Archive for the ‘Inside the Great Minds of Magazine Makers’ Category

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Condé Nast’s President & CEO, Bob Sauerberg, to Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni: “I Think That Print Is Really Here To Stay; Consumers Just Love It. And I Think That They Love Our Magazines And They Love Other Companies’ Magazines.” The Mr. Magazine™ Interview…

November 17, 2017

“We’re building a big experiences business. It’s not just that everything is going digital, consumers also want to have real experiences. And we see that as a big business. My plan isn’t just the plan to pivot to digital; it’s a plan to build great brands and different forms of content in a variety of platforms. And that’s what really makes our future so exciting and so dynamic.” Bob Sauerberg…

“What’s been the most exciting thing to happen over this time is the consumer’s willingness to pay for quality content in all forms, be it print, digital, etc. And that’s a trend that’s increasing and is an exciting thing for folks that want to create great content for consumers. It’s going to allow us to think about all kinds of different ways that we can sell direct, so that’s an exciting shift over that time period.” Bob Sauerberg…

In January 2016, Condé Nast, one of the world’s most highly regarded and watched magazine media companies, with revered titles such as The New Yorker, Vogue, GQ, Vanity Fair, Wired, W, and Glamour, elevated Bob Sauerberg to the position of President and CEO, and the company has been moving forward with forceful and news-generating changes ever since. In less than two years under his CEO tenure, Condé Nast has seen more changes than the entire decade before. Following a strategy that is permeating the industry with premium content across all platforms, Condé Nast also has seen its digital revenues increase; has created different brand collections at the company, such as the Women’s Collection under the leadership of Alison Moore, and the Culture Collection under the leadership of Chris Mitchell; and has launched a digital-only platform, Them, that has seen phenomenal success, all without putting its traditional print content on the backburner. In short, Condé Nast is gearing up for a very exciting future and Bob Sauerberg is steady and strong at the helm.

I spoke with Bob recently and we talked about the changes and shifts throughout Condé Nast’s hallowed halls. From the departure of Graydon Carter as Vanity Fair’s editor in chief, to Radhika Jones being named as his successor, Bob expressed confidence and excitement about the company’s future. His supreme belief in the talented people who create Condé Nast’s high quality products is palpable, and his vision is on mark and focused when it comes to what he sees for the company’s future: sealing its position as a premium media company, diverse and varied, but with one sacred cow; the company’s valued position as a high-quality content-maker with 100 + years of expertise.

So, without further ado, I hope that you enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Bob Sauerberg, president & CEO, Condé Nast.

But first the sound-bites:

On his upcoming second anniversary as CEO of Condé Nast and how he would evaluate those first two years: My first two years have been very focused on putting the people, the employees, in place to do that. It’s not just words, there has to be a lot of action; reprioritizing which platforms we’re going to be publishing our content on over time, and really getting us properly set up so that we can scale those new growth initiatives.

On what percent of the strategic goals he set forth for Condé Nast he feels he’s at right now: We’re probably about 75 percent there. I think the foundation is all set, but it’s been disruptive. Going through massive change like this is incredibly disruptive. It’s very easy to put it down on paper and set up the vision, but it’s really harder to get people to understand it and execute it.

On the biggest challenge he’s had to face since putting those strategic goals in place: I’m going to say that the biggest challenges are culture. Every industry that’s going through massive transformation, by definition, if you’ve been a traditional business that’s been around for 100+ years like we have; we’ve created real expertise in content making, particularly in magazines. And as you go through these transformations, you’re doing different things, so getting the organization to change at a pace that’s at or greater than the marketplace is really difficult.

On whether anything has surprised him during the almost 18 years total that he’s been at Condé Nast: I’ll tell you what surprises me now, and I’ve been saying this forever, but the rate of change; I’ve been telling people that it’s going to keep changing faster than it has in the past, but it’s really mind-blowing to see how the marketplace is changing, particularly the advertising marketplace. It’s astonishing to see how there is always constant shift and change. So, that’s one change that’s been frustrating and perhaps difficult.

On whether he thinks he’ll see the day at Condé Nast where revenue is coming from both print and digital: Yes, I do. Our strategy for the next three years; the digital aspects of our business will be at least 50 percent. And I’m hoping within that composition that a big piece of that is coming from the consumer and not just from the advertiser.

On what the reader can expect from a Bob Sauerberg tenure with all of the changes that are taking place at Condé Nast: The latest announcement is the replacement of Graydon Carter, and that’s with Radhika Jones, who is an absolutely fabulous editor, and one with really endless potential. She’s brilliant; she’s innovative; she’s experienced on all platforms; and she has relationships with people everywhere, and she’s a very cool person. So, that’s the latest. And you’ve seen over the last couple of years a lot of changes; senior management here, and yes, these are my people and I’m really proud of them.

On whether there are any of the Condé Nast brands that would be considered sacred cows: What’s sacred here is quality content. That’s our expertise and it has been for 100 years. We may monetize that content differently over time; we may prioritize different brands at different points in time, because the marketplace changes. Those are all shifts that will happen naturally, but the DNA of our company, the expertise of it, is our quality content and that’s sacred.

On whether he can envision a day there isn’t a printed Vogue or Vanity Fair: I actually really don’t. I think that print is really here to stay; consumers just love it. And I think that they love our magazines and they love other companies’ magazines. All you have to do is hop on an airplane, or you’re sitting at a resort or something, by a pool, and everyone is reading a magazine.

On the thinking process behind folding a magazine such as Teen Vogue, and launching a digital-only entity such as Them: The print advertising business for the teen categories has just been struggling for some period of time. So, we just determined that when we looked out over the three-year plan, that we were fighting that platform; the cost versus the return; we were just finding a marketplace that was not going to return an outcome that we really liked. And most of our revenue was coming from our digital business; it had already transitioned to a digital brand. And we’re just getting started with Them. How many platforms we’re publishing; how things play out; that will change over time, but it could very well be a great magazine opportunity. But we’re just out of the gate and it’s wildly successful so far.

On whether he ever dreamed when he was a student at the University of Arkansas that he would one day become the leader of one the major publishing companies in the world: No, I really didn’t. I’ll tell you something; I’ve never interviewed for a job. I haven’t, I just sort of always tried to redefine every job I was in, and evidently people liked what they saw. I’ve always thought about the future and developing whatever I was doing. I’m obviously motivated, but I never really had a specific outcome that I had planned for my career. These things just sort of played out through just trying to do good work.

On being quoted as saying that he does not motivate people, he hires motivated people: I think that’s true. I would also say that my leadership approach is very much focused on mentoring and developing great people, so I’m not trying to put myself on the pedestal; I’m trying to keep the company on the pedestal. And then having all of the boats that we have rowing toward the vision that we all believe in. And I think motivated people like that.

On whether there are any surprises in store between now and the end of the year: It’s been reported that we’re gearing up to announce a Glamour editor, and I think that will probably be the last bit of noise that you’ll hear from us until 2018.

On what he would have tattooed upon his brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about him: Bold.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at his home: I’m a SoulCycler. I’m the oldest guy SoulCycling in the back row. (Laughs) But I’m exercising hard. I’m not sure you have that in Mississippi, but it’s a cycling class that is an incredible workout for 45 minutes. It’s a real fun thing to do.

On what keeps him up at night: It really goes back to molding the culture, because I think that we’re working on the right things; we know what we need to do, and getting individuals there and really working on the right things, getting that culture right is really the thing that keeps me up.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Bob Sauerberg, president and CEO, Condé Nast.

Samir Husni: In January 2018, you’ll complete your second year as CEO of Condé Nast, and probably in that last two years there have been more changes at Condé Nast than in the previous decade. How would you evaluate those first two years?

Bob Sauerberg: I would say that our transformation plan is very focused on maintaining our leadership position of putting out the best magazines in the world. And trying to turn the magazine business into a better business by using that foundation to develop a very significant digital, video, branded content, and data business. And these experiences could really fuel our growth long-term, because the magazine business is obviously not a growing business.

My first two years have been very focused on putting the people, the employees, in place to do that. It’s not just words, there has to be a lot of action; reprioritizing which platforms we’re going to be publishing our content on over time, and really getting us properly set up so that we can scale those new growth initiatives. And everything we’ve done over the last two years has been really in concert with that plan.

Samir Husni: And if you were going to give yourself a grade, and I know it’s very tough to be your own professor and student at the same time, but do you feel that you’ve accomplished 90. 95, or 100 percent of that new strategic goal you put forth for Condé Nast?

Bob Sauerberg: We’re probably about 75 percent there. I think the foundation is all set, but it’s been disruptive. Going through massive change like this is incredibly disruptive. It’s very easy to put it down on paper and set up the vision, but it’s really harder to get people to understand it and execute it.

This year we reorganized our sales organization from 22 different siloed brands – 22 different sales organizations into one, which was a massive undertaking. Recently, we had our first national sales and marketing leadership meeting that the company has ever had, and it was the most satisfying day of my career at Condé Nast. We came together and it was incredibly clear the things that we could do differently to provide scaled programs for the marketplace, as well as amazing, individually branded things. So, I would say that when you go through transformation, the scorecard continually changes. And I’m feeling really good about the foundation we’ve put in place.

Samir Husni: What has been the biggest challenge that you’ve had to face since you began these changes?

Bob Sauerberg: I’m going to say that the biggest challenges are culture. Every industry that’s going through massive transformation, by definition, if you’ve been a traditional business that’s been around for 100+ years like we have; we’ve created real expertise in content making, particularly in magazines.

And as you go through these transformations, you’re doing different things, so getting the organization to change at a pace that’s at or greater than the marketplace is really difficult. You’ve got digital organization that’s coming in, that can do things quicker, and they have to work with the traditional content-makers who are so important to us. So, getting them to really find a way to work together, not frustrate each other, but really work together is the biggest challenge. When it happens and it works, it’s the greatest thing you’ve ever seen, when you’ve got talented people coming together toward a really great outcome.

Samir Husni: You’ve been at Condé Nast since 2000, so you’ve been there since the beginning of the 21st century, has anything surprised you in those 18 years?

Bob Sauerberg: I’ll tell you what surprises me now, and I’ve been saying this forever, but the rate of change; I’ve been telling people that it’s going to keep changing faster than it has in the past, but it’s really mind-blowing to see how the marketplace is changing, particularly the advertising marketplace. It’s astonishing to see how there is always constant shift and change. So, that’s one change that’s been frustrating and perhaps difficult.

What’s been the most exciting thing to happen over this time is the consumer’s willingness to pay for quality content in all forms, be it print, digital, etc. And that’s a trend that’s increasing and is an exciting thing for folks that want to create great content for consumers. It’s going to allow us to think about all kinds of different ways that we can sell direct, so that’s an exciting shift over that time period.

Samir Husni: I spoke with Chris Mitchell recently and he was telling me that The New Yorker is now almost at a 50-50 revenue break between print and digital. Do you think you’ll see the day at Condé Nast where almost all of the content is generating revenue both from print and digital?

Bob Sauerberg: Yes, I do. Our strategy for the next three years; the digital aspects of our business will be at least 50 percent. And I’m hoping within that composition that a big piece of that is coming from the consumer and not just from the advertiser.

The New Yorker very quietly has had one of the most successful consumer paywalls in existence. It’s a huge business and growing fast. And that’s a very prideful thing for a company, because we’ve got hundreds of thousands of people paying us for content in a variety of formats, in both digital and print. We’re feeling really good about that, and separately, we’re building a big experiences business. It’s not just that everything is going digital, consumers also want to have real experiences. And we see that as a big business.

My plan isn’t just the plan to pivot to digital; it’s a plan to build great brands and different forms of content in a variety of platforms. And that’s what really makes our future so exciting and so dynamic.

Samir Husni: With all of the changes that are taking place, and the fact that you’re also the first CEO without S.I. Newhouse in the house; will we be seeing more of Bob Sauerberg’s fingerprints upon the magazine? From the choices of new editors to the choices for new chief business officers; what can we, the readers, expect from a Bob Sauerberg tenure at Condé Nast?

Bob Sauerberg: The latest announcement is the replacement of Graydon Carter, and that’s with Radhika Jones, who is an absolutely fabulous editor, and one with really endless potential. She’s brilliant; she’s innovative; she’s experienced on all platforms; and she has relationships with people everywhere, and she’s a very cool person. So, that’s the latest.

And you’ve seen over the last couple of years a lot of changes; senior management here, and yes, these are my people and I’m really proud of them. They’re coming to the table with a couple of simple common traits, and one is that they want to do something really special and they want to do something that really creates a level of influence over the world that doesn’t exist elsewhere.

They come with skills that are expansive and not set on just one platform. And they not only want to do it, they know how to do it, whether it’s a chief business officer or an editor, or quite frankly, our digital team, who are really quite fabulous here. And our video team. The entertainment group we have here is second to none.

We started Condé Nast Entertainment five years ago. We had no video views; we were not doing video at all. And this year we’ll have 11 billion views of short-form video; five or six TV shows in production; a movie that’s out in the theaters now, with more to come; and this didn’t exist five years ago. It was an idea that I basically had on my whiteboard and we hired Dawn Ostroff and we made that happen.

What I’m proud about is that we have seen the trends; we know what they are and we’re trying to really balance out where we put our time, attention and investment, between the things that got us here, these great magazines that we produce, and these great brands that were created under S.I.’s leadership. So now, we’re finding ways to spin them into other platforms and to build other businesses around them and change the business model. All these things take time and determination, but it’s really happening and it’s not like a business plan; it’s real action and real revenue and real profit.

Samir Husni: As you move forward, are there any sacred cows with any of the brands, be it print or digital, or you’re going to do whatever it takes to stick to that strategy?

Bob Sauerberg: What’s sacred here is quality content. That’s our expertise and it has been for 100 years. We may monetize that content differently over time; we may prioritize different brands at different points in time, because the marketplace changes. Those are all shifts that will happen naturally, but the DNA of our company, the expertise of it, is our quality content and that’s sacred.

Now, will we figure out how to create that content with different cross-structures or different approaches, of course, everyone will do that, but I want our content to lead our company and I want it to be influential, different, and market-making. To me that’s our sacred cow.

Samir Husni: Do you envision a day when we won’t have a printed Vogue, Vanity Fair, or GQ?

Bob Sauerberg: I actually really don’t. I think that print is really here to stay; consumers just love it. And I think that they love our magazines and they love other companies’ magazines. All you have to do is hop on an airplane, or you’re sitting at a resort or something, by a pool, and everyone is reading a magazine.

The issue right now is the advertising marketplace is a bit fickle with it, because they’re shifting gears in terms of ow they’re spending their monies. What that’s really going to make us do is to think about how to monetize the magazines differently, get the consumers to pay more, find different ways to leverage those brands. And we will do that. But it’s a cultural moment when Vanity Fair’s cover hits the newsstands. And that’s an important part of our business. Just like it is with Vogue and with GQ.

Samir Husni: We’ve never seen anything digital create the same buzz as the covers of Vanity Fair have or the cover of GQ this month. When you fold a print magazine, such as when you folded the print edition of Teen Vogue, how is that different from say, Vogue? Or when you launched Them as a digital-only entity; what’s the thinking behind those types of decisions in the hierarchy at Condé Nast?

Bob Sauerberg: The print advertising business for the teen categories has just been struggling for some period of time. So, we just determined that when we looked out over the three-year plan, that we were fighting that platform; the cost versus the return; we were just finding a marketplace that was not going to return an outcome that we really liked. And most of our revenue was coming from our digital business; it had already transitioned to a digital brand. I wasn’t excited that we were going through that, but it was a good business decision.

And we’re just getting started with Them. How many platforms we’re publishing; how things play out; that will change over time, but it could very well be a great magazine opportunity. But we’re just out of the gate and it’s wildly successful so far. I think we had our first video that in its first day had 1.5 million views. It’s crazy. Our instinct was if we did this right we were going to catch a cultural wave and I think we have. One that makes that level of innovation very exciting.

Samir Husni: From a personal point of view, since your days in Arkansas, when you were a student at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, did you ever expect that one day you’d be the leader of one of the major magazine companies in the world?

Bob Sauerberg: No, I really didn’t. I’ll tell you something; I’ve never interviewed for a job. I haven’t, I just sort of always tried to redefine every job I was in, and evidently people liked what they saw. I’ve always thought about the future and developing whatever I was doing. I’m obviously motivated, but I never really had a specific outcome that I had planned for my career. These things just sort of played out through just trying to do good work.

So, I can’t say that it was calculated or anything; I just spent time doing whatever I was doing and tried to it as well as anyone could. And then you show up, and here’s where you end up.

Samir Husni: One of your famous quotes is “You do not motivate people, you hire motivated people.”

Bob Sauerberg: I think that’s true. I would also say that my leadership approach is very much focused on mentoring and developing great people, so I’m not trying to put myself on the pedestal; I’m trying to keep the company on the pedestal. And then having all of the boats that we have rowing toward the vision that we all believe in. And I think motivated people like that.

They like having a big runway where they can develop their skills, and I think that’s why I’m here at Condé Nast, because we have such talented people and I’m not trying to get in the way of their development or growth; I’m just trying to channel it toward the outcomes that we need to grow the company.

Samir Husni: Are there any surprises in store between now and the end of the year?

Bob Sauerberg: It’s been reported that we’re gearing up to announce a Glamour editor, and I think that will probably be the last bit of noise that you’ll hear from us until 2018.

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

Bob Sauerberg: Bold.

Samir Husni: If I showed up unexpectedly at your home one evening after work, what would I find you doing? Having a glass of wine; reading a magazine; cooking; watching TV; or something else?

Bob Sauerberg: I’m a SoulCycler. I’m the oldest guy SoulCycling in the back row. (Laughs) But I’m exercising hard. I’m not sure you have that in Mississippi, but it’s a cycling class that is an incredible workout for 45 minutes. It’s a real fun thing to do.

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

Bob Sauerberg: It really goes back to molding the culture, because I think that we’re working on the right things; we know what we need to do, and getting individuals there and really working on the right things, getting that culture right is really the thing that keeps me up.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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Condé Nast’s New Culture Collection Tsar, Chris Mitchell: Bringing the Diverse Strength & Power of Individual Brands Together For A Solid Future – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Condé Nast’s Chief Business Officer…

November 1, 2017

“I’m one of those people who believe that despite all of the changes we’ve seen, magazines have a very important place, their print components as well, and I don’t think they’re going away anytime soon. I think they may shift and change in frequency and circulation size and advertising, but they are a very important part of this culture and I think people continue to recognize that.” Chris Mitchell…

The power of the brand as a whole is a vital component to the health wheel of publishing, and when you have a very significant number of powerful brands, bringing them together into a collection of culture is an innovative and intriguing direction. And Condé Nast certainly has the number of powerful, individual brands to make that collection even stronger than it was, especially with the right person moving that force into the future.

Chris Mitchell is definitely the right person. Chris has held the responsibility of publisher and chief revenue officer of Vanity Fair since 2014, and now has become the chief business officer for seven different brands under the Condé Nast banner. From The New Yorker to Vanity Fair to W to Teen Vogue to them platform to the Fashion Enterprise and the Entertainment Enterprise, Chris sees the diversity of demographics as a plus not a minus, and is determined to use the power of the individual brand to reinforce each other and bring even more strength and solidarity to the company.

I spoke with Chris recently and we talked about this new position he finds himself in. Chris said he is both excited and busy as he slides into the driver’s seat of his shiny, new machine. Busy, because of the hectic nature of his schedule, excited because of the possibilities this opportunity offers Condé Nast. New revenue streams, new advertising business; just the entire move seems right and he’s ready to take on the challenge. It’s the perfect time and he’s looking forward to a broader spectrum of responsibilities and possibilities.

So, I hope that you enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ interview with a man who is the Tsar of Culture in a Collection of diverse strength and power – Chris Mitchell, chief business officer, The Condé Nast Culture Collection.

But first the sound-bites:

On being named chief business officer of the new Condé Nast Culture Collection: Obviously, it’s been a little bit hectic in this transition phase, but it’s also been really fun. It’s giving me new and different things to do, which I’m enjoying a lot. And that’s been rewarding.

On the difference between his role as publisher, and today as chief business officer and whether it’s just semantics: I’m sure some of it is semantics, because obviously much of the role that I did before as a publisher, I’m still doing as a chief business officer. I’d say the notable difference is as our business evolves, the company sort of charged all of the CBOs with thinking even more broadly than the advertising responsibilities that we previously thought of ourselves as really owning as a publisher.

On whether overseeing the pure digital entity “Them” required a mind adjustment for him or it just came naturally: I’m sure the dynamic will be slightly different because it is digital-only. And The New Yorker, as you probably well know, has become a very sizeable digital business; something like The New Yorker is really evenly split between its print and digital revenues, which I think is another interesting dynamic. So, they are further along in this evolution of truly becoming a balanced business between print and digital. But Vanity Fair is a sizeable, $20 million digital business in and of itself, so while there is even a certainly larger print business at Vanity Fair to run, we’ve had experience running a pretty big digital business already.

On whether he envisions a day where everyone will be talking about brand advertising, rather than print or digital or print plus digital advertising: I can tell you that we’re experimenting with some things in some of the enterprise accounts and enterprise selling that we’re doing. What we want our advertising partners to really think of the relationship with Condé Nast as, is a marketing relationship. We want that investment to be a holistic investment as a marketing partner now.

On whether today it’s about the Condé Nast brand as a whole, rather than individual entities having their own brands, such as Vanity Fair and The New Yorker: I think this can happen on an enterprise level, on a Condé Nast level, where we’re going to marketing partners and saying Condé Nast, with its 100 million consumers and multi 100 million digital and social footprints is something that we can aggregate across all of our brands for these partners. But at the same time, individual brands, or individual brand collections, The Culture Collection being a great example, I can go to a marketing partner and give them some real scale across the various titles and various demographics within The Culture Collection.

On the biggest challenge he’s faced so far and how he overcame it: As you said, it’s early days, so I’m sure I’m yet to face my biggest challenge, but I think broadly speaking, this is an important time management exercise for me. So, I’d like to think that where I’ve found success at this company has been in building teams of incredibly talented people and frankly, staying out of their way to the degree that I am letting them do their job that they’re imminently capable of doing.

On whether he feels overwhelmed by all of the brands he oversees and all of the different demographics that they represent: No, I think that’s what’s great about it. And what’s interesting is, and again, I think if we look at the company’s strategy behind this, and perhaps this collection more than the other; what S. I. Newhouse was so brilliant at in his long career at Condé Nast was really having his finger on the pulse of culture. He shaped it with all of the magazines at the time and the editors and the choices that he made, so to me culture is really the heart of what this company stands for. And this collection is notable for just what you’ve pointed out; as a collection it really spans the full breadth of our culture in so many ways demographically, not even just age.

On whether he thinks it will be smooth sailing ahead despite all of the changes, or that he has some rough seas to get through: This year has certainly been a challenging one for media companies. In our case, and in all of the media companies cases, I think we’ve all seen the print lines have been somewhat challenging this year as the shift continues to digital. We’ve all seen a decline in our print advertising, but a market growth in our digital advertising. I would like to believe that going into 2018, we’re going to see a stabilization of print. I think that we have reached a level where print has just found its natural level among the other platforms. And I expect that we will continue to see a real rise in digital display, but more even in video and in the growth of social.

On what message he gives his team when they leave their offices to sell the various brands in the collection: I like to use the old saw that I got from my mother, which is: if you want something done, give it to a busy person. And I think while we’re still integrating these various brands into one collection, to answer your question honestly, it’s going to be a work in progress to really figure out what is that collective message.

On anything else he’d like to add: It’s early days, but it’s exciting. For the last six months, we were a smaller collection, which was made up of just Vanity Fair and W, two brands that have a lot of similarities and fit well together, but it didn’t fully make a collection. And what pleases me about this is, as you noted, you get a real gestalt in putting these brands together, and in some cases, seemingly very different brands, with The New Yorker and Teen Vogue. But the whole is greater than some of its parts, in how they can all fit together in a collection. And that’s exceptionally exciting for me.

On what he would have tattooed upon his brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about him: If I’m lucky enough for this to be where I spend my whole career, and certainly I have more years behind me than ahead of me, I’d guess, I would want people to say he put his mark on the very important thing that Condé Nast stands for. And if I could be known as someone who worked very hard to make Condé Nast an even more successful place than I found it, and the brands that I’ve had the pleasure of working on, better when I left them than when I started, I’ll feel like it was a life’s work well done.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at his home: My wife works at Condé Nast as well, you may recall that, Pilar Guzmán, she’s the editor of Condé Nast Traveler. We have two boys, one’s a teenager and one is almost, so like a lot of working families, it’s somewhat of a juggling act in our hectic schedules. The truth is I, as does Pilar, we go home every night that we possibly can and try to have as quiet and as normal a life with our two kids that we can.

On what keeps him up at night: I’d say that it’s seven different things: Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Teen Vogue, Them, W, our fashion and entertainment business as a whole. But all that said, I sleep pretty well. And I think if I can spend more of my time thinking about new ways that we’re going to market, that we are working with our partners, that we are thinking about everything from the pricing strategies, the value proposition, the ways that we can continue to innovate in our marketing, the ways that we can make this collection and each of its individual brands stronger; the more of my time that I can lie awake excitedly thinking about those things and trust in really strong people to continue to manage the advertising, revenue piece, I’m a happy man.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Chris Mitchell, chief business officer, The Condé Nast Culture Collection.

Samir Husni: Chris, you’re now the “Culture Tsar” of The Condé Nast Culture Collection. (Laughs)

Chris Mitchell: (Laughs too) I like Tsar along with culture, I hadn’t thought of that yet.

Samir Husni: Congratulations on being named chief business officer of The Condé Nast Culture Collection. I’m sure you’ve been extremely busy.

Chris Mitchell: Thank you. Obviously, it’s been a little bit hectic in this transition phase, but it’s also been really fun. It’s giving me new and different things to do, which I’m enjoying a lot. And that’s been rewarding.

Samir Husni: You’re overseeing this new Culture division at Condé Nast, which includes Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, W, Teen Vogue and Them. What’s the difference between the title of publisher and chief business officer? Is this just semantics or is there a difference?

Chris Mitchell: I’m sure some of it is semantics, because obviously much of the role that I did before as a publisher, I’m still doing as a chief business officer. I’d say the notable difference is as our business evolves, the company sort of charged all of the CBOs with thinking even more broadly than the advertising responsibilities that we previously thought of ourselves as really owning as a publisher.

And so, that’s probably your big difference is that the chief business officer role encompasses our business development, broader partnerships, and M&A work that we think could be interesting for our collections, and particularly in that vein, as we grow these digital footprints, Bob Sauerberg (Chief Executive Officer & President – Condé Nast) has charged us with really bringing back to him this holistic view of what other things we should be building, buying, and partnering with in the digital space to really accelerate that growth.

So, the job does become broader, especially in my case, since this has become a fairly sizeable collection. And by the way, in addition to the collection, I also oversee our enterprise relationships for the fashion category for the company, as well as for the entertainment and media categories. I’ve got teams who really work on the enterprise products selling for the whole company around the fashion relationships and also around the entertainment relationships.

But in addition to those things; we’re constantly thinking about how can we really grow this business and I now have VPs underneath me who I’m asking to step up and take on more of what frankly used to be a publisher’s role, really, owning that advertising revenue piece of the business.

Samir Husni: You’ve been publisher of many magazines before, and now you’re also dealing with a pure digital entity with Them. Did that require a mind adjustment or did it just come natural?

Chris Mitchell: I’m sure the dynamic will be slightly different because it is digital-only. And The New Yorker, as you probably well know, has become a very sizeable digital business; something like The New Yorker is really evenly split between its print and digital revenues, which I think is another interesting dynamic. So, they are further along in this evolution of truly becoming a balanced business between print and digital.

But Vanity Fair is a sizeable, $20 million digital business in and of itself, so while there is even a certainly larger print business at Vanity Fair to run, we’ve had experience running a pretty big digital business already. And frankly speaking, the evolution that I’ve gone through as a publisher, a chief business officer over the last five years, has been that digital education. That self-education that we’ve all had to give ourselves as the world has moved to a more digital advertising model and as a lot of our clients have shifted more of their money from print to digital.

Samir Husni: Do you envision a day where everyone will be talking about just the “brand” advertising, rather than print versus digital or print plus digital?

Chris Mitchell: I can tell you that we’re experimenting with some things in some of the enterprise accounts and enterprise selling that we’re doing. What we want our advertising partners to really think of the relationship with Condé Nast as, is a marketing relationship. We want that investment to be a holistic investment as a marketing partner now.

And that’s more than just words or semantics. That’s a sizeable shift from what we’ve done before, where we were looking at these as individual platforms and frankly where we probably had some legacy behavior toward protecting one platform versus another. I think those days are gone. We’re not doing service to the brand and we’re not doing service to our marketing partners if we’re here trying to protect print. That isn’t our job. And I think there will be a natural evolution and that this will level itself.

What level of print advertising a brand is doing is going to depend entirely on the brand itself; what category of advertising that brand is in, and then a lot of other things that about the maturity or development of that brand. But if we let those brands decide, find a natural level of what is the role of print; what is the role of digital; and then importantly, what is the role of other marketing services that Condé Nast is invested in the last couple of years, things like Data Solutions, things like Branded Content and Experiential Events. Those are all huge areas of growth for this company. And we want our partners to invest in those areas, as much as they’re investing in our traditional media areas.

Samir Husni: If I understand you correctly, you’re moving in the direction of Condé Nast being the brand, rather than individual brands, such as the Vanity Fair brand and The New Yorker brand?

Chris Mitchell: It’s two things. I think this can happen on an enterprise level, on a Condé Nast level, where we’re going to marketing partners and saying Condé Nast, with its 100 million consumers and multi 100 million digital and social footprints is something that we can aggregate across all of our brands for these partners. But at the same time, individual brands, or individual brand collections, The Culture Collection being a great example, I can go to a marketing partner and give them some real scale across the various titles and various demographics within The Culture Collection.

I can also go to them on a brand-by-brand and say, let’s talk about how you can work with The New Yorker specifically or Vanity Fair specifically and still be able to touch a lot of different areas. They can do digital advertising, print advertising; we can monetize our social media with our partners. We can do native advertising across any of those platforms. They can also do events and sponsorships and things like that, things that are non-media expenditures that are obviously very important marketing expenditures. And as this company has evolved, even a single brand partner, a New Yorker specific advertiser, should be able to take advantage of an entire suite of marketing services that The New Yorker itself, or that Condé Nast can offer.

So, these are brand conversations; these are collection conversations; and then these are also Condé Nast-wide conversations. And I think that’s the mix that allows us to be the most versatile partner and frankly the best in overall business.

Samir Husni: You’ve been less than two weeks on this job; what has been the biggest challenge that you’ve faced and how did you overcome it?

Chris Mitchell: As you said, it’s early days, so I’m sure I’m yet to face my biggest challenge, but I think broadly speaking, this is an important time management exercise for me. So, I’d like to think that where I’ve found success at this company has been in building teams of incredibly talented people and frankly, staying out of their way to the degree that I am letting them do their job that they’re imminently capable of doing.

And as I explained to my bosses when we were doing this transition, I was very clear-eyed about the fact that there was going to be a lot on my plate and it will require me to empower and delegate to the really strong VPs and executive directors, and very senior sales and marketing talent that we already have at this company.

What we’re in the middle of right now is putting the finishing touches on what that organization looks like, but I know already that it’s going to depend very greatly on the very talented VPs of revenue and marketing who will be working on the various brands.

The other thing that’s interesting and what I love about this, and given how long that I’ve been at this company, I worked at The New Yorker for three years, from 2001 to 2004 as the associate publisher then with David Remnick, and I regard that as the three probably most enjoyable years I’ve spent at this company, so to be back working at The New Yorker is a privilege as much as it is a great challenge. I’m lucky in the sense that I get to now dip into a lot of different things. The New Yorker has a huge consumer business, which will be a great learning experience for the rest of the brands in this collection.

I think where we’re going to see real synergy is where we can apply the strength of one brand and have that work for the other brands. The advocacy and millennial audience and buzz of Teen Vogue; the exciting and experimental project that is Them; the consumer business of Vanity Fair; we’re doing some very interesting things with W to really lean into its oversized format for print; and then of course Vanity Fair, which has a host of things from the experiential conferences, to the web strategy we put into place a couple of years ago with these three different verticals. So, we’re going to have a lot of learning across all of these brands that I think will benefit the collection, and hopefully the company.

Samir Husni: Do you feel overwhelmed, like you’re almost reaching every age group, from the teens, all the way to the aging baby boomers?

Chris Mitchell: No, I think that’s what’s great about it. And what’s interesting is, and again, I think if we look at the company’s strategy behind this, and perhaps this collection more than the other; what S. I. Newhouse was so brilliant at in his long career at Condé Nast was really having his finger on the pulse of culture. He shaped it with all of the magazines at the time and the editors and the choices that he made, so to me culture is really the heart of what this company stands for. And this collection is notable for just what you’ve pointed out; as a collection it really spans the full breadth of our culture in so many ways demographically, not even just age.

I also think what’s interesting is most of the individual titles within The Culture Collection have that really broad range. The New Yorker is a prime example of being incredibly relevant to millennials, just take a subway anywhere in New York and look at the number of New Yorker tote bags that you see on 20-somethings, and as you noted, all the way up to aging baby boomers and beyond.

And we have great examples like that with all of the brands, where the breadth of the readership, age-wise and otherwise, is much broader that you might even expect. Something like a Teen Vogue that actually has a median age of 24, and quite a few readers, because of its female empowerment message, skew far older than what the title would suggest.

So, this is going to be an exercise in dispelling certain notions, even within the individual brands, as well as using the breadth of the collection to be that much more powerful as a marketing partner for our advertisers.

Samir Husni: As you plan for the changes, such as the editorship of Vanity Fair; how do you think that particular ship will continue to sail? Is it smooth sailing ahead or maybe some rough seas?

Chris Mitchell: This year has certainly been a challenging one for media companies. In our case, and in all of the media companies cases, I think we’ve all seen the print lines have been somewhat challenging this year as the shift continues to digital. We’ve all seen a decline in our print advertising, but a market growth in our digital advertising.

I would like to believe that going into 2018, we’re going to see a stabilization of print. I think that we have reached a level where print has just found its natural level among the other platforms. And I expect that we will continue to see a real rise in digital display, but more even in video and in the growth of social. Our company is betting big that video is going to continue to be a very strong growth area, and an area where we really can excel as a company, as we compete with things like linear TV. A great number of dollars go into video advertising in non-linear formats, and I think Condé Nast can and should be the major player within the upscale lifestyle space.

Samir Husni: As the Culture Tsar now at Condé Nast, what’s the message that you give your teams before they go out from their offices? You have The Culture Collection; you have the two enterprises, the fashion and entertainment categories. I once read a quote from Bob Sauerberg saying that he doesn’t motivate people; he hires motivated people…

Chris Mitchell: I think that’s a great quote. And I certainly second that. I like to use the old saw that I got from my mother, which is: if you want something done, give it to a busy person. And I think while we’re still integrating these various brands into one collection, to answer your question honestly, it’s going to be a work in progress to really figure out what is that collective message.

But we’re going to have a matrixed organization here, within this collection, where we will have some people who are dedicated to advertising categories across the entire collection, and we’ll have other people dedicated to specific brands. And I think that’s going to be the right way. Some of the advertising categories certainly learned this on a company level within the last reorganization. These advertising categories behave differently and should be staffed and structured differently.

So, what we consider the inventive fashion accounts should probably be handled on a more specific brand-by-brand basis, those are very hand-sold, handheld relationships. And other categories, like perhaps automotive, can be done across the whole collection, where you’ll get more power from the breadth of brands.

And where we are going out to the market with a collection story; I would point back to what I said earlier, that’s the beating heart of this company, our ability to shape and reflect culture. So, we have this great mantle of responsibility within this collection, that we can go out and speak to so many advertisers and categories because we’re at the real center of relevance for that.

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

Chris Mitchell: No, it’s early days, but it’s exciting. For the last six months, we were a smaller collection, which was made up of just Vanity Fair and W, two brands that have a lot of similarities and fit well together, but it didn’t fully make a collection. And what pleases me about this is, as you noted, you get a real gestalt in putting these brands together, and in some cases, seemingly very different brands, with The New Yorker and Teen Vogue. But the whole is greater than some of its parts, in how they can all fit together in a collection. And that’s exceptionally exciting for me.

I’m one of those people who believe that despite all of the changes we’ve seen, magazines have a very important place, their print components as well, and I don’t think they’re going away anytime soon. I think they may shift and change in frequency and circulation size and advertising, but they are a very important part of this culture and I think people continue to recognize that.

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

Chris Mitchell: That’s a good question. I’ve essentially spent my entire career at Condé Nast. I’ve left just once to do a startup for about a year and then I came right back to Condé Nast. And given the tumult in our industry, and obviously the changes in our company, I haven’t for a day taken lightly the honor of working here.

If I’m lucky enough for this to be where I spend my whole career, and certainly I have more years behind me than ahead of me, I’d guess, I would want people to say he put his mark on the very important thing that Condé Nast stands for. And if I could be known as someone who worked very hard to make Condé Nast an even more successful place than I found it, and the brands that I’ve had the pleasure of working on, better when I left them than when I started, I’ll feel like it was a life’s work well done.

Samir Husni: If I showed up unexpectedly at your home one evening after work, what would I find you doing? Having a glass of wine; reading a magazine; cooking; watching TV; or something else?

Chris Mitchell: My wife works at Condé Nast as well, you may recall that, Pilar Guzmán, she’s the editor of Condé Nast Traveler. We have two boys, one’s a teenager and one is almost, so like a lot of working families, it’s somewhat of a juggling act in our hectic schedules. The truth is I, as does Pilar, we go home every night that we possibly can and try to have as quiet and as normal a life with our two kids that we can.

Time management is time management. I think it doesn’t matter if you have the top job at this company or you’ve got a junior job here, two people working, whether you have kids or you have pets, whether you have responsibilities in your life otherwise, everyone has a juggling act. We don’t feel like ours is more difficult or complicated, and there’s certainly no sympathy that we’re looking for here. I think everybody in this economy is working harder than ever to make sure that they’re staying ahead and contributing, and all that stuff. So, I don’t think we have anymore pressures or time pressures than most people. We lead a very normal life. (Laughs)

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

Chris Mitchell: I’d say that it’s seven different things: Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Teen Vogue, Them, W, our fashion and entertainment business as a whole. But all that said, I sleep pretty well. And I think if I can spend more of my time thinking about new ways that we’re going to market, that we are working with our partners, that we are thinking about everything from the pricing strategies, the value proposition, the ways that we can continue to innovate in our marketing, the ways that we can make this collection and each of its individual brands stronger; the more of my time that I can lie awake excitedly thinking about those things and trust in really strong people to continue to manage the advertising, revenue piece, I’m a happy man.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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Tom Harty, President And COO, Meredith, To Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni: “What We’re Seeing At Meredith Is That The Demand For Print Products From Consumers Is Still Very Strong,” The Mr. Magazine™ Interview…

September 25, 2017

“Consumers and women still love the printed format to turn to for inspiration and for more of that lean-back experience. And what we look for more with digital is as a utility to help them to do something in the short-term. So, inspiration versus utility, as I like to say.” Tom Harty…

“When you type into a Google box or a Google search, and you’re specifically looking for chicken dinners or chicken tacos, or swordfish, you know what you’re looking for, at least to start. You’re looking for a recipe around something, but there’s still an inspirational part of curation that our editors can form. So, we started Allrecipes Magazine, where we could curate all of that great content that we have in the back of the database online and bring it forward to inspire. Now, you have an extremely successful magazine built out from a digital-only brand.” Tom Harty…

“You’re going to see us continue to make organic investments, especially in our digital products into next year. We’re also on the acquisition trail, and we’re looking for both organic growth, where we’re making investments in growing organically in the brands and the product lines that we have, and we’re also looking at opportunities to grow our business through acquisitions. And that could be print products, digital products, or broadcast products on the other side of the business.” Tom Harty

From Eating Well to Allrecipes, Martha Stewart Living to Better Homes and Gardens; and more recently, Chip and Joanna Gaines’ The Magnolia Journal, Meredith has been serving their readers with great content for 115 years. And of course, with many, many titles in between. Tom Harty is president and chief operating officer of the company, and under his leadership has played a key role in the development and execution of Meredith’s strategic initiatives, helping Meredith increase its connection to the American consumer through growth in magazine audience, online traffic, brand licensing and marketing services.

Tom’s career in magazines and magazine media is rich with experience, having been senior vice president, general manager for The Golf Digest Companies, a division of Advance Magazines. His broad media company experience includes key leadership positions with TV Guide, where he served as vice president and publisher; and Reader’s Digest, where he was advertising director. So, Tom knows a thing or two about magazines.

I spoke with Tom recently and we talked about his strategic vision for the company. Tom’s plans include continuing to gear great content toward women and to give them that content in whatever way they want to consume it, from the legacy print format to all of their new digital products. He said the demand for print from the consumer was still very strong; and of course, one shining example of that is Better Homes and Gardens, which is still living up to its 7.6 million copy circulation that it had 20 years ago. And from organic growth to acquisitions, Tom is committed to continuing the robust present and very bright future that Meredith works very hard to maintain.

So, I hope that you enjoy this interesting and informative conversation with a man who uses his vast experience to propel Meredith forward in both print and digital, and strives to expand the company’s vision even more, the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Tom Harty, president and chief operating officer, Meredith.

But first the sound-bites:

On his strategic vision for Meredith in today’s 21st century: It really hasn’t changed from what we’ve done in the past. We create great content that’s geared toward American women, and we’ve been doing that for 115 years. And that’s our strategic vision. I think that what we want to do as we change is create that content however she wants to consume it, so obviously that is both in a legacy print format and in all of our new digital formats.

On how he strikes a balance between Meredith’s digital approach and the reality of print today: What we’re seeing is the demand for print products from consumers is still very strong. We like to say that 20 years ago we printed 7.6 million copies of Better Homes and Gardens each month, and today we print 7.6 million copies per month too. And not a lot has changed from that perspective. About 90 percent of our circulation is subscription versus newsstand, so as the newsstand troubles have been going on out there, we’ve been less affected by that. Consumers and women still love the printed format to turn to for inspiration and for more of that lean-back experience. And what we look for more with digital is as a utility to help them to do something in the short-term.

On whether they’re looking for a new strategic model when it comes to digital advertising that isn’t similar to the print model: From an advertising perspective, where we’ve been having success digitally is that we have some proprietary products digitally that are digital-ad products. A company called Selectable Media a few years ago, that enables us to gate content, where you might have to watch a video to completion to get our content. So, we’re asking the consumer to do something.

On how he shows his love, or tough love, to both his legacy magazine brands and those products that were already brands before they joined the Meredith team: That’s a good question, and I think it’s a good point. We’re always evaluating where we’re putting our resources for growth. That’s the struggle that people at the top of the house of media companies have to make, and have been making for long periods of time. You can’t treat every single brand, or child, as you put it, always equally. That’s not to say that this doesn’t change all of the time.

On what he hopes to accomplish one year from now: I think you’re going to see us continue to make organic investments, especially in our digital products into next year. We’re also on the acquisition trail, and we’re looking for both organic growth, where we’re making investments in growing organically in the brands and the product lines that we have, and we’re also looking at opportunities to grow our business through acquisitions. And that could be print products, digital products, or broadcast products on the other side of the business.

On a Rolling Stone acquisition: I wouldn’t say that Rolling Stone would fit our current strategy, that’s what I would comment. It’s a great brand, it’s been around for a long period of time, but it probably would not fit our strategy to look at that brand.

On whether he thinks the recent partnerships many publishers have made with celebrity brands is a new business model or one that began in the ‘80s with Martha Stewart and Time Inc.: I wouldn’t say that it’s a new business model. When Martha, or whoever, starts things from scratch, they’re looking to find the experts that are out there to help them. So, I think there’s an opportunity maybe to do some more of these types of things.

On whether he thinks the future for magazines is a more targeted approach, or there is still a desire from consumers for large, mass magazines like Better Homes and Gardens: I think that there’s a place for some of these large-scale magazines to still exist. I see the demand for Better Homes and Gardens and it’s astonishing. But it really strikes at a strong brand; it strikes at consumers who are looking for that type of content on a broad scale. So, it exists. I don’t know if we’ll ever see a magazine from scratch reach that kind of scale again, I just don’t know. That’s a good question, if there will ever be new brands that will come out and do that.

On the question someone asked him once when he was publisher of TV Guide on why he provided the TV listings free online: When I was the publisher at TV Guide and I was getting the furnace replaced in my old house that I’d bought, and the oil sales guy asked me if I was the publisher of TV Guide, why was I giving the TV listings online for free. That was a moment in time. I’ll never forget that; it was a very strategic question. And at the time, I don’t think we had the answer.

On whether he believes they have the answer now: The utility has changed for a magazine. I think that was more of a technology change. I think the utility of finding what’s on television has changed, and I believe that was something that TV Guide saw coming, but yes, I think we have the answer now.

On what he would have tattooed upon his brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about him: When I think about people that I’ve worked with and what they will think about Tom Harty, I believe that it would be that he was a decisive, fair leader during a time in the media business of great disruption. That’s what I think about myself. That I make decisive decisions and I’m very fair about it in my leadership style. And I think that’s what people would say about Tom Harty.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at his home: You’d probably find me winding down with my wife and I in the kitchen preparing dinner, and doing it together. And me doing all of the cleanup, just helping her out and enjoying a nice evening together.

On what keeps him up at night: What keeps me up at night is what’s kept a lot of people up at night and that is, as this business goes through tremendous transformation and change, what are the new things technology-wise or competition-wise that I’m not thinking about? That’s what keeps me up at night. You can address the things that you know about, but it’s harder to address the unknown.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Tom Harty, president and chief operating officer, Meredith.

Samir Husni: Congratulations on the many successes that Meredith has been having with its magazines this year. I see from your bio that Meredith gives you much credit for your leadership when it comes to those successes and your strategic vision for the company. Can you tell me about that strategic vision you have for Meredith today, in the 21st century?

Tom Harty: It really hasn’t changed from what we’ve done in the past. We create great content that’s geared toward American women, and we’ve been doing that for 115 years. And that’s our strategic vision. I think that what we want to do as we change is create that content however she wants to consume it, so obviously that is both in a legacy print format and in all of our new digital formats. I always like to tell people, it’s not one or the other, it’s combined for us, so we continue to focus on our great heritage of print products, which women still enjoy thoroughly. And we’re also focused on the new, emerging digital properties and digital utilities that we can format for her going into the future.

Samir Husni: You’re still investing a lot in print. This year alone we’ve seen the reengineering or refreshing of Parents, Martha Stewart Living, Family Circle, and Better Homes and Gardens. And you’re moving forward with digital as well. How do you strike that balance between the digital approach you’re taking and the reality of print today in this digital age?

Tom Harty: What we’re seeing is the demand for print products from consumers is still very strong. We like to say that 20 years ago we printed 7.6 million copies of Better Homes and Gardens each month, and today we print 7.6 million copies per month too. And not a lot has changed from that perspective. About 90 percent of our circulation is subscription versus newsstand, so as the newsstand troubles have been going on out there, we’ve been less affected by that.

Consumers and women still love the printed format to turn to for inspiration and for more of that lean-back experience. And what we look for more with digital is as a utility to help them to do something in the short-term. So, inspiration versus utility, as I like to say.

But to your point, the headwinds that we’ve been facing are that advertisers have a lot more places to spend their money and there are a lot more impressions being created out there in digital and mobile. That’s the issue that we’re facing. At Meredith, we don’t see a tremendous consumer issue, when it comes to demand for our magazines. We have an advertiser issue that we’ve been facing, and we’ve been planning for that and figuring out ways to grow around that.

And we’ve talked about this years ago; when we launched Allrecipes Magazine, I don’t think there were too many people out there who thought it would be successful, taking a digital-only brand that was started online as allrecipes.com, where it’s user-generated content that we obviously give back to consumers online, and give them that utility of finding a recipe that they’re looking for.

But we also felt like when you type into a Google box or a Google search, and you’re specifically looking for chicken dinners or chicken tacos, or swordfish, you know what you’re looking for, at least to start. You’re looking for a recipe around something, but there’s still an inspirational part of curation that our editors can form. So, we started Allrecipes Magazine, where we could curate all of that great content that we have in the back of the database online and bring it forward to inspire. Now, you have an extremely successful magazine built out from a digital-only brand.

A year ago, one of the most exciting things that I’ve seen in my 30+ years in the business is the Magnolia Journal. We had the opportunity to have a discussion with Chip and Joanna Gaines, of the “Fixer Upper” and the Magnolia brand, and in 60 days we put out a newsstand-only test and when it came back, we had to go back to press in the first week and double the print run. We sold over 75 percent of the copies in a short period of time at $10 a pop.

And that’s when we knew we had a runaway success, and now we’re selling subscriptions and now we’re going to have a one million circulation magazine in less than 12 months. It’s the most profitable magazine launch in the history of the company in 115 years. So, there’s a great print product, great brand, great editors working with that celebrity to put together a product that consumers would react to and you can’t argue with the success and demand for that print product.

You asked about the balance; we’re not giving up on the print products because the utility of print is still in demand from consumers. But at the same time we’re building out a digital business that creates a great utility in finding tools to help consumers do that also.

Samir Husni: Recently, I heard that the chief brand officer at P&G said that the average digital ad viewing is 1.7 seconds, and he’s challenging the industry to find another way for digital advertising. As you develop your digital footprint, are you also trying to find a new, strategic model that isn’t similar to the print model?

Tom Harty: From an advertising perspective, where we’ve been having success digitally is that we have some proprietary products digitally that are digital-ad products. A company called Selectable Media a few years ago, that enables us to gate content, where you might have to watch a video to completion to get our content. So, we’re asking the consumer to do something.

And we’re able to take our proprietary data and overlay that with other things. We bought a company called Couponix that enables us to target at retail prices, because half of our traffic for allrecipes happens in retail stores, as people are searching for recipes. So, we’re building out proprietary ad products that give advertisers more value. I think some advertisers are questioning some of the traditional banner advertising; were they getting the best bang for their buck.

So, as we aggregate these great audiences and give them this utility to get at our content, how can we really engage these advertisers in that conversation, where they can get a return for the dollars they’re investing in that. The digital industry is still always evolving and looking for the right mix of , where it’s not interfering with the user experience, but getting those advertisers’ messages across.

I’ve been in this business for a long time, whenever we did unaided research with editors and our subscribers over the years, we’d do focus groups, and this goes back 25 years ago. I used to sit through these and the editors would be behind the glass and the readers would be on the other side, and the facilitator would pass out the magazines and they’d tell the readers to point out the editorial that they really loved, and it used to drive the editors crazy, because they used to point at advertising. The advertising was part of the experience. That is a great part of the form factor of print for advertising. And I think digital is still making strides to get that same connection with consumers, where it’s not interfering with their experience.

Samir Husni: I feel like you may be the father of too many children, and some of them are very well known children, such as Martha Stewart Living, Rachael Ray, and the Gaines couple. How do you show your love, or your tough love, to legacy brands, like Better Homes and Gardens, Parents; and then all of these brands that stand on their own?

Tom Harty: That’s a good question, and I think it’s a good point. We’re always evaluating where we’re putting our resources for growth. That’s the struggle that people at the top of the house of media companies have to make, and have been making for long periods of time. You can’t treat every single brand, or child, as you put it, always equally. That’s not to say that this doesn’t change all of the time.

We’ve been able to build out a great brand portfolio in recent years, and made some great additions like, as you mentioned, Martha Stewart, Shape, Racheal Ray, and Eating Well. We’ve been able to take advantage of the efficiencies of Meredith, from being what we think is one of the best, if not the best, operators in the business, and take advantage of the efficiencies of a bigger media company with our back office based in Des Moines, Iowa.

But we can also allocate some of those savings, as you would call it, being part of a bigger company, where they’re independent on their own, and reinvest in the brand. So, it’s always a battle, but we always have to keep an eye on where we think we can get the best return for our investment and for our shareholders in the future. We’re constantly waging that kind of allocation battle.

You’ve known in the past where we’ve made tougher decisions on brands like Ladies’ Home Journal or More, or we combined Fitness with Shape, where we make a bigger bet on what we think is a different way to allocate it, and stop allocating to certain brands. It’s not an easy decision to make, but we’ve made that in the past.

Samir Husni: When we look at the Meredith portfolio today, under your leadership, if you and I are speaking one year from now, what would you hope to tell me that you had accomplished in 2017?

Tom Harty: I think you’re going to see us continue to make organic investments, especially in our digital products into next year. We’re also on the acquisition trail, and we’re looking for both organic growth, where we’re making investments in growing organically in the brands and the product lines that we have, and we’re also looking at opportunities to grow our business through acquisitions. And that could be print products, digital products, or broadcast products on the other side of the business.

There are a number of things that we’re constantly looking at, so we’re not shying away from any area, but I always say that it has to, number one, fit our strategy for an acquisition, and then it has to be for sale; you have to have a seller that actually wants to sell something, and it has to be the right price. There’s a sifter that we put things through.

I think that throughout the industry, from print to digital to broadcast, all are ripe for consolidation, and as Meredith has stated, we’re going to be a consolidator, and you’ve seen us look at that and do that over the last few years. And we’re going to continue to do that, while at the same time, making investments in our core organic business.

Samir Husni: Without going into what’s up for sale now, can you rule out a Rolling Stone purchase?

Tom Harty: I wouldn’t say that Rolling Stone would fit our current strategy, that’s what I would comment. It’s a great brand, it’s been around for a long period of time, but it probably would not fit our strategy to look at that brand.

That’s not to say that we wouldn’t look at making investments in men’s brands. If you look at our portfolio, we’re more dominant on the women’s side of the business. I think the current number is we reach 112 million women in the United States on a monthly basis. I believe there’s somewhere around 1,920 million adult women in the U.S., so we’re fast approaching a saturation of how we reach women. So, we might look at more men-focused titles in the future.

Samir Husni: When you look at that portfolio and everything you’ve done so far, do you think that with Meredith, Hearst, and recently, Condé Nast, starting partnerships, such as Meredith and the Gaines couple, Hearst and The Pioneer Woman and Dr. Oz; do you think that’s a reinvention of a business model, or is it something that Martha Stewart actually introduced in the 1980s with Time Inc.?

Tom Harty: I wouldn’t say that it’s a new business model. When Martha, or whoever, starts things from scratch, they’re looking to find the experts that are out there to help them. So, I think there’s an opportunity maybe to do some more of these types of things. It’s us and Hearst that’s kind of really active in that.

We did something with Condé Nast with House & Garden. We’re able to produce content very efficiently and House & Garden is a brand that we think is fantastic, and so does Condé Nast. They decided to stop the print brand, and we’ve come back with it and have our second issue on the newsstand, and it’s been successful. So, there are always models that we’re looking at, even helping each other. Here we are working with Condé Nast on a licensing and profitability share for House & Garden.

So, it’s not a new concept, but I think in this day and age launching a magazine for an independent celebrity or independent company, is more difficult. It makes it much more efficient for a bigger media company to help them do that.

Samir Husni: In your career, you’ve worked at three of the largest magazines in this country: TV Guide, Reader’s Digest, and Better Homes and Gardens. So, you’ve seen the huge magazines and their huge circulations. And you just shared that Better Homes and Gardens is still the largest, non-membership magazine in this country. But do you think the future for magazines is a more targeted approach, or is there still a desire from consumers for these large, mass magazines?

Tom Harty: I think that there’s a place for some of these large-scale magazines to still exist. I see the demand for Better Homes and Gardens and it’s astonishing. But it really strikes at a strong brand; it strikes at consumers who are looking for that type of content on a broad scale. So, it exists.

I don’t know if we’ll ever see a magazine from scratch reach that kind of scale again, I just don’t know. That’s a good question, if there will ever be new brands that will come out and do that. I don’t know if the Magnolia brand will ever reach that kind of scale; I’m just not sure.

Samir Husni: I remember meeting you once and you told me a story about your furnace in the basement of your home and the guy who came to fix it. I think at the time the story took place you were at TV Guide. Do you remember that?

Tom Harty: You’re exactly right. I used that example of when I was the publisher at TV Guide and I was getting the furnace replaced in my old house that I’d bought, and the oil sales guy asked me if I was the publisher of TV Guide, why was I giving the TV listings online for free. That was a moment in time. I’ll never forget that; it was a very strategic question. And at the time, I don’t think we had the answer.

Samir Husni: Do you have the answer now?

Tom Harty: The utility has changed for a magazine. I think that was more of a technology change. I think the utility of finding what’s on television has changed, and I believe that was something that TV Guide saw coming, but yes, I think we have the answer now.

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

Tom Harty: That’s a good question. When I think about people that I’ve worked with and what they will think about Tom Harty, I believe that it would be that he was a decisive, fair leader during a time in the media business of great disruption. That’s what I think about myself. That I make decisive decisions and I’m very fair about it in my leadership style. And I think that’s what people would say about Tom Harty.

Samir Husni: If I showed up unexpectedly at your home one evening after work, what would I find you doing? Having a glass of wine; reading a magazine; cooking; watching TV; or something else?

Tom Harty: You’d probably find me winding down with my wife and I in the kitchen preparing dinner, and doing it together. And me doing all of the cleanup, just helping her out and enjoying a nice evening together.

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

Tom Harty: What keeps me up at night is what’s kept a lot of people up at night and that is, as this business goes through tremendous transformation and change, what are the new things technology-wise or competition-wise that I’m not thinking about? That’s what keeps me up at night. You can address the things that you know about, but it’s harder to address the unknown. And that’s what keeps me staring at the ceiling at night, the things that I’m missing.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

h1

Kent Johnson, CEO, Highlights, to Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni: Our Belief Is That The Conditions In The World Today, The Pace Of Change And The Disruption, Makes Highlights Even More Relevant Than When We Were Founded 71 Years Ago… The Mr. Magazine™ Interview

September 14, 2017

The Story of Highlights Documented in the Movie 44 Pages

“I think my son at age 12 is pretty engaged across the spectrum of technology, but it was eye-opening to hear him say there might not be print when he becomes an adult. But I’m convinced there will be for my lifetime, particularly for kid’s magazines. I think we face different issues in some types of adult titles and different issues in current events and news than in true audience-based magazines. But at Highlights, we’re believers in print.” Kent Johnson…

Highlights has been around for 71 years, educating and entertaining children throughout generations. It is a legacy brand, certainly, but it’s also a brand that believes in creativity and innovation, evolving perfectly with the times, becoming globally successful, while remaining the beloved companion of children across the U.S.

A 90-minute documentary entitled “44 Pages,” chronicling the history, process and philosophy behind the Highlights brand has been released and the film premiered on the national film festival circuit earlier this spring and is now touring across the country making stops in select cities for screenings and events. It’s a poignant look at the family who brought us this great children’s educational tool, exploring the rich and tragic history of the magazine and brand.

Kent Johnson is the CEO and the great-grandson of the founders of the company, Garry Cleveland Myers and his wife Caroline Clark Myers. I spoke with Kent recently and we talked about the past, present and future of the brand. We even discussed the controversy surrounding the company’s diversity values and how they handled the situation. It was nothing less than you’d expect from a man who grew up on those same values; ones that are enveloped with ethics, fairness and the firm belief that children are the most important people in the world.

So, I hope that you enjoy this glimpse into a brand that has been around for a very long time, and has found that with age, not only does wisdom come, but also a layer of commitment and ethical truth that the company’s CEO is in perfect step with, the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Kent Johnson, CEO, Highlights.

But first the sound-bites:

On his then 12-year-old son’s question of will there be print when he is an adult, which was highlighted in the new Highlights documentary: Well, I had asked him what did he think it would be like when he was an adult, and he had the reaction that he wasn’t sure there would be print magazines. And so they took that quote from me during the filming where we talked about that because I think they liked the way that worked as the lead-in for the section they were going to do. It kind of portrayed some of the tension that our company and our digital partners have had about the role of print versus the role of digital.

On whether, at 71-years-old, he feels the magazine is still relevant and needed in these digital times: Yes. Our belief is that as we look out into the world, many of us feel that we’re living in times that are filled with some contention, trouble and challenges in our society. Our belief is that the conditions in the world today, the pace of change and the disruption, makes Highlights even more relevant than when we were founded.

On having a Ph. D. in physics and whether it’s the scientist in him or the passion for the brand that makes him believe it’s still relevant today: I think it’s both. But I think it’s also the data that we see, and maybe that’s the scientist side of me. We see and measure positive reaction; we see millennial parents; we see parents looking for meaning and connection, and we listen to the feedback. We don’t have advertisers, so the people we listen to, in terms of relevance, are our readers and our subscribers.

On the magazine’s rocky start: There was a rocky start from a business perspective, and I think that if it weren’t for my great-uncle getting involved and having an entrepreneurial inspiration, as well as many others. People who believed in their vision and invested money, and printers and vendors that were critical, the sales team; we probably wouldn’t have made it through the first half dozen years.

On whether he thinks that Highlights’ business model is still just as valid today as it was years ago: Our model includes extending well beyond magazines. And we tend to think of our magazines as products, but there’s also an audience associated with each of our magazines to the progression from infant and toddlers, up to preschool, and then our Highlights readers. So, we’re constantly working to think about new ways to serve those audiences and that might be with digital products that we hope our subscribers would buy, and we do sell digital subscription products. Or it might be with our clubs, where we have people join who want to go deeper into a specific content area or really want to get into puzzling as opposed to something else. To move beyond and extend from a general interest magazine.

On his role (other than CEO) within the company: I’m a relatively humble leader. I try to spend as much of my time as I can talking about our mission, our values, and what we’re trying to do. I think it’s critical that as a leader I’m working to ensure that we’re bringing really talented, skilled people into the company, but also making sure that people who come to work here share our beliefs and our mission. We want to have employees who in addition to being happy and successful in their jobs, we want them to gain an extra sense of satisfaction because of what we do for children. Because they tend to be happier here and more successful.

On the diversity controversy the magazine faced last year: We tend to focus on and think about how does a child see themselves in our magazines. What was interesting when we came under criticism around the issue of same sex, same gender parents, was when we really looked at our magazine, we don’t have many depictions of parents. We tend to focus the content from the kids’ point of view. In some ways, we may have been a little surprised that an adult issue was coming with such strength to us. On the other hand, I think what we learned was that the world has changed pretty quickly on these issues. And Highlights has tended to evolve and change with society and this may have been a case where we were slower than some would have liked to evolve.

On whether it’s easier or harder to take a centrist’s point of view in the magazine with the divisiveness that faces our country today: I’m not sure whether it’s easier or harder; it certainly feels like one can be criticized more readily today. I think for us when we did go through the controversy, one of the things that allowed us to not be too distracted was once we decided what we wanted to do, what was consistent with our editorial point of view, our values, and how we wanted to execute it, we were able to shut out the inputs from the outside world. We have an incredible staff, who’s judgement and decision-making I have complete trust in. So, once we knew what we wanted to do, we knew we were doing it with our audience, with children in mind, and we knew there was no way to make everyone happy.

On whether it’s easier or harder to remain ethical these days: I don’t know if it’s easy or hard, it’s just the way we’ve done things from the beginning. And it’s not really a daily choice, it’s the air that we try to breathe as an organization. And I think there are many organizations like that. It can be hard if you’re not rock solid in understanding your commitment to integrity and ethics. It can be difficult in a highly-pressured, highly-competitive world for some organizations.

On the four key values of the company: Our four key values as a company are teamwork, creativity, excellence and integrity. We also have a primary value, which is that children are the world’s most important people. And we carry that along as our primary value to remind everyone that when we look at our values or talk about them, that one is our primary value.

On anything he’d like to add: One thing that I’d like add is we’ve been having some neat success internationally. And a lot of our international success is related to English-language learning and content and products. So, it’s not all magazines. But I found it neat that I got to visit our magazine partner in China back in April. And we are now, I think starting next month, we are simultaneously publishing with our partner in China, both Highlights and High Five, the same issue in China in English, but we also record all of the audio and we print a special layer on the magazines. So, they have a talking pen. The kids in China are reading Highlights and High Five at the same time kids are reading them in the U.S., but they will have a pen where they can touch on anything and it will read them the article, because we’re trying to help them learn English.

On any plans to bring the magazine with the reading pen to the U.S.: Innovative, global partners; every time they do something different that surprises us or often inspires us, we do ask the question: is that something we should bring to us? Or how would that idea work in the U.S. market? And that is often digital, because we feel there’s a lot of great innovation with technology in our foreign markets. We don’t have a distribution approach associated with the talking pen for the U.S., but it’s on our minds to think about whether that would be a retail or a direct to consumer, or something that we need in our market. We don’t have any specific plans yet, but we’re always thinking.

On what he would have tattooed upon his brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about him: If it’s about me personally, I just hope people would read that I have had a positive impact on those around me. A positive impact on the world and a positive impact on the company I’m part of and positive impact on my own family. That would be my ultimate goal for someone to see on that tattoo.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at his home: I’m a bit more of an introvert than my job typically requires. I like to try and unplug in the evenings, so you’d see me with my kids. You might see me reading with them or playing a computer game with them, or doing homework. You would probably see me with a glass of wine. If it’s hockey season, you might see me watching a hockey game. And I like to read a lot. If it’s late enough, you might catch me in my bed reading a book, trying to stay awake because it’s interesting or not.

On what keeps him up at night: It’s a good question, because I’m not the best sleeper. Mostly, I’m up at night thinking about all of the opportunities and all of the changes and pressures. So, I’m up a lot thinking about work and how do we adapt to the world that’s changing so quickly, and how do we deliver for our customers on the potential we have, just because of the Highlights brand’s heritage and our ability. We have more opportunities than we know what to do with, and that keeps me feeling a level of pressure and urgency and excitement that does interfere with my sleep.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Kent Johnson, CEO, Highlights for Children.

Samir Husni: I just finished watching the new “44 Pages” documentary about the creation of Highlights, and I was struck by the question your son asked you, “Dad, will there be a Highlights in the future when I’m an adult?”

Kent Johnson: Well, I had asked him what did he think it would be like when he was an adult, and he had the reaction that he wasn’t sure there would be print magazines. And so they took that quote from me during the filming where we talked about that because I think they liked the way that worked as the lead-in for the section they were going to do. It kind of portrayed some of the tension that our company and our digital partners have had about the role of print versus the role of digital.

I think my son at age 12 is pretty engaged across the spectrum of technology, but it was eye-opening to hear him say there might not be print when he becomes an adult. But I’m convinced there will be for my lifetime, particularly for kid’s magazines. I think we face different issues in some types of adult titles and different issues in current events and news than in true audience-based magazines. But at Highlights, we’re believers in print.

Samir Husni: The magazine is now 71 years old, and from the days when I was working with the company, I’ve always heard that you’re a mission-driven, family operation.

Kent Johnson: Yes.

Samir Husni: So, do you think that Highlights today, at 71, is still relevant and needed? And is it still a reflection of our times in this digital age?

Kent Johnson: Yes. Our belief is that as we look out into the world, many of us feel that we’re living in times that are filled with some contention, trouble and challenges in our society. Our belief is that the conditions in the world today, the pace of change and the disruption, makes Highlights even more relevant than when we were founded.

And I think part of that at 71 years, Highlights, even though the majority of people know us for our magazine and know that we’ve had the magazine for that entire time, we tend to think of ourselves as you said, as a mission-driven company, but we also think of ourselves as a company that’s focused on serving children and families. And we have a philosophy and a set of values that we think resonate as much today as they ever have with the aspirations that parents have for their children.

We think that people want to try to raise children to become their best selves, and that’s really what we focus on trying to do with our magazine, but also in our digital products, and across all of our other products throughout the company. We even like to talk that we’re not ultimately trying to create a magazine, it’s the experience that’s created when a child engages with the magazine that we care about. I like to think that what we’re doing is creating experiences that help children grow in positive ways.

Samir Husni: I know that your great-grandparents started the company, but something very few people may know is that you actually have a Ph.D. in physics. So, is it the scientist in you or the passion in you that makes you believe the magazine is still relevant?

Kent Johnson: I think it’s both. But I think it’s also the data that we see, and maybe that’s the scientist side of me. We see and measure positive reaction; we see millennial parents; we see parents looking for meaning and connection, and we listen to the feedback. We don’t have advertisers, so the people we listen to, in terms of relevance, are our readers and our subscribers.

I am passionate; we really try to recruit people to our company who are passionate about what we’re doing, who are believers when it comes to the impact that we have on children, and the positive impact that we have in society. But we’re also a group of data-driven, analytic folks who are looking at the data to say that we think we’re still relevant.

Samir Husni: Very few people, including myself, who thought that I knew the history of Highlights; I did not know that it had a rocky start. That after four years, they were losing money and getting ready to close shop. And then your great-uncle came into it. And the tragedy when your family was flying to New York in 1960, and the planes collided and everyone died on that flight. So, it wasn’t always a walk in a rose garden for Highlights.

Kent Johnson: I think that’s true. And I think that the founders started this company as their final chapter. They were 59 and 61 years old, and they were passionate about the mission. And they were exceedingly knowledgeable about parenting, education, literacy and children, but as we like to say when we’re looking back on history, maybe they weren’t as skilled as businesspeople as they were in child development and as educators and editors.

So, there was a rocky start from a business perspective, and I think that if it weren’t for my great-uncle getting involved and having an entrepreneurial inspiration, as well as many others. People who believed in their vision and invested money, and printers and vendors that were critical, the sales team; we probably wouldn’t have made it through the first half dozen years.

And then to be, as they show in the documentary, to be at the stage where, really at that point in 1960 being at half a million subscribers, it had become clear that this was going to be a viable, long-lived company. And to have a tragedy, which was a tragedy for the Columbus community and many, many families, but to have a tragedy where we lost three of our five senior executive, including two family members, was the kind of blow that I think you could easily imagine would do a company in and cause a family to falter.

But I think the reaction, as I look back, the non-family executives, the family members, our founders, who were living and still in the business, but now had lost their son and their president of the company, everyone decided that the company had to go forward. I think that level of commitment to the mission is what allowed us then to get through crises, but it is the kind of commitment that I was brought up in thinking, believing and understanding that we ought to have at Highlights. And it gives us a bit of resilience to get through whatever the crisis of the day, or the difficulties are. We kind of believe that we can and will keep going, no matter what.

Samir Husni: The magazine has never had advertising, so your source of revenue always depended on circulation and subscription. And for years, you were the most expensive children’s magazine on the marketplace. But now with the slew of new children’s magazines coming out, some with cover prices of $12; do you think that the business model that you follow at Highlights is still as valid as it was years ago? Or do you have any plans to change it or do something different?

Kent Johnson: That’s a great question. I think we have often been relatively high-priced compared to some competitors. But we are a mass market magazine, and it’s part of our mission, we want to reach as many children as possible here in the U.S. and around the world, so we try to price in a way that is a good value, given the quality of the content and the investment of the content, but is also enough that we’re able to continue to invest in the content. So, we believe that content has value and the experience we create with magazines justifies the expense. And that it’s a good investment for the quality of time it creates in a family and for a child.

That being said, our model includes extending well beyond magazines. And we tend to think of our magazines as products, but there’s also an audience associated with each of our magazines to the progression from infant and toddlers, up to preschool, and then our Highlights readers. So, we’re constantly working to think about new ways to serve those audiences and that might be with digital products that we hope our subscribers would buy, and we do sell digital subscription products. Or it might be with our clubs, where we have people join who want to go deeper into a specific content area or really want to get into puzzling as opposed to something else. To move beyond and extend from a general interest magazine.

And we’re also trying to go into retail, because we know that in addition to our subscriber base, many people are familiar and have positive emotional connections to the Highlights brand. And to be there in retail with Highlights’ branded products, books and activities, and a variety of categories gives them another way to engage with us. So, I think our business model is evolving, and will continue to evolve, but is evolving to try and really shift from people thinking they are a Highlights subscriber; we want people to say they are part of the Highlights family, and we want them to say they engage with Highlights products beyond the magazine.

Samir Husni: I understand that now Highlights is platform agnostic. What role do you play, besides CEO, when we look at the theme that Highlights will always be an evangelist for children, helping kids be happier and healthier; are you the high priest or are you the altar boy? (Laughs)

Kent Johnson: (Laughs too) I’m a relatively humble leader. I try to spend as much of my time as I can talking about our mission, our values, and what we’re trying to do. I think it’s critical that as a leader I’m working to ensure that we’re bringing really talented, skilled people into the company, but also making sure that people who come to work here share our beliefs and our mission. We want to have employees who in addition to being happy and successful in their jobs, we want them to gain an extra sense of satisfaction because of what we do for children. Because they tend to be happier here and more successful.

I go in and out of a lot of different things with the company, but mostly I try to fertilize and cross-fertilize aspects of our mission and values, and keep us all energized on the things that we’ve been doing for 71 years. We have an incredible energy right now about magazine publishing and I think that’s what you see in the documentary “44 Pages.” The passion and energy for something we’ve been doing for 71 years, but it’s new with every issue. And we’re having a blast on international, on digital, and doing apps. So, I try to keep the excitement and enthusiasm up, because I think that makes it a much more fun place to work. And it ultimately means we’ll create better things for kids, if those things are true.

Samir Husni: I have to ask the question about the diversity issues that took place last year, and some of the criticisms you received in the press regarding the LGBT community. Those who don’t study Highlights; I rarely look at an old issue of Highlights that I don’t see a white child, a black child, a woman, a man, a boy, a girl. Why do you think that for the magazine that has diversity as part of its DNA, you were in that maelstrom of controversy? How did you deal with it? And was it a big surprise to you that someone thought Highlights wasn’t diverse?

Kent Johnson: I do think that a sense of tolerance and a sense of inclusivity and the idea that as humans we always share more with each other than we differ; those have been core tenants that we at Highlights have always tried to focus on. These are human values that we believe in, and we’re proud of our heritage. We have had a lot of diversity within the pages of our magazine over the years. Actually, someone wrote a paper looking at our representation of women and minorities in roles related to science. And it was rewarding for me as a scientist to see the report card that we had been well ahead of the curve, in terms of going against stereotypes, with respect to math and science, because we do have a problem in the science industry with the diversity of folks who are successful and advancing in those careers.

We tend to focus on and think about how does a child see themselves in our magazines. What was interesting when we came under criticism around the issue of same sex, same gender parents, was when we really looked at our magazine, we don’t have many depictions of parents. We tend to focus the content from the kids’ point of view. In some ways, we may have been a little surprised that an adult issue was coming with such strength to us. On the other hand, I think what we learned was that the world has changed pretty quickly on these issues. And Highlights has tended to evolve and change with society and this may have been a case where we were slower than some would have liked to evolve.

We were surprised at the level of intensity of feedback. And I think it all happened at a time, and I think we’re still in this time, but at a high level of contention or divisiveness in our society. And the digital means of communication allow people to pour a fair bit of emotion or intensity in their communications. So, we were a little surprised at the intensity when that all happened.

Samir Husni: One of your editors told me once that Highlights tried to be like an island of clarity in the world that kids are living in. That reminded me of what the former CEO of the Wall Street Journal told me once, that the WSJ had been referred to as an island of clarity in a sea of madness when it comes to business. As we live in this, not only digital age, but with everything that is taking place in our country today, is it easier or harder for Highlights to take that centrist’s point of view and try to provide this island of clarity in a very divided country today?

Kent Johnson: I’m not sure whether it’s easier or harder; it certainly feels like one can be criticized more readily today. I think for us when we did go through the controversy, one of the things that allowed us to not be too distracted was once we decided what we wanted to do, what was consistent with our editorial point of view, our values, and how we wanted to execute it, we were able to shut out the inputs from the outside world. We have an incredible staff, who’s judgement and decision-making I have complete trust in. So, once we knew what we wanted to do, we knew we were doing it with our audience, with children in mind, and we knew there was no way to make everyone happy.

But I think it’s easier for a company like Highlights, being privately-held and committed to the audience and the readers, when we make our decision and make our judgements about what’s in the magazine, we go forward with those decisions. So, we will never sit in the middle of any discussion and try to make the calculation of what exactly does that do to our subscriptions or our marketing, or did people cancel because they didn’t like that decision.

I think as a company, we feel we have a responsibility to be comfortable in our own skin and own our decisions and implement them in the way that we think is best for children in our society. So, I think it’s hard because there’s more external pressures, but it’s also, I think, something that is our obligation as magazine publishers to make and commit to how we want to do things based on the expertise and experience of the team we’ve put together.

Samir Husni: And is it easier or harder to remain ethical? Somebody mentioned in the documentary that you’re one of the few remaining ethical publishing companies.

Kent Johnson: I would never try to compare us to others, because I think there are so many ethical people in the world. Integrity is one of our four key company values. So, for us we have all bought in that being ethical is not a choice, it’s part of who we are. When we make that level of commitment to being ethical, you realize that you have to own up that sometimes that means you’re willing to sacrifice things to be and strive to always behave in the most ethical way one can.

I don’t know if it’s easy or hard, it’s just the way we’ve done things from the beginning. And it’s not really a daily choice, it’s the air that we try to breathe as an organization. And I think there are many organizations like that. It can be hard if you’re not rock solid in understanding your commitment to integrity and ethics. It can be difficult in a highly-pressured, highly-competitive world for some organizations. We try to take it off the table and just say that first and foremost we have to do the right thing.

Samir Husni: You mentioned integrity and ethics, what are your other two core values for the company? You said there were four.

Kent Johnson: Our four key values as a company are teamwork, creativity, excellence and integrity. We also have a primary value, which is that children are the world’s most important people. And we carry that along as our primary value to remind everyone that when we look at our values or talk about them, that one is our primary value.

Those values really came out of a process where we discovered those and engaged our whole organization to define them. What was remarkable is that we went through that process recently, I had my cousin, Pat Michaelson, who is a granddaughter of the founders, to look at it and she said that was exactly what we’d been about since day one. I thought it was neat that today’s organization reflects in an ongoing, consistent way the values that we’ve had for 71 years.

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

Kent Johnson: One thing that I’d like add is we’ve been having some neat success internationally. And a lot of our international success is related to English-language learning and content and products. So, it’s not all magazines.

But I found it neat that I got to visit our magazine partner in China back in April. And we are now, I think starting next month, we are simultaneously publishing with our partner in China, both Highlights and High Five, the same issue in China in English, but we also record all of the audio and we print a special layer on the magazines. So, they have a talking pen. The kids in China are reading Highlights and High Five at the same time kids are reading them in the U.S., but they will have a pen where they can touch on anything and it will read them the article, because we’re trying to help them learn English. And it’s been fun to watch that business grow knowing that audio recorded and content created in Honesdale, Pennsylvania is appearing across China at the same time every month.

We’re printing them; we send the audio and they print a fifth layer that’s readable by a sensor in the pen, so it knows where your touching. They encode it and we record the audio and we’re printing and selling them vinyl copies for their growing subscriber base. We’re somewhat non-traditional as a magazine by going international, so we’ve had to find our way. A lot of our applications have to do with our core identity as a kid’s company and an educational company, so reaching English-language learning in many different ways, a lot of time digitally, but also in print around the world.

Samir Husni: Any plans to bring that reading magazine here?

Kent Johnson: Innovative, global partners; every time they do something different that surprises us or often inspires us, we do ask the question: is that something we should bring to us? Or how would that idea work in the U.S. market? And that is often digital, because we feel there’s a lot of great innovation with technology in our foreign markets. We don’t have a distribution approach associated with the talking pen for the U.S., but it’s on our minds to think about whether that would be a retail or a direct to consumer, or something that we need in our market. We don’t have any specific plans yet, but we’re always thinking.

I’ve tried to say to our company that we should be, not only global, in terms of our sales and distribution of product, but we want to allow being a global company to accept how we think about everything. So, more and more we think about our systems and our ways that we tag our content, or even some of our decisions about product development. We think they all have to at least be looked at through a global lens to make sure we’re doing the very best we can and serve kids all over the world.

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

Kent Johnson: I’ll answer that two ways. One; what I used to weave into speeches, and I still do, if someone ripped me from my sleep and said: quick, you have to tell me about the identity of Highlights for Children or the company, what matters? I always say there are three things: we’re mission-driven and for-profit, two – we’re always balancing the short and long-term time horizons, we’re always thinking both short-term and long-term, and three – we’re an ethical company.

If it’s about me personally, I just hope people would read that I have had a positive impact on those around me. A positive impact on the world and a positive impact on the company I’m part of and positive impact on my own family. That would be my ultimate goal for someone to see on that tattoo.

Samir Husni: If I showed up unexpectedly at your home one evening after work, what would I find you doing? Having a glass of wine; reading a magazine; cooking; on your iPad; watching TV; or something else?

Kent Johnson: I’m a bit more of an introvert than my job typically requires. I like to try and unplug in the evenings, so you’d see me with my kids. You might see me reading with them or playing a computer game with them, or doing homework. You would probably see me with a glass of wine. If it’s hockey season, you might see me watching a hockey game. And I like to read a lot. If it’s late enough, you might catch me in my bed reading a book, trying to stay awake because it’s interesting or not.

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

Kent Johnson: It’s a good question, because I’m not the best sleeper. Mostly, I’m up at night thinking about all of the opportunities and all of the changes and pressures. So, I’m up a lot thinking about work and how do we adapt to the world that’s changing so quickly, and how do we deliver for our customers on the potential we have, just because of the Highlights brand’s heritage and our ability. We have more opportunities than we know what to do with, and that keeps me feeling a level of pressure and urgency and excitement that does interfere with my sleep.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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Kalmbach Publishing’s New CEO Is A Firm Believer In The 83-Year-Old Company’s Steadfast Mission Of Putting The Customer Front & Center – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Dan Hickey, CEO, Kalmbach Publishing…

September 11, 2017

“There’s room for it (print), of course, and if you’re in the relationship business, to some extent you’re agnostic. Your job is to really know the customer and how they want content experiences delivered to them. And if they’re raising their hands and saying they want magazines, then you provide magazines. And they still today provide fantastic and immersive lean-back experiences.” Dan Hickey…(on whether there is room for print in the magazine media world’s future)

A legacy publishing company, Kalmbach Publishing has been around for 83 years and has no plans to slow down now. A force to be reckoned with in the world of niche, with titles such as Model Railroader, Discover, Bead & Button, Classic Toy Trains, and Astronomy, plus many more, Kalmbach’s long dedication to its mission statement of putting the customer first is something that drew media veteran, Dan Hickey to the position he now holds as CEO.

Dan is someone who brings an array of skills to the top post at Kalmbach, from his tenure at Meredith, where he oversaw all digital businesses, to his executive position at AOL, and his editorial leadership roles at Walking Magazine and National Gardening, along with many other career experiences that will no doubt help him along this niche path he is now traveling.

I spoke with Dan recently and we talked about his vision for the company’s future, which consists of accelerating Kalmbach’s already very prevalent commitment to its customers, and to keep what he considers the core of the magazine business, relationships, revved up. It was a highly informative and interesting conversation, and one I hope you enjoy.

And now, the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Dan Hickey, CEO, Kalmbach Publishing.

But first, the sound-bites:

On his vision for the future as the new CEO of the company: The 83-year-old history of the customer coming first, a value that Kalmbach has embraced, is really the foundation of the future as well. I believe that the magazine business at its core is a relationship business. Great content, experiences that you find in magazines, that you find on websites and with other platforms, is the conduit that allows for those relationships. And ultimately, I think it builds the brand loyalty over time.

On his reaction when he learned the Kalmbach board had selected him as CEO: The reason I’m excited, and why I was so attracted to Kalmbach is after a number of visits to the company, I found out several things. First, they are a very proud company and it reminded me of my days at Meredith. Meredith is very similar; 100+ years-old, Kalmbach’s 83-years-old. Kalmbach was not shy about their history of values, they have put the customer front and center for 83 years. And simple things impressed me. They keep their building and campus immaculate, and I saw that right away. I said to myself, this is a company that really cares; about itself, about its employees, and about its customers. So, that was impressive to me.

On whether he thinks his editorial background prepares him better for the business side of the company or could it be a possible stumbling block: I think it prepares me well, and not only my editorial background, but my digital background as well. For the last 20 years, I’ve pretty much been on the digital side of the business, as well as marketing. So, it’s not just editorial. It’s editorial, marketing, circulation, and ad sales. I’ve touched all of those sides of the business and I feel that I have a deep enough understanding of how to weave all of those things together in preparing for the future. I’ve see a lot of silos in my day; I’ve seen editorial silos, ad silos, consumer marketing silos, so I think my background will really help me bring those functions together in an harmonious way to really prepare for the future.

On whether he believes those silos are being torn down quickly enough: I think that as a whole, the industry isn’t clear enough as to where the puck is going. And I really believe we’re in the relationship business and I think there is a shift mentally from companies that say they’re a magazine publisher, to they’re in the relationship business, because once you can shift mentally into that relationship faction, you’re less focused on a particular form factor. And you’re really focused on the relationship itself and the needs of your customers. In my view, the slowness of the industry is embracing that. Once everyone embraces that and ask themselves how they can super-serve their customers, then the silos will naturally break down.

On whether he believes there is still room for print in the future, for our children and grandchildren: Of course. The customer is going to determine that, right? There’s room for it, of course, and if you’re in the relationship business, to some extent you’re agnostic. Your job is to really know the customer and how they want content experiences delivered to them. And if they’re raising their hands and saying they want magazines, then you provide magazines. And they still today provide fantastic and immersive lean-back experiences.

On whether he believes there will ever come a time when people will pay for digital in the same way they pay for print: Yes, and it will be easier. I do think that’s part of building a relationship platform. As you have an ecosystem of platforms from magazines to digital to social to events to potentially subscription boxes or other things that you deliver to your customers, and mobile products as well. Part of the strength of a company like Kalmbach is our circulation departments or consumer marketing departments are essentially very good at handling recurring revenue streams.

On something he looks back on today and wishes he hadn’t done: Ten or 15 years ago, when I first got into digital, I think most publishers, if they could rewind the clock, wouldn’t be giving away free content like they are today. It was the reality that we knew at the time. We thought that “search” was the great disruptor, that it was going to be a level playing field, and that anything behind a paywall was not going to get indexed and we wouldn’t get traffic. And if you could look at what we know today, I think most publishers would agree, we should have been asking for money right away.

On anything he’d like to add: I’m super-excited. We’ve got a great organization with a great legacy and a lot of talent; we have 187 employees and everybody is very proud of our company. They live their work and they work their lives. They’re all enthusiasts at their core, so I’m just super-excited to be here.

On what he would have tattooed upon his brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about him: I’m a big believer in show, don’t tell, in journalism. But if I had to have something tattooed, it would probably be something more aspirational for me. If people were going to remember it forever about me, I would love to be remembered as a kind person. That would make me very happy, and it’s something that’s, again, aspirational and something I have to work on every day.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at his home: I’m probably binge-watching YouTube with fishing or boating videos. I’m trying to perfect my boat-trailering launching, and there’s an endless supply of videos showing, and sometimes they’re very humorous, showing what to do and what not to do with your boat when you’re backing into a lake.

On what keeps him up at night: Figuratively, as I mentioned before, it’s phones, and how we’re going to create and maintain the relationships that we have on that device. It’s already a real challenge for media companies and it’s not talked about enough, and that worries me. It’s something that I think about a lot.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Dan Hickey, CEO, Kalmbach Publishing.

Samir Husni: You’re quoted in the press release about your position as the new CEO of Kalmbach Publishing, as saying that Kalmbach has a long and compelling history of putting the customer front and center. That being said, what’s the vision that you bring to the company as you look toward the future?

Dan Hickey: The 83-year-old history of the customer coming first, a value that Kalmbach has embraced, is really the foundation of the future as well. I believe that the magazine business at its core is a relationship business. Great content, experiences that you find in magazines, that you find on websites and with other platforms, is the conduit that allows for those relationships. And ultimately, I think it builds the brand loyalty over time.

More and more this is happening across the brand ecosystem, so Kalmbach has very strong relationships with its customers through the magazine, the website; through Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and we have a very robust email program. And it’s emphasizing the strengthening of each platform. Again, Kalmbach’s audience is engaging in print, digital, and events. For example, Kalmbach’s Bead & Button show is the largest event of its kind. So, we have the foundation for a relationship platform, and the vision is to really continue to invest in that platform and better allow the company to manage those relationships across the entire brand ecosystem, including print, digital, social and email.

The vision is a continuation of the nurturing of those relationships, and also creating new relationships. Once you have a relationship platform in place that serves the passion communities that they serve today, you can start looking at new categories and new communities, hopefully with younger audiences, and develop new relationships. And from those relationships, as they become trusted, you can serve those audiences.

And the expectation is that you’ll serve new products and services that enhance the customer’s experience, especially in these niche, enthusiast categories. We’re already doing this at the company, and we’ll continue to do more of it. An example would be premium video in the train category. We have 10,000 people subscribing to the magazine who already pay additional to subscribe to the video service. That’s an example of extending the brand, extending the relationship by providing more value to content in whatever form the audience wants it.

Samir Husni: When the board selected you as the new CEO, what was your initial reaction?

Dan Hickey: The reason I’m excited, and why I was so attracted to Kalmbach is after a number of visits to the company, I found out several things. First, they are a very proud company and it reminded me of my days at Meredith. Meredith is very similar; 100+ years-old, Kalmbach’s 83-years-old. Kalmbach was not shy about their history of values, they have put the customer front and center for 83 years. And simple things impressed me. They keep their building and campus immaculate, and I saw that right away. I said to myself, this is a company that really cares; about itself, about its employees, and about its customers. So, that was impressive to me.

And the second thing I saw was that because of the niche, enthusiast audiences, passion audiences or passion communities, I saw that they didn’t have some of the challenges of the mass market publications, because they’re serving these niche, enthusiast audiences that love their products, from trains and beading, to model cars and astronomy.

And again, it wasn’t just the magazines either; their audiences were already buying premium content in experiences above and beyond the magazine. So, that was super-impressive to me and I thought this was directionally and instinctively the way I would take the company as well, just really kind of accelerate it.

Third, they had a strong balance sheet and they’re very strong operationally. They’re set up for endemic growth, as well as acquisition, and finally I’m one of them. I’m an enthusiast; I have many hobbies and interests, from fishing and remodeling, to gardening and biking. And I understand the importance of passions and how they feed, at least my own, heart and soul. So, I thought that this is something bigger than just a publishing company; that Kalmbach really does serve an important service. Hobbies and passions will be around for a long, long time. And in fact, they may become even more important in the lives of future generations, especially when we see what’s happening with phone usage and the younger generation.

There was just this bigger picture thing there as well, and when they told me that I had been selected, I was super-thrilled. I felt like in some ways the job was just made for me.

Samir Husni: You’re one of the few CEO’s now in the media world with an editorial background. You’ve held a lot of editorial positions, from the days of Walking Magazine to National Gardening to newspapers; do you feel that your editorial background prepares you better for the business side or could it possibly be a stumbling block?

Dan Hickey: I think it prepares me well, and not only my editorial background, but my digital background as well. For the last 20 years, I’ve pretty much been on the digital side of the business, as well as marketing. So, it’s not just editorial. It’s editorial, marketing, circulation, and ad sales. I’ve touched all of those sides of the business and I feel that I have a deep enough understanding of how to weave all of those things together in preparing for the future.

I’ve see a lot of silos in my day; I’ve seen editorial silos, ad silos, consumer marketing silos, so I think my background will really help me bring those functions together in an harmonious way to really prepare for the future. The future is going to take a team. And not just an editorial team, or just a sales team; it’s everybody working together as one team. And I think my background prepares me for that.

Samir Husni: Looking at the industry as a whole, not just specifically Kalmbach, do you feel that we’ve been fast enough when it comes to destroying those silos and building a big brand warehouse for the product, or do you think we’re still taking our own sweet time doing that?

Dan Hickey: I think that as a whole, the industry isn’t clear enough as to where the puck is going. And I really believe we’re in the relationship business and I think there is a shift mentally from companies that say they’re a magazine publisher, to they’re in the relationship business, because once you can shift mentally into that relationship faction, you’re less focused on a particular form factor. And you’re really focused on the relationship itself and the needs of your customers.

In my view, the slowness of the industry is embracing that. Once everyone embraces that and ask themselves how they can super-serve their customers, then the silos will naturally break down. I think you have to understand where your vision and your future is, and then you’ll start to understand that you can’t have it with silo practices and functions within your organization.

Samir Husni: Being in the relationship business, what type are of relationship are you looking for with your customers? A one night stand; a love affair, or a long-lasting relationship? (Laughs)

Dan Hickey: (Laughs too) A long-lasting one, for sure.

Samir Husni: If someone asked you what the future of magazine publishing is, what would your answer be? We know we can’t be just print or just digital, we have to be in it all. But is there still room for print in the future, for our children and grandchildren?

Dan Hickey: Of course. The customer is going to determine that, right? There’s room for it, of course, and if you’re in the relationship business, to some extent you’re agnostic. Your job is to really know the customer and how they want content experiences delivered to them. And if they’re raising their hands and saying they want magazines, then you provide magazines. And they still today provide fantastic and immersive lean-back experiences.

So, to some extent I don’t know why we are a little obsessed with the question. To me, it’s a matter of what the customer wants. And what we do know is that they’re always interested in being immersed in great content experiences, whether that takes the shape of a printed magazine, tablet, or subscription boxes; it really doesn’t matter about the platform to some extent.

Tablets, for example, never exploded like they were originally forecasted to, some of the phone companies are actually giving them away, but no one is asking the question are tablets dead. Again, with the customer as your strategy, you’re going to say, I will deliver content however they want me to deliver it.

What worries me a little bit is the phone and how content is consumed on the phone. And how media companies and publishers are meeting some of the challenges to monetize and maintain the relationship on that particular platform. With most publishers, there is less engagement on the phone than on either desktop or print, or other platforms. And socially than more so. I think one of the challenges for us is to really think about how are we going to deliver on the phone in the future versus some of the other platforms.

Samir Husni: With your digital experience at Meredith, and acknowledging that the phone may be one of the stumbling blocks for magazine media and publishers, do you believe that we will ever reach a stage where people will pay for digital in the same way that they pay for print?

Dan Hickey: Yes, and it will be easier. I do think that’s part of building a relationship platform. As you have an ecosystem of platforms from magazines to digital to social to events to potentially subscription boxes or other things that you deliver to your customers, and mobile products as well. Part of the strength of a company like Kalmbach is our circulation departments or consumer marketing departments are essentially very good at handling recurring revenue streams.

And so, we want to make sure that’s a strength within the company going forward, so that across the entire brand’s ecosystem, our ability to transact with customers and provide those great products and experiences that get them into the recurring revenue streams happens easier and faster. And service those customers along the way just as well as we do today.

Samir Husni: What has been something that you look back on today and wish you hadn’t done, and maybe even promise yourself you will never do again?

Dan Hickey: (Laughs) Great question. Ten or 15 years ago, when I first got into digital, I think most publishers, if they could rewind the clock, wouldn’t be giving away free content like they are today. It was the reality that we knew at the time. We thought that “search” was the great disruptor, that it was going to be a level playing field, and that anything behind a paywall was not going to get indexed and we wouldn’t get traffic. And if you could look at what we know today, I think most publishers would agree, we should have been asking for money right away. We just didn’t know the future; we didn’t know that advertising in the digital space, although there’s a lot of hype around it, it has devolved, if anything. And it has become less valuable in some regard.

So really, it’s understanding that our business has all along been the relationship business and getting the consumer to pay us for great experiences. We somehow forgot that 15 years ago, and now the smart publishers and media people are all coming back to that concept of, what are the other products and services that I can offer to my audiences?

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

Dan Hickey: I’m super-excited. We’ve got a great organization with a great legacy and a lot of talent; we have 187 employees and everybody is very proud of our company. They live their work and they work their lives. They’re all enthusiasts at their core, so I’m just super-excited to be here. And looking forward to digging in, of course.

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

Dan Hickey: I’m a big believer in show, don’t tell, in journalism. But if I had to have something tattooed, it would probably be something more aspirational for me. If people were going to remember it forever about me, I would love to be remembered as a kind person. That would make me very happy, and it’s something that’s, again, aspirational and something I have to work on every day.

Samir Husni: If I showed up unexpectedly at your home one evening after work, what would I find you doing? Having a glass of wine; reading a magazine; cooking; on your iPad; watching TV; or something else?

Dan Hickey: I’m probably binge-watching YouTube with fishing or boating videos. I’m trying to perfect my boat-trailering launching, and there’s an endless supply of videos showing, and sometimes they’re very humorous, showing what to do and what not to do with your boat when you’re backing into a lake.

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

Dan Hickey: Figuratively, as I mentioned before, it’s phones, and how we’re going to create and maintain the relationships that we have on that device. It’s already a real challenge for media companies and it’s not talked about enough, and that worries me. It’s something that I think about a lot.

And sometimes I literally wake up during the night with something that gets me excited for the next day, and once I wake up I usually can’t get back to sleep.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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Parents Magazine & Its Editor In Chief, Liz Vaccariello, Both Offering Inspiring Storytelling & A Quieter Editorial Experience In This Manic Digital Age – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Liz Vaccariello…

August 17, 2017

“When she’s (the consumer) reading the magazine, she needs a much quieter editorial experience. It needs to be more inspiring. And she has more time. She wants to take more of an emotional journey, rather than be hit over the head with all sorts of practical advice and alarming statistics and stories.” Liz Vaccariello…

“I feel like that’s the power of magazines; it’s the power to tell a story in a unique way. Video tells a story; social media can tell a story, but the print story, the way pictures, words, headlines and the pacing of the magazine take you on a journey, that’s a much different kind of experience.” Liz Vaccariello…

With the recent redesign of Parents Magazine under the direction and leadership of Parents Editor in Chief Liz Vaccariello, the brand known for its credibility and stalwart trustworthiness, has been at the forefront of media these days, and its editor interviewed about the redesign many times over.

So, in true Mr. Magazine™ fashion, I decided to do something entirely different, and mention the redesign minimally, focusing instead on something that both Parents Magazine and its editor in chief have in common: storytelling.

Liz Vaccariello comes home to Meredith (she served as executive editor at Meredith’s Fitness for seven years) after several very successful positions with other titles, most recently as chief content officer and editor in chief for Reader’s Digest. Her storytelling drives her belief in the power of magazines, and the value of the journey they take you on.

I spoke with Liz recently and we talked about the role of print in this most digital age. She was adamant; when someone is reading a magazine, they’re seeking a different type of experience than digital can provide. They’re questing, as Liz put it, for a “quieter editorial experience” and inspiration. That’s very hard to find in the busy, noisy, notification-filled world that roams online.

And while the redesign of Parents Magazine is important and a value unto itself, what fills the pages of those designs, the stories, are always icing on the designer’s cake. So, come with me and experience the passion of a storyteller, a woman who believes magazines have the magical power of telling stories in the most unique of ways, and someone who knew from the sixth grade what her life’s journey would be, a wordsmith, the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Liz Vaccariello, editor in chief, Parents Magazine.

But first the sound-bites:

On why she feels the Parents brand needs a printed magazine in this digital age: The answer to that question is also the answer to why we did a redesign. In this digital age, the mom and dad, but mainly the mom, is on her phone and she’s on her social media, or she’s Googling or querying the solution to a problem. She might be on a Facebook page where she’s feeling a little less-than or judged, for example. When she finally puts down that phone, our research tells us that is when she is engaging with the magazine. It’s her me-time.

On being a storyteller first: I feel like that’s the power of magazines; it’s the power to tell a story in a unique way. Video tells a story; social media can tell a story, but the print story, the way pictures, words, headlines and the pacing of the magazine take you on a journey, that’s a much different kind of experience. And my love for storytelling is one of the first things that I wanted to bring to this team and ask them, many of whom have been here for decades or more; how do we tap into, not only a mother’s exhaustion, but her exhilaration?

On what’s different for her as an editor for Parents Magazine as opposed to other magazines she has edited, such as Reader’s Digest: What’s different about this role is that it speaks to a very unique and constantly moving readership. And that’s mothers. So, I had to immerse myself into millennial moms, and the world they were coming from. Aesthetically, who are the influencers? Also, verbally. What are the phrases that they’re using? What’s the language that they’re using? And culturally. This is a time where mothers are rejecting the mom-shaming or the guilt trips that used to be put on other mothers.

On her reaction when she was offered the job of editor in chief of Parents Magazine: My first reaction was utter shock. And I will tell you the reason why was because Parents Magazine, under my predecessor, was very strong and healthy, highly respected and admired. So, I never in a zillion years thought that this would be an opportunity for me. So, it was shock that I was talking about this suite of Parenting brands.

On the biggest stumbling block that faced her: The biggest stumbling block? I don’t know; it was a pretty seamless transition. I was surprised and delighted to find that almost every single person on my team was enthusiastic about taking a shift in direction and tone. People who had been here decades were some of the most enthusiastic participants in the early research and rethink that we did. So, really delight and surprise at how positive people were to do something new and fresh with the magazine. I wouldn’t call it a stumbling block; I’d probably call it my biggest surprise.

On why she felt the need for a change in the magazine when it was already strong and healthy: You change because your audience changes. The brand didn’t change, nor did what the audience needs from a parenting magazine change. But the generation coming into your space is different from the one that was entering your subscriber file five or ten years ago. They’re speaking a different language. Instead of helicopter parents, they’re the sons and daughters of helicopter parents. So, they’re looking at behavior in a different way. They’re looking at discipline in a different way. They are more interested in hearing from other moms and dads just like them.

On anything she’d like to add: This role is unique in that I am running; I am hands-on-editor-and-chiefing (laughs) the biggest magazine, and the biggest part of the business. But I also get to think beyond the magazine and the magazine’s core general brand and think about Latina parents, one out of every four babies born in this country is born to an Hispanic parent. So, Parents Latina is growing very quickly. And it’s fun to turn my attention to that demographic and see what we can do to interpret this voice and this information for them.

On why there are more line extensions from main titles in the Hispanic market than in the African American market: That’s a really interesting question. In the case of parenting, and I’ll answer in my space in particular, something unique happens when a second generation Latina in the United States becomes a mom. She doesn’t necessarily think of her Latina identity in the forefront of her mind until that moment she has a baby. And then suddenly she’s thinking more about her heritage and it becomes much more important to her. She wants to have one foot back in that culture.

On a memory or memories that she reflects on in her role as editor in chief and main storyteller of Parents Magazine: I often return to a moment in sixth grade when I was doing homework in my bedroom. I remember writing a book report about something and I was sitting at my desk with my pencil and paper. I remember looking at a sentence and thinking that I wanted to change the sentence, so I took another piece of paper and put it next to the first and began to change the words around in the sentence and reading it out loud and listening to the changing rhythms. And then deciding on the perfect way I wanted to say that sentence and putting it back on the paper.

On what she would have tattooed upon her brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about her: (Laughs) Mom to Sophia and Olivia. Sophia and Olivia’s mama; that’s my most important job. I think that’s why I get so excited and lit up about my job, because I get to help mommies and daddies and I know how much fun that is and how helpful that can be when you’re a mom. If we can help someone with the stories that we tell; make her laugh or feel better, or do something more efficiently, that’s wonderful. I’m in a good place and I have one of the best jobs in America.

On what keeps her up at night: We’re always concerned about the decline in print advertising. Meredith has a wonderful story about how the growth in digital advertising has far outpaced our small declines in print advertising. But, it doesn’t keep me up at night, because I just got back from a road trip with my publisher, Steven Grune, and I have to tell you, it made me proud to be a Meredith employee because I’m showing this redesign, and I’ve done a lot of road trips over the years for various companies and with various publishers. But when Meredith comes to town, and it speaks highly of Meredith and of Steve Grune and the Parents brand, but when we come to town 30 people show up and they want to hear what’s new with Meredith and with Parents Magazine. So, that speaks highly of our position in the marketplace.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Liz Vaccariello, editor in chief, Parents Magazine.

Samir Husni: Since the redesign of Parents Magazine, you’ve given quite a few interviews about that, so for this interview I thought I’d ask you something a bit different. In this digital age, why do you think the Parents brand needs a print magazine?

Liz Vaccariello: The answer to that question is also the answer to why we did a redesign. In this digital age, the mom and dad, but mainly the mom, is on her phone and she’s on her social media, or she’s Googling or querying the solution to a problem. She might be on a Facebook page where she’s feeling a little less-than or judged, for example. When she finally puts down that phone, our research tells us that is when she is engaging with the magazine. It’s her me-time.

We did a digital focus group where we had subscribers send in video tapes and show us precisely where in the house they kept their Parents Magazines. It was next to the big, comfy chair, or on their nightstands, or next to the bathtub.

So, when she’s reading the magazine, she needs a much quieter editorial experience. It needs to be more inspiring. And she has more time. She wants to take more of an emotional journey, rather than be hit over the head with all sorts of practical advice and alarming statistics and stories.

Samir Husni: The first thing that comes to mind when I read about you or think about you is storyteller.

Liz Vaccariello: Thank you. I feel like that’s the power of magazines; it’s the power to tell a story in a unique way. Video tells a story; social media can tell a story, but the print story, the way pictures, words, headlines and the pacing of the magazine take you on a journey, that’s a much different kind of experience.

And my love for storytelling is one of the first things that I wanted to bring to this team and ask them, many of whom have been here for decades or more; how do we tap into, not only a mother’s exhaustion, but her exhilaration? How do we tap into nostalgia when it comes to being a mom? Then suddenly, you’re nostalgic for your childhood, for example. There’s so much humor that goes with being a parent. And oftentimes, failing to be a perfect parent. Let’s be able to laugh at ourselves.

You can see in the new magazine, we have very short stories, some are longer, but there are little ways to tell those emotional stories in a way that feels like a complete and authentic life.

Samir Husni: Did you have to make any adjustments when you came to Meredith from Reader’s Digest, Prevention, Reminisce? All these magazines that you’ve edited; what’s different about Parents Magazine?

Liz Vaccariello: What’s different about this role is that it speaks to a very unique and constantly moving readership. And that’s mothers. So, I had to immerse myself into millennial moms, and the world they were coming from. Aesthetically, who are the influencers? Also, verbally. What are the phrases that they’re using? What’s the language that they’re using? And culturally. This is a time where mothers are rejecting the mom-shaming or the guilt trips that used to be put on other mothers.

So, I had to do a lot of research into “what is meaningful right now for this millennial, and even coming up soon, Gen Z mom?” And that was unique. You still want to tell good stories, but you also want to speak in a way that is familiar to your audience so that they get you.

Samir Husni: A little less than a year ago, you and I were talking and this job was in the making. And no matter how much I tried, you wouldn’t tell me the name of the magazine. (Laughs)

Liz Vaccariello: (Laughs too).

Samir Husni: Can you describe that moment when you were offered this job as editor in chief of Parents Magazine? What was your first reaction?

Liz Vaccariello: My first reaction was utter shock. And I will tell you the reason why was because Parents Magazine, under my predecessor, was very strong and healthy, highly respected and admired. So, I never in a zillion years thought that this would be an opportunity for me. So, it was shock that I was talking about this suite of Parenting brands.

The magazine; the business was very, very healthy heading into the redesign. Our MRI, our household income, they were both high. We’d experienced a boost of 3.3 percent in household income. So, there was nothing at all broken about the magazine. The fact that my predecessor was leaving was a shock. That was my absolute first reaction.

And then my second one was just feeling my heart swell, because I love to lead brands that touch people’s hearts. You always want to improve people’s lives, but I loved Reader’s Digest because it spoke to positivity and hope. And an oasis of optimism in a world of snark. And with Parents, when you think about optimism and hope, and happiness and meaning, very few things rival being a parent. So, this really hit my sweet spot of service and soul.

Samir Husni: And what has been the biggest stumbling block you’ve faced and how did you overcome it?

Liz Vaccariello: The biggest stumbling block? I don’t know; it was a pretty seamless transition. I was surprised and delighted to find that almost every single person on my team was enthusiastic about taking a shift in direction and tone. People who had been here decades were some of the most enthusiastic participants in the early research and rethink that we did. So, really delight and surprise at how positive people were to do something new and fresh with the magazine. I wouldn’t call it a stumbling block; I’d probably call it my biggest surprise.

Normally, when you come in, the new editor in chief will often bring in their new photo director, their new assistant, their new creative director, and I didn’t do any of that. I found that the team here was filled with superstars. Agnethe Glatved, who did the redesign with me, has been with the magazine eight years, and this is her third refresh of the magazine. When you have that level of talent, they’re able to pivot and embrace change. It was a nice experience.

Samir Husni: Let me go inside your great magazine maker mind, you come to a magazine that is doing well, there was nothing wrong with it; why change?

Liz Vaccariello: You change because your audience changes. The brand didn’t change, nor did what the audience needs from a parenting magazine change. But the generation coming into your space is different from the one that was entering your subscriber file five or ten years ago. They’re speaking a different language. Instead of helicopter parents, they’re the sons and daughters of helicopter parents. So, they’re looking at behavior in a different way. They’re looking at discipline in a different way. They are more interested in hearing from other moms and dads just like them.

For 90+ years, Parents Magazine has stood on the shoulders of its credibility. We’ve always done partnerships with the American Academy of Pediatrics. Every word and picture in Parents Magazine had a reputation for being absolutely trustworthy and credible. So, this generation of reader not only expects that kind of creds from our pages, they want that enhanced by what other parents are doing.

They want to know what the experts say, they want to know that trampolines are dangerous; the American Academy of Pediatrics warns parents against having any kind of trampolines in the backyard. But they also want to make their own decisions. Maybe to them the benefit of family exercise and the hours spent jumping on the safest trampoline they can get is worth the mild risk that somebody might twist an ankle. So, what are other parents doing? And how do they justify having a trampoline? So, you need to add how other people in their world are interpreting the news and the guidelines.

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

Liz Vaccariello: I think it’s interesting. We call it the Meredith Parents Network, and Parents Magazine is the jewel in the crown of the Network. And by far, the largest of the magazines, but it also includes Fit Pregnancy and Baby, FamilyFun Magazine, Parents Latina and Ser Padres.

This role is unique in that I am running; I am hands-on-editor-and-chiefing (laughs) the biggest magazine, and the biggest part of the business. But I also get to think beyond the magazine and the magazine’s core general brand and think about Latina parents, one out of every four babies born in this country is born to an Hispanic parent. So, Parents Latina is growing very quickly. And it’s fun to turn my attention to that demographic and see what we can do to interpret this voice and this information for them.

And then think about the baby space and the pregnancy space, and what kind of digital products; what apps; what magazines can we offer the pregnant mom or the wanting-to-be pregnant woman. So, there is always something new; the business is constantly evolving and shifting. It’s a bigger job in that I get to do a lot of fun things, in addition to editing the one magazine.

Samir Husni: Why have we seen more line extensions in the Hispanic market than we have in the African American markets when it comes to the main titles?

Liz Vaccariello: That’s a really interesting question. In the case of parenting, and I’ll answer in my space in particular, something unique happens when a second generation Latina in the United States becomes a mom. She doesn’t necessarily think of her Latina identity in the forefront of her mind until that moment she has a baby.

And then suddenly she’s thinking more about her heritage and it becomes much more important to her. She wants to have one foot back in that culture. And it’s important that her child be perhaps bilingual and understand the Spanish language. Maybe she doesn’t know it, so she wants to learn it too. So, the cultural touchpoints become very important to her in the parenting space. That’s why in my network Parents Latina made sense.

Samir Husni: What memories from your own childhood do you reflect on in your role as editor in chief and head storyteller of a parenting magazine?

Liz Vaccariello: I often return to a moment in sixth grade when I was doing homework in my bedroom. I remember writing a book report about something and I was sitting at my desk with my pencil and paper. I remember looking at a sentence and thinking that I wanted to change the sentence, so I took another piece of paper and put it next to the first and began to change the words around in the sentence and reading it out loud and listening to the changing rhythms. And then deciding on the perfect way I wanted to say that sentence and putting it back on the paper.

In that moment, there was a knock on my bedroom door and in walked my dad. He said you’re up late, you must be doing homework. He had come in to say goodnight. And I remember saying to him that I had just decided that I wanted to be a writer. I remember that moment and the idea of creating a story and telling it in a rhythmic, pleasing way. And working with the words. The words acting like a puzzle. So, I always remember my father being a witness to that pivotal moment in my life.

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

Liz Vaccariello: (Laughs) Mom to Sophia and Olivia. Sophia and Olivia’s mama; that’s my most important job. I think that’s why I get so excited and lit up about my job, because I get to help mommies and daddies and I know how much fun that is and how helpful that can be when you’re a mom. If we can help someone with the stories that we tell; make her laugh or feel better, or do something more efficiently, that’s wonderful. I’m in a good place and I have one of the best jobs in America.

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

Liz Vaccariello: We’re always concerned about the decline in print advertising. Meredith has a wonderful story about how the growth in digital advertising has far outpaced our small declines in print advertising. But, it doesn’t keep me up at night, because I just got back from a road trip with my publisher, Steven Grune, and I have to tell you, it made me proud to be a Meredith employee because I’m showing this redesign, and I’ve done a lot of road trips over the years for various companies and with various publishers. But when Meredith comes to town, it speaks highly of Meredith and of Steve Grune and the Parents brand, but when we come to town 30 people show up and they want to hear what’s new with Meredith and with Parents Magazine. So, that speaks highly of our position in the marketplace. And also of Steve. Our September issue is nice and thick; our October issue is even thicker, so it’s looking really good. I’m actually sleeping quite well. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: Thank you.

h1

Print Proud, Digital Smart…

July 21, 2017

A Mr. Magazine™ Musing…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
“Imagine” John Lennon…

Perhaps John Lennon said it best. But when it comes to print, Mr. Magazine™ has also perhaps been a dreamer his entire life. Print has always been a part of my DNA since as far back as a small boy growing up in Tripoli, Lebanon. And for anyone who knows me, this isn’t breaking news.

However, CEOs and presidents of major publishing companies cannot afford to be entirely dreamers. I’m not implying that these men and women do not have visionary outlooks about their companies’ futures, but they also have a very shrewd and knowledgeable view of the business side of publishing. And when it comes to their bottom lines, they aren’t going to risk adding value to those simply to realize a childhood dream.

That being said, in the past few weeks I have interviewed any number of CEOs and presidents from some of the biggest publishing companies in the world, and they’ve all had one thing in common: their strong belief in being print proud and digital smart. Which as it turns out happens to be my theme for the upcoming Magazine Innovation Center’s 2018 ACT 8 Experience: Print Proud, Digital Smart. (Save the dates April 17 to 20, 2018). No apologies from Mr. Magazine™ for being in tune with some of the industry’s most intelligent and perceptive leaders. These men and women have a strong belief that print is their core product and THEY make no apologies for that, while acknowledging that digital is equally important in its own space.

It began with Michael Clinton, president, marketing and publishing director, Hearst Magazines. Hearst has seen amazing success with titles such as “The Pioneer Woman,” HGTV Magazine,and “Food Network Magazine,” both print publications having been born from equally successful partnerships with these multiplatform brands. Perhaps Michael said it best in Hearst’s case:

“I think that we continue to have a very strong point of view about our business. Obviously, we believe in our core product—which is print. Why do we believe so strongly? It’s because the consumer believes so strongly in it.”

“Great ideas do get funded. You know, create and sell. Great ideas get funded. Oftentimes, what I would tell our team when they would say, “Well, they don’t have a print budget.” I would say, “Let me ask you a question: do they have a budget?” Because every brand has a marketing budget, right? And, if you bring them a great idea, a great idea will get funding. And so we have many, many, many examples of business that has been created with no budget. The idea creates the budget. So, my mantra is “Great ideas do get funded” when you have the great, innovative idea.”



I spoke with Doug Kouma next, editorial content director, Meredith Core Media. Meredith has also found success in outside brand partnerships, having teamed up with Joanna and Chip Gaines from the highly popular HGTV series: “Fixer Upper,” to launch “The Magnolia Journal,” a magazine that was met by a huge success that it was moved from Meredith Core Media to the core Meredith magazines group. Perhaps Doug said it best in Meredith’s case:

“I actually think the tangible magazine you can hold in your hands is a feather in the cap for a digital-first brand. It’s what says, “We’ve made it. We’re here to stay. We’re legitimate.” And, almost counterintuitively, I suspect a lot of that is being driven by millennials. For as digitally savvy, and as digital-first a generation as millennials and Gen Z’s are, there’s also this yearning for authenticity and for something real. Again, I think it’s based on the type of content. I think with that generation in particular. It’s not fair at all to say millennials aren’t magazine readers. They’re magazine readers, but they want different types of magazines and want to consume information in different ways.”

From Doug Kouma, I spoke with Rich Battista, president and CEO, Time Inc. It’s hard to argue with anything one of the largest publishing companies in the world does. For generations, Time Inc. has been an innovator, going multiplatform even from the days of Henry Luce, with the launching of the “March of Time.” Perhaps Rich said it best in Time Inc.’s case:

“In a company that the DNA is incredible content and brands, I think we must find ways to leverage those brands and exploit them in as many platforms as possible, build new revenue streams, and grow old revenue streams. The print business is in a secular decline; I don’t think any of us can deny that. But, our print business is still number one in publishing , which is still a huge part of our revenue base. There are lots of advantages to what we can do with our print platform that helps us in many other ways.”

Andy Clurman, president and CEO from Active Interest Media was up next. Andy believes that for magazine media people, the transition to digital was not necessarily a natural progression. And why would it be? Perhaps Andy said it best in AIM’s case:

“I think fundamentally digital businesses are not the same as the magazine media business. We all have social media and you could say a magazine audience might be, from a community standpoint, like the original social media, but Facebook’s business model and Google’s business model are pretty radically different than the traditional magazine business model. So, it wasn’t a natural progression that if you’re in the magazine media business, you should have, would have figured all of that out.”

Former CEO, Penton and former CEO, Cygnus Business Media, and now co-founder of French LLC, John French emphatically believes the future for print is bright, if you do it right. Perhaps John said it best in his case:

“I think the future is bright and I think it’s bright in print. Fifteen years ago people were saying that publishers were going to be losing their jobs and print would be dead. You’re still hearing some of that today. Not as verbose and not as much, but you can still hear it. And I don’t believe it. Again, I think the audience is saying that if you do it right; if you customize it to what their area of interests are; if you make it look pretty, and you make it an experience that the audience can be proud of; make it theirs and something they can take ownership of, then they will read our print.”

And last, but certainly not least in this elite group of industry leaders, I spoke with Bonnie Kintzer, president and CEO of Trusted Media Brands. Bonnie’s print titles come from a legacy of being consumer-first publications. From Reader’s Digest to the Roy Reiman titles it acquired, such as Taste of Home, TMB and its leader thinks that putting customer first is the secret to their continued core success. And make no mistake, Bonnie believes that print is their core foundation, but also expects major growth from their digital side. Perhaps Bonnie said it best in Trusted Media Brands’ case:

“Why do people feel this need to beat up on print, in particular people in the industry? We closed our fiscal year June 30; we were up on advertising for both Reader’s Digest and Taste of Home year over year. Print is strong for us. We have a great respect for print and we have a great respect for the print reader. Of course, we expect greater growth to come from digital advertising, but one does not preclude the other.”

And Mr. Magazine™ is in complete agreement with each and every one of these savvy industry leaders. And is waiting on the day when all of the print naysayers and the pundits who shout that print is on its way out realize that in the 21st century those of us who love print for its experience, its power, its engaging and interactive relationship with the audience, let alone the money that it can bring a media company, does not mean that we do not also relish the convenience and scope of digital. We can and we should have both. To each has its power and reach. We don’t have to choose. Perhaps someday they’ll realize that.

Perhaps…

Until the next time…

See you at the newsstands…