grow? What have you done for me lately? So, that keeps me up. But it’s a much more exciting reason to stay awake than before.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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