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Stephen Bohlinger, Senior Vice President Group Publisher, Better Homes & Gardens To Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni: “We’re Staying The Course As A Monthly, Staying At 7.6 Million Rate Base.” The Mr. Magazine™ Interview…

June 5, 2020

Publishing During A Pandemic (35)

“I believe there will be a resurgence for print and that this will be a great time for the industry, a great time for iconic, 100-year-old, heritage brands like Better Homes & Gardens, which is 100 percent relevant today. We reach 8.2 million millennials, and the leading millennial is turning 40. People always say that millennials aren’t going to buy homes  but guess what? They’re not only buying homes. They’re buying their second homes. There are 40-year-olds who are buying their second home right now.” … Stephen Bohlinger

“What we are seeing is some great things with our consumers. The renewals are pacing in the double digits; the direct mail efforts are up 11 percent, proving the power of print. They’re voting with their wallets, the magazine store has recorded nine straight weeks of growth, up 47 percent and the Amazon sub orders have seen eight straight weeks of growth, up 76 percent. So, that’s a good sign. We’re going to have to weather the storm on the ad revenue, but we are getting more from the consumer. That’s why we’re staying the course as a monthly, staying at 7.6 million rate base.”… Stephen Bohlinger

Content drives Meredith Corporation, quality, relevant content. And never has that been more evident than with Better Homes & Gardens, Southern Living and Traditional Home, three Meredith brands that are weathering the pandemic storm quite admirably. Stephen Bohlinger is Senior Vice President Group Publisher for the trio of titles and is happy to report that things are moving along very well during these uncertain times.

“This is a wonderful time for our brands – Better Homes & Gardens, Southern Living and Traditional Home. Why is it a wonderful time? Because not only are we going home, but most of our readers and advertisers are doing the same.”

I spoke with Stephen recently and he shared that comment and many more with me during our conversation. As always, it was a pleasure to hear from the powers-that-be at Meredith, especially to find out the pandemic may have presented its challenges, but it hadn’t stopped the company from doing what they do best: putting out quality content without disruption.

And now the 35th Mr. Magazine™ interview in the series of Publishing During A Pandemic with Stephen Bohlinger,  Senior Vice President Group Publisher, Better Homes & Gardens, Southern Living and Traditional Home.

But first the sound-bites:

On how the business has been operating during the pandemic: First and foremost, I’ve been commuting, working and living out of the mecca New York City since 1985, so I lived through recessions, 9/11 and the banking crisis, but this is unprecedented. I’ve never seen anything like this. We went from 100 percent seated across the country – all of our offices – to 100 percent home in the snap of a finger within 24 hours. The first thing that we needed to do was adjust quickly. There was no script, no game plan that we could refer to because this had never been seen before; we’d never done this before. Certainly, I hadn’t seen it.

On whether they have had to change any magazine frequencies because of the pandemic: We talked to our CEO, Tom Harty, and my boss, Doug Olson, and we looked at every single element: frequency, rate base, print, bind and mail. We realized that this is a wonderful time for our brands – Better Homes & Gardens, Southern Living and Traditional Home. Why is it a wonderful time? Because not only are we going home, but most of our readers and advertisers are doing the same. They’re sitting at home and as they look at their four walls, they’re realizing that they might need a paint job. Or they need to redo their kitchen. And they can achieve these goals by spending time with our powerful and relevant brands which are now UP with readers spending 33 minutes per issue with Better Homes & Gardens.

On whether he thinks people will rediscover print once the pandemic is behind us: Yes, I really do believe so. I believe there will be a resurgence for print and that this will be a great time for the industry, a great time for iconic, 100-year-old, heritage brands like Better Homes & Gardens, which is 100 percent relevant today.

On if he feels running the company during a pandemic has been a walk in a rose garden or very challenging: It hasn’t been a walk in a rose garden, no. It’s been a challenge since day one, but I’m the son of a coach. My dad was an educator like you, a gym teacher and coach, and he always taught me to stick to your heart and stomach and call it guts. And, that’s what we did. The best thing for us – and what allowed us to avoid that “this is too much” moment – has been the communication and the relationships we have at the Meredith Corporation.

On whether he thinks working from home will become the new “normal” indefinitely: I’m all about the high-five, the hug and the pat on the back, and there’s nothing ever that will replace a face-to-face meeting with a client, breaking bread with them over lunch, or going to a ballgame with them or playing golf with them. This is a relationship business and it has been since day one. I always tell my team that you’re only as good as your reputation and you’re only as good as the relationships you can build and keep.

On the budget for this fiscal year: When the pandemic hit there were certainly advertisers out of the game, and that put a pause on spending. So, we’re not going to reach budget where we were year over year. We’re always compared by what we did the year before, and the June issue was the first issue where we saw advertisers taking a pause.

On anything he’d like to add: We’re an omni-channel experience, so this is a brand that has many touchpoints. We have a huge content licensing business with Walmart. We have BH&G Real Estate, which is doing extremely well. What’s also performing at its highest level and is showing amazing growth is digital, with BH&G’s highest traffic since 2015, at more than 17.7 million visits.

On what keeps him up at night: It’s the health and wellness of my team across the board. Most of my team members, as I said earlier, are hardworking mothers, and the majority of those in New York commute, so that in and of itself is a challenge. I just worry about them and their families. Some are also caring for their parents. Some staff members lost their grandparents here in the New York metropolitan area, which was very sad. I worry about them and the disruption they may face in their lives.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Stephen Bohlinger, Senior Vice President Group Publisher, Better Homes & Gardens, Southern Living and Traditional Home.

Samir Husni: How are you adjusting as group publisher of Better Homes & Gardens, Southern Living and Traditional Home during this pandemic?

Stephen Bohlinger: First and foremost, I’ve been commuting, working and living out of the mecca New York City since 1985, so I lived through recessions, 9/11 and the banking crisis, but this is unprecedented. I’ve never seen anything like this. We went from 100 percent seated across the country – all of our offices – to 100 percent home in the snap of a finger within 24 hours. The first thing that we needed to do was adjust quickly. There was no script, no game plan that we could refer to because this had never been seen before; we’d never done this before. Certainly, I hadn’t seen it.

We needed to be really nimble and to adjust rapidly because we knew we had to continue doing business. And I am amazed at how our team has responded. Most of the people on my team are working mothers, so they were not only disrupted in their own work environment, but they were disrupted at home. They were disrupted with their kids, who were no longer going to school and were now at home, so they were taking care of their children and, in some cases, their parents as well. So, I’ve just been amazed at how nimble and quick they’ve been able to adjust to the new world of working from home while still serving our clients’ needs.

The good news is that we have phenomenal relationships with our clients and our agency partners and that translated very well. We were able to do calls on Zoom/Webex and see one another, so we were practicing social distancing and didn’t have to wear masks. We were able to get business done productively and efficiently. It happened overnight, and the team responded seamlessly.

Samir Husni: Have you had to change any frequencies with your magazines due to the pandemic or make any tough decisions?

Stephen Bohlinger: Great questions and ones we took to the highest level. We talked to our CEO, Tom Harty, and my boss, Doug Olson, and we looked at every single element: frequency, rate base, print, bind and mail. We realized that this is a wonderful time for our brands – Better Homes & Gardens, Southern Living and Traditional Home. Why is it a wonderful time? Because not only are we going home, but most of our readers and advertisers are doing the same. They’re sitting at home and as they look at their four walls, they’re realizing that they might need a paint job. Or they need to redo their kitchen. And they can achieve these goals by spending time with our powerful and relevant brands which are now UP with readers spending 33 minutes per issue with Better Homes & Gardens.

Better Homes & Gardens is a 100-year-old brand and has historic archives to reflect on. Our editor in chief, Stephen Orr, is an amazing leader. We’ve been together for five years, and I just love him as a person, a friend and certainly as the leader of the largest monthly magazine in the world. We’re 12 times per year; the readers want and need our brand and so it makes perfect sense to continue with this monthly frequency. The brand is more relevant today than ever before so let’s stay the course and deliver a great product they demand. When we looked at the rate base, which we do every year – it’s 7.6 million – it made sense financially. This is a juggernaut for the Meredith Corporation; it’s such a big brand reaching 43 million fans and followers. So it made perfect sense to continue delivering the rate base of 7.6 million and sending that to the homes of our consumers 12 times per year.

Yes, it made sense financially, but even more important is that the content is more relevant today than it has ever been. Given this time and this pandemic, people looking inward, people are returning to their homes and doing things they may never have done, I feel this is a resurgence for print. I see this as a great time for our industry because people are sick of looking at a screen every day, sick of leaning in, seated looking at a screen. And at night, they’ve seen every Netflix show. I’ve seen it with my own children. They’re millennials and would rather curl up and read a book after a long day than looking at a screen, They want to close the computer, put the phone away. That’s wonderful to see and it’s great for our brands.

Samir Husni: As you move forward and this pandemic is behind us, do you think this resurgence will continue and people will rediscover print after spending so much time with screens? After the virtual for so long, will they be looking for reality?

Stephen Bohlinger: Yes, I really do believe so. I believe there will be a resurgence for print and that this will be a great time for the industry, a great time for iconic, 100-year-old, heritage brands like Better Homes & Gardens, which is 100 percent relevant today. We reach 8.2 million millennials, and the leading millennial is turning 40. People always say that millennials aren’t going to buy homes  but guess what? They’re not only buying homes. They’re buying their second homes. There are 40-year-olds who are buying their second home right now.

I see the millennial audience disengaging with what they were brought up on, which was screen time. They’re throwing their phones down for a while and reading books or magazines, whether it’s BH&G, Southern Living or Traditional Home. I think it’s a wonderful time for the Meredith Corporation and the industry.

As for our clients and advertisers, it’s been rough, right? Initially, when the pandemic hit, there was lots of  uncertainty. We didn’t know what the future looked like, so there were a lot of advertisers, clients that said they were going to take a pause in categories like automotive or beauty. However, we saw an uptick for some advertisers like packaged goods – certainly in cleaning products and convenient food brands. In some of our categories there was opportunity for them to reach out and show the American public that they were there for them, that we’re in it together. And there are no better brands to do that than the ones that they’re getting at home. And, the ones they trust.

Samir Husni: Was there a moment in the last few months where you said that’s it, I can’t take it anymore? Or has it been a walk in a rose garden throughout this pandemic?

Stephen Bohlinger: It hasn’t been a walk in a rose garden, no. It’s been a challenge since day one, but I’m the son of a coach. My dad was an educator like you, a gym teacher and coach, and he always taught me to stick to your heart and stomach and call it guts. And, that’s what we did. The best thing for us – and what allowed us to avoid that “this is too much” moment – has been the communication and the relationships we have at the Meredith Corporation. I talk to my boss, Doug Olson, every day. We have a business continuity meeting with all of his direct reports every day. And even if it’s just to get everybody on the phone and communicating, it helps everyone to relax and take a breath, to feel that we really are in this together. So that communication from the highest level has been extremely helpful.

My team is the same. We meet daily and talk regularly about what their fears and concerns are. I really feel that communication and those relationships and trust within our team have helped everyone. Whether it’s relationships within our own team or our relationship with the highest level at Meredith, the communication is there and its constant.

 Samir Husni: Once the pandemic is behind us, do you think working from home will be the new normal or you’ll go back to the face-to-face environment of the office?

Stephen Bohlinger: I’m all about the high-five, the hug and the pat on the back, and there’s nothing ever that will replace a face-to-face meeting with a client, breaking bread with them over lunch, or going to a ballgame with them or playing golf with them. This is a relationship business and it has been since day one. I always tell my team that you’re only as good as your reputation and you’re only as good as the relationships you can build and keep.

I’d love to see us return to that at some point, but I’ve been amazed at how efficient we’ve been in running our business with our clients thanks to those relationships. I’ll give you a perfect example. As we pivot the content – working with Stephen and his amazing, talented edit team  – we were able to do what we’re calling “Project Joy,” editorial meetings with our clients.

We bring in Stephen, who is not only the editor of BH&G but is the content leader for more than half of the Meredith brands. We reached out to all of our key agency partners and clients, and we’ve done over a dozen of these meetings, which are usually an hour long, and I’m amazed at how many people attend these meetings. The screen is full, with 20 to 25 people seated at the highest level, interested and leaning in. I always used to say that if you feed them they will come, so we’d do lunch and learns, but we’re not feeding them. We’re just giving them solutions for their clients and they’re showing up in droves.

This has opened our eyes to a new way of doing business. It has totally changed overnight, but we haven’t lost any momentum. Communication has probably been better than before because we’re leaning in and being more nimble. We always ask our clients if we’re serving them the way they need to be served in these “Project Joy” meetings. And they all answer “Absolutely and thank you.”

Samir Husni: What’s your forecast for meeting the budget this fiscal year?

Stephen Bohlinger: When the pandemic hit there were certainly advertisers out of the game, and that put a pause on spending. So, we’re not going to reach budget where we were year over year. We’re always compared by what we did the year before, and the June issue was the first issue where we saw advertisers taking a pause.

The leaders at Meredith are realists, and it starts at the top with our CEO Tom Harty. He knows what’s going on with the economy; he’s extremely close to it; and he said let’s do the best we possibly can and let’s be very understanding of what our clients are going through. We’re in this together, and let’s be there for them. Let’s listen to what their challenges are and try to figure out the solutions for them. Try and convince them why we feel they need to be here at this given time.

Issue to issue, being realists, we knew we would not match where we were year over year, but as we look at August, the issue that we’re closing right now, the panic seems to have subsided. I haven’t seen anyone pulling out at the 11th hour. Are we where we were a year ago? Not yet. This isn’t going to be a V snapback. This is going to be a U. It’s going to take a little longer, and we’re going to be patient.

But what we are seeing is some great things with our consumers. The renewals are pacing in the double digits; the direct mail efforts are up 11 percent, proving the power of print. They’re voting with their wallets, the magazine store has recorded nine straight weeks of growth, up 47 percent and the Amazon sub orders have seen eight straight weeks of growth, up 76 percent. So, that’s a good sign. We’re going to have to weather the storm on the ad revenue, but we are getting more from the consumer. That’s why we’re staying the course as a monthly, staying at 7.6 million rate base.

Newsstands, particularly for the brands that I oversee, aren’t that big. There has been some disruption on newsstand, but that doesn’t really affect ours because the majority of our brands are delivered to the home. By the way, the average time spent with BH&G is now 33 minutes, up from 30 minutes. Readers are spending more time with us, which is phenomenal.

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

Stephen Bohlinger: We’re an omni-channel experience, so this is a brand that has many touchpoints. We have a huge content licensing business with Walmart. We have BH&G Real Estate, which is doing extremely well. What’s also performing at its highest level and is showing amazing growth is digital, with BH&G’s highest traffic since 2015, at more than 17.7 million visits. I recently went to a big box retailer to buy some things. I waited 45 minutes, mask on, six feet apart from other shoppers. The store was packed with long lines of people buying home products. They’re going to BHG.com prior for gardening, home or whatever project it might be as we are there for all of their home needs. In addition, Pinterest traffic is the highest it’s been since 2014, email is also up, and we had 45 million in video views, the highest since 2019. All very positive signs.

We’re a multi-platform experience. Print is a big part of what we do, but our digital business has been tremendous throughout these times. We have over 43 million fans and followers right now. It’s enormous. That’s an enormous monthly reach for BH&G. We’re definitely proud of that.

On the readership side, print-only has a total readership of 33 million. Our total brand audience, per Magazine Media 360, is 43 million. Those are galactic numbers. Other brands within the industry are reducing rate bases and frequencies, but we’re staying the course for all the right reasons. We’re creating a gap as the leader – more so than ever before.

From an editorial standpoint, it’s wonderful to go through this time with a partner like Stephen, who is just tremendous. We had our Style Maker issue in September, a big tentpole event, and it drives from print. We have an event in New York City in September, and we invite over 100 style makers from throughout the country – be it food, home, gardening, décor, beauty, whatever it may be – and they show up for a full day. Early on we had to make a decision. Stephen said we’re not going to be able to pull this off in September. We don’t know where the world will be.

This was just a week in at being at home and he knew what was needed to be done: It’s going to be a better idea to move it. By the way, it’s our 10th anniversary for the Style Maker event, so we had a lot of fanfare behind it, and advertisers had already signed up. So, we pivoted. We moved it to spring 2021, and we changed the editorial theme in September to the power of home. Brilliant.

And in these “Project Joy,” editorial roadshows, Stephen ensures them that we’re getting the brand out into the consumers’ hands without disruption. The “Power of Home” will be the theme of our September issue. It’s about getting joy out of life, whether it’s cooking a recipe at home or organizing your drawers – all of the great content that BH&G brings to our audience through all of our channels.

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

Stephen Bohlinger: It’s the health and wellness of my team across the board. Most of my team members, as I said earlier, are hardworking mothers, and the majority of those in New York commute, so that in and of itself is a challenge. I just worry about them and their families. Some are also caring for their parents. Some staff members lost their grandparents here in the New York metropolitan area, which was very sad. I worry about them and the disruption they may face in their lives.

Again, it’s a relationship business. We’re a team and we’ve been together for a long time. I care about them, and they care about their fellow team members. Thankfully we’ve been pretty healthy, but I do worry about that.

We have been talking about phasing back in. We’re on track to open the Des Moines office in phases first. In New York, which is home to most of our team, we’ll also look at when it is safe to phase in, and I feel extremely confident about how Meredith leadership is putting together a careful and thoughtful plan as to how we bring our employees back to work in an environment that is safe. The health and wellness of the team is what keeps me up. I always worry, but it makes me feel good when we talk each morning as a team and I get to see everyone’s face.

 Samir Husni: Thank you.

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