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Meredith Magazines President & General Manager, Doug Olson, To Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni: “If You Give Consumers What They Want, They’ll Pay For It.” The Mr. Magazine™ Interview…

January 5, 2020

Mr. Magazine™ Presents… Conversations With Magazine and Magazine Media Leaders…

Meredith, the largest magazine media publisher on the planet today, is facing 2020 with a full-steam ahead position. Doug Olson, president and GM of all of the iconic Meredith brands is positive that if publishers give the consumers what they want, they’ll pay for it. I spoke with Doug recently for this Mr. Magazine™ beginning of the New Year series, and to say I was impressed and inspired by the conversation would be an understatement.

From a traditional advertising business model, to a subscriber-based one, to consumer-driven, Meredith is giving the customer what they want and expect from each of the many brands, depending on the title. With Better Homes & Gardens power housing its way into 2020 with a firm 7.6 million circulation to the smaller brands that live in high-quality style, Doug and Meredith are focused on forging a successful path into the future with all of the brands.

So, please enjoy this delightful and most informative conversation with Doug Olson, president and GM, Meredith Magazines as Mr. Magazine™ brings you the next in his series with the magazine and magazine media executives that make the industry world go-round.

But first the sound bites:

On his assessment of magazines and magazine media in 2020: We feel good about our brands in general. Obviously, we’re multiplatform, we’re not just a magazine company. We also have one of the top 10 media roll ups in the country from a unique visitor standpoint. We think there’s still a lot of energy and enthusiasm for the printed product out there, evidenced by the fact that we have 43 million subscribers, which is a number that tends to blow people away. So, we’re not only really excited about our brand portfolio, but we have a lot of consumers that pay money for those products. Jill (Davison – vice president, Corporate Communications) and I talk about this all the time, that it’s really the analog paywall, if you will, and people continue to support it very heavily, from a consumer perspective.

On any success stories he can share from 2019: The biggest thing that we’ve done over the last year or so is that we have our brand sales and marketing operation hitting on all cylinders, if you will. We combined two, very large organizations over the last, almost two years now, and there’s been a lot of disruption. One of the big things that we did is set up sales and marketing teams for each brand and they’re working very well. We’re clearly outperforming the industry on the print advertising front and at the same time the level of collaboration, cooperation and chemistry between our sales and marketing teams across digital, corporate sales and the brands has never been better.

 On his biggest challenge for 2019: Clearly, the  toughest decision was the closing of an iconic brand like Family Circle that had been with us for over 80 years and had been very profitable throughout those years. It still produced really nice premium content for our consumers. But at the end of the day when we looked at that, we weren’t making any money and we couldn’t see a path forward. It didn’t have a large at-scale digital presence like most of the rest of our brands have.

On making money from SIPs on the newsstand: In the last 12 months, we have sold about 19 million copies of special interest publications, bookazines,  at a price point of $9.99 or higher. It is a very profitable business for us. We are the market leader from any measure on that particular business, and it’s one that we’re throwing a big shoulder behind because we think there’s a lot of opportunities still there. And as you’ve seen, some our newer offerings have been a quarterly cadence at those higher price points. It’s a consumer-driven product and isn’t so dependent upon advertising. So, we’re really excited about some of our new or recent launches and we think there is more to come.

On how Meredith is handling the question of the changing magazine media business model: Our mass-reach brands, what I call our Uber-brands, are doing quite well  as advertising-based models. Something like PEOPLE is very successful in print, digital, video and social. Any platform that you can think of, we have a major presence for our brand like that. So, we have brands that are very successful in the mass-reach area, but the things that advertisers have not supported at the levels they used to, those are the things that we’ve been looking at and if there’s a path forward with a different model, that’s what we’ve been implementing.

 On whether print and its frequency will be a major change for Meredith in the future: I wouldn’t say a major change. I think there are some brands that could to be less frequent than they are today within our industry. We have stepped up our portfolio, as part of our overall portfolio management and made those determinations of what makes sense to be a weekly, to be a monthly, and what makes sense to be less frequent. As you said, change is constant and it’s something that we’ll continue to look at, but we feel like we have things right now where they need to be.

On whether he feels like there’s a brain-drain in the industry, as far as new talent coming into the business: No, I don’t. I feel like we have a lot of people coming into our business and more would like to.  There isn’t the turnover in our core business that maybe there was at one point, five or ten years ago, for sure, but I think the people that are coming into the space are learning a lot from the veterans that are here. I think they’re very enthusiastic, they’re very proud of working on these great brands. They love when they’re part of the integrated approach, whether it’s sales and marketing or if you’re a content generation person, the ability to work on a magazine and also help out on the website and the social media and all the other different platforms.

 On whether he considers social media platforms friend or foe to magazines and magazine media: They’re clearly frenemies, they’re friends with some initiatives and then very stiff competitors in other situations. The consumer will ultimately decide what they want to consider to be premium content; what’s worth their hard-earned money when they’re paying for something. Our job is to really be on all platforms that our consumers are on, regardless of where they want to consume the content. And to make sure that we throw the same effort behind a social media post that we do for one of our magazine stories. We’re a premium content company, at the end of the day that’s what we are.

On anything he’d like to add: Hopefully, you can hear in my voice, that I love our products. I love our brands. The team of people that we have is second to none. We had a lot of choices between Time Inc. and Meredith, and then of course, new people who wanted to come and join the new Meredith. So, we’ve had a lot of opportunity to talk to people who are really good at what they do. And I feel from top to bottom, from our biggest brands to our smallest, that we have the right leadership on the sales and marketing side and also the right content leaders on the brands.

On Cooking Light and Coastal Living going to a subscription model: My view is if something can make it on newsstand in today’s world; if you can hit your key performance indicators, with some people it’s a certain level of profit, with others it’s a certain level of sell-through; whatever your metric is for success, ours happens to be, as a publicly-traded company, the things that we put out, we want to make money. If you can make it on newsstand and that’s a healthy environment and you’re making money there, then it probably has a really good chance of coming back as a subscription title. But it has to be a different consideration.

On whether he wears a different hat for each of Meredith’s brands, such as when dealing with Better Homes & Gardens versus another title with a smaller circulation: Yes, absolutely. Something like a Better Homes & Gardens, which is not only a powerhouse; it’s one of the largest magazines in the world, from a circulation standpoint, but also remember it has one of the largest licensing programs in the world at Walmart. It’s a big brand extension at Walmart, with all the products that we sell there. So, when you look at a Better Homes & Gardens, you have the media piece and then the brand extension piece, and they’re both very large. Then when you put it together, you absolutely have to look at that brand differently than you would look at, say, Happy Paws.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Doug Olson, president & General Manager, Meredith Magazines.

Samir Husni: As we approach 2020, what’s your assessment of the future of magazines and magazine media?

Doug Olson: We feel good about our brands in general. Obviously, we’re multiplatform, we’re not just a magazine company. We also have one of the top 10 media roll ups in the country from a unique visitor standpoint. We think there’s still a lot of energy and enthusiasm for the printed product out there, evidenced by the fact that we have 43 million subscribers, which is a number that tends to blow people away. So, we’re not only really excited about our brand portfolio, but we have a lot of consumers that pay money for those products. Jill (Davison – vice president, Corporate Communications) and I talk about this all the time, that it’s really the analog paywall, if you will, and people continue to support it very heavily, from a consumer perspective.

Clearly, the issues in our business have been more on the advertising front, but we feel like there’s a lot of advertisers that are coming back to print because they know it works and has a good ROI. So, I think there will still be adjustments to portfolios throughout the industry, but some of us feel pretty good about our mass-reach brands, both in print and in digital, and are looking for new opportunities to continue to give consumers what they want. And us, in particular, have demonstrated that if you give consumers what they want, they’ll pay for it. Things like The Magnolia Journal or Reveal by the Property Brothers, Drew and Jonathan Scott, and some of the other things that we’re bringing back for home delivery.

We’re continuing to do portfolio management and the things that are working well, we’re doing more and the things that aren’t working, we’re transitioning to a different model.

Samir Husni: Change seems to be the only constant in the magazine and magazine media industry, and I know a lot has happened in 2019 at Meredith, but can you name three accomplishments or successes for 2019 that you’re proud of?

Doug Olson: The biggest thing that we’ve done over the last year or so is that we have our brand sales and marketing operation hitting on all cylinders, if you will. We combined two, very large organizations over the last, almost two years now, and there’s been a lot of disruption. One of the big things that we did is set up sales and marketing teams for each brand and they’re working very well. We’re clearly outperforming the industry on the print advertising front and at the same time the level of collaboration, cooperation and chemistry between our sales and marketing teams across digital, corporate sales and the brands has never been better.

That’s number one. Number two, our portfolio management is something that we’re very proud of. Again, there has been some things that haven’t been fun, as far as stopped publishing some titles, but the things that we’re adding, there’s a lot of enthusiasm, especially from the consumers, that we’re very excited about. And again, if you give the consumer what they want, they’ll pay for it.

The third thing is we at Meredith take our industry-leading role very seriously and we’re trying to continue to advocate for both mediums, the digital world and the traditional business in the print world. We’re trying to lead the charge and get people to understand that this is a profitable business and there’s still a lot of money and a lot of premium audiences that we’re aggregating for advertisers. And we’re still at heart a content company that’s producing premium content that audiences want to consume.

Samir Husni: I know you had some challenges in 2019, including the hard decision to fold Family Circle, yet at the same time, you’re launching Reveal. What would you consider your biggest challenge for 2019? Was it the Family Circle closing?

Doug Olson: Clearly, the  toughest decision was the closing of an iconic brand like Family Circle that had been with us for over 80 years and had been very profitable throughout those years. It still produced relevant premium content for our consumers. But at the end of the day when we looked at that, we weren’t making any money and we couldn’t see a path forward. It didn’t have a large at-scale digital presence like most of the rest of our brands have.

It was a general information women’s service title, so not really a candidate for a special interest publication, which we are the market leader on as well. We just didn’t see a path forward that made any sense for us, our shareholders and quite honestly, the consumers, because we would have had to make that product in a lot less expensive way than what we were putting into it. I know some of the advertisers liked it because it was an efficient ad-buy, but at the end of the day we didn’t see a path forward and it didn’t make sense to continue.

So, we made that very tough decision, but I’m happy to report that several people who worked on sales and marketing and/or the content part of that organization have new homes with other brands at Meredith because of some of the growth that we’ve seen.

Samir Husni: I was speaking with the CEO of ANC, David Parry, and he was telling me that while the revenue stream from the newsstand is changing with the SIPs, where they’re not selling as many units as they do from the frequency magazines, they’re making more money from them.

Doug Olson: In the last 12 months, we have sold about 19 million copies of special interest publications, bookazines, at a price point of $9.99 or higher. It is a very profitable business for us. We are the market leader from any measure on that particular business, and it’s one that we’re throwing a big shoulder behind because we think there’s a lot of opportunities still there. And as you’ve seen, some our newer offerings have been a quarterly cadence at those higher price points. It’s a consumer-driven product and isn’t so dependent upon advertising. So, we’re really excited about some of our new or recent launches and we think there is more to come.

Samir Husni: When you look at the traditional, advertising-dependent magazine business model, how is Meredith handling the question of the changing magazine business model?

Doug Olson: Our mass-reach brands, what I call our Uber-brands, are doing quite well  as advertising-based models. Something like PEOPLE is very successful in print, digital, video and social. Any platform that you can think of, we have a major presence for our brand like that. So, we have brands that are very successful in the mass-reach area, but the things that advertisers have not supported at the levels they used to, those are the things that we’ve been looking at and if there’s a path forward with a different model, that’s what we’ve been implementing.

We have multiple business models that we’re deploying and where it makes sense, it’s advertising-based. And where it doesn’t make sense, it’s consumer-driven. And I think you’ll see others follow our lead on that. The days of trying to make these huge rate bases and to continually pound on the advertising model is really tough. Either you have a successful brand or you don’t, from an advertising perspective. And if you don’t have a successful advertising-based model, then you need to look at doing something else or maybe not doing it.

Samir Husni: Meredith has been doing the SIPs before anyone else even discovered that space existed. As far back as I can recall, Meredith had special interest publications.

Doug Olson: Yes, we invented that, for sure.

Samir Husni: I also spoke with Krifka Steffey who is director of merchandising with Barnes & Noble, and she said that magazines to them anymore are luxury items. And you can’t be luxury if you’re published weekly or monthly. Are we going to see more changes at Meredith? People is the only weekly you have left. Sports Illustrated just announced it will become a monthly as Entertainment Weekly did. Is print and its frequency going to be a major change in the future?

Doug Olson: I wouldn’t say a major change. I think there are some brands that could be less frequent than they are today within our industry. We have stepped up our portfolio, as part of our overall portfolio management and made those determinations of what makes sense to be a weekly, to be a monthly, and what makes sense to be less frequent. As you said, change is constant and it’s something that we’ll continue to look at, but we feel like we have things right now where they need to be.

I’m a big believer that the high-quality paper, the high-quality product is something that consumers are willing to pay for if you give them the subject matter or the topics that they’re looking for. And that’s really what we’ve tried to do on that part of our business.

Our fastest growing brand since legacy Meredith took over the Time Inc. business, and is part of the new Meredith now, has actually been PEOPLE. Digitally, on people.com, and some of the other digital extensions and the magazine itself has done quite well, especially from an advertising perspective in the last year.

And one of the things that we’ve been doing is investing in some of the titles that we didn’t feel were at the level of quality that they needed to be and they’re market-leading brands. So, about 14 or 15 months ago, we invested in new and better paper for both Food & Wine and Travel + Leisure. Both brands have done excellent from a performance standpoint on advertising since we took over those brands from Time Inc. And we’re going to do it again. With the March issue for Travel + Leisure, it’s going to get bigger trim size and higher quality paper. And the Food & Wine brand is going to get bigger trim size and better quality paper as of their April issue. Both of those are getting another investment, so two investments in the physical product in the last 14 or 15 months.

Then with Health, which is a brand that was pretty much ignored when it first got here. Everyone asked were we going to shut down Health. Health is something that we’ve since put a great team of people on and we have found some white space in the marketplace and it’s done very well. We’re really excited about it. We’re also increasing its trim size and paper quality as of the March issue.

Samir Husni:  Someone in the industry told me recently that his biggest fear was of a brain-drain. That magazines and journalism as a whole weren’t attracting a new generation of sellers and marketers. Do you feel that way? That there’s a brain-drain in the industry?

Doug Olson: No, I don’t. I feel like we have a lot of people coming into our business and more would like to.  There isn’t the turnover in our core business that maybe there was at one point, five or ten years ago, for sure, but I think the people that are coming into the space are learning a lot from the veterans that are here. I think they’re very enthusiastic, they’re very proud of working on these great brands. They love when they’re part of the integrated approach, whether it’s sales and marketing or if you’re a content generation person, the ability to work on a magazine and also help out on the website and the social media and all the other different platforms.

It has certainly slowed down, as far as the opportunities, but there’s still a fair amount of people coming into the business. We, as the leadership team, one of our biggest goals and something we have to get right is to continue to challenge them and give them new opportunities because it’s not like it used to be, where you came in at one level and in a couple of years you went to another level, and then suddenly you’re a supervisor, and then you’re at a manager level.

The opportunities are clearly not as abundant as they used to be when we were in growth mode, but we’ve done a pretty good job at Meredith of creating opportunities for people so they can make this their career and they can get exposed to other things that make them very marketable. At the end of the day, what we want is marketable people, hopefully working for us, but if they’re not here, we want them to be successful when they go to the next opportunity as well.

Samir Husni: Do you consider all of these social media platforms friend or foe to magazines and magazine media? 

Doug Olson: They’re clearly frenemies, they’re friends with some initiatives and then very stiff competitors in other situations. The consumer will ultimately decide what they want to consider to be premium content; what’s worth their hard-earned money when they’re paying for something. Our job is to really be on all platforms that are consumers are on, regardless of where they want to consume the content. And to make sure that we throw the same effort behind a social media post that we do for one of our magazine stories. We’re a premium content company, at the end of the day that’s what we are.

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

Doug Olson: Hopefully, you can hear in my voice, that I love our products. I love our brands. The team of people that we have is second to none. We had a lot of choices between Time Inc. and Meredith, and then of course, new people who wanted to come and join the new Meredith. So, we’ve had a lot of opportunity to talk to people who are really good at what they do. And I feel from top to bottom, from our biggest brands to our smallest, that we have the right leadership on the sales and marketing side and also the right content leaders on the brands.

We know it’s a tough business; we know there’s a pocket of naysayers out there. One of the things that keeps me up at night is coming up with enough creative ways to prove to people that print is alive and well. But at the same time we know that the digital future is out there too, and we’re ready for that as well.

One of the things that we’re really proud of is that we’re reaching almost all women, even younger demographics as well. We’re hitting 90 percent of the female millennial population, somehow, someway, through our trusted brands and our digital experiences, that’s eighty-five percent of Gen Z and 90 percent of all women in the U.S. in general. We feel like, yes, we do a lot of things targeted at women, but we’re not just talking about older women, we’re talking about all women. That’s something that really blows people away, the 43 million subscribers stat blows people away because it’s bigger than Spotify and all these other brands that people are gaga about. To me, one of the things that we’re very proud of is our reach, regardless of age, income, etc., etc.

Samir Husni: You just answered my typical last question about what keeps you up at night (Laughs). So, I read about Cooking Light going back to a subscription model and Coastal Living doing the same.

Doug Olson: My view is if something can make it on newsstand in today’s world; if you can hit your key performance indicators, with some people it’s a certain level of profit, with others it’s a certain level of sell-through; whatever your metric is for success, ours happens to be, as a publicly-traded company, the things that we put out, we want to make money.

If you can make it on newsstand and that’s a healthy environment and you’re making money there, then it probably has a really good chance of coming back as a subscription title. But it has to be a different consideration. A lot of the things that we’re doing now are really nice paper and we’re going to have smaller rate bases attached to them, but it’s also going to cost the consumer $20 for four issues. And there’s enough people willing to pay that to make a nice business out of some of these smaller brands.

Samir Husni: When you’re presiding over all of these different brands, do you have to wear a different hat for each of them? For example, when you’re dealing with Better Homes & Gardens, which has 7.6 million in circulation versus a title with only 100,000 or 200,000 copies?

Doug Olson: Yes, absolutely. Something like a Better Homes & Gardens, which is not only a powerhouse; it’s one of the largest magazines in the world, from a circulation standpoint, but also remember it has one of the largest licensing programs in the world at Walmart. It’s a big brand extension at Walmart, with all the products that we sell there. So, when you look at a Better Homes & Gardens, you have the media piece and then the brand extension piece, and they’re both very large. Then when you put it together, you absolutely have to look at that brand differently than you would look at, say, Happy Paws.

And at the same time the cost… when we’re printing eight million on a print run, just little things, a few dollars per thousand here and there, times it by eight million, it’s a big number. The flexibility on some of these smaller titles, with high-quality paper and some of the things that we’ve tried from a high impact unit for the advertisers, is very manageable on the smaller brands. It gets really hard when you’re printing eight million or something.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

Next up, Eric Zinczenko, CEO, Bonnier Corporation. 

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