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Doug Olson: Optimistic About Magazines, Worried About Consumers – A Mr. Magazine™ Exclusive Interview With The President & Chief Media Officer Of a360media …

October 11, 2022

“I’m very optimistic about magazines. The part of the magazine business that has grown, up until the headwinds everybody faced in 2022, has really been the specials and bookazines part of the business.” Doug Olson…

“I think that people still like that lean-back experience and some of these topics just lend themselves to be enjoyed through the magazine medium and not necessarily through what we get on the screen.” Doug Olson…

“The consumer is facing so much inflation. Do they have enough disposable income to spend on their hobby or their enthusiast brands? So we worry about the consumer.” Doug Olson…

Doug Olson, President & Chief Media Officer of a360media

There’s no one in the top echelons of the magazine industry who knows the business like Doug Olson. Stepping down as president from the magazine division at Meredith last October, Doug retired for a bit and now currently serves as President & Chief Media Officer of a360media, the media division of accelerate360.

Between dynamic acquisitions of Bauer and Centennial Media, Doug is leading a360 into a sharply-focused future of weeklies, specials and powerhouse bookazines, the potential wave of the future when it comes to the magazine format, according to the man himself. Doug is unwavering in his determination and belief in magazine media, without any false facades or rosy pictures of a predestined future. He knows the odds and the headwinds he faces, yet he also knows what that lean-back experience still means to consumers.

So without further ado, please enjoy this exclusive Mr. Magazine™ interview with Doug Olson, President & Chief Media Officer of a360media. 

But first the sound-bites:

On the acquisition of Bauer and Centennial Media and how he feels about magazines and magazine media: As you know, I’m a big fan of brands in general and certainly brands on all platforms, but specifically when we did the acquisition of Bauer earlier in 2022, we got ourselves into the women’s lifestyle part of the business, which with my background, I have a lot of experience in the women’s lifestyle market, so picking up Woman’s World and First For Women helped to broaden the portfolio. I’m very optimistic about magazines. 

On whether he thinks specials and bookazines are the “new” magazines of the newsstands: I call them bookazines; I know a lot of people call them specials, but it’s really people who are into enthusiast-type topics. Some people call them participation brands, which I love that term, because if you’re really into something you’re willing to pay for it if it’s a quality product. So we’re going to focus on putting out a good, quality product that consumers want to buy and I really think this is the part of the magazine business that is definitely the future of magazines. Smaller, passionate groups around something that they have a high interest in that they’re willing to pay for.

On titles like “Stream +” or “Feel Free,” is he committed to more than just one issue: To me, you have to do at least two of something. You can’t do a one-and-done or do one and make a big bet on it in today’s world. So we’ve committed to a few issues on both of those titles, for example. But really, finding an audience out there is what we’re trying to do. 

On whether bookazines that cost $14 or $15 can still be called impulse buys: I think it’s less of an impulse buy than it used to be because of that high cover price on these beautiful magazines, but that’s one of the things that we’re trying to solve when we put Centennial Media and what we acquired from Bauer earlier this year together, is not only to have a big newsstand presence in your traditional retailers, but also help the consumer find something that they hear about. Because that’s the number one complaint I get about these specials or bookazines. I’ve heard about “Stream +” and it’s right up my alley, but I went to my local store and I couldn’t find it.

On where he is positioning a360media compared to the other publishing entities out there: To be honest, I’m sure it’s very similar. But what my strategy is and what my management team has been working on very hard since I arrived 11 months ago, is a digital and consumer-first strategy. What that means is we know we have to digitize these businesses and we’re doing a good job of that as well, we have a very good digital team that has been busy the last couple of years here doing just that, but at the same time we want a consumer-first business.

On whether he believes we still need five or six different celebrity weeklies: I think the consumer will decide that. That’s one thing that we look at very carefully. We own several of those and they’re all doing well. Obviously, the newsstand environment has been trending down for many years. We responded to that by putting out the best product that we can. We have some really efficient editors who work on those titles and they have great contacts and they do a good job. I guess the consumer will decide that.

On the partnership with Darwin CX as Media Fulfillment Partner and whether partnerships in general are the future for magazine media: Yes, I think we look at it as a competitive advantage to be very nimble and be able to pivot very quickly. Darwin is one that really came with the acquisition of Bauer. Bauer had already transitioned its fulfillment business to Darwin and they were in the middle of the implementation. We took a look at it and at first we thought it’s newer and it’s definitely more of a self-service from a reporting standpoint. Software is a service so it’s very flexible and probably where all of this is going.

On whether it’s easier for him now working for a company that also owns the distribution: (Laughs) I wouldn’t say easier, I would say there are certainly advantages and there are also disadvantages, but really at the end of the day our distribution team does a great job in a really tough market. There are all kinds of cost pressures and competitive pressures at the front end of the store. It’s great to hear their perspective on things, so you have that one more input.

On moving forward, what does he think the biggest challenge for the company will be: One is the consumer is facing so much inflation. Do they have enough disposable income to spend on their hobby or their enthusiast brands? So we worry about the consumer.

On whether he thinks there is a limit or a cap on how high a magazine can be priced: I think whatever the consumer decides on that as well. We’re getting in the territory where it’s going to be hard to justify many more price increases, unless something from the trim size or the amount of content also increases. But it’s right in the neighborhood now of some less expensive books and I guess time will tell. But I also would have answered the question the same way five years ago when we were at about $10 and didn’t see $14 or $15 as being a reachable price, but we’ve obviously proven that wrong. 

On anything he’d like to add: I just believe, once again, in brands and in what we’re going to do with them moving forward. And in what place in the brand spectrum that magazines play; it’s definitely shifting, as we’ve seen. But at the end of the day, I think that people still like that lean-back experience and some of these topics just lend themselves to be enjoyed through the magazine medium and not necessarily through what we get on the screen.

On life after Meredith: I have a lot of friends there that I still talk to all the time and I wish them nothing but the best. We had a special place there for many, many years. I think we all enjoyed working together, challenged ourselves to get through this tough business cycle that magazines have been in, but at the same time digitize that business as well. And now it’s in different owners’ hands and hopefully they’ll do the best job they can with it, because there are a lot of great people who work there.

On any advice he would give someone launching a magazine: There are a lot of great ideas out there, but not all of them are meant to be in the magazine format. I think we’ve seen in the past, even with some really popular personalities, that it doesn’t guarantee a successful magazine moving forward. I think everybody can do one, it’s when you get to the second and third one when it gets tough, because you put all of your best ideas into the first one.

On what keeps him up at night: You know, I sleep pretty good these days, because I retired once. (Laughs) Just making sure that we have a really fun place to work where people give it their all. I want to make sure as we’re coming out of this pandemic; you know, we’re still virtual, we have some people who go into the office, but a lot of people found they were very productive at home. So just finding that right balance is one of the things that keeps me up at night.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Doug Olson, President & Chief Media Officer of a360media, the media division of accelerate360

Samir Husni: You’ve been in an acquiring mode lately. You bought Bauer and now you’ve bought Centennial Media; may I assume that you have a really good feeling about magazines and magazine media?

Doug Olson: As you know, I’m a big fan of brands in general and certainly brands on all platforms, but specifically when we did the acquisition of Bauer earlier in 2022, we got ourselves into the women’s lifestyle part of the business, which with my background, I have a lot of experience in the women’s lifestyle market, so picking up Woman’s World and First For Women helped to broaden the portfolio. 

And then we ended up with some digital upside out of that because the Bauer folks hadn’t done a lot with the digital platforms on those brands so we saw a lot of upside there. The secret sauce in the deal for me was that we got their specials and bookazine platform, which several people who were running that business actually were at Time Inc. back in the day and then were acquired through Meredith, but unfortunately left Meredith, but I was able to get those folks back on my team with this acquisition. 

I’m very optimistic about magazines. The part of the magazine business that has grown, up until the headwinds everybody faced in 2022, has really been the specials and bookazines part of the business. With Bauer, we got a nice base platform and now with Centennial Media, that’s all they do, we feel like we have a substantial part of market share that has shown a lot of growth in the last five years. 

We need to get through all of these headwinds first with high paper prices and high petroleum prices with freight, all the surcharges and things that we’ve been facing, but we feel really good about our platform on the specials and bookazines as we move forward.

Samir Husni: Do you think the specials and the bookazines are the “new” magazines for the newsstands?

Doug Olson: Oh yes, we’ll definitely come out with some new things there. We’ve got a lot of things on the drying board. The beauty of that business is that if something works, you do more of it. If something doesn’t work, you just stop doing it and you pivot. 

I call them bookazines; I know a lot of people call them specials, but it’s really people who are into enthusiast-type topics. Some people call them participation brands, which I love that term, because if you’re really into something you’re willing to pay for it if it’s a quality product. So we’re going to focus on putting out a good, quality product that consumers want to buy and I really think this is the part of the magazine business that is definitely the future of magazines. Smaller, passionate groups around something that they have a high interest in that they’re willing to pay for. 

Samir Husni: When I see titles like “Stream +” or “Feel Free,” are you waiting to see the results of the first volume to see if you’ll go with more or with “Feel Free,” do you have the go-ahead to publish it as a quarterly? Is the jury still out on “Stream +?”

Doug Olson: To me, you have to do at least two of something. You can’t do a one-and-done or do one and make a big bet on it in today’s world. So we’ve committed to a few issues on both of those titles, for example. But really, finding an audience out there is what we’re trying to do. 

We think there are a lot of people that have all of these streaming services but really don’t know what they offer. They hear about the big ones obviously, the Bridgerton’s and the Game of Thrones that exist, everyone has heard about those, but there is all kinds of quality content out there that people just don’t know about. So we’re trying to bridge that gap with “Stream +.”

Then with “Feel Free,” Leanne Ford is quite the personality and she’s really good at what she does. And with my history, I really have an affinity and a passion for some of the HGTV celebrities that we’ve helped launch magazines with in the past. Leanne has a very passionate audience and we’re going to see where we can take that, but there is just no guarantee in this world anymore. You have to give consumers what they want and what they’re willing to pay for. 

And that’s what I love about this bookazine business, you try things and if it works, you do more of it. 

Samir Husni: It used to be said that buying magazines on the newsstands was more of an impulse buy than anything else, but with a cover price of $14 or $15 today, can they still be called impulse buys?

Doug Olson: I think it’s less of an impulse buy than it used to be because of that high cover price on these beautiful magazines, but that’s one of the things that we’re trying to solve when we put Centennial Media and what we acquired from Bauer earlier this year together, is not only to have a big newsstand presence in your traditional retailers, but also help the consumer find something that they hear about. Because that’s the number one complaint I get about these specials or bookazines. I’ve heard about “Stream +” and it’s right up my alley, but I went to my local store and I couldn’t find it. 

So we’re going to make it really easy for the consumer. They’re going to be able to go to our magazineshop.us and we’re going to expand that out  and do a lot more promoting of it and people are going to be able to buy that same title that they would get at retail online of they can’t find it and it will be the same price, including shipping, it’ll just be a few days later. Obviously, it’s a big advantage if you can find it at your local store because you can get it instantaneously, but if it’s something you’re really passionate about and you can’t find it, we’ll make it available to you there.

Samir Husni: As you look at the big picture, the entire magazine media platforms out there, where do you see a360media compared to Dotdash Meredith, Hearst, Condé Nast; we are seeing less and less companies left. Where are you positioning a360media compared to the other publishing entities out there?

Doug Olson: To be honest, I’m sure it’s very similar. But what my strategy is and what my management team has been working on very hard since I arrived 11 months ago, is a digital and consumer-first strategy. What that means is we know we have to digitize these businesses and we’re doing a good job of that as well, we have a very good digital team that has been busy the last couple of years here doing just that, but at the same time we want a consumer-first business. 

And that’s where these bookazines and specials enter into the equation. Again, if you’re willing to spend $15 on something, you believe in it. It’s something that you really want to be a part of. At a360 we’re trying to be digital and consumer-first, but we also believe that the value end of the market are the weeklies that we sell. We have a lot of weekly titles including Woman’s World, which I mentioned earlier, US Weekly, Closer, In Touch, just to name a few. And there is still a market for those too. 

It’s not breaking news like it used to be, obviously, with production schedules and all the digital competition that’s out there, the social platforms especially, but the story behind the story and some of the adjacent stories, there is still an audience out there that likes that, the weekly cadence. So we believe that’s the value end of the market and of course the premium end of the market are the bookazines. It’s the stuff in the middle that’s shifting one way or the other, mostly to quarterly or less frequent. 

There are less examples in the industry of big brands that are no longer in the print form or magazine form and there are also many of them that are now less frequent and very subject matter specific. I think you’re going to see more of that. It’s the middle stuff, the 10 times or the 12 times type of magazines that are all heading toward less frequency. 

Samir Husni: It’s good to hear that you still believe in the weeklies, but do we really need five or six celebrity weeklies?

Doug Olson: I think the consumer will decide that. That’s one thing that we look at very carefully. We own several of those and they’re all doing well. Obviously, the newsstand environment has been trending down for many years. We responded to that by putting out the best product that we can. We have some really efficient editors who work on those titles and they have great contacts and they do a good job. I guess the consumer will decide that. 

If we have less overtime, that’s something that we’ll have to deal with, but right now we’re good. We did transition OK Magazine; it was a weekly earlier this year and now it’s a quarterly. So you’ll see a yearend review coming out under the OK brand, it’s one of the quarterly offerings for that title. But it’s something that we keep a very close eye on. And at the end of the day, if the consumer wants the product we’ll keep putting it out there.

Samir Husni: You’re doing quite a lot of partnerships. I noticed it even with the bookazines. You’re using a lot of freelance outfits to create the bookazines and you just partnered with Darwin CX as Media Fulfillment Partner. Do you see partnerships as a vehicle for the future when it comes to saving costs and creating more products?

Doug Olson: Yes, I think we look at it as a competitive advantage to be very nimble and be able to pivot very quickly. Darwin is one that really came with the acquisition of Bauer. Bauer had already transitioned its fulfillment business to Darwin and they were in the middle of the implementation. We took a look at it and at first we thought it’s newer and it’s definitely more of a self-service from a reporting standpoint. Software is a service so it’s very flexible and probably where all of this is going. 

Because again, I’m a brand person and our organization believes in brands. And part of that is when you digitize your business, what is it going to look like from a paid products perspective? Or what does the subscriptions look like into the future? And I think Darwin has thought through all that and has a lot of flexibility. So we’re not only going to be able to do traditional and a subscription to a magazine, but on the digital end or the future end of this thing, a lot of different approaches that they’re already set up and ready to go on. So we’re very excited about that partnership. I think it’s transformational for us and that’s the kind of partnerships we’re looking for.

Back to the content partnerships or some of the freelancers, we want to find experts. We want people who really know their stuff when we do a bookazine or a special, to make sure it’s a high quality product that someone is going to buy.

Samir Husni: Is it easier for you now, working in a company that also owns the distribution?

Doug Olson: (Laughs) I wouldn’t say easier, I would say there are certainly advantages and there are also disadvantages, but really at the end of the day our distribution team does a great job in a really tough market. There are all kinds of cost pressures and competitive pressures at the front end of the store. It’s great to hear their perspective on things, so you have that one more input. 

But at the same time, I think they have high expectations for our product too. So our parent company wants to have the best product out there and sell the most, so we may be part of the team, but there are high hurdles they want us to get over the top of. But overall, I think it’s a nice fit. It’s just a different world right now. 

When I grew up in this business, there was a lot of advertising focus, not as much on the consumer, and that has completely flipped. There’s a lot of focus on the consumer now. And you hope you can put together an audience that the advertisers want to be a part of, and we’ve seen a nice rebound in the magazine advertising here in the middle of 2022 and we hope that continues on. When people ask me what it’s like at a new organization, I tell them I have a great team here and we’ve had super opportunities with the acquisitions to bring more professionals into the organization and make our leadership team even stronger.

But we’re much more like a startup from a staffing perspective than back in the days when big media companies had a lot of people running around doing a lot of tasks. There are a lot less people running around doing the work right now. 

Samir Husni: As you approach the end of 2022 and look forward to 2023, what do you think will be the largest headwind you’ll have to face and how will you handle it?

Doug Olson: I think there are two. One is the consumer is facing so much inflation. Do they  have enough disposable income to spend on their hobby or their enthusiast brands? So we worry about the consumer. 

But once we get past some of these inflationary things, the number one input cost that we’ve been dealing with in the last 12 months has been the cost of paper. The cost of paper was at historical lows and in the last 12 months, depending on how efficient and how much scale you have, I think you’re looking at a 25 to 30 percent increase. 

And we’re not hearing that that’s coming down soon. As a matter of fact it may go up substantially again in 2023. So it’s put a lot of strain on all the publishers and all these great products that are out there that are in the form of a magazine. We’re hoping that we can be creative. One of the things that I always do is go to the mills and ask them what is their most efficient grade and weight? And could I move our products to their sweet spot, if you will. But we’ve done that with a lot of them and we’re still facing pretty large increases. 

But if the consumer isn’t facing eight or nine percent inflation; if they can get that down to two or three, or something that’s more reasonable, I do believe that we have some quality products that they’re going to want to buy at the same pace that they did prior to all of this inflationary situation that we’re currently facing. But at the end of the day, I do really worry about paper. And we’re keeping a close eye on that and trying to stay as creative as possible to keep that down.

Samir Husni: Do you think there is a limit or a cap on how high a magazine can be priced?

Doug Olson: I think we’re there. I truly believe we’re in that neighborhood already. Unless it’s something that’s extremely popular. 

I’ll tell you a story… back in the day when I first started at Meredith, I didn’t know anything about publishing and I walked into one of the pub director’s offices and they happen to do houseplants, sold a lot of houseplants back in the day. So I was building a new house and I walked into his office and I asked, hey, is there any chance I could get one of those houseplant magazines? He said, for free? And I said yes, I work at the company, can I get one of those houseplant magazines? He looked at me and  said, how much is your house going to cost? And I told him it was a big investment for me, and then I told him how much the house was. He said, let me get this straight, you’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a brand new house, but you want me to give you a $9.95 magazine for free? (Laughs) And I said, yeah, that’s exactly what I’m asking. 

I think whatever the consumer decides on that as well. We’re getting in the territory where it’s going to be hard to justify many more price increases, unless something from the trim size or the amount of content also increases. But it’s right in the neighborhood now of some less expensive books and I guess time will tell. But I also would have answered the question the same way five years ago when we were at about $10 and didn’t see $14 or $15 as being a reachable price, but we’ve obviously proven that wrong.

Samir Husni: Is there anything else that you would like to add or tell my audience when it comes to magazines and magazine media?

Doug Olson: No, I think you’ve been very comprehensive. I just believe, once again, in brands and in what we’re going to do with them moving forward. And in what place in the brand spectrum that magazines play; it’s definitely shifting, as we’ve seen. But at the end of the day, I think that people still like that lean-back experience and some of these topics just lend themselves to be enjoyed through the magazine medium and not necessarily through what we get on the screen. 

You can’t ask me what’s life like after Meredith. (Laughs) I get that question a lot.

Samir Husni: Oh, is there life after Meredith? I didn’t realize. (Laughs too)

Doug Olson: I have a lot of friends there that I still talk to all the time and I wish them nothing but the best. We had a special place there for many, many years. I think we all enjoyed working together, challenged ourselves to get through this tough business cycle that magazines have been in, but at the same time digitize that business as well. And now it’s in different owners’ hands and hopefully they’ll do the best job they can with it, because there are a lot of great people who work there.

But I’ve got a great team now at a360media and it just keeps getting better as we are rolling up some of these acquisitions. I believe that at the end of the day if you have a really good team that is committed to what they’re doing, you’ll find good solutions that the consumers want to pay you for. And so far that has been the case.

Samir Husni: If I tell you that I have a great idea for a magazine, what advice would you give me?

Doug Olson: There are a lot of great ideas out there, but not all of them are meant to be in the magazine format. I think we’ve seen in the past, even with some really popular personalities, that it doesn’t guarantee a successful magazine moving forward. I think everybody can do one, it’s when you get to the second and third one when it gets tough, because you put all of your best ideas into the first one. I think we could all do that and come up with something pretty interesting, it’s after you put all of your best ideas; what does it look like after that? That’s what I tend to ask people who are interested in launching a magazine. 

Plus, it’s hard. Even with big social media audiences and things like that, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that everyone is going to run out and buy it. But I think if you keep at it long enough and do a lot of testing and learning, you can find things that people are very passionate about and are willing to pay for. And that’s why we’re here.

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

Doug Olson: You know, I sleep pretty good these days, because I retired once. (Laughs) Just making sure that we have a really fun place to work where people give it their all. I want to make sure as we’re coming out of this pandemic; you know, we’re still virtual, we have some people who go into the office, but a lot of people found they were very productive at home. So just finding that right balance is one of the things that keeps me up at night. 

And then making sure that these great products are put out in the right spots in the stores so that consumers can find them is the other thing that keeps me up. Because we know we have great products, we just have to make sure that they’re put in front of the consumer at the right time. And if they can’t find it at their store, we have to make it easy for them to log onto our website and order it and get it a couple of days later.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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