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Smithsonian Media Group’s Chief Revenue Officer, Amy P. Wilkins, to Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni On The Future Of Magazine Media: “Focus On What You Do Best And Then Give It To The Audience In Every Format You Can Think Of.” The Mr. Magazine Interview…

March 20, 2020

“I think that in this day and age, something that can just completely delight, entertain and engage you is what makes a huge difference. And we see that in all of our communications from our readers.” … Amy P. Wilkins

Even in the midst of gloom and doom, Smithsonian Magazine shines with its 50th anniversary issue which focuses on and celebrates the future of our planet. While Americans, along with much of the world, learns to work from home and to self-distance themselves from others to stop the spread of the Coronavirus, Smithsonian offers a look back at half a century of covering the planet, and also offers some reasons for optimism, even in today’s climate of uncertainty.

When Smithsonian magazine debuted in 1970 in the midst of cultural havoc surrounding the first Earth Day—including concerns such as oil spills, the looming energy crisis, the rise in pollution and the decline of wildlife— the magazine promised to examine the circumstances and ideals that shape humanity. In the five decades since, the magazine has continued to be optimistic in its exploration of the challenges and discoveries of life on Earth in a nonpartisan manner.

Earlier this week I talked with Chief Revenue Officer Amy P. Wilkins about this 50th anniversary issue and the state of the magazine media world today. Amy was the epitome of optimism as she firmly believes the world will return to normal and be better because of what we as a global community have endured together. Hope for our planet’s future abounds and the Smithsonian and its flagship print publication celebrates that profound optimism.

So, please enjoy this Mr. Magazine™ interview with Amy P. Wilkins, chief revenue office, Smithsonian Media Group as we all connect through the power of magazines.

But first the sound-bites:

On why she thinks the Smithsonian magazine and brand has not only survived, but has thrived for 50 years: It’s a combination of things. The first thing is, there’s something about the Smithsonian itself that inspires people. So, it’s mission-driven. And then what happens is somebody receives the magazine and they become a national member of the Smithsonian. And the magazine is the core member benefit. And the minute they get it, they’re like wow! Every issue of Smithsonian is a surprise. They have no idea what’s going to be inside.

On being in an age where there is a divided media landscape, among other things, and how she thinks the Smithsonian has managed to deal with some very important and sometimes controversial subjects, yet stay away from any particular political party: I love that you said we’ve stayed away; I feel that the truth is it’s very hard to stay away completely because almost any topic can become politicized in an environment like this. I would say that our editors work very, very hard to deliver truthful, balanced reporting and journalism. It’s less about reporting, because we don’t “report” news, we tackle topics and subjects and we deliver them in a way that is meant to explain or delve deeper into a topic and really cover it in the most balanced way we can. And it’s a mandate really for us, because when you think about it, the Smithsonian is a nonprofit and we feed the central trust, that is our responsibility. So, we have to be nonpartisan, because we are basically everyone’s magazine. The Smithsonian belongs to everyone.

On how she thinks the media landscape has changed since the ink on paper magazine began 50 years ago: It has definitely changed a lot. There are some fundamentals that still oddly work for the moment, in terms of how we reach new subscribers and new members. And that is, direct mail still works for us. And overall, the industry becomes less efficient and we’ve had to create teams who can handle both print and digital, whether they be on the ad sales side or what is happening now with our editorial team newly uniting to create our future. So, we are definitely having to look at how we will invest digitally and where those investments will be best-placed, where we will reap the most benefits. And that’s where a lot of our energy and effort is going right at this moment.

On how she plans to sustain the magazine for the next 50 years as the chief revenue officer: Some of what we’re looking at right now is how we can actually expand the way we look at membership. Membership is an important part of who we are and why people actually come to us. It’s not why they always stay, but it’s definitely why they initially will join. But there are a lot of memberships throughout the Institution and we’re working very closely with some of those other important memberships, which are more about philanthropy, to figure out if there are other member benefits that we can be offering that would dramatically impact what people are willing to give.

On whether she can envision a day without the ink on paper magazine: I think that’s possible, at some point in time. I don’t see that right now because the commitment and connection that this existing membership base has is  really strong. And we are going to have to bring new people into the fold. What we find is that because we are really all about curiosity and that love of learning, it’s clear and it’s true that there are lifelong learners at every stage of life, but it’s also true that there’s a moment in time when you get to actually learn just because you love learning. And that has often been the audience that is attracted to Smithsonian, which tends to be older. Because at that point you’re not necessarily learning because you’re trying to learn about a specific career or you’re trying to forward something in your business; you’re learning because you want to learn. And that’s something that we’re grappling with. How can we attract a younger audience?

On whether she uses a different side of her brain when she works for a non-profit versus a for-profit entity: People have said that when you think of Smithsonian, it’s almost like you have to think of a massive university; it’s a little like that at times. (Laughs) For me, the most important thing, the only part of my brain that I get to use here that maybe I didn’t get to use anywhere else is – I love what we stand for, this mission is inspiring to me, increasing and diffusing knowledge, that’s what the Smithsonian exists to do. So, I’m inspired by the mission.

On how she thinks the pandemic will affect the Smithsonian and the magazine going forward: It’s going to be impacted. We’re seeing a significant impact in the upcoming months and that’s across both our print and digital. We are highly reliant on the travel category and that’s a category that’s obviously hurting significantly in this moment. But we’re also noticing the other sectors are pulling back. I think they’ll return and I’m already hearing that; we have a travel business that’s already planning for what’s coming. I’m fortunate that we have our own business in travel and they can keep me informed about what’s happening at the lowest part of the funnel in travel, so that we are in a position to respond when things are ready to go.

On living and working in these uncertain times, and the message she sends to her team and those in the industry: I am on phone calls with my team every day and it’s saying that this too shall pass, and we may feel some pain from it. We’re fortunate that we went into our fiscal year that started in October way ahead of the game, so I’m not concerned at all. We were really strong, both on our consumer marketing side, to the point where we were reinvesting in direct mail and still are, and we were way ahead on our digital ad sales. And our print ad sales were really strong as well. I know we may miss our budget this year due to what’s happened, but it’s not going to be anywhere near what it could have been if we weren’t so far ahead.

On how her role has changed, going from publisher previously to chief revenue officer today: When I was the publisher I was responsible for ad sales only. In the role of CRO, consumer marketing is also my responsibility, so all of the revenue that gets generated flows through me. So, that’s a different role and that’s how it changed. I didn’t have that responsibility when I was the publisher previously.

On whether her present-day role is easier or harder: (Laughs) It’s more exciting. It’s a huge challenge, but I love it. I learn something every day and I have to be on my toes at all times and that I love.

On anything she’d like to add: Only that people should really pick up this issue. They can pick it up or get it on all of our platforms. They can visit our site and get access to it. It’s chocked full of hope for the future of our planet.

On what someone would find her doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at her home: Most likely I would be re-watching Schitt’s Creek and laughing my butt off. (Laughs)

On the biggest misconception she thinks people have about her: I’m not sure I can answer that. Oh wow…I just don’t know. (Laughs) Maybe that I’m too serious. They might actually think that.

On the future of magazine media in one sentence: I would say focus on what you do best, and give it to them in every format that you can think of.

On what keeps her up at night: Right now it’s how to support my team remotely.

And now the lightly edited Mr. Magazine™ interview with Amy. P. WIlkins, chief revenue officer, Smithsonian Media Group.

Samir Husni: Why do you think the Smithsonian has survived for 50 years as an ink on paper magazine and now has expanded to all of these other platforms? What are the secret ingredients that have seen the brand not only survive but thrive with 1.6 million subscribers?

Amy P. Wilkins: It’s a combination of things. The first thing is, there’s something about the Smithsonian itself that inspires people. So, it’s mission-driven. And then what happens is somebody receives the magazine and they become a national member of the Smithsonian. And the magazine is the core member benefit. And the minute they get it, they’re like wow! Every issue of Smithsonian is a surprise. They have no idea what’s going to be inside.

And it’s going to be this range of topics that really just delights them; it’s science, history, nature, the arts, and it’s always this idea of “it’s what you don’t know that you don’t know.” They don’t even know that this is something that they’re interested in. It would be difficult to Google this topic because you didn’t even know it existed or you didn’t know it existed in this way.

So, that’s what the Smithsonian is capable of doing. And I think that in this day and age, something that can just completely delight, entertain and engage you is what makes a huge difference. And we see that in all of our communications from our readers. When they send us mail, and they send us a lot, the number one thing that they like to do, they like to correct us, every once and awhile there might be a typo. (Laughs) We have had that happen, which is hilarious. But on top of that they tell us that we are a respite from a weary world. We’re there to entertain and engage, and really challenge them intellectually. They love that we speak up to them. If we’re speaking at their level; we’re not dumbing things down, we’re delivering it in a really intelligent way. And they like that too.

Samir Husni: You deal with a lot of controversial subjects, yet at the same time you deliver the information in a nonpartisan way. You’ve managed to stay that trusted media brand. In this age of the divided media landscape, among other things, how has the Smithsonian managed to deal with those very important and sometimes controversial subjects, yet stay away from any particular political party?

Amy P. Wilkins: I love that you said we’ve stayed away; I feel that the truth is it’s very hard to stay away completely because almost any topic can become politicized in an environment like this. I would say that our editors work very, very hard to deliver truthful, balanced reporting and journalism. It’s less about reporting, because we don’t “report” news, we tackle topics and subjects and we deliver them in a way that is meant to explain or delve deeper into a topic and really cover it in the most balanced way we can. And it’s a mandate really for us, because when you think about it, the Smithsonian is a nonprofit and we feed the central trust, that is our responsibility. So, we have to be nonpartisan, because we are basically everyone’s magazine. The Smithsonian belongs to everyone.

Samir Husni: In April, you’ll be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the ink on paper magazine. And you’ll be looking at the future of our planet. What about the future of the magazine and the future of ink on paper? How has your media landscape changed since 1970?

Amy P. Wilkins: It has definitely changed a lot. There are some fundamentals that still oddly work for the moment, in terms of how we reach new subscribers and new members. And that is, direct mail still works for us. And overall, the industry becomes less efficient and we’ve had to create teams who can handle both print and digital, whether they be on the ad sales side or what is happening now with our editorial team newly uniting to create our future. So, we are definitely having to look at how we will invest digitally and where those investments will be best-placed, where we will reap the most benefits. And that’s where a lot of our energy and effort is going right at this moment.

Samir Husni: As the chief revenue officer for the Smithsonian, I know you’re not for profit, but to sustain the ink on paper magazine and all of its expansions, what are your plans for sustainment?

Amy P. Wilkins: Some of what we’re looking at right now is how we can actually expand the way we look at membership. Membership is an important part of who we are and why people actually come to us. It’s not why they always stay, but it’s definitely why they initially will join. But there are a lot of memberships throughout the Institution and we’re working very closely with some of those other important memberships, which are more about philanthropy, to figure out if there are other member benefits that we can be offering that would dramatically impact what people are willing to give.

And it’s going to take something. It’s going to take some creativity on our part to figure out what kind of member benefits are going to make a real difference, given the fact that our audience – our members live everywhere. They’re not in the DC/Metro area where a number of our most logical member benefits would exist, our physical member benefits. So, that’s one area that we’re looking at very closely. We’re in the middle of a very big project on that as we speak. We see membership as a big part of that.

Samir Husni: Do you believe that the printed magazine is that membership card or can you envision a day without the ink on paper magazine?

Amy P. Wilkins: I think that’s possible, at some point in time. I don’t see that right now because the commitment and connection that this existing membership base has is  really strong. And we are going to have to bring new people into the fold. What we find is that because we are really all about curiosity and that love of learning, it’s clear and it’s true that there are lifelong learners at every stage of life, but it’s also true that there’s a moment in time when you get to actually learn just because you love learning. And that has often been the audience that is attracted to Smithsonian, which tends to be older. Because at that point you’re not necessarily learning because you’re trying to learn about a specific career or you’re trying to forward something in your business; you’re learning because you want to learn. And that’s something that we’re grappling with. How can we attract a younger audience?

And we see that we do that digitally; we’re looking at a lot of different ways of capturing that. We’re in the middle of this massive project to look at both how we are offering ourselves up digitally, expanding and attracting new audiences, which we already can see that we do digitally because our digital audience is significantly younger by almost 10 years than our magazine audience. So, that’s an important area for us.

The other is the alignment that we have within our own division; we have a travel unit, which obviously is having some challenges at the moment, but that won’t be forever, and we work with them very closely because our audiences love to travel. And so the ways in which we can actually feed and support other businesses within Smithsonian Enterprises is important, whether it’s ecommerce or travel; whether it’s our book unit, those are areas that we can continue to be an important player in and supportive of.

Samir Husni: You’ve worked with a for-profit, you were the group publisher at Martha Stewart Media and you worked with Martha Stewart Omnimedia before Meredith; do you have to use a different side of your brain when you work for a for-profit entity as opposed to a non-profit?

Amy P. Wilkins: People have said that when you think of Smithsonian, it’s almost like you have to think of a massive university; it’s a little like that at times. (Laughs) For me, the most important thing, the only part of my brain that I get to use here that maybe I didn’t get to use anywhere else is – I love what we stand for, this mission is inspiring to me, increasing and diffusing knowledge, that’s what the Smithsonian exists to do. So, I’m inspired by the mission.

I’m driven every day to make sure that we’re delivering what the castle and the central trust need from us, and that is trying in these moments. Over the years we have given millions and millions of dollars back to the Institution, but we’re giving less. So, we’re consistently looking at how we can serve the broader organization and still be a financial contribution, but also find other soft contributions that make a difference.

Samir Husni: As we look forward, past this horrible pandemic, how do you think revenue will be affected for the Smithsonian and the magazine?

Amy P. Wilkins: It’s going to be impacted. We’re seeing a significant impact in the upcoming months and that’s across both our print and digital. We are highly reliant on the travel category and that’s a category that’s obviously hurting significantly in this moment. But we’re also noticing the other sectors are pulling back. I think they’ll return and I’m already hearing that; we have a travel business that’s already planning for what’s coming. I’m fortunate that we have our own business in travel and they can keep me informed about what’s happening at the lowest part of the funnel in travel, so that we are in a position to respond when things are ready to go.

But there’s no doubt that we’re going to be impacted by this. We had some significant wins around our anniversary, both because we were celebrating the planet at a time when the Institution was also celebrating the planet with a program called “Earth Optimism,” and they’ve had to cancel that live event. It’s now going to be digital only. We had a number of sponsors that were part of that and they’re still with us, but they’re not going to be able to do the event.

We’d also moved Museum Day, which I actually created on our 35th anniversary as a way to celebrate members across the country. It was getting free access to a museum on one day. We launched it on our 35th anniversary and this year we decided to move it from the fall because that happened when I left the Smithsonian, they actually moved it to the fall (Laughs). We moved it back to the spring this year, it was going to be April 4 and we did have to cancel that. Lexus was our partner on that. To be responsible, there was no way that event could move forward. We had over 1,200 museums that were going to participate in the spring event. It’s one of the biggest events that we do a year. And it will come back, but not this spring.

Samir Husni: When you are meeting with your staff, either in person or as today, virtually, are you telling them “Have no fear, Amy is here?” What’s your message to the people in the industry, including your own team?

Amy P. Wilkins: I am on phone calls with my team every day and it’s saying that this too shall pass, and we may feel some pain from it. We’re fortunate that we went into our fiscal year that started in October way ahead of the game, so I’m not concerned at all. We were really strong, both on our consumer marketing side, to the point where we were reinvesting in direct mail and still are, and we were way ahead on our digital ad sales. And our print ad sales were really strong as well. I know we may miss our budget this year due to what’s happened, but it’s not going to be anywhere near what it could have been if we weren’t so far ahead.

So, what I’m doing right now is working with each member; we’re on the phone often with each other and we’re going to be creating a strategy for when things get moving. And we’re going to be respectful of how we communicate. One of the questions my team has is how do I call people no in the middle of this pandemic? I tell them that people want to connect right now. I’ve actually noticed that people want and need to connect, so as long as you’re adding value to a conversation, they’re going to want to have it with you. If you’re just calling and asking, hey, when are you going to start advertising again, then that’s going to be a problem. (Laughs) But if you’re calling them with an offer of how can I help you, such as when this thing gets moving, I want to be ready to support you in your message.

We’re looking at all the areas that matter to the Institution and that matter to our audiences: the environment, education, equality; all of the topics that are just so important. And we’re going to look at the companies that have already said those things also matter to them, and be ready to have those conversations and to build a case for why we can help support them when they’re ready to go. Because they will be. They’re going to be ready to go; just right now, maybe not. So, I think it gives us space to do that.

And at the same time we’re looking at initiatives within the Institution that are important and that we believe could be in perfect alignment with us, so we can partner. Like we did with “Earth Optimism,” that was an event, a program, an initiative of the Institution and we got really close to the unit that was responsible for it. And we have identified a few others like that which will be great for us in 2021. So, I’m optimistic.

Samir Husni: Twenty years ago you were the publisher of the Smithsonian and then you came back as the chief revenue officer; how has your role changed since then?

Amy P. Wilkins: When I was the publisher I was responsible for ad sales only. In the role of CRO, consumer marketing is also my responsibility, so all of the revenue that gets generated flows through me. So, that’s a different role and that’s how it changed. I didn’t have that responsibility when I was the publisher previously.

Samir Husni: Is it easier for you or harder?

Amy P. Wilkins: (Laughs) It’s more exciting. It’s a huge challenge, but I love it. I learn something every day and I have to be on my toes at all times and that I love.

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

Amy P. Wilkins: Only that people should really pick up this issue. They can pick it up or get it on all of our platforms. They can visit our site and get access to it. It’s chocked full of hope for the future of our planet.

Samir Husni: Once we’re done with the social distancing and I show up unexpectedly at your home one evening after work, what do I find you doing? Having a glass of wine; reading a magazine; cooking; or something else? How do you unwind?

Amy P. Wilkins: Most likely I would be re-watching Schitt’s Creek and laughing my butt off. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about you?

Amy P. Wilkins: I’m not sure I can answer that. Oh wow…I just don’t know. (Laughs) Maybe that I’m too serious. They might actually think that.

 Samir Husni: Could you sum up the future of magazine media in one sentence?

Amy P. Wilkins: I would say focus on what you do best, and then give it to the audience in every format you can think of.

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

Amy P. Wilkins: Right now it’s how to support my team remotely.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

 

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