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America’s Test Kitchen CEO, David Nussbaum, To Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni: “I Think We Are One Of The Rare Companies Where Print Continues To Grow…” The Mr. Magazine™ Interview…

June 20, 2018

“… But Again We’re Not Dependent Upon Advertising, So We Understand That If You Can Build Really High Quality Content That’s Not Available Anyplace Else, People Will Pay For It.” David Nussbaum…

“Content providers can no longer survive simply on advertising and we need content providers. And so more and more companies have to realize that the future is not selling another ad or another digital ad, or even some of what they call advertorials or native advertising, which at some point the consumer is not going to trust. So, I think every content provider has to figure out a way to provide information and content and whatever else they need to provide that people are willing to pay for or otherwise it has very little value.” David Nussbaum…

Having a firm belief in print, but also having a tight vision on the digital future. This statement would define America’s Test Kitchen CEO, David Nussbaum, to a perfect T. Recently, as some of you may have read in an earlier Mr. Magazine™ blog post, I attended the IMAG Conference in Boston, hosted by MPA: The Association of Magazine Media. While there, I had the extremely pleasant opportunity to speak with David about America’s Test Kitchen and some of the innovative ideas that are being “cooked” up in the brand’s new location.

David was excited to tell me about their new studios (which we toured as part of the IMAG Conference) and about all of the fun experiences they are creating for their consumers, such as food festivals and even a food truck that will get out among people. From engaging their audience with a more communal environment to expanding their dialogue with consumers through more social media conversation, David has opened up the brand and made it more people-friendly since becoming CEO almost three years ago.

As I sat down with David to talk, I realized that his passion and commitment for and to the brand was synonymous with its continued success, as he talked quietly, but animatedly about what creating a community for his subscribers, viewers and readers meant to him. It was a peek into one of the most distinguished and unique brands around and I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did.

Now, the Mr. Magazine™ interview with David Nussbaum, CEO, America’s Test Kitchen.

But first the sound-bites:

On the strategy behind moving America’s Test Kitchen: The strategy was pretty clear in that the business of media and the business of food was all moving to video. And we have two TV shows on air, one of them for 14 years and the other is going into its 18th season, so we knew video and we had the expertise, but we didn’t really have the studios. But we also realized that we had to shoot video every single day. And in our old location to shoot video we had to shut down half the operation, because we didn’t have studios, we would have to close the kitchens and move cameras in.

On whether he thinks their unique business model of no advertising and collecting revenue from readers, viewers and subscribers can be duplicated in today’s digital age where everyone expects everything for free: I think it has to be, because content providers can no longer survive simply on advertising and we need content providers. And so more and more companies have to realize that the future is not selling another ad or another digital ad, or even some of what they call advertorials or native advertising, which at some point the consumer is not going to trust. So, I think every content provider has to figure out a way to provide information and content and whatever else they need to provide that people are willing to pay for or otherwise it has very little value.

On where he sees print in this digital environment we live in: I think we are one of the rare companies where print continues to grow. But again we’re not dependent upon advertising, so we understand that if you can build really high quality content that’s not available anyplace else, people will pay for it.

On the fact that they have a million-plus subscribers and it’s a 36-page magazine, black and white inside, with illustrations instead of pictures: It tells me first of all that we’re different and it helps to be different. In any business, if you can create something that’s different and unique, people are going to be interested. And really our readers self-select. Our readers are food geeks. They’re not necessarily interested in some big, pretty pictures, they’re interested in ‘why did we come up with this recipe and what’s the science behind it?’ ‘What’s the history behind some of the ingredients?’ There’s a lot more that surrounds our recipes than just a teaspoon of sugar and a quart of milk. And I think people realize that. You just have to look at the content that sells.

On some of the changes that have taken place since he became CEO of America’s Test Kitchen: First of all, things can always be greater. (Laughs) And we did have our biggest revenue year ever in 2017, that’s after 25 years in business. But really what we’ve done is realize that the competition continues to increase, that the platforms, such as public media, where we have our TV shows; all platforms are challenged because of court-cutting, and so we’ve done a lot of different things. To begin with, the new space that we talked about earlier. We went from 23,000 sq. ft. to almost 50,000 sq. ft. Mostly studio and mostly state-of-the-art kitchens. So, that’s one major difference.

On the events and the food trunk that has been created to make the experience with the brand richer: That’s another aspect that we brought to the company. We wanted to interface with our community in a much closer, one-to-one interpersonal way. Before, the company was kind of hidden away, there was no sign; you really had to work to find where it was. So, we moved to this location where there are big America’s Test Kitchen signs outside and we will have a food truck that launches in the middle of July. We did the food festival and we really want to encourage community.

In front of the Boston, MA Public Library. This is the second of three interviews I conducted in Boston while attending the MPA: The Association of Magazine Media’s IMAG 2018 conference.

On anything he’d like to add: I think one of the biggest things that we are going to be doing, and it’s in progress, is the launch of our own OTT (over the top content). We have been on PBS for 18 years with America’s Test Kitchen, 14 years with Cook’s Country, and we, God willing, will be on PBS forever. But we also recognize that with court-cutting, with programming-on-demand, with programming through applications, that we need to reach out to other platforms.

On what he would have tattooed upon his brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about him: I think it would be that my belief system is that trust, honesty and caring are the three most important words in my vocabulary. And that’s whether it’s the people I work with, the suppliers I work with, my family and friends. In all of the places, in all of the companies that I have run, and I feel if you spoke to the people who worked there, they would tell you that’s what I stand for.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at his home: Whatever my wife tells me to do. (Laughs) No, actually, winding down I would probably be sitting with an iPad on my lap; I’ll be watching some program on Netflix. I’ll be jumping to one of my digital magazines: The New Yorker, Vanity Fair or digital newspapers. And checking email. That’s what I do. And definitely Twitter.

On what keeps him up at night: I sleep pretty well. What keeps me up at night is that any good company, any good businessperson realizes that you can never stand still. And innovation is not something that you do and then say, okay, we’re all done. Innovation is something that you have to continually create. So, my job as CEO is always to encourage, enrich and ensure that my teammates all feel like innovation is as the core of what they do. And that’s hard work. That’s what keeps me up at night; how can I continue to find innovation for our company that’s successful innovation.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with David Nussbaum, CEO, America’s Test Kitchen.

Samir Husni: Tell me about moving the headquarters of America’s Test Kitchen; what was the strategy behind it?

David Nussbaum: The strategy was pretty clear in that the business of media and the business of food was all moving to video. And we have two TV shows on air, one of them for 14 years and the other is going into its 18th season, so we knew video and we had the expertise, but we didn’t really have the studios. But we also realized that we had to shoot video every single day. And in our old location to shoot video we had to shut down half the operation, because we didn’t have studios, we would have to close the kitchens and move cameras in.

So, we knew that it was important to make that shift and we realized that we weren’t really a publishing company, but we’re a studio, like a Hollywood studio. We now shoot video pretty much every single day of the week, and sometimes on Saturdays. We opened up 360 new YouTube videos this year; we use video on social very aggressively; we’re in the process of hopefully launching a third TV show, and we do live video once every couple of weeks from our studios. So, it’s really a morphing of the business to understanding that people want to consume more video. And that now sits within our subscription website, there is a lot of video there, soon it will be on our app. So the move was really all about taking the business to where it needed to go, which was to become a studio.

Samir Husni: And you have a unique business model. You have no advertising; you’ve always collected your revenue from your viewers, listeners, readers, subscribers, you name it. Do you think that’s a model that can be duplicated in today’s digital age, where everybody expects everything for free?

David Nussbaum: I think it has to be, because content providers can no longer survive simply on advertising and we need content providers. And so more and more companies have to realize that the future is not selling another ad or another digital ad, or even some of what they call advertorials or native advertising, which at some point the consumer is not going to trust. So, I think every content provider has to figure out a way to provide information and content and whatever else they need to provide that people are willing to pay for or otherwise it has very little value.

And we’re seeing more and more of that. The New York Times recently took its cooking section from free to subscription. And from what I understand they’re doing pretty well. We heard that This Old House has launched a subscription site for content and they won an IMAG award, so they’re doing very well. So, I think more and more companies are experimenting with that and realizing that’s where the future is. You just have to look at the numbers, in terms of advertising declines over the next five years, it’s stunning. And so I think it’s absolutely critical.

Samir Husni: Yet, during all of the changes that took place in the last ten years, from the introduction of digital, such as with the Smartphone; you were sort of sheltered because you didn’t depend on advertising. Your business model was different. You have almost one million subscribers for Cook’s Illustrated and you have Cook’s Country…

David Nussbaum: Which has about 300,000 subscribers.

Samir Husni: And you’re doing a lot of SIP’s and specials. Where do you see print in this whole digital environment that we live in?

David Nussbaum: I think we are one of the rare companies where print continues to grow. But again we’re not dependent upon advertising, so we understand that if you can build really high quality content that’s not available anyplace else, people will pay for it.

I’ll give you an example, we test every one of our recipes between 40 and 60 times and we spend an average of $10,000 per recipe in development. We have to do that, because recipes for the most part are free, you just put what you’re looking for into Google, eggplant parmigiana, and you have a million recipes. Ours are better, and we prove that they’re better through our research, through the process, through the time, so that you know when you purchase one of our recipes the dish will come out absolutely perfectly.

So, there has to be something inside the content that makes people willing to pay for it; there must be a unique aspect to it. Our print magazines and our books, those businesses are up year over year, thus far through this year and the print business was up last year as well. Even our newsstand business through April was up double digits. And I don’t think there are too many newsstand companies that can say that.

And again, it’s because our content is really unique and different and interesting, and people realize that what they’re going to get from us is something that they can’t get from everybody else. You can go to the newsstand and there are a million cooking magazines there. And our business is up by double digits, it’s a multimillion dollar business. And I think it has to come down to the high quality of the content and the respect for the brand.

Samir Husni: And yet you’re able to get away with a 36-page magazine, black and white inside, illustrations instead of pictures, and you have a million-plus subscribers. What does that tell you?

David Nussbaum: It tells me first of all that we’re different and it helps to be different. In any business, if you can create something that’s different and unique, people are going to be interested. And really our readers self-select. Our readers are food geeks. They’re not necessarily interested in some big, pretty pictures, they’re interested in ‘why did we come up with this recipe and what’s the science behind it?’ ‘What’s the history behind some of the ingredients?’ There’s a lot more that surrounds our recipes than just a teaspoon of sugar and a quart of milk. And I think people realize that. You just have to look at the content that sells.

The New York Times is not a beautiful piece of print. And yet people read it and read it religiously. USA Today is beautiful, 4-color, pretty pictures, but it doesn’t have near the respect or the readership that The New York Times does. So, I think it’s more about the delivery, the content, and being unique.

Samir Husni: Since you became CEO of America’s Test Kitchen, what are some of the changes that you and your team take responsibility for? Or was everything going great when you got here and it just continues down that same path?

David Nussbaum: First of all, things can always be greater. (Laughs) And we did have our biggest revenue year ever in 2017, that’s after 25 years in business. But really what we’ve done is realize that the competition continues to increase, that the platforms, such as public media, where we have our TV shows; all platforms are challenged because of court-cutting, and so we’ve done a lot of different things. To begin with, the new space that we talked about earlier. We went from 23,000 sq. ft. to almost 50,000 sq. ft. Mostly studio and mostly state-of-the-art kitchens. So, that’s one major difference.

And number two is the company really didn’t engage in social before I got here. They had one social media person, no one else in the company was allowed to post and that person had to get approval for every single post before it went up.

When I joined, I said first of all we’re going to hire five social media people; we’re going to ask everybody in the company to please post. And they don’t even have to post a company message, just post. And so we’ve taken that social position from almost zero to where we have 12 million social participants every month. And that helped us acquire audience and it helped us build brand, so the whole social program is brand new since I got here.

The company used to be very inwardly-focused; inwardly in that if you were a subscriber to the website, you were not allowed to post on the website. We opened that up so that people can now post. And that has created more of a community environment. Before, the company didn’t want to work with anybody; we now have partnerships with Holland America; America’s Test Kitchen is now on all 14 of their ships. So, America’s Test Kitchen is on the seas.

We are very, very close to signing with a major resort company, and America’s Test Kitchen will be on all of these resorts. We’re working with Reebok. We’ve launched food festivals, we’re now working with major brands and we’re getting thousands and thousands of people to attend. So, really what my team has done over the last three years is make America’s Test Kitchen and the brands much more ubiquitous. And by doing that we have grown our touchpoints to the audience to where we now touch around 60 million consumers every month through all the various channels. And that’s probably 10 times what was happening three years ago.

Samir Husni: Some will say that you humanized the brand; you’ve grown the brand even closer with feel and touch to the audience, including creating the mobile aspect.

David Nussbaum: Yes, the sites were not mobilized, that’s a good point.

Samir Husni: What about the experience making, the events that you’re now creating, including the food truck?

David Nussbaum: That’s another aspect that we brought to the company. We wanted to interface with our community in a much closer, one-to-one interpersonal way. Before, the company was kind of hidden away, there was no sign; you really had to work to find where it was. So, we moved to this location where there are big America’s Test Kitchen signs outside and we will have a food truck that launches in the middle of July. We did the food festival and we really want to encourage community.

So, we now have a Facebook page that’s only for subscribers and we dialogue with them all of the time. The food festivals themselves, we’re going to have two this year, and we’re expecting to meet 6, 000 or 7,000 of our consumers, look them in the eye, talk to them. As I said, we added commenting to all of our websites, people can come on and now tell us whether or not they liked a recipe, and that didn’t happen before. And we’ve increased, obviously, all of our social platforms. We weren’t on Instagram before; we weren’t on Pinterest before and we didn’t have as many Facebook pages as we do now.

And I think it’s a great point to make, that engaging our consumer has become much more important to us and it has really facilitated who we are. We now invite groups to take tours of the kitchens, which is a very popular program that we have. And we hope to, not in 2018, but hopefully in 2019 and beyond, we hope to take the food truck on the road and go visit people in different cities.

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

David Nussbaum: I think one of the biggest things that we are going to be doing, and it’s in progress, is the launch of our own OTT (Over The Top content). We have been on PBS for 18 years with America’s Test Kitchen, 14 years with Cook’s Country, and we, God willing, will be on PBS forever. But we also recognize that with court-cutting, with programming-on-demand, with programming through applications, that we need to reach out to other platforms.

And so we’re going to be launching our own OTT before the end of this year, so that you can watch our programs. And you can see other videos that we’ll create for the OTT, and hopefully newly-launched TV shows as well. Wherever you are, whenever you are, and for those people who don’t really watch public broadcast, they can still find us. So, I think that’s one of the most major things we’re going to be doing before the year is out.

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

David Nussbaum: I think it would be that my belief system is that trust, honesty and caring are the three most important words in my vocabulary. And that’s whether it’s the people I work with, the suppliers I work with, my family and friends. In all of the places, in all of the companies that I have run, and I feel if you spoke to the people who worked there, they would tell you that’s what I stand for.

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 a magazine; cooking; watching TV; or something else? How do you unwind?

David Nussbaum: Whatever my wife tells me to do. (Laughs) No, actually, winding down I would probably be sitting with an iPad on my lap; I’ll be watching some program on Netflix. I’ll be jumping to one of my digital magazines: The New Yorker, Vanity Fair or digital newspapers. And checking email. That’s what I do. And definitely Twitter.

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

David Nussbaum: I sleep pretty well. What keeps me up at night is that any good company, any good businessperson realizes that you can never stand still. And innovation is not something that you do and then say, okay, we’re all done. Innovation is something that you have to continually create. So, my job as CEO is always to encourage, enrich and ensure that my teammates all feel like innovation is as the core of what they do. And that’s hard work. That’s what keeps me up at night; how can I continue to find innovation for our company that’s successful innovation.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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