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Royal Media: Where “The Power Of Knowing” Is Specific Information For A Specific Audience – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Royal Media’s President & CEO, JJ Hornblass…

October 29, 2018

“… An organization has to have a core competency, several actually. So, what is the core competency that we’ve developed? There are a few, but one of the central core competencies is that we’re in constant change mode. So, in fact, if I looked at what we’ve done since 2010 when we made that acquisition to now, probably if I was 10 years before that, all of these things were going on, but now it’s kind of par for the course. And we’re trying to continue to change. So, the walk in the rose garden, is just one that has many twists and turns, but if you know that they’re coming then it’s not so surprising.” JJ Hornblass…

Royal Media is a leading information company formed in 1995 to deliver deep market knowledge through online information portals, traditional publications, electronic newsletters, conferences and custom media products. According to President and CEO, JJ Hornblass, the aim of the company is to do excellent work and deliver superlative, intelligent, engaging content to its clients. The company’s tagline is a mirror image of what they try to impart to each of their clients in the air cargo space, banking and finance: The Power of Knowing.” Everything Royal Media does is centered around information and the power of knowing how specifics relate to how marketing conditions are and will evolve.

I spoke to JJ recently and we talked about the past, present and future of Royal Media. The name itself holds a very special meaning to JJ as his grandfather came to America in the 1920s from Europe, via Canada, and started his own innovative company for the times called Royal Lamp, and JJ is continuing the familial mission of “shedding light” as he delivers solid content to his clients, content dedicated to the “Power of Knowing.” In fact, so committed to good content is Royal Media, the company hired John McCormick as editorial director, who comes to Royal from SourceMedia, where he had the same title for 10 years. He was also a long-time senior editor at Ziff Davis. And coming from a news journalistic background, JJ is familiar with the importance of research and facts and vows that Royal Media will continue to provide profound ideas and analysis that will better their clients’ understanding of their worlds and careers. So, the Power of Knowing is not just a tagline, it’s a mission.

So, I hope that you enjoy this very informative conversation and benefit from your own “Power of Knowing” as you read the Mr. Magazine™ interview with the president and CEO of Royal Media, JJ Hornblass.

But first the sound-bites:

On what Royal Media is: Royal Media has taken a very long and winding path over the years. When I started the company I was very young and very ignorant (Laughs), and very inexperienced. But we started with one very central premise, which was to pursue highly specialized news media products with the same intensity and sophistication as, let’s say, The New York Times pursues, in general, news coverage and in its products. So, when we started we started as a pure play newsletter company. I read a “How to do newsletters” book at the time and off we went.

On what he would say the elevator pitch for Royal Media would be: I often have a hard time, Samir, with the elevator pitch, to be honest with you (Laughs), because it’s hard to explain to somebody that we provide great information on three specific industries in a number of different mediums. And that’s really what we do. The range of our activities is always centered on information, it doesn’t matter what we’re doing, it’s always centered on knowledge and market intelligence. It’s quite a lot. So, it ranges from high level data, oriented research to traditional news; we proudly team with great journalists and do traditional news, but then it segues all the way to a technology accelerator that we run. We run a financial technology accelerator and have several member financial institutions that participate in it.

On how the content categories the company covers was selected: We looked for an asset that would mitigate that risk and we acquired an air management group, which published on the air cargo industry, basically to get as far away from financial services as possible at the time (Laughs), and create an entirely different economic dynamic for us, which is what we did. We’ve since added an additional acquisition on the air cargo side. And we’ve retained two verticals from that kind of “back then” banking, technology and auto finance, which we were able to maintain. The banking and technology really flourished actually post-credit crisis, and the air cargo business is one that came afterward as a diversification effort.

On whether it has been a walk in a rose garden for him and the company since earlier rocky times: (Laughs) Yes, of course. We could just end the conversation now. (Laughs again) No, it hasn’t been. I think the thing maybe as a professor that you’ll appreciate is that an organization has to have a core competency, several actually. So, what is the core competency that we’ve developed? There are a few, but one of the central core competencies is that we’re in constant change mode. So, in fact, if I looked at what we’ve done since 2010 when we made that acquisition to now, probably if I was 10 years before that, all of these things were going on, but now it’s kind of par for the course. And we’re trying to continue to change. So, the walk in the rose garden, Samir, is just one that has many twists and turns, but if you know that they’re coming then it’s not so surprising.

On whether there is a difference between what the company offers in print, online and in mobile: If it isn’t already now, it will be in the next several weeks, we will formerly stop our last print publication. That doesn’t mean that we don’t create magazines, we’ve just transferred them onto a digital platform and distribute digitally. On rare occasions we will actually physically print them, let’s say for one of our events or something, but generally speaking we’re creating magazines or “print publications” that are actually digital. So, in that case, yes, we’re not printing them on paper, but we still adhere to the same production standards and requirements that we had when we were actually physically printing them on paper. And that also translates into the content.

On what’s on the horizon for Royal Media: I think it’s high time that we do another acquisition. We’re about three years from the last transaction and it does take us time to do an integration. I do think that it’s kind of high time for that. We have a new brand that we’re going to introduce next year and that’s a big move for us to try and carve out a parallel vertical to one of our existing verticals, but yet establish a new one. We continue to focus, especially on the air cargo side, on expanding it on a global basis.

On how the name Royal Media came about: I’m very proud of the reason behind the name of the company. My grandfather came to America in the 1920s. He smuggled in across the border from Canada. He came from Europe and had nothing and started a business. He started a company called Royal Lamp. And they sold light bulbs. At the time that was a new business and a relatively new industry. He was very successful and he was also a very admired person, a very disciplined and trustworthy individual. In deference and in honor of him, I named the company Royal Media.

On anything he’d like to add: We’re a very stick-to-our-knitting kind of company. I think you’re actually the first person I have ever really in all of these years talked to about the company. We don’t have investors; we don’t really publicize the brand. That’s why when John (McCormick) joined us it was such a big deal. I had this in the press release that I wrote, to me starting alone on the second floor of a warehouse, to be able to have somebody of his caliber come, it’s remarkable. I can’t believe that we’re so fortunate. It’s just a very stick-to-your-knitting shop.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at his home: You might catch me in a yoga class, I try to do that and sometimes it’s an end of the day thing. Or I’m probably with my son, doing something with him – I have three children and my oldest two are in college and they don’t need me anymore, but my son is a freshman in high school, so I might be helping him. I have to admit that I am a pretty rabid Yankees fan, so during the season I’m following that narrative and see whether we have it in us to pull another championship out of the hat. Those are things you’d probably catch me doing.

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

On the biggest misconception about him: I don’t know. Maybe that I have it all figured out in advance. (Laughs) Maybe people think that, I don’t know.

On what keeps him up at night: There’s a lot of things. Personally, I’m generally driven by achievement, and that’s not always a good thing. So when something isn’t going right, it definitely keeps me up. We have very specific goals for every product that we have. And I do fret; I fret when one or two of them are not going the way that they should. I’m definitely up if you want to call me, Samir. I’m available to you when that happens. (Laughs)

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with JJ Hornblass, president and CEO, Royal Media.

Samir Husni: Royal Media is almost 25 years old, you started in 1995. Tell me a little bit about this whole idea; your tagline is “The Power of Knowing.” What is Royal Media and what is “The Power of Knowing?”

JJ Hornblass: Royal Media has taken a very long and winding path over the years. When I started the company I was very young and very ignorant (Laughs), and very inexperienced. But we started with one very central premise, which was to pursue highly specialized news media products with the same intensity and sophistication as, let’s say, The New York Times pursues, in general, news coverage and in its products. So, when we started we started as a pure play newsletter company. I read a “How to do newsletters” book at the time and off we went.

Now we’ve really graduated into a much more diversified and sophisticated operation, but we still cue to the very central premise of providing exceptional informational products in very specialized areas. And we only have three, but in those areas we try to do exceptional work. So, in areas like that it’s still, despite everything online or via mobile, it’s still hard to really know what’s happening and really understand the subtleties of market trends and news developments. And that’s kind of what we mean by that; we mean that “Knowing” the specifics and details is a benefit and gives a certain power or advantage to those people who are our readers and subscribers.

Samir Husni: From those humble beginnings, and I’m going to call them humble because…

JJ Hornblass: (Laughs) Oh yes, they were definitely humble. I was alone in a warehouse. It was humble, trust me.

Samir Husni: (Laughs too) But now, you recently announced the hiring of John McCormick as your editorial director. I see that you’ve expanded; you’re no longer just a newsletter company. Tell me about the current Royal Media. If someone asked you for the elevator pitch after all of these years, what would you say?

JJ Hornblass: I often have a hard time, Samir, with the elevator pitch, to be honest with you (Laughs), because it’s hard to explain to somebody that we provide great information on three specific industries in a number of different mediums. And that’s really what we do. The range of our activities is always centered on information, it doesn’t matter what we’re doing, it’s always centered on knowledge and market intelligence. It’s quite a lot. So, it ranges from high level data, oriented research to traditional news; we proudly team with great journalists and do traditional news, but then it segues all the way to a technology accelerator that we run. We run a financial technology accelerator and have several member financial institutions that participate in it.

So, is that journalism? Hard to say. Is it magazine publishing? You can’t really say that. But it is information-oriented and we run that venture as an information venture, so I didn’t exactly give you an elevator pitch (Laughs), but that is what we do today.

Samir Husni: How did you end up with the different sectors that you cover? You have banking to the airlines to air cargo; did it just dawn on you one day that you should cover these categories?

JJ Hornblass: No, are you kidding me? Of course not. The first thing is, if I can share just a bit about me, I was trained as a journalist and the journalism I was taught was kind of an utilitarian approach; in other words, you do whatever, it doesn’t matter what you write about. Whatever you’re asked to write about, that’s what you write about. I don’t know if it’s the same today, but back then that was my school of journalism and the way I was taught. I had lived in Asia and when I came back I looked for a job and one that I could get was writing for American Banker, which was the leading banking newspaper at the time, and still is a very good news source. And that was the beat that I was on.

And when I wanted to start Royal Media, I started newsletters related to financial services, essentially tracking the growth of the asset-backed securitization market at the time. And so we had financial services media brands. Then came the credit crisis and we really suffered. About 40 percent of our revenue was lost in a very short amount of time. And we closed a number of media brands at that time. We were in full growth mode then and we suffered; it was not good.

So, when we came out of that I was determined to mitigate our risk in the future and not have such a concentration in financial services. It was like a basic principle of risk management that we had been writing about for any number of years beforehand and didn’t adhere to, which was kind of embarrassing, but that’s how it was.

One of the interesting things about being involved in financial services media at the time is that you really got kicked to the curb faster than anyone else. We had a brand that covered subprime mortgage finance. And it was already at the end of 2007 that we knew something wasn’t right. We were doing the conference at the time, it was taking place in early ‘08 and we were already seeing that there was a problem. The registration was off, the numbers weren’t hitting our expectations, so we suffered very early. And by the time other media ventures started to feel the effect, we had already right-sized, as they say in proper corporate America.

We looked for an asset that would mitigate that risk and we acquired Air Cargo Management Group, which published on the air cargo industry, basically to get as far away from financial services as possible at the time (Laughs), and create an entirely different economic dynamic for us, which is what we did. We’ve since added an additional acquisition on the air cargo side. And we’ve retained two verticals from that kind of “back then” banking, technology and auto finance, which we were able to maintain. The banking and technology really flourished actually post-credit crisis, and the air cargo business is one that came afterward as a diversification effort.

Samir Husni: Since then has it been a walk in a rose garden for you?

JJ Hornblass: (Laughs) Yes, of course. We could just end the conversation now. (Laughs again) No, it hasn’t been. I think the thing maybe as a professor that you’ll appreciate is that an organization has to have a core competency, several actually. So, what is the core competency that we’ve developed? There are a few, but one of the central core competencies is that we’re in constant change mode. So, in fact, if I looked at what we’ve done since 2010 when we made that acquisition to now, probably if I was 10 years before that, all of these things were going on, but now it’s kind of par for the course. And we’re trying to continue to change. So, the walk in the rose garden, Samir, is just one that has many twists and turns, but if you know that they’re coming then it’s not so surprising.

So, the event business is much more important to us. We’ve transitioned to more of a subscription dynamic, this is kind of like what’s old is new again for us, because we originally started as a subscription-only business. We’ve tried to create new products that are more research-oriented. Air Cargo Management Group, which we acquired in 2010, had a research consulting practice for the air cargo space and we’ve continued to maintain that. And that has evolved over the years. You’ve just got to make it work.

Samir Husni: In today’s digital world that we live in, what do you see as the role of your printed products? You said you’re back into the subscription business; do you differentiate, is there a difference between what you offer in print, what you offer online, and what you offer in mobile?

JJ Hornblass: If it isn’t already now, it will be in the next several weeks, we will formerly stop our last print publication. That doesn’t mean that we don’t create magazines, we’ve just transferred them onto a digital platform and distribute digitally. On rare occasions we will actually physically print them, let’s say for one of our events or something, but generally speaking we’re creating magazines or “print publications” that are actually digital. So, in that case, yes, we’re not printing them on paper, but we still adhere to the same production standards and requirements that we had when we were actually physically printing them on paper. And that also translates into the content.

We haven’t really done a great job of doing, for example, feature writing online in the context of our online news sites. Sometimes it just doesn’t really translate well and we haven’t really figured that out. And it seems like our readers don’t necessarily want features. And what I mean by features, I’m talking about like magazine features online.

So, the online content tends to be more consistent or similar, the lengths and the quality of them, and with quality I mean the amount of reporting that goes into them is very consistent, whereas for the digital publications we’re producing, there we’re doing more of what you might consider eclectic magazine content of varying lengths and varying reporting and varying utility.

Samir Husni: Based on the audience, you’re following your customers, you’re giving them what they want, wherever they want it. So, as you look at the near future, what do you think will be one or two things that we can expect from Royal Media? Anything major on the horizon?

JJ Hornblass: I think it’s high time that we do another acquisition. We’re about three years from the last transaction and it does take us time to do an integration. I do think that it’s kind of high time for that. We have a new brand that we’re going to introduce next year and that’s a big move for us to try and carve out a parallel vertical to one of our existing verticals, but yet establish a new one. We continue to focus, especially on the air cargo side, on expanding it on a global basis.

Air cargo is, not surprisingly, a very global industry. When we acquired Air Cargo Management Group in 2010, it was solely U.S. focused. And we’ve subsequently expanded to Asia, we produce a publication in Mandarin, and in the fall we’ll have our first event in Europe covering the Europe, Middle East, and Africa market of air cargo. So, those are initiatives for us.

And the third front is the accelerator, which we’re continuing to push hard to expand and really do a better job. It’s a lot of work and we’ve learned a lot in the three years that we’ve been doing it and I would expect that side of the business to continue growing as well.

Samir Husni: And I have to ask you about the name and how that came about?

JJ Hornblass: I’m very proud of the reason behind the name of the company. My grandfather came to America in the 1920s. He smuggled in across the border from Canada. He came from Europe and had nothing and started a business. He started a company called Royal Lamp. And they sold light bulbs. At the time that was a new business and a relatively new industry. He was very successful and he was also a very admired person, a very disciplined and trustworthy individual. In deference and in honor of him, I named the company Royal Media.

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

JJ Hornblass: We’re a very stick-to-our-knitting kind of company. I think you’re actually the first person I have ever really in all of these years talked to about the company. We don’t have investors; we don’t really publicize the brand. That’s why when John (McCormick) joined us it was such a big deal. I had this in the press release that I wrote, to me starting alone on the second floor of a warehouse, to be able to have somebody of his caliber come, it’s remarkable. I can’t believe that we’re so fortunate. It’s just a very stick-to-your-knitting shop.

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? How do you unwind?

JJ Hornblass: You might catch me in a yoga class, I try to do that and sometimes it’s an end of the day thing. Or I’m probably with my son, doing something with him – I have three children and my oldest two are in college and they don’t need me anymore, but my son is a freshman in high school, so I might be helping him. I have to admit that I am a pretty rabid Yankees fan, so during the season I’m following that narrative and see whether we have it in us to pull another championship out of the hat. Those are things you’d probably catch me doing.

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

JJ Hornblass: I tried my hardest.

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

JJ Hornblass: I don’t know. Maybe that I have it all figured out in advance. (Laughs) Maybe people think that, I don’t know.

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

JJ Hornblass: There’s a lot of things. Personally, I’m generally driven by achievement, and that’s not always a good thing. So when something isn’t going right, it definitely keeps me up. We have very specific goals for every product that we have. And I do fret; I fret when one or two of them are not going the way that they should. I’m definitely up if you want to call me, Samir. I’m available to you when that happens. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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Real Simple: Bucking The Trends Since Its Inception 18 Years Ago By Giving Readers A “Life Made Easier” – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Leslie Yazel, Editor In Chief & Daren Mazzucca, Vice President/Group Publisher…

October 25, 2018

“It’s our usefulness. We promise women that we’re going to help them get organized, get in control, and give them back time. We sold more issues, the August issue of Real Simple, on newsstands in 2018 than we did in 2017. And the cover line was “More Time for You.” And I really think that is what women are looking for; they feel busy, and life for women in 2018 is complex as it was when we launched, but maybe even more so now. And there’s something useful for women throughout this magazine. It’s an uplifting, positive message that we have for women.” Leslie Yazel…

Real Simple magazine has been a success and a unique trend-breaker from its inception. It adheres to a “simple” concept and a “simple” perspective, from its covers to its content. Simply put (pun intended), it’s “Life Made Easier,” just like its tagline testifies.

Leslie Yazel, editor in chief, and Daren Mazzucca, vice president/group publisher, are two people who love the brand and believe in its mission and purpose: serving its readers completely with straightforward and honest content, from the stories to the advertisements; content that helps readers live more simply and comfortably. I spoke with Daren and Leslie recently and we talked about those highly successful covers that tease and tempt without celebrities, sex, or great, gooey chocolate treats.

The conversation also included the highly promising and successful changes that have been wrought since Meredith’s acquisition and the bright future for the brand that both believe in. It was an interesting and enlightening discussion about a brand that bucked all the trends and continues to amaze and delight.

So, I hope that you enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ interview with two of the forces-that-be at Real Simple magazine and find the pure joy that living the “simple” life brings as you follow along with Leslie Yazel and Daren Mazzucca.

But first the sound-bites:

On the secret sauce of Real Simple that keeps it going strong after almost 20 years (Leslie Yazel): It’s our usefulness. We promise women that we’re going to help them get organized, get in control, and give them back time. We sold more issues, the August issue of Real Simple, on newsstands in 2018 than we did in 2017. And the cover line was “More Time for You.” And I really think that is what women are looking for; they feel busy, and life for women in 2018 is complex as it was when we launched, but maybe even more so now. And there’s something useful for women throughout this magazine. It’s an uplifting, positive message that we have for women.

On whether Real Simple’s simplistic style in covers is its point of differentiation from the other women’s magazines (Leslie Yazel): We definitely try to make the print product an airy, restful, relaxing item where women can take a breath and they can make decisions. We have financial coverage, career coverage, home and food, and health coverage. Women can actually make decisions as they’re reading Real Simple because they’re getting that head space. I hear from women all of the time, their Real Simple comes and they set it aside for their “me time.” For when they have time to really look at it.

On whether Real Simple’s simplistic style in covers is its point of differentiation from the other women’s magazines (Daren Mazzucca): And that’s $5.99 on the cover, by the way, and that’s important. You study all of those magazines in the marketplace, you see the newsstand and how women’s shopping patterns are changing, and newsstand has been declining for most print magazines. Real Simple has been bucking that at $5.99 a cover. And I think marginally that’s also why we continue to get great presence and coverage at the retail checkout. They want products that sell through and out the door.

On their elevator pitch for selling Real Simple without celebrity covers (Leslie Yazel): I have thought about this a lot because I have worked at magazines with celebrities on the cover, and to me celebrity just limits the audience. People feel very differently about the same celebrity. I love Connie Britton, somebody else doesn’t love Connie Britton. Nicki Minaj is sexy and empowering, other people see her differently.

On their elevator pitch for selling Real Simple without celebrity covers (Daren Mazzucca): As you know, Living is not anchored in Martha Stewart; Martha is not always on their cover. And Real Simple always adheres to a beautiful, clean image. The tagline “Life Made Easier” has been on the magazine cover for 18 years. And it’s really that simple. I find myself using that word a lot more. I was in Minneapolis recently and we were talking about how often we refer to the word “simple,” “real simple” and it is just an honor to represent this brand as now part of the new Meredith Corporation.

On the biggest challenge that they’re facing today (Leslie Yazel): The drive to always be relevant. I come from a news background for half of my career, that 24-hour news cycle with newspapers, and the other half has been in magazines, and we’re constantly asking what does the reader want? I’m not a big ego editor who says, “I know what she wants.” We have great research at this brand. We do something called the “Problem Detector Study” that we’ve done for years and updated. And we’re doing a new version this year as well. We ask what are her issues, what are her problems, what is she worried about, what keeps her up at night? And we address that in every issue; we really use the research of our guide. It’s not just our digital partners that look at what’s scoring, we bring that reader to the print side too.

On the biggest challenge that they’re facing today (Daren Mazzucca): And from the business, sales and marketing perspective, the challenges that we’ve had has been arguing a vertical sales structure. Now having brand advocates, we connect with the clients and agency partners and bring together some highly customizable solutions. Our business has transformed over the last 10-plus years, we’re definitely more integrated than ever before, but clients don’t just historically give you six or seven run of book pages, they want to be aligned with the DNA of the content, so we work with our marketing team and we work with Leslie and her team to refine solutions for clients. And so those conversations take time and trust and we’re rebuilding those bridges to our advertising base for 2019.

On whether there any audience challenges, such as that “me time,” that cannot transfer from print to digital (Leslie Yazel): I think that women are coming to Real Simple on different platforms for different reasons. They come to us in print and that’s a break and relaxing; they come to us in digital and they’re usually taking action, they’re looking for something, whether it’s a recipe or a shortcut. And they could be looking to purchase; part of what’s been fun about becoming part of the Meredith Corporation is that with their Shop Nation acquisition, practically overnight they opened the Real Simple Shop online.

On whether there any audience challenges, such as that “me time,” that cannot transfer from print to digital (Daren Mazzucca): And Leslie sits right next to Heather Morgan Shott, our Digital Director, so these two ladies are in sync with each other. When we concept out a project or a initiative, they think through how it’s going to live in print and how it’s going to activate digitally. It’s some really great collaboration.

On whether they feel Real Simple is a hard formula to imitate despite its simplicity (Daren Mazzucca): I mentioned that I recently came back from Minneapolis and I challenged everyone, and there was a lot of head nodding in the room, if you strip our content apart and lay it down on a table with other women’s lifestyle service magazines, you can clearly delineate and distinguish what is Real Simple. From our texture, what you get with the paper; we’ve always had unique, special European paper that enhances the reading experience. There are some brands that try and copy pieces of what we do, but not the entire package of what we do.

On whether they feel Real Simple is a hard formula to imitate despite its simplicity (Leslie Yazel): That’s always a challenge for my editors. I always ask, but how can this be a story about Thanksgiving recipes that can only appear in Real Simple? How does it have our DNA? These are topics that other magazines cover, but the way that we cover them has to feel like that.

On whether the magazine is planned at least a year ahead (Leslie Yazel): We definitely theme ahead the issues and part of that is because the partners who are excited to work with us want to get a sense of when is the prime time for them to be a part of what we’re doing. So, this March we’re talking about doing a shopping issue for the first time ever, which with us is shopping smarter, spending your money wisely. We have a “Get it Done” issue in June and part of that is because you can do that across any sales vertical, but also because when I talk to women and when I look at our research, you always have these things hanging over your head that you want to finish before summer comes, because it’s so hard to get things done in the summer.

On whether the magazine is planned at least a year ahead (Daren Mazzucca): I’ve also seen socially and heard it from the field that people are reading our “Spring Cleaning” April issue right now in the fall, rereading, because they’re fall cleaning. I put it off in the spring and now I can do it in the fall. So, it’s still relevant.

On whether they believe 2019 will bring more mergers and/or acquisitions (Daren Mazzucca): Obviously, we have some of our brands that are up for sale. We announced publicly the sale of Time magazine brand, so I believe there will be some opportunities and I’m sure Tom Harty and Steve Lacy are looking at every opportunity, along with Jon (Werther) and Doug (Olson). But we have just absorbed and collaborated a lot and we want to make sure that we activate beautifully with our new portfolio. And I’m speaking for the two brands that I represent, but I know that’s an initiative for all of us. We need to make sure that we’re activating and driving topnotch revenue for the organization as the industry continues evolving and changing, hopefully, for the better.

On whether Leslie feels like she has weathered the storms of change (Leslie Yazel): You know, it’s interesting because I came here and it was Time Inc. and then when there was an announcement that Meredith was buying us, it was so much fun for me because I grew up in Des Moines, went to school in Des Moines, my entire immediate family all still live in Des Moines. And I had never worked for Meredith except once, when I was a child, I had a modeling job at Meredith and went to the beautiful building downtown and met the photographers and set designers. And they had these exciting jobs and they had lived in larger cities, and I thought gosh, maybe someday I’ll want to do one of these big creative jobs and live in a big city. So, I thought of all of that as I got the call on a Sunday saying that Meredith was buying Real Simple and the rest of the portfolio. So, I do feel like it’s been a fun, personal full circle for me.

On anything they’d like to add (Leslie Yazel): I’ve been able to take this really strong brand, and now we’re doing more than ever. Now, we have the Real Simple Shop and the Real Simple Home, and we have these great designers who come in, including Nate Berkus and Jeremiah Brent, these household names. And we have more on the horizon.

On anything they’d like to add (Daren Mazzucca): Leslie and I are still getting to know each other; it’s been a great relationship for the past six-plus months. And again, we’re just really trying to, from a sales and marketing perspective, harness all of these great pillars and initiatives. The Real Simple Home was a huge success, it was one of the first things we talked about when we first met. The great initiative of the team here in place before I arrived, while it was very successful, marketers are asking us where is the next one. And we’re working on 2.0 to be announced shortly. We’ll make sure you’re looped in for sure.

On the biggest misconception about each of them (Leslie Yazel): I’m an open book, this one is hard for me. I think people think that the job of an editor in chief is to make all of the decisions and carry around a big ego, and I think a lot of the key to the success of Real Simple is that I empower women and younger women on my team to let their voices be heard, to let their ideas rise. And we got numbers recently from MRI showing that we’re two and a half years younger in our audience than we were a year ago, and I feel like that’s because great ideas can come from anyone on my team, from our newest employees to our youngest editors. So, I think that being a consensus-taker has served the brand really well.

On the biggest misconception about each of them (Daren Mazzucca): Honestly, I feel blessed to be the business leader for this brand, but it’s really the great sales and marketing organization that does all of the heavy lifting. We often get appointed and put in positions to be leading, but it’s really the team that’s behind you, that’s out on the battlefield every day. I have a very talented team in place across the country and we have a great marketing team who are working closely with the editors. The little secret sauce is that I’m really just the bandleader and there are many others in the orchestra that make the beautiful music.

On what someone would find her doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at her home (Leslie Yazel): My daughter is eight, so she’s at that age where she’s a complete bookworm, and my husband is the television editor at The New York Times, and so there’s a lot of TV being watched in our house. So, it’s usually one of those. But I do try to walk the walk; we have a whole section in the magazine called “Balance,” so I do unplug. Sometimes I come home, get my daughter and get back on the laptop, but I do try to take a break, because I think you can’t be creative unless you have some away time from work too.

On what keeps them each up at night (Leslie Yazel): I don’t see my family in Des Moines enough. And then also just, when I wake up it’s not the panic-wake-up, it’s sort of what’s going to happen with the next Real Simple Home, because this is the most exciting thing we’ve done. And I know that I keep coming back to it, but the truth is, if you can take nine designers, two organizers, a blank space and make something – I just want to pick the place.

On what keeps them each up at night (Daren Mazzucca): I sleep pretty well. At the end of the day, I’m exhausted. Just the opportunities ahead keeps me up a little bit. There are a lot of people to meet; we have folks who are being reintroduced to the magazine that hasn’t seen a seller represent the brand for the last two years, so we’re reintroducing and reconnecting. And there’s a lot to do, so we’re having fun with that. And that gets me up very early. (Laughs) I’m an early riser.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Leslie Yazel & Daren Mazzucca.

Samir Husni: You’re approaching almost the 20th anniversary of Real Simple magazine. It was launched in 2000, and back then all the critics said there was no way a women’s magazine would succeed with no celebrities on the cover, no sex, no chocolate; and yet almost 20 years later with a circulation of almost two million, you’re still going strong. What do you think the secret sauce is that makes Real Simple what it is today?

Leslie Yazel: It’s our usefulness. We promise women that we’re going to help them get organized, get in control, and give them back time. We sold more issues, the August issue of Real Simple, on newsstands in 2018 than we did in 2017. And the cover line was “More Time for You.” And I really think that is what women are looking for; they feel busy, and life for women in 2018 is complex as it was when we launched, but maybe even more so now. And there’s something useful for women throughout this magazine. It’s an uplifting, positive message that we have for women.

Samir Husni: The October issue has a photo of a door with a candle in front of it and some pumpkins beside it. That simplicity of the covers, is that your point of differentiation from the rest of the women’s magazines?

Leslie Yazel: We definitely try to make the print product an airy, restful, relaxing item where women can take a breath and they can make decisions. We have financial coverage, career coverage, home and food, and health coverage. Women can actually make decisions as they’re reading Real Simple because they’re getting that head space. I hear from women all of the time, their Real Simple comes and they set it aside for their “me time.” For when they have time to really look at it.

It’s a great promise we have to our partners that people value this print product and that they can take time with it. And we’re multiplatform, so if she’s searching for something on Google we want to own that FPO; we want to reach her on Facebook and other places where she is. But the print product is still a big part of what we’re doing and we’re not seeing that type of newsstand drop off that you hear about when people speak about the industry generally.

Daren Mazzucca: And that’s $5.99 on the cover, by the way, and that’s important. You study all of those magazines in the marketplace, you see the newsstand and how women’s shopping patterns are changing, and newsstand has been declining for most print magazines. Real Simple has been bucking that at $5.99 a cover. And I think marginally that’s also why we continue to get great presence and coverage at the retail checkout. They want products that sell through and out the door.

Samir Husni: Talking about selling and sales; Daren, you’ve sold magazines with celebrities and you’ve sold magazines without celebrities, what’s your elevator pitch for selling Real Simple with no celebrities and no sex on the cover?

Daren Mazzucca: Sure, let Leslie take that first, then I’ll jump in.

Leslie Yazel: I have thought about this a lot because I have worked at magazines with celebrities on the cover, and to me celebrity just limits the audience. People feel very differently about the same celebrity. I love Connie Britton, somebody else doesn’t love Connie Britton. Nicki Minaj is sexy and empowering, other people see her differently.

And so you’re always going to be dividing your audience, whereas I’m looking at these cover images; I’m trying to find something that is aspirational, but achievable, that has a relaxing vibe, that’s pretty and makes you curious and gives you ideas, so to me that’s much more powerful than a celebrity who might be loved or not loved, and who may have done something (Laughs) the week before you go on newsstand. There’s a lot of risk with celebrity covers.

Daren Mazzucca: As you know, Living is not anchored in Martha Stewart; Martha is not always on their cover. And Real Simple always adheres to a beautiful, clean image. The tagline “Life Made Easier” has been on the magazine cover for 18 years. And it’s really that simple. I find myself using that word a lot more. I was in Minneapolis recently and we were talking about how often we refer to the word “simple,” “real simple” and it is just an honor to represent this brand as now part of the new Meredith Corporation.

We knew many who were before us, both on the content and the business side, and it’s amazingly empowering to be the champion of the brand for this moment in 2018 as we turn the corner for 2019.

Leslie Yazel: And Daren, I think we both remember reading this right from the start, because I was the audience for this and loved it from the start. And you were working at competitive titles, and so it’s been fun for us to unite under a magazine that we’ve watched come to life.

Daren Mazzucca: Exactly.

Samir Husni: What is the biggest challenge that you’re facing today?

Leslie Yazel: The drive to always be relevant. I come from a news background for half of my career, that 24-hour news cycle with newspapers, and the other half has been in magazines, and we’re constantly asking what does the reader want? I’m not a big ego editor who says, “I know what she wants.” We have great research at this brand. We do something called the “Problem Detector Study” that we’ve done for years and updated. And we’re doing a new version this year as well. We ask what are her issues, what are her problems, what is she worried about, what keeps her up at night? And we address that in every issue; we really use the research of our guide. It’s not just our digital partners that look at what’s scoring, we bring that reader to the print side too.

Daren Mazzucca: And from the business, sales and marketing perspective, the challenges that we’ve had has been arguing a vertical sales structure. Now having brand advocates, we connect with the clients and agency partners and bring together some highly customizable solutions. Our business has transformed over the last 10-plus years, we’re definitely more integrated than ever before, but clients don’t just historically give you six or seven run of book pages, they want to be aligned with the DNA of the content, so we work with our marketing team and we work with Leslie and her team to refine solutions for clients. And so those conversations take time and trust and we’re rebuilding those bridges to our advertising base for 2019.

Samir Husni: Leslie, with your background in news and as you venture into the Amazon Jungle out there that’s called digital, do you feel that you can offer the same thing on digital that you can offer in print? You talked about the “me time” and the “welcome to cozy,” are there any challenges, such as those things, that you cannot transfer from print to digital?

Leslie Yazel: That’s a great question. I think that women are coming to Real Simple on different platforms for different reasons. They come to us in print and that’s a break and relaxing; they come to us in digital and they’re usually taking action, they’re looking for something, whether it’s a recipe or a shortcut. And they could be looking to purchase; part of what’s been fun about becoming part of the Meredith Corporation is that with their Shop Nation acquisition, practically overnight they opened the Real Simple Shop online. And so now women can come shop with us, we still have a section of the site called “Shop the Issue” if they saw something a while back that they wanted to buy.

And there’s even a broader range of things that they look for on social. They might want to know where Meghan Markle is going to get her maternity wear, there could be all sorts of different things. So we don’t try to say that we have to be exactly the same and used the same way on every platform. We do still want the same look and feel of the magazine, but I have great creative directors for that, so I’m lucky.

Daren Mazzucca: And Leslie sits right next to Heather Morgan Shott, our Digital Director, so these two ladies are in sync with each other. When we concept out a project or an initiative, they think through how it’s going to live in print and how it’s going to activate digitally. It’s some really great collaboration.

Leslie Yazel: The two teams always come together for our visual meetings. For example, for the print magazine we did a beautiful story where we shot a house in Nashville done by a designer that we work with, and then on the digital side we had a social editor do some video, talking about curb appeal, and added value. And when we combine like that, there’s a natural connection and just great stuff across multiplatform; we can tell one story in two or three different ways. It’s just part of being a modern brand.

Samir Husni: Do you feel that it’s such a simple, yet hard formula to imitate, that there are not too many Real Simple magazines out there in the marketplace? Or do you feel that a lot of people have tried to imitate it but failed?

Daren Mazzucca: I mentioned that I recently came back from Minneapolis and I challenged everyone, and there was a lot of head nodding in the room, if you strip our content apart and lay it down on a table with other women’s lifestyle service magazines, you can clearly delineate and distinguish what is Real Simple. From our texture; what you get with the paper, we’ve always had unique, special European paper that enhances the reading experience. There are some brands that try and copy pieces of what we do, but not the entire package of what we do.

Leslie Yazel: And that’s always a challenge for my editors. I always ask, but how can this be a story about Thanksgiving recipes that can only appear in Real Simple? How does it have our DNA? These are topics that other magazines cover, but the way that we cover them has to feel like that.

Samir Husni: Let me get inside the great mind of an editor; when you sit down to work, do you plan the entire year? October is “Welcome to Cozy,” November is “Holidays,” December is “50 Gifts Under $50,” how are you working in this day and age where, and to use a phrase from a former chief revenue officer of The Wall Street Journal, “People are puking information” all over the place?

Leslie Yazel: (Laughs) We definitely theme ahead the issues and part of that is because the partners who are excited to work with us want to get a sense of when is the prime time for them to be a part of what we’re doing. So, this March we’re talking about doing a shopping issue for the first time ever, which with us is shopping smarter, spending your money wisely. We have a “Get it Done” issue in June and part of that is because you can do that across any sales vertical, but also because when I talk to women and when I look at our research, you always have these things hanging over your head that you want to finish before summer comes, because it’s so hard to get things done in the summer.

So we always have that “Get it Done” issue, that franchise, to come out in June so that the reader gets it in May and she can maybe say, “Okay, finally I’m going to buy life insurance,” or whatever. “I’m going to finally paint the front door, so the front of the house looks beautiful.”

Daren Mazzucca: I’ve also seen socially and heard it from the field that people are reading our “Spring Cleaning” April issue right now in the fall, rereading, because they’re fall cleaning. I put it off in the spring and now I can do it in the fall. So, it’s still relevant.

Samir Husni: Technically in the United States, we now have two major publishing companies, Meredith and Hearst; do you believe that we’re going to see any more mergers and/or acquisitions in 2019, or 2019 will be a calm year moving forward?

Daren Mazzucca: Obviously, we have some of our brands that are up for sale. We announced publicly the sale of Time magazine brand, so I believe there will be some opportunities and I’m sure Tom Harty and Steve Lacy are looking at every opportunity, along with Jon (Werther) and Doug (Olson). But we have just absorbed and collaborated a lot and we want to make sure that we activate beautifully with our new portfolio. And I’m speaking for the two brands that I represent, but I know that’s an initiative for all of us. We need to make sure that we’re activating and driving topnotch revenue for the organization as the industry continues evolving and changing, hopefully, for the better.

Samir Husni: Leslie, do you feel like you’ve weathered the storm?

Leslie Yazel: (Laughs) You know, it’s interesting because I came here and it was Time Inc. and then when there was an announcement that Meredith was buying us, it was so much fun for me because I grew up in Des Moines, went to school in Des Moines, my entire immediate family all still live in Des Moines.

And I had never worked for Meredith except once, when I was a child, I had a modeling job at Meredith and went to the beautiful building downtown and met the photographers and set designers. And they had these exciting jobs and they had lived in larger cities, and I thought gosh, maybe someday I’ll want to do one of these big creative jobs and live in a big city. So, I thought of all of that as I got the call on a Sunday saying that Meredith was buying Real Simple and the rest of the portfolio. So, I do feel like it’s been a fun, personal full circle for me.

Samir Husni: Is there anything either of you would like to add?

Leslie Yazel: I’ve been able to take this really strong brand, and now we’re doing more than ever. Now, we have the Real Simple Shop and the Real Simple Home, and we have these great designers who come in, including Nate Berkus and Jeremiah Brent, these household names. And we have more on the horizon.

We started doing these great neighbor awards with the private social network, Nextdoor, and we celebrate people who are helping their neighbors. It’s a very divisive time in America and national conflicts are really complicated and we’ve been doubling-down on talking to people about how they can feel fulfilled and purposeful about doing things right in their own neighborhood. And we’ve gotten amazing responses from readers on that. So, that’s something important.

We’ve also had good response from the market and other partners on that who say this is a great space to be in; this is a great environment for us.

Daren Mazzucca: Leslie and I are still getting to know each other; it’s been a great relationship for the past six-plus months. And again, we’re just really trying to, from a sales and marketing perspective, harness all of these great pillars and initiatives. The Real Simple Home was a huge success, it was one of the first things we talked about when we first met. The great initiative of the team here in place before I arrived, while it was very successful, marketers are asking us where is the next one. And we’re working on 2.0 to be announced shortly. We’ll make sure you’re looped in for sure.

But even the Patriots and some of the other initiatives that this brand and Leslie and Pinterest coming to the editorial team to harness the power of Pinterest, we’re going to be using that as a marketing weapon in 2019 and fusing advertisers into that. So, we really have a lot to do and we’re very excited about the future for the brand.

Leslie Yazel: That Pinterest call was kind of funny when they called us and said that they wanted to be in our print product. And I was thinking how often does the Silicon Valley call and say that want to be in a print product? And that’s when we became their exclusive partner to launch Pinterest in the magazine and now Daren’s team is actually able to sell those, which is really fun for us.

Daren Mazzucca: Exactly.

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

Leslie Yazel: Good question. I’m an open book, this one is hard for me. I think people think that the job of an editor in chief is to make all of the decisions and carry around a big ego, and I think a lot of the key to the success of Real Simple is that I empower women and younger women on my team to let their voices be heard, to let their ideas rise. And we got numbers recently from MRI showing that we’re two and a half years younger in our audience than we were a year ago, and I feel like that’s because great ideas can come from anyone on my team, from our newest employees to our youngest editors. So, I think that being a consensus-taker has served the brand really well.

Daren Mazzucca: Honestly, I feel blessed to be the business leader for this brand, but it’s really the great sales and marketing organization that does all of the heavy lifting. We often get appointed and put in positions to be leading, but it’s really the team that’s behind you, that’s out on the battlefield every day. I have a very talented team in place across the country and we have a great marketing team who are working closely with the editors. The little secret sauce is that I’m really just the bandleader and there are many others in the orchestra that make the beautiful music.

Leslie Yazel: I agree with that story too, but I would also say, people meet Daren and he’s this classic, awesome salesman, who can talk to anybody. Daren is an incredibly modern man to work with. He is working with a team of almost exclusively women, and there’s a lot of talk about respect in the workplace for women and I got really lucky. I tell Meredith, you gave me a gift with Daren because he really is a modern man and I am so appreciative.

Daren Mazzucca: Thank you.

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? How do you unwind?

Leslie Yazel: My daughter is eight, so she’s at that age where she’s a complete bookworm, and my husband is the television editor at The New York Times, and so there’s a lot of TV being watched in our house. So, it’s usually one of those. But I do try to walk the walk; we have a whole section in the magazine called “Balance,” so I do unplug. Sometimes I come home, get my daughter and get back on the laptop, but I do try to take a break, because I think you can’t be creative unless you have some away time from work too.

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

Leslie Yazel: I don’t see my family in Des Moines enough. And then also just, when I wake up it’s not the panic-wake-up, it’s sort of what’s going to happen with the next Real Simple Home, because this is the most exciting thing we’ve done. And I know that I keep coming back to it, but the truth is, if you can take nine designers, two organizers, a blank space and make something – I just want to pick the place.

Samir Husni: Daren, has anything changed about what keeps you up night since the last time we spoke or do you still sleep very well?

Daren Mazzucca: I sleep pretty well. At the end of the day, I’m exhausted. Just the opportunities ahead keeps me up a little bit. There are a lot of people to meet; we have folks who are being reintroduced to the magazine that hasn’t seen a seller represent the brand for the last two years, so we’re reintroducing and reconnecting. And there’s a lot to do, so we’re having fun with that. And that gets me up very early. (Laughs) I’m an early riser.

Samir Husni: Thank you both.

h1

Perfect Strangers Magazine: Bringing The World & Its Many Cultures Together For The “Perfect” Introduction – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Alice Xiang, Founder, Editor And Publisher…

October 24, 2018

A Mr. Magazine™ Launch Story…

“I also love that there’s a certain intimacy that comes with print magazines. Digital content remains contained in our devices; print magazines become a part of the messy physical fabric of our daily lives. They ‘live’ in our homes: squeezed under a sofa cushion, sprawled out on a coffee table, propped next to the bed or biscuit tin. You can delete an app or close a browser window in a second, but there’s something odd about chucking a printed book or magazine; you usually end up passing it on to a friend or family member, or donating it.” Alice Xiang…

Perfect Strangers is a magazine dedicated to bringing the world together and exploring the cross-cultural. The burning question for the concept is: how does the world meet itself? Founder of the magazine, Alice Xiang, seeks to answer that curiosity by producing a magazine that features people from all walks of life that help to connect the world. From artists and entrepreneurs to grandparents and lovers and through their perspectives, the magazine looks at how cultures and languages, habits and ideas, styles and foods, intertwine and transform.

I spoke with Alice recently and she shared a bit about her background and how it fuses with the magazine “perfectly.” She herself is no “stranger” (puns intended) to the cross-cultural; before launching Perfect Strangers, she completed a Ph.D. in comparative literature, doing her dissertation on cosmopolitanism, specifically on an interconnected set of writers in early 20th-century Shanghai, Istanbul, and Paris. Alice said, “In some ways, I suppose “Perfect Strangers” is the magazine form of what I was up to academically.” And Mr. Magazine™ thinks it’s a great print transformation.

Interconnecting the world is a worthy goal and the magazine does it beautifully with its printed pages and colorful pictures. The content between those pages is on point and well written. Published twice a year, Perfect Strangers is a welcomed addition to newsstands.

So, without further ado, the Mr. Magazine™ interview with founder, editor, and publisher of Perfect Strangers magazine, Alice Xiang.

But first the sound-bites:

On the genesis of Perfect Strangers: Partly as a result of how I grew up —which involved a fair bit of moving between cities and countries— I’ve always been fascinated by how cultures meet and mix. For years, I’d been on the lookout for a magazine focused on the cross-cultural; a magazine in which I could read about Nepalese filmmakers in Montréal, perhaps, or Chinese students in Cairo, and everything beyond and between. A magazine that would both make me feel ‘at home’ and connected to others with a similarly complex sense of belonging, but also push me beyond what I already thought and knew about these matters.

On why she felt the magazine would be best served in print rather than a digital-only product: I wanted Perfect Strangers to be something to cherish and immerse oneself in, on both an aesthetic and mental level. It’s much harder, of course, to reach the average reader than it would be with a website or digital magazine. But once you do —once someone picks up a physical copy—it’s much easier to pull that reader out of their usual routine, out of their stream of distractions, and into the little universe of your magazine. There’s a certain stubbornness to the thing-ness of a printed object that commands a different kind of engagement. I settled on the print format because I was very drawn to creating that ‘oasis of attention’ for readers.

On her own professional background: Before launching Perfect Strangers, I’d just completed a Ph.D. in comparative literature. My dissertation was on cosmopolitanism, specifically on an interconnected set of writers in early 20th-century Shanghai, Istanbul, and Paris. In some ways, I suppose ‘Perfect Strangers’ is the magazine form of what I was up to academically.

On what role she thinks print will play in the future: As we become inundated with digital and multimedia content, print will increasingly be seen as a kind of refuge, as a special medium for a different kind of attention. And I think that refuge, that difference of attention, will provide fertile ground for various kinds of creative and political expression.

On how she came up with the name: Benedict Anderson came up with the idea that every nation is an ‘imagined community,’ since most of its members will never actually meet, and yet they nevertheless think of themselves as part of the same group. I wanted to allude to that contradiction, which is inherent to any large-scale community. ‘Perfect Strangers’ has connotations of distance and alienation, but also of positivity and playfulness.

On her most pleasant moment with the launch: Editors often talk about the moment they receive the first printed copy of the magazine as their favorite. That wasn’t mine at all; I was terrified. I was so worried that I’d open the magazine and notice all kinds of irrevocable and embarrassing mistakes. I don’t have one moment in particular that stands out the most. I’d say the process contained a series of moments of delight — of me being surprised by the generosity of, well, perfect strangers.

On her biggest challenge: Being a one-person team. It was overwhelming to have to take care of every single aspect of the magazine. I started out rather naïvely, not realizing that being an editor-publisher involves a lot more than simply ‘editing.’ There was so much fiddling about with images, with titles and captions and lists, with italicization and formatting gone rogue, etc. Every single inch of a magazine needs to be attended to, often multiple times, before it goes off to print. Not to mention scheduling, distribution, marketing, invoicing…

On what she would have tattooed upon her brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about her: Nothing! —I don’t mean that facetiously. I think most people undergo constant change and transformation, even if it seems imperceptible day-to-day. I don’t think I’m a consistent enough person for a brain tattoo. Your question reminds me of a book by Louis Sachar that I read when I was little, in which a character decides to get a tattoo of a potato, because that’s the one thing they were sure they wouldn’t get tired of… As a child I found that incredibly wise and sensible.

On what someone would find her doing if they showed up unexpectedly at her home one evening: I have a one-year-old, so you might well find me reading a book to her. Got to instill that love of print early on, right? We’re currently waiting to see what her first word will be: Turkish (my husband’s mother tongue), Chinese (my parents’), or English (mine). The race is on!

On what keeps her up at night: The number of unanswered emails in my inbox.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with founder, editor, and publisher, Alice Xiang, Perfect Strangers magazine.

Samir Husni: Tell me about the genesis of Perfect Strangers.

Alice Xiang: Partly as a result of how I grew up —which involved a fair bit of moving between cities and countries— I’ve always been fascinated by how cultures meet and mix. For years, I’d been on the lookout for a magazine focused on the cross-cultural; a magazine in which I could read about Nepalese filmmakers in Montréal, perhaps, or Chinese students in Cairo, and everything beyond and between. A magazine that would both make me feel ‘at home’ and connected to others with a similarly complex sense of belonging, but also push me beyond what I already thought and knew about these matters.

I was lying in bed one night when it struck me that I should perhaps just go ahead and create this magazine that I’d never been able to find. I sat up then and there with a jolt of excitement, and was unable to sleep for several hours afterwards from the sheer adrenaline of the idea. As someone with no background or experience in media, but with plenty of passion for the subject and for the written word, it felt like just the right mix of ‘well-this-is-completely-bonkers’ and ‘OK-I-can-do-this’.

“Does the world need another magazine?” is a question I’ve asked myself many times since then. There are so many beautifully made magazines out there that serve just about every niche one can think of. Still, I was convinced there was a bit of space left in the landscape for something like Perfect Strangers. There are so many people across the world who are fascinated by, or whose lives have been defined by, the cross-cultural. Making a publication for and about this global readership still gets me excited every day.

Samir Husni: Why did you feel Perfect Strangers is best served in print rather than an online entity?

Alice Xiang: I wanted Perfect Strangers to be something to cherish and immerse oneself in, on both an aesthetic and mental level. It’s much harder, of course, to reach the average reader than it would be with a website or digital magazine. But once you do —once someone picks up a physical copy—it’s much easier to pull that reader out of their usual routine, out of their stream of distractions, and into the little universe of your magazine. There’s a certain stubbornness to the thing-ness of a printed object that commands a different kind of engagement. I settled on the print format because I was very drawn to creating that ‘oasis of attention’ for readers.

I also love that there’s a certain intimacy that comes with print magazines. Digital content remains contained in our devices; print magazines become a part of the messy physical fabric of our daily lives. They ‘live’ in our homes: squeezed under a sofa cushion, sprawled out on a coffee table, propped next to the bed or biscuit tin. You can delete an app or close a browser window in a second, but there’s something odd about chucking a printed book or magazine; you usually end up passing it on to a friend or family member, or donating it.

With print also comes certain standards. You feel like you have to ‘make it count’, to make what you’re printing worthwhile and memorable. It’s a beneficial kind of pressure to have.

Samir Husni: Tell me about your own professional background.

Alice Xiang: Before launching Perfect Strangers, I’d just completed a Ph.D. in comparative literature. My dissertation was on cosmopolitanism, specifically on an interconnected set of writers in early 20th-century Shanghai, Istanbul, and Paris. In some ways, I suppose ‘Perfect Strangers’ is the magazine form of what I was up to academically.

Samir Husni: What role do you feel print will play in 2018 and beyond with the multimedia mix that’s out there today?

Alice Xiang: Initially, print and digital were viewed as inherently antagonistic mediums. But now that digital has become the norm for media consumption, that relationship has shifted. Whatever becomes dominant also loses its ‘edge,’ its special aura, due to that very dominance. And so, for me, online and print media have now become complementary to one another. The same person can be a voracious consumer of media on their smartphone and at the same time —precisely because of this— be deeply appreciative of the tactile and aesthetic qualities unique to print.

As we become inundated with digital and multimedia content, print will increasingly be seen as a kind of refuge, as a special medium for a different kind of attention. And I think that refuge, that difference of attention, will provide fertile ground for various kinds of creative and political expression.

Samir Husni: How did you come up with the name “Perfect Strangers?”

Alice Xiang: Benedict Anderson came up with the idea that every nation is an ‘imagined community,’ since most of its members will never actually meet, and yet they nevertheless think of themselves as part of the same group. I wanted to allude to that contradiction, which is inherent to any large-scale community. ‘Perfect Strangers’ has connotations of distance and alienation, but also of positivity and playfulness. I like to think it also hints at the beauty and power of our imaginations when it comes to thinking about, and empathizing with, people different from ourselves. Also, I have a weak spot for puns — the name could have turned out a lot worse.

Samir Husni: What would you consider the most pleasant moment you have experienced during this magazine launch journey?

Alice Xiang: Editors often talk about the moment they receive the first printed copy of the magazine as their favorite. That wasn’t mine at all; I was terrified. I was so worried that I’d open the magazine and notice all kinds of irrevocable and embarrassing mistakes.

I don’t have one moment in particular that stands out the most. I’d say the process contained a series of moments of delight — of me being surprised by the generosity of, well, perfect strangers. From potential interviewees to bookshops in countries I’ve never visited, I sent an absurd number of ‘cold’ emails to people who had absolutely no reason to give me any of their time or take me seriously, and yet who did. The magazine is really an accumulation of the generosities of many people.

Samir Husni: And what has been the biggest challenge that you’ve had to face and how did you overcome it?

Alice Xiang: Being a one-person team. It was overwhelming to have to take care of every single aspect of the magazine. I started out rather naïvely, not realizing that being an editor-publisher involves a lot more than simply ‘editing.’ There was so much fiddling about with images, with titles and captions and lists, with italicization and formatting gone rogue, etc. Every single inch of a magazine needs to be attended to, often multiple times, before it goes off to print. Not to mention scheduling, distribution, marketing, invoicing…

This is frankly a challenge I’ve yet to overcome — I am constantly behind! But there’s a wonderful upside to it all: the magazine is extremely ‘nimble,’ and truly independent, in the sense that there’s a single point of creative and editorial control. Which is worth all the late nights, in the end. And there are inspiring one-person teams who’ve accomplished brilliant things with their magazines —like Kai Brach of Offscreen, or Les Jones of Elsie Magazine— to draw strength from. Their examples are a reminder to stay optimistic: to keep working hard and improving upon what you do, and to remember that ultimately your biggest limitations can also be your greatest strengths.

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

Alice Xiang: Nothing! —I don’t mean that facetiously. I think most people undergo constant change and transformation, even if it seems imperceptible day-to-day. I don’t think I’m a consistent enough person for a brain tattoo. Your question reminds me of a book by Louis Sachar that I read when I was little, in which a character decides to get a tattoo of a potato, because that’s the one thing they were sure they wouldn’t get tired of… As a child I found that incredibly wise and sensible.

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? How do you unwind?

Alice Xiang: I have a one-year-old, so you might well find me reading a book to her. Got to instill that love of print early on, right? We’re currently waiting to see what her first word will be: Turkish (my husband’s mother tongue), Chinese (my parents’), or English (mine). The race is on!

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

Alice Xiang: The number of unanswered emails in my inbox.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni Receives The Luminaire Award for Best in Communications…

October 21, 2018

(This is a first for the Mr. Magazine™ Blog that can easily be called shameless self promotion, but as I was told in these United States of America, “If it is true, it ain’t bragging…”)

Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni, Ph.D., is the latest recipient of The Luminaire Award for Best in Communications.

The award was presented by the Idealliance Foundation and the Printing Industries Alliance at The Lighthouse at Chelsea Piers in New York City Oct. 17.

Husni, the director of the Magazine Innovation Center at The University of Mississippi received the honor at the Franklin Luminaire Awards ceremonies.

The award has been described as the “Hall of Fame” for the graphic and visual communications industries.

Watch the video introducing the awards and Bo Sacks introducing Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni accepting The Luminaire Award for Best in Communications at the Franklin Luminaire Awards: A celebration of achievement in graphic and visual communications.

Here is the video followed by the lightly edited Bo Sacks’ introduction and Samir Husni’s acceptance speech.

BoSacks Speaks Out: Last night I was privileged to introduce my friend Samir Husni as a recipient of the prestigious The Franklin Luminaire Award. The following is what I said:

There is no friendship more powerful than one based on earned respect. As most of you know, Samir and I spent a decade publicly debating the future of our industry, and I can tell you from personal experience that there has never been a more devoted, knowledgeable, stubborn proponent for the promotion of print than Samir Husni.

His love of print developed from the first Superman comic book he received at age 8 in Lebanon. Did you know his passion for print grew to the point where he was publishing a daily paper from his bedroom in Lebanon?

From that humble beginning he developed into a world-renowned teacher, tutor, consultant and ambassador of print to the globe. He actually created the concept of a Ph.D in magazine journalism because, of course, it didn’t exist before Samir.
Next step was turning his magazine research into a book which turned into many books, which are still published to this day.

There are many awards in our industry, and yet it is unfortunate we only have the infrastructure and ability to recognize a fraction of the many hard-working professionals who make what happens in our industry actually happen. But when we do get the exposure and the appreciation of a job well done, it is usually for meritorious service demanding peer acknowledgement.

The Franklin Luminaire Award recognizes exceptional professionals for their positive contribution and service within the media and visual communications. Over the last 60 years many have earned and rightly deserved this prestigious award. Today Samir gets to join the ranks of past giants in whose eyes he will be welcomed as a Prince of Print and a Titan among his peers. Bravo Samir and a job well done.

Let’s not forget that this evangelist for print media comprehends the broad interplay of print and digital media and, better yet, he is exporting this knowledge not only to us his peers, but to the next generation of media specialists, his journalism students.

Samir has a lifetime of extraordinary and meritorious service to our industry. Indeed, he is and always has been Mr. Magazine.

And here is my lightly edited speech…

Samir Husni: Thank you, Bo. I’m humbled and honored and it’s rare to find me speechless, so thank God they only gave me three minutes. Bo mentioned my humble beginnings in Tripoli, Lebanon. So, not only will you be fooled into thinking the University of Mississippi and this is a Southern accent (Everyone laughs), but it’s from a faraway land called Lebanon.

I bought my first edition of Superman magazine at a very young age and as I was crossing the street, I fell in love with the smell of ink and paper. I felt like the ink, through some kind of osmosis, had transferred into my body and all that I could think about and do was create my own little magazines, using whatever vehicle I had. Whether it was a crayon, a candle to rub the wax onto the paper, and an old newspaper so that I could have pictures in my magazine.

We did not have PageMaker, we did not have computers, and we did not have InDesign. It was all handmade. I would borrow my grandfather’s transistor, the iPod of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and this is what we used all day long. And then I had my own newspaper and I would sit down at the end of the day and read it. I was the editor, the publisher, the designer, and since then I created that concept of the audience of one and I carried it through my long career.

I started collecting every single first edition that came to Lebanon, every new magazine, because I found out that there was no way I would have enough money to buy every magazine that was ever going to be published. My collection became a hobby that ended up being my education. My parents wanted me to be a dentist, because this journalism business wasn’t for anybody who was intellectual or anybody who was going to be dealing with fake news and other stuff.

So, I went to a scientific high school for a scientific education. And in Lebanon, based on your religion, depends on which school you go to. I’m a fourth generation Presbyterian, the minority of minorities in Lebanon, so I went to an American school and studied, of course, English and Arabic. The youth minister at my church, when I was graduating from high school, came to me and said, “Samir, I’m not asking you to disobey your parents and don’t go to dental school, but I’m telling you that you will be disobeying God if you select any other profession other than journalism and magazines. I’ve watched you; you created a magazine for the Sunday School; you created a magazine for the Boy Scouts; you created a magazine for your school, that’s the only thing you know how to do. Go tell your parents that you want to go to journalism school.”

I was terrified. I went to my parents and said, “Dad, Mom, you know what, I want to go to journalism school.” And they said okay. (Everyone laughs) “Okay? This is it, no fight? You sent me through four years of torture studying biology and chemistry and everything else, and now it’s okay?”

So, I took that hobby that became my education, that became my profession and in 1978 my wife and I came to the United States thinking that we were escaping from the Lebanese Civil War and we argued among each other asking what war is going to last five years? Forty-one years later, we’re still in the United States of America and we’re proud Americans. We became citizens of this country and I took my hobby and made it my profession.

I still continue to collect first editions. I have more than 30,000 first editions of magazines, housed in six different warehouses. I pay more for the rent of the warehouses than I do for the mortgage on my house. (Everyone laughs and applauds)

When I was offered the job in 1984 to start this new magazine program at the University of Mississippi that was funded by the Meredith Corporation , I jumped at it. The University of Mississippi took a chance on me, they had no earthly idea about this kid from Lebanon who just graduated with a Ph.D. from the University of Missouri. And I guess their gamble paid off.

Now, we have the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi. I stepped down as the chair of the department in 2009 because I felt that everyone thought digital was going to be our future. And they thought I was the oddball, being so in love with print and starting the Magazine Innovation Center that would amplify the future of print in a digital age. What was the article many read last week? “Print is the new new media.” So, long live print and thank you. (Applause)

To the award committee,  to the Printing Industries Alliance, to the Idealliance Foundation, thank you for believing in me. And to my friends in publishing, printing, the paper companies, marketing and advertising who also believed in me. And last but not least, I want to thank the University of Mississippi for taking a chance on me when they hired me in 1984. And I would definitely like to thank my family, including my wife Marie, who still continues to take a chance on me after 41 years of marriage. (Everyone laughs) Also, Mr. Magazine, Jr., my grandson. All of three of my kids and five grandkids and to everyone who still believes there’s a future for ink on paper. Long live print. Thank you very much. (Everyone applauds).

Thank you one and all. Truly humbled, honored and blessed.

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Martha Stewart Living’s Christine Guilfoyle Talks To Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni About Embracing Disruption & Finding Excitement In The Constant Change Of Today’s Magazine Media World – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Senior Vice President, Group Publisher Meredith’s Women’s Group…

October 15, 2018

“I think that editorial integration in celebrity brands is more delicate. I don’t want to say more challenging, I think it’s more delicate, because again, it’s about the consumer. You have to make sure that the integration is authentic to the consumer. And I don’t know that agencies and/or clients fully understand intellectually the relationship that the content and the consumer have and the level of authenticity around the integration.” Christine Guilfoyle…

From Rachael Ray Every Day to Better Homes & Gardens, Martha Stewart Living to the former ink on paper MORE magazine, Christine Guilfoyle has been a staple at Meredith Corporation for over eight years. Today she has Martha Stewart Living back in her stable and is enjoying yet another round of promoting and selling the one and only Martha Stewart and her brand. The original, as Chris touts the entrepreneurial businessperson who has become a household name with her media empire.

I spoke with Chris recently and we talked about her admiration for Martha Stewart and her appreciation for the opportunities that Meredith has given her over the years, such as launching the phenomenal The Magnolia Journal. And while disruption in magazines and magazine media has become the norm, Chris says that she embraces disruption and finds excitement in the many opportunities that the constant changes of today’s publishing industry brings. Of course, Chris isn’t naïve either, she knows that never taking anything for granted is the rule of thumb in the present-day world of magazines, but she also knows the power of the brand, especially the tried and true ones, such as Martha Stewart Living, always giving hope to a brighter and more stalwart future.

So, I hope that you enjoy this lively and interesting Mr. Magazine™ interview with a woman just as lively and interesting as her magazine adventures – Christine Guilfoyle, senior vice president, group publisher Meredith’s Women’s Group.

But first the sound-bites:

On what has been going on at Meredith: I have to tell you, I just came from a meeting recently with Tom Harty (president and CEO, Meredith) and I said to him, seven years ago we, the Meredith Corporation, announced the acquisition of Everyday with Rachael Ray, which is a bit mindboggling to me that it has been seven years ago. I had just been back at the company for a year, I was on MORE at the time, so my personal journey in these seven years, and I think you know that I have known Tom for a long time, twenty-plus years, seeing what he has been able to accomplish, not only for his own personal development, but also for the company, has been extraordinary.

On what she has been up to at Meredith over the last seven years: Well, I’m repeating myself. You know, two times at Rachael Ray; two times at Better Homes & Gardens; this is my second time now at Martha Stewart Living; my third celebrity assignment. What am I doing? Well, listen, what we’re all doing. I’m blocking and tackling. Everyday I’m blocking and tackling.

On some of the challenges she faces today that are different from those she faced when Rachael Ray Every Day launched: Today versus 2005 when Rachael launched; here’s the thing, every single thing is different, from one year to the next, from one assignment to the next and it really has more to do with the industry than it has to do with the platform and the work, the content that you represent. The media industry, the traditional publishing industry, is in complete and utter disruption. And as you and I have talked about many times, I embrace that. I think it’s exciting.

On how she feels being back at Martha Stewart Living once again: From a personal standpoint, I have been a Martha Stewart Living brand evangelist for a long time. She is someone who I have personally admired, and over the course of my career, have voraciously tear sheeted and I couldn’t be more honored to get to work with a woman who continues to evolve, embrace technology and reinvent and/or reinvigorate not only herself, but her brand. And I feel humbled to have that opportunity.

On the power of the brand today versus what it was when it was introduced 28 years ago: I think that the brand has always been incredibly powerful with consumers. The vitality with the consumer is not necessarily in our industry what gets celebrated, it’s the vitality with the advertiser, and that kind of dims the light on the consumer involvement. Martha’s relationship with the consumer, in my opinion, has never been stronger. And she has had the ability, both personally and through the leadership of Elizabeth Graves in Living, to be as relevant as ever.

On whether she is selling Martha Stewart or Martha Stewart Living: It’s the same thing to me. Ultimately, we sell the woman that has made the brand and then we talk about the platform of content extensions, both those that are operated by the Meredith Corporation as it relates to digital and video and social, but we also discuss Martha’s own social activities and her television, in the form of PBS or celebrity judge on Chopped or VH1 with Snoop. To me it’s all the same.

On whether she does things differently when selling Martha Stewart Living versus selling Rachael Ray Every Day: I would say that I do everything differently than I did seven years ago. I do everything differently than I did three years ago. The basic fundamentals of sales account management kind of guides me, they’re my guiding principles, but how I would talk about Rachael or Martha, or Jo as it relates to The Magnolia Journal; I talk about each one of those women in a very different way because they are different, but also because the time of which my assignment corresponds to the external ad market is different.

On how the role of publisher has changed over the last five years: I can’t talk about the overarching role because I think that everyone brings their own individual experience and expertise to a job. I can tell you how it has changed for me because it’s what I personally own and can control. To me, I feel like there was a time in my career where I really was a management role, where I, as much as I like to get out and about and I think it is something that I can do because of the relationships that I have, I had full staffs of very senior people in all of the key markets and I could just do my flyover to say thank you. I now feel like my role, if we’re going to talk about titles, senior vice president group publisher, that’s my title, but I’m a super sales person.

On how she differentiates Martha Stewart Living brand from the other competitors in the marketplace: That’s a very good question. She’s the original. In a world that is infatuated with celebrity and/or influencers, Martha Stewart is the original. And she practices what she preaches. There is nothing that we cover from a content-based standpoint that she herself has not done. That she has not intellectually curious about; where she has not rolled up her sleeves and participated in the action. And that’s home, food, travel, entertaining, etc. She is the original.

On anything she’d like to add: First of all, I want to say thank you for wanting to talk to me. I think the thing for me is that although I have had a lot of jobs, I have never been in a position in my eight years back at the company where I have ever been allowed to be bored (Laughs). And I think that’s a gift because if that had not happened, up until the last seven years, like Martha says, when you stop living you’re dead; when you’re afraid of change I think you’re out. I feel like my career here has very much paralleled Martha’s life mission. And I feel invigorated and grateful that I have been given the opportunity here at the company to do all that I have been able to do.

On what she would have tattooed upon her brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about her: No, I don’t know that I would change that tattoo. And I think about in today’s world, think about what has just gone on. The closing of Redbook, and when I say closing, the moving to digital, but we all know what that means, it means taking resources away from traditional platforms. Redbook is not a surprise to me, and probably not to you. The rumor of Glamour, that scares me to the core of what it is that I have learned. A brand like that, that I have competed against, a newsstand giant, that quakes me to the core as somebody who has studied and championed and heralded the industry, so no, I don’t take a single thing for granted. And I remind myself of that every single day.

On what she believes is the biggest misconception about herself: About me personally? (Laughs) That’s a good one. A long time ago Tom Harty and Dick Porter in our TV Guide days said I am too emotional. In my performance review when I moved from Better Homes & Gardens to Shape, Doug Olson told me that I was not as excited about the move from BH&G to Shape as the company would have liked me to be. So, I don’t know if that was a misconception, but I feel like the brands that I have led are like my children and the people at those brands become part of my family literally. And ultimately, I do in fact love all of them and all of the brands. But I have favorites, so maybe the most common misconception is that I become too emotionally connected, but I would say that in each and every assignment I never ever lose sight of the P&L and what it is that I have to do to drive the business. Never.

On what keeps her up at night: Outside of my teenaged daughters? No. What keeps me up at night is each and every close, and each and every client, and I would say this whole native and editorial integration – I think there are brands, Allrecipes for example, another brand that I helped my good buddy Steve Grune, who I hired to the company, launch. I think that Allrecipes is a brand made for client integration. I grapple with integration as it relates to a brand that has a real person attached to it.

On whether the integration of editorial and ads makes her job tougher: Well, I don’t know that it’s even tougher; I think as a steward of the brand I am more diligent. I’m more involved and more critical of the agency and our client/partner, because if we do something that is not brand-true, we will hear about it.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Christine Guilfoyle, Senior VP, Publisher, Meredith Women’s Group at Meredith Corporation.

Samir Husni: Chris, give me an update; since the last time we spoke a lot of things have changed, what’s going on these days at Meredith?

Christine Guilfoyle: I have to tell you, I just came from a meeting recently with Tom Harty (president and CEO, Meredith) and I said to him, seven years ago we, the Meredith Corporation, announced the acquisition of Rachael Ray Every Day, which is a bit mindboggling to me that it has been seven years ago. I had just been back at the company for a year, I was on MORE at the time, so my personal journey in these seven years, and I think you know that I have known Tom for a long time, twenty-plus years, seeing what he has been able to accomplish, not only for his own personal development, but also for the company, has been extraordinary.

I don’t want to sound like I’m gushing, because believe me that has never been my goal, but Tom has done an incredibly amazing job and it has been so interesting and exhilarating to be sitting and watching what has gone on in the last seven years.

Samir Husni: So, tell me, what are you up to these days – what have those seven years brought for you?

Christine Guilfoyle: Well, I’m repeating myself. You know, two times at Rachael Ray; two times at Better Homes & Gardens; this is my second time now at Martha Stewart Living; my third celebrity assignment. What am I doing? Well, listen, what we’re all doing. I’m blocking and tackling. Everyday I’m blocking and tackling.

Samir Husni: As you block and tackle your third celebrity venture, what are some of the challenges you face today that are different from those you faced when you first started with Rachael Ray Every Day?

Christine Guilfoyle: Today versus 2005 when Rachael launched; here’s the thing, every single thing is different, from one year to the next, from one assignment to the next and it really has more to do with the industry than it has to do with the platform and the work, the content that you represent.

The media industry, the traditional publishing industry, is in complete and utter disruption. And as you and I have talked about many times, I embrace that. I think it’s exciting. I have two teenaged daughters and every single day is filled with disruption and the bombardment of new media. And I feel incredibly fortunate that I have had 14 assignments in the last eight years where I’ve been able to start each assignment really as though they were brand new jobs. It’s an entrepreneurial environment, so I can try new things, not only because the industry demands it, but because each of these assignments are new and differentiated.

Samir Husni: And when you got your latest assignment and knew that Martha Stewart Living was once again in your domain, what was your first reaction? Not again or you were so happy to be back at the brand?

Christine Guilfoyle: From a personal standpoint, I have been a Martha Stewart Living brand evangelist for a long time. In 1988 when I was at TV Guide, I had the classic meatloaf and the classic macaroni and cheese recipes in my bag that I had brought in for clients, and they’re recipes that I still cook. Martha and her daughter Alexis were at a table in Nobu and Harrison Ford, Edd Byrnes, Calista Flockhart, Christy Turlington, and Tony Bennett were all in Nobu that night that I was there with clients. I mustered my way past the bouncers to go over and introduce myself to Martha. To me she is extraordinary.

She is someone who I have personally admired, and over the course of my career, have voraciously tear sheeted and I couldn’t be more honored to get to work with a woman who continues to evolve, embrace technology and reinvent and/or reinvigorate not only herself, but her brand. And I feel humbled to have that opportunity. And when Martha Stewart calls you a badass, which is what she said to me when she found out I was back on the brand, that’s not something I would ever take lightly.

Samir Husni: So, how do you use that as you go out and meet with clients and prospective clients? What is the power of the brand today versus what it was when it was introduced around 28 years ago?

Christine Guilfoyle: I think that the brand has always been incredibly powerful with consumers. The vitality with the consumer is not necessarily in our industry what gets celebrated, it’s the vitality with the advertiser, and that kind of dims the light on the consumer involvement. Martha’s relationship with the consumer, in my opinion, has never been stronger. And she has had the ability, both personally and through the leadership of Elizabeth Graves in Living, to be as relevant as ever.

We are finding that millennials, not only millennial readers of Martha Stewart Living, but also U.S. millennials, look at Martha the person and Martha Stewart Living the brand, as being the ultimate influencer. And they look to her and the content that surrounds her brand proposition as being modern and trustworthy. So, that’s exciting from a consumer proposition standpoint.

When I’m speaking to millennials, which is most of our audience, I try to be as dynamic and energizing and on millennial point as I can be. And frankly, this story resonates. Her doing the Justin Bieber Roast, in my opinion, was a pivotal, social, zeitgeist moment for her. She’s gone on now to do the Bruce Willis Roast and she’s next door neighbors with Blake Lively and she’s at New York Fashion Week and continues to modernize her footprints, so clients and agency people are more aware of her than ever before. The Snoop Dogg relationship obviously is very much talked about within the agency cycle. And I’m finding it to be incredibly fun and that there is a high level of brand receptivity that should translate itself into ad pages and integrated deals.

Samir Husni: Are you selling Martha or are you selling Martha Stewart Living?

Christine Guilfoyle: It’s the same thing to me. Ultimately, we sell the woman that has made the brand and then we talk about the platform of content extensions, both those that are operated by the Meredith Corporation as it relates to digital and video and social, but we also discuss Martha’s own social activities and her television, in the form of PBS or celebrity judge on Chopped or VH1 with Snoop. To me it’s all the same.

Samir Husni: What is the difference between selling Martha and Rachael Ray? Do you do anything differently?

Christine Guilfoyle: Do I do anything differently because of the two women? I would say that I do everything differently than I did seven years ago. I do everything differently than I did three years ago. The basic fundamentals of sales account management kind of guides me, they’re my guiding principles, but how I would talk about Rachael or Martha, or Jo as it relates to The Magnolia Journal; I talk about each one of those women in a very different way because they are different, but also because the time of which my assignment corresponds to the external ad market is different.

When I went from Better Homes & Gardens and Martha to Shape, which was almost three years ago, every single thing that I did at Shape, not just because it was a new category to me, but because the market was moving so quickly, was incredibly different in how I rallied the sales team, the marketing team and the editorial infrastructure from a go-to-market standpoint than I had done two and half years ago when I first got to Better Homes & Gardens from Rachael Ray.

Samir Husni: It seems to me that your career has been like a walk in a rose garden.

Christine Guilfoyle: A walk in a rose garden? I would say that I love to smell the roses and I try to avoid the prickers. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: How has the role of publisher, chief revenue officer, changed over the last five years?

Christine Guilfoyle: I can’t talk about the overarching role because I think that everyone brings their own individual experience and expertise to a job. I can tell you how it has changed for me because it’s what I personally own and can control.

To me, I feel like there was a time in my career where I really was a management role, where I, as much as I like to get out and about and I think it is something that I can do because of the relationships that I have, I had full staffs of very senior people in all of the key markets and I could just do my flyover to say thank you. I now feel like my role, if we’re going to talk about titles, senior vice president group publisher, that’s my title, but I’m a super sales person.

Every team is leaner; there are far more people internally because of our new Brady Bunch family that I need to continually look to educate, to differentiate, to be solution-based so that both the people internally in the broader Meredith Corporation, the corporate digital foundry, are educated on the nuance of my brand, Martha Stewart Living. And I am going out into the market to make sure that I am blocking and tackling and driving revenue to each and every issue and/or platform every single day.

Samir Husni: Give me your elevator pitch on how you differentiate Martha Stewart Living brand from the rest of the competitors in the marketplace.

Christine Guilfoyle: That’s a very good question. She’s the original. In a world that is infatuated with celebrity and/or influencers, Martha Stewart is the original. And she practices what she preaches. There is nothing that we cover from a content-based standpoint that she herself has not done. That she has not intellectually curious about; where she has not rolled up her sleeves and participated in the action. And that’s home, food, travel, entertaining, etc. She is the original.

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

Christine Guilfoyle: First of all, I want to say thank you for wanting to talk to me. I think the thing for me is that although I have had a lot of jobs, I have never been in a position in my eight years back at the company where I have ever been allowed to be bored (Laughs). And I think that’s a gift because if that had not happened, up until the last seven years, like Martha says, when you stop living you’re dead; when you’re afraid of change I think you’re out. I feel like my career here has very much paralleled Martha’s life mission. And I feel invigorated and grateful that I have been given the opportunity here at the company to do all that I have been able to do.

Being able to meet Rachael Ray at the start – really the start, because when she was on the Food Network it was not what it is today. And to sit around the kitchen table with her and John (Cusimano), who was not her husband at the time, to launch her magazine, that’s extraordinary. It’s an experience that can’t be taken away. And then to get to work on it twice, that was just icing on the cake.

To launch The Magnolia Journal for the Meredith Corporation, which will go down as its most successful launch probably ever, that’s pretty cool. To onboard the Martha Stewart Living brand for the company and have it as my sole assignment during these highly disruptive days, that’s amazing.

Samir Husni: Last time we talked, I asked you if you could have one thing tattooed upon your brain that no one would ever forget about you, what would it be and you said don’t take anything for granted. Have you changed your tattoo or is that still true?

Christine Guilfoyle: No, I don’t know that I would change that tattoo. And I think about in today’s world, think about what has just gone on. The closing of Redbook, and when I say closing, the moving to digital, but we all know what that means, it means taking resources away from traditional platforms. Redbook is not a surprise to me, and probably not to you.

The rumor of Glamour, that scares me to the core of what it is that I have learned. A brand like that, that I have competed against, a newsstand giant, that quakes me to the core as somebody who has studied and championed and heralded the industry, so no, I don’t take a single thing for granted. And I remind myself of that every single day.

Samir Husni: Here’s a question that I borrowed from one of our graduate students who now works for 60 Minutes, she asked Paul McCartney: what do you think is the biggest misconception about you?

Christine Guilfoyle: About me personally? (Laughs) That’s a good one. A long time ago Tom Harty and Dick Porter in our TV Guide days said I am too emotional. In my performance review when I moved from Better Homes & Gardens to Shape, Doug Olson told me that I was not as excited about the move from BH&G to Shape as the company would have liked me to be.

So, I don’t know if that was a misconception, but I feel like the brands that I have led are like my children and the people at those brands become part of my family literally. And ultimately, I do in fact love all of them and all of the brands. But I have favorites, so maybe the most common misconception is that I become too emotionally connected, but I would say that in each and every assignment I never ever lose sight of the P&L and what it is that I have to do to drive the business. Never.

Samir Husni: Anything changed about what keeps you up at night these days?

Christine Guilfoyle: Outside of my teenaged daughters? No. What keeps me up at night is each and every close, and each and every client, and I would say this whole native and editorial integration – I think there are brands, Allrecipes for example, another brand that I helped my good buddy Steve Grune, who I hired to the company, launch. I think that Allrecipes is a brand made for client integration. I grapple with integration as it relates to a brand that has a real person attached to it. Not because of the women, and by all means I am not leaving out Chip (Gaines), I am not anti-Chip Gaines. (Laughs) But as you and I have discussed, it is truly Joanna who is the editorial driver.

I think that editorial integration in celebrity brands is more delicate. I don’t want to say more challenging, I think it’s more delicate, because again, it’s about the consumer. You have to make sure that the integration is authentic to the consumer. And I don’t know that agencies and/or clients fully understand intellectually the relationship that the content and the consumer have and the level of authenticity around the integration.

Samir Husni: Does this make your job even tougher?

Christine Guilfoyle: Well, I don’t know that it’s even tougher; I think as a steward of the brand I am more diligent. I’m more involved and more critical of the agency and our client/partner, because if we do something that is not brand-true, we will hear about it.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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“Iconic Magazine Covers” By Ian Birch… A Book You WANT To OWN. A Mr. Magazine™ Musing

October 4, 2018

I have been known to drop everything to engage with a magazine that captures my attention (and lately there have been quite a few of those). But to be completely honest, never, and I do mean never, have I dropped everything to engage with a book. Yesterday I did just that, right after I received and read the intro to “Iconic Magazine Covers” by Ian Birch. I could not stop reading it. I lost myself in the reading experience. When I reached page 251, I was surprised at how much time had passed and what an awe-inspiring experience it was reading this book.

The inside stories of one iconic magazine cover after the other since the late 1950s, told by the folks who actually created them, were riveting. There were no slow moments reading the book; I felt as though I “wolfed” it down. Today, I am starting to digest the rich content and the wonderful stories that can only be told in print, where you can look and touch the cover as you read its creation story.

Ian Birch has been called the “Irish Magazine Whisperer,” and unlike his nickname, this book has no whispers. It comes out loud and clear: magazine covers tell stories and engage readers-turned-customers like no other medium. Unlike a newspaper front page or an opening scene in a movie or television program, the magazine cover tells the entire story of the magazine and solidifies its DNA, issue in and issue out.

Iconic covers, 94 of them, ranging from the little known One, The Homosexual Viewpoint, magazine cover from 1958, to the famous Esquire and National Lampoon covers, Vanity Fair and Spy, to Time Out, Nova, Private Eye and The New York Times Sunday Magazine. The stories of how those covers were created are even more captivating than the covers themselves.

The book is not only about stories well told, but more about stories that need to be told. Ian Birch may be a little pessimistic about the future of magazines quoting Kurt Andersen, the co-founder of Spy magazine and former editor of Colors magazine, “Eventually, they’ll become like sailboats,” he said. “They don’t need to exist anymore. But people will still love them, and make them and buy them.” A quick visit to any marina will amaze you by the number of sailboats out there, every size, every shape, and every price range.

Yes, people don’t need sailboats, and yes people don’t need magazines. People want sailboats and people want magazines. As long as we have people we will have magazines. And as long as people are made from flesh, bones and blood, magazines will continue to be made from words and pictures; ink, and paper; because if it is not ink on paper, it is not a magazine.

The book is “Iconic Magazine Covers,” a Firefly Book, authored by Ian Birch, who “asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this book.” ISBN: 13:978-0-2281-0117-8 You WANT to have a copy of this book on your coffee table, on your nightstand, or in your office. If you LOVE magazines you will LOVE Iconic Magazine Covers. Tell them Mr. Magazine™ told you so.

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Bauer Media Group USA’s CEO, Steven Kotok, To Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni: “…We’re Just Reader-First”…The Mr. Magazine™ Interview

October 3, 2018

The women’s service readers definitely like the experience of buying something in print. As much as they love the product and as proud of the product as we are, the buying experience is a big part of it as well. We’re growing our subscriptions, but the physical act of making the purchase from the supermarket and giving yourself a treat after a long day, that is part of the pleasure of these products. Even if some of the information is available online, it’s that retail experience that ultimately excites our consumers.” Steven Kotok…

Bauer Media Group USA publishes the top 2 selling magazines at retail, Woman’s World #1 and First for Women #2. And with newsstands declining and single copy sales fading, that is no small feat. Steven Kotok is CEO of Bauer Media Group and believes that the secret to those titles’ success is really no secret: they connect with their readers on every level.

I spoke with Steven recently and we talked about his two years and counting at Bauer. In 2016 when Steven first took over the reins I spoke with him about his then new position and goals for the company. So this time around we discussed whether he felt the company was stronger today than it was a year ago. His answer was an emphatic yes. After whittling things down a bit at Bauer by American Media acquiring Bauer’s celebrity and teen brands, Steven said the company could now put all of their energies behind their successful and reliable women’s service group and continue with their highly popular SIPs, especially in the food category. They also retained their two soap opera titles, which he attributed to the loyalty of the audience that keeps them healthy and strong.

It was a very interesting conversation as Steven gave us a status report on how things have moved forward since his coming onboard and a few changes he has implemented, such as a digest-sized First for Women SIP that was added. But the one thing that hasn’t changed in those two years is his dedication to the reader and his continued belief that above all else Bauer and its very loyal audience maintain a great connection. And that they continue to do what Bauer does best, provide the reader with the content they want. And now the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Steven Kotok, CEO, Bauer Media Group USA.

But first the sound-bites:

On what’s going on at Bauer today: I started at Bauer two years ago, October 3, 2016. In that time we’ve been, I don’t want to say transforming the company, because it was a very healthy company, but definitely shifting the way we do things. The primary metric of the company previously had really been newsstand copy sales. We’re looking a lot more now at margins. So one thing we did is raise prices across the portfolio in January 2017, three or four months after I started. We have a very loyal audience, especially these days. You know I think we benefit from the fact that we’re one of the last publishers really focusing on the newsstand and that kind of engagement with the reader. And so in a sense we have some of those markets to ourselves.

On whether he has any worries about newsstands since Bauer has the number one and number two magazines when it comes to single copy sales: We have fears as much as independent publications, all have fears for their own reasons. It’s a tough time of rapid transitions, so anyone who is sleeping well at night probably isn’t doing their job. But this is where we’re dominant and this is where we make our money, so we do want to diversify, but we can’t really change our stock either. We can’t suddenly become a luxury, ad-driven company. We do things our way with a reader-engaged product. It’s definitely scary and we’re definitely pushing further into subscriptions as a way for us to leverage the reader connection that we have, but still be able to not live and die on any one channel.

On Bauer’s secret recipe that gives Woman’s World and First for Women the number one and number two spots when it comes to sales on newsstands: I don’t know if it’s a secret recipe so much as it’s that we’re really playing a different game than a lot of other publications. If you look at some recent redesigns of other titles in the space you really see a redesign focused on persuading advertisers that this is a product read by millennials or being a nice ad environment. And that stuck. There’s nothing wrong with that, those magazines run great businesses and they work at what they do and they’re smart, but we are doing something else. We’re wholly focused on the reader and we won’t make the compromises for other channels of revenue.

On what’s cooking on the backburner for Bauer: A lot more food titles. We find that in addition to selling well, they’re very reliable. If we do what we know how to do, with all of our years – I tried to calculate once how many recipes we’ve run in Woman’s World, 52 issues a year for 40 years. And we’ve produced a lot of recipes on any given thing, which isn’t just a great source of content, but we just know what people care about. So, the food SIPs have really been successful for us and again, not just because they sell nicely, but because the SIP market is kind of a hit and miss business. Some things sell great, some not so great, but food, and maybe it’s just for us because we know about markets so well, but food is very reliable.

On why he decided to keep the soap opera titles at Bauer: It’s a very healthy and dedicated audience. There’s one competitor that it beats every single week. It’s a nice business. The celebrity titles we felt weren’t that differentiated and didn’t have the same loyalty. These products really have loyalty and they’re really reliable. And we’re really good at it; we know how to do it. It’s a very stable and dedicated business. The scary thing is, again you’re dependent on the networks to broadcast soap operas. It’s not the type of audience who is going to transition to reality shows or nighttime soap operas, it’s really this is where they are. But that kind of risk aside, we hate things being out of our control, but that risk aside, it’s exactly what Bauer should be doing and what Bauer is good at, producing products that exactly connect with the right audience and do so consistently.

On what role he feels print will play in today’s multimedia market and beyond: For the reader and for advertisers it’s a different question. For advertisers I think the pendulum can swing back and forth, from what’s going to hit on the digital side and what is most effective on the print side. But on the reader’s side, it’s part of the reason that we focus on this women’s service space; we feel we have to be providing a significant service value. In a way, celebrity news does compete with digital and it doesn’t always win. The teen titles that were beloved internally, that’s a market that’s shifted to digital. I think print is going to have a very important place for certain groups of readers that we can provide value for.

On what he would consider his most pleasant moment in the two years he has been CEO of Bauer:
All my pleasant moments at all of my jobs come from things that go on with the team. It’s not as interesting to an outside audience, but at Bauer, having the first all-company holiday party in seven or eight years; having the company’s first all-hands meeting. A lot of the time two different people who have been at the company for 10 years will meet each other for the first time and watching them have these animated conversations is so great to see. Doing new things, where people at the company are stretching themselves and doing things for the first time—it’s really rewarding.

On if there has been a moment when he asked himself why he took the job at Bauer: (Laughs) There’s definitely a challenge in the supply chain. In one sense, you have really strong relationships with supply chain partners and very good personal relationships, but then there are times when you’re really adversarial. And some of those times you’re dealing with a partner that controls a significant amount of the market, and as a publisher we control a significant amount of the market, so you both have a lot of power and there’s Murphy’s Law. Some of those moments can be pretty fraught, but the individuals who run those organizations seem to be as dedicated as I am to building a good personal relationship to keep things from getting scarier than they need to be and to running good businesses. Most of those operations are privately-owned as well, they’re in it for the long term too. Those would be some of the scarier moments; anything out of your control.

On whether he feels Bauer USA is stronger today than it was a year ago: Oh yes, yes. The sustainability and strength of the company is stronger now than before we did the transaction with the other titles and before we made some of the changes to focus more on margin. So, yes, that’s kind of unquestioned. That doesn’t mean that things aren’t hard, part of the appeal of the job is that it’s a tough job. It’s strangely rewarding to take on something tough. So, it’s still tough, but as a company compared to a year ago or a year and a half ago, that part is, as I said, unquestioned.

On what he feels is the biggest misconception about himself: I don’t know that people have a lot of conceptions about me. I feel like I make a better impression as time goes on, for whatever reason. I remember when I was executive producer of Dennis Interactive, when Dennis had this digital thing and we would have these meetings with Mercedes and all of these people. The first meeting would be about how cool the programmers were and others, so I was kind of forgotten. By the fifth meeting any question anyone asked, all of the heads would swivel toward me because they knew I had the answer, so I think there’s some sense of being more of a third impression guy than a first impression guy, for whatever reason. Maybe it’s the business of being an extrovert and I’m more of an introvert, but I have noted that, the sense of being initially underestimated and that kind of recalibrating as people get to know me better.

On any big announcements he’d like to share: No big announcements. We’re working on developing big and exciting announcements. We’re starting to look more earnestly at opportunities for acquisitions. I don’t think we’ll have any big announcements until next year, but that’s a big focus here. We feel confident in our ability to operate reader-driven businesses effectively, so we’re looking for opportunities to acquire things. That’s our next big focus.

On what he would have tattooed upon his brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about him: From a business perspective it would be that I focused on and understood the reader. My whole career has been based on that; it’s just something I know how to do and that I love and the thing that’s meaningful to me. As a person, that’s kind of a tougher one. I need more self-knowledge than I have, but certainly I think as a person I would hope that people would say he cared in general about whatever was important to care about. As a business person, understanding and being focused on the reader, so maybe it is tattooed on my brain and I didn’t know.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly at his home one evening:
Since joining Bauer, my wife and I moved to the country so I can be closer to the NJ office, so sitting on our deck and just enjoying being together is our main after work activity. For dinner many nights we have a smorgasbord of dips and vegetables and snacks and cheeses and stuff—that’s our favorite thing.

On what keeps him up at night: Things outside my control. Along with the supply chain, another aspect you see now is retailers reducing the space allocated to magazines, and all those things. We know that we connect with our readers and anything that comes between us and our readers and is not in our control is going to be what keeps us up at night. The supply chain and retailers, just all of these things. It’s an appeal of the digital ecosphere, that there’s less coming between you and your readers.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Steven Kotok, CEO, Bauer Media Group.

Samir Husni: You’re the CEO of a major magazine company that’s still very heavy on single copy sales. And although you’ve downsized, you now have a trimmer, slimmer, yet more vibrant Bauer Media Group. Give me a status report; what is going on these days at Bauer?

Steven Kotok: I started at Bauer two years ago, October 3, 2016. In that time we’ve been, I don’t want to say transforming the company, because it was a very healthy company, but definitely shifting the way we do things. The primary metric of the company previously had really been newsstand copy sales. We’re looking a lot more now at margins. So one thing we did is raise prices across the portfolio in January 2017, three or four months after I started. We have a very loyal audience, especially these days. You know I think we benefit from the fact that we’re one of the last publishers really focusing on the newsstand and that kind of engagement with the reader. And so in a sense we have some of those markets to ourselves.

We repriced across the portfolio on the newsstand and that really helped the margins. Also, in terms of keeping margin and making the company healthier, we have really been pushing subscriptions, which wasn’t something that was really done in the past. And even though at the time we sold the most magazine copies on the newsstand, we actually didn’t put insert cards in a lot of those magazines, at any price. So, we really started pushing subscriptions and we grew our subscription revenue significantly. A lot of publishers will sometimes grow their subscriptions, but they might do it by actually reducing subscription revenue and reducing prices. We actually promote subscriptions at very high prices. By being more aggressive, we’re able to bring a significant increase in subscription revenue.

So, we did a lot of things like that and other less exciting stuff. And as we’ve been looking at the company and at not what just made it a bigger company, but what made it a healthier company, the notion of focusing on our women’s group where we see, not just the highest margins, but the most stable margins where we publish a product that’s utterly unique in its approach to readers. There were other products, those celebrity magazines were great magazines and had a loyal audience, but they weren’t incredibly differentiated from the competition. That entire market has seen a lot of decline and in 2017 we actually grew our ad market share and in 2018 we also grew our ad market share in celebrities and we grew our newsstand revenue market share.

And even though we were outpacing the competition, we just weren’t seeing those products get financially healthier, even though they had many years of productive life left in them; as a private company, we are really focused on the long term. It seemed the celebrity titles really needed to have one owner to get the most out of them, and we thought for the long term it was better that the owner wasn’t us. So, we made that transaction and have been focusing on the women’s group.

At the same time, we consolidated the two women’s magazines. We used to run them very much as competitive titles, but now that we have that market a little more to ourselves, in terms of the newsstand, instead of having two groups, two health groups or two beauty groups, we can kind of center all of our expertise on one group and also focus on differentiating them a little more. They still obviously compete as number one and number two, but we can balance what’s on the cover and other things. So, we put those under one editorial director and that’s really been successful.

We also put in a significant price increase toward the end of last year on First for Women, a 20 percent price increase on that, and we’ve seen First for Women generate more income than the year before. And since Carol (Brooks) took over Woman’s World, it has seen its newsstand sales up 10-15 percent. So, we’re very happy with this category. Phase one was getting margin out of our existing products and phase two was consolidating what we did in the women’s group, where we see the most likely sustainability, and phase three is really looking for acquisitions around this women’s space, where we can kind of consolidate our leadership position and grow for the long term.

Samir Husni: With that diversification of revenue from the newsstand, you’re still the number one and number two on the newsstand. Do you have any feel for all the talk about what’s going on with single copy sales? When you have the two largest selling magazines on the nation’s newsstands; are you sleeping okay at night?

Steven Kotok: (Laughs) We have fears as much as independent publications, all have fears for their own reasons. It’s a tough time of rapid transitions, so anyone who is sleeping well at night probably isn’t doing their job. But this is where we’re dominant and this is where we make our money, so we do want to diversify, but we can’t really change our stock either. We can’t suddenly become a luxury, ad-driven company. We do things our way with a reader-engaged product. It’s definitely scary and we’re definitely pushing further into subscriptions as a way for us to leverage the reader connection that we have, but still be able to not live and die on any one channel.

And that’s always been the case. The last company I ran we were wholly dependent on Google and Amazon. And at the previous company, The Week, we also wanted to get the company to a place where we could survive just on subscriptions, just on advertising, just on digital, where if any one leg of the stool went away we would still be viable because we want to live beyond any one channel or any one dependent partner. So, that’s where we’re trying to get the company and clearly right now we’re very dependent on the newsstand, But if we’re going to be dependent on something, I’d rather be number one in that space and really have a voice in the channel and know that we’re thriving as we work to make ourselves stronger over the long term.

Samir Husni: What is Bauer’s secret recipe, if you can reveal it? Or the magic that actually gives those two magazines the number one and the number two spots when it comes to sales on newsstands.

Steven Kotok: I don’t know if it’s a secret recipe so much as it’s that we’re really playing a different game than a lot of other publications. If you look at some recent redesigns of other titles in the space you really see a redesign focused on persuading advertisers that this is a product read by millennials or being a nice ad environment. And that stuck. There’s nothing wrong with that, those magazines run great businesses and they work at what they do and they’re smart, but we are doing something else. We’re wholly focused on the reader and we won’t make the compromises for other channels of revenue.

If you look at any one of our covers for Woman’s World, a lot of natural remedies, all very medically tested and our editor in chief has a health background and is rigorous about what goes in the magazine, but a lot of other titles just won’t cover that because it’s something that pharmaceutical advertisers don’t like. We still get pharmaceutical advertising because we have a very large audience and we have very, very little overlap with other publications. We have an audience that if you want to reach them you have to come through us, but that’s just an area of emphasis. What choices you make as a brand; we’re always going to put what helps the reader and what the reader wants first. So, there’s no secret sauce, it’s really just what game you’re playing.

Samir Husni: I noticed that you’ve continued with your line of SIPs, such as the food magazines. And you’ve introduced the digest size of First for Women, a special SIP. What else are you planning; what’s cooking on the backburner?

Steve Kotok: (Laughs) A lot more food titles; we find that those are very – they don’t just sell well, but they’re reliable. If we do what we know how to do, with all of our years – I tried to calculate once how many recipes we’ve ran in Woman’s World, 52 issues a year for going on 40 years. And we’ve done a lot of recipes on any given thing, which isn’t just a great source of content, but we just know what people care about. So, the food SIPs have really been successful for us and again, not just because they sell nicely, but because many times the SIP market is kind of a hit and miss business. Some things sell great, some not so great, but food, and maybe it’s just for us because we know about markets so well, but food is very reliable.

We know if we do something on Mediterranean food or gluten-free or something, we’re going to get it right and we’re going to find our audience. So, we see ourselves doing a lot more of that. Other areas have been more hit and miss, and maybe that’s the nature of the business. But it’s also a very saturated market, so we’re trying to find areas where we can really be the best and rely on our expertise and know that we’re going to put out our best product. In some areas, you’ll see five or ten products on the exact same thing and a lot of copycat products. But we’ll be doing more of that, but it can be a tough market because of the saturation.

Samir Husni: And you kept the soap opera magazines, the CBS and ABC soap opera titles. Why did you decide to keep those?

Steven Kotok: It’s just a very healthy and dedicated audience. There’s one competitor that it beats every single week. It’s just such a nice business. The celebrity titles we felt weren’t that differentiated and didn’t have the same loyalty. These products really have loyalty and they’re really reliable. And we’re really good at it; we know how to do it. It’s just a very stable and dedicated business. The scary thing is, again you’re dependent on the networks to broadcast soap operas. It’s not the type of audience who is going to transition to reality shows or nighttime soap operas, it’s really this is where they’re at. But that kind of risk aside, we hate things being out of our control, but that risk aside, it’s exactly what Bauer should be doing and what Bauer is good at, producing products that exactly connect with the right audience and do so reliably.

Samir Husni: With your background, you’ve been in print, in digital; what role do you feel print will play in 2018 and beyond with the multimedia mix that’s out there today?

Steve Kotok: For the reader and for advertisers it’s a different question. For advertisers I think the pendulum can swing back and forth, from what’s going to hit on the digital side and what is most effective on the print side, and now you have an issue with not everyone that’s buying print is even that familiar with it, so the effectiveness doesn’t even interest them as much as we feel it should.

But on the reader’s side, it’s part of the reason that we focus on this women’s service space; we feel we have to be providing a significant service value. In a way, celebrity news does compete with digital and it doesn’t always win. The teen titles that were beloved internally, that’s a market that’s shifted to digital. I think print is going to have a very important place for certain groups of readers that we can provide value for. As a company and as a person, I’m not pro-print, anti-print; you see what’s going on in other companies and they’re trying to be digital-first and we’re just reader-first. We’re going to be the last guy trying to push a print magazine if that’s not what readers want; it’s reader-first.

The women’s service readers definitely like the experience of buying something in print. As much as they love the product and as proud of the product as we are, the buying experience is a big part of it as well. We’re growing our subscriptions, but the physical act of making the purchase from the supermarket and giving yourself a treat after a long day, that is part of the pleasure of these products. Even if some of the information is available online, it’s that retail experience that ultimately excites our consumers.

People talk about retail becoming an event, an entertainment, and a retail-tainment, I’m sure that may be possible, but I think on a very micro level, just buying something that’s for you, that you feel like understands who you are and is a treat, that in itself is a kind of micro retail entertainment. Print will have a role, a very significant role.

Samir Husni: In the two years that you’ve been heading up Bauer, what would you consider the most pleasant moment you have experienced?

Steven Kotok: All my pleasant moments at all of my jobs come from things that go on with the team. It’s not as interesting to an outside audience, but at Bauer, having the first all-company holiday party in seven or eight years; having the company’s first all-hands meeting. A lot of the time two different people who have been at the company for 10 years will meet each other for the first time and watching them have these animated conversations is so great to see. Doing new things, where people at the company are stretching themselves and doing things for the first time—it’s really rewarding.

When I think back on previous jobs, that’s the stuff I remember much more than the “wins,” which when looking back in time, the world changes so much the “wins” aren’t necessarily as relevant, but the people who you see move into leadership positions is what lasts. So, all of my pleasant moments have been that.

Bauer was a very well-run company before I got here, but I think kind of opening it up and making it less about the individual brands and more about the company as a whole, doing things like the one holiday party instead of a bunch, and all-hands meeting, that’s personally rewarding.

Samir Husni: And has there been a moment where you asked yourself why you took this job?

Steven Kotok: (Laughs) There’s definitely a challenge in the supply chain. In one sense, you have really strong relationships with supply chain partners and very good personal relationships, but then there are times when you’re really adversarial. And some of those times you’re dealing with a partner that controls a significant amount of the market, and as a publisher we control a significant amount of the market, so you both have a lot of power and there’s Murphy’s Law. Some of those moments can be pretty fraught, but the individuals who run those organizations seem to be as dedicated as I am to building a good personal relationship to keep things from getting scarier than they need to be and to running good businesses. Most of those operations are privately-owned as well, they’re in it for the long term too. Those would be some of the scarier moments; anything out of your control.

Samir Husni: Do you feel that Bauer USA is on stronger footing today than it was a year ago?

Steven Kotok: Oh yes, yes. The sustainability and strength of the company is stronger now than before we did the transaction with the other titles and before we made some of the changes to focus more on margin. So, yes, that’s kind of unquestioned. That doesn’t mean that things aren’t hard, part of the appeal of the job is that it’s a tough job. It’s strangely rewarding to take on something tough. So, it’s still tough, but as a company compared to a year ago or a year and a half ago, that part is, as I said, unquestioned.

What we do going forward and how we make ourselves even stronger, that’s the part tougher to say, whether we’ll be 100 percent stronger a year, two years, three years from now, but we feel that we’re making the same types of decisions for the same right reasons as the previous ones that worked out.

Samir Husni: This is a question that one of our former students,Sharyn Elizabeth Alfonsi, who works for 60 minutes now, asked Paul McCartney and I really love the question, so I figure I am going to use it in every interview I do since she was a former student: what’s the biggest misconception about you, Steven?

Steven Kotok: I don’t know that people have a lot of conceptions about me. I feel like I make a better impression as time goes on, for whatever reason. I remember when I was executive producer of Dennis Interactive, when Dennis had this digital thing and we would have these meetings with Mercedes and all of these people. The first meeting would be about how cool the programmers were and others, so I was kind of forgotten. By the fifth meeting any question anyone asked, all of the heads would swivel toward me because they knew I had the answer, so I think there’s some sense of being more of a third impression guy than a first impression guy, for whatever reason. Maybe it’s the business of being an extrovert and I’m more of an introvert, but I have noted that, the sense of being initially underestimated and that kind of recalibrating as people get to know me better.

Samir Husni: Is there anything you’d like to add? Any big announcements you’d like to share?

Steven Kotok: (Laughs) No big announcements. We’re working on developing big and exciting announcements. We’re starting to look more earnestly at opportunities for acquisitions. I don’t think we’ll have any announcements until next year, but that’s a big focus here. We feel confident in our ability to operate reader-driven businesses effectively, so we’re looking for opportunities to acquire things. That’s our next big focus.

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

Steven Kotok: From a business perspective it would be that I focused on and understood the reader. My whole career has been based on that; it’s just something I know how to do and that I love and the thing that’s meaningful to me. As a person, that’s kind of a tougher one. I need more self-knowledge than I have, but certainly I think as a person I would hope that people would say he cared in general about whatever was important to care about. As a business person, understanding and being focused on the reader, so maybe it is tattooed on my brain and I didn’t know.

Samir Husni: Last time we talked in 2016, I asked you if I showed up unexpectedly at your home one evening after work, what would I find you doing, reading a magazine, watching television, cooking, or something else, and you said winding down for you was cooking and having a glass of wine. Are you still doing that or your life is now busier than ever?

Steven Kotok: Since joining Bauer, my wife and I moved to the country so I can be closer to the NJ office, so sitting on our deck and just enjoying being together is our main after work activity. For dinner many nights we have a smorgasbord of dips and vegetables and snacks and cheeses and stuff—that’s our favorite thing

Samir Husni: What keeps you up at night these days?

Steven Kotok: Things outside my control. Along with the supply chain, another aspect you see now is retailers reducing the space allocated to magazines, and all those things. We know that we connect with our readers and anything that comes between us and our readers and is not in our control is going to be what keeps us up at night. The supply chain and retailers, just all of these things. It’s an appeal of the digital ecosphere, that there’s less coming between you and your readers.

So, anything that comes between us and our readers. I never worry about whether we’re connecting with our readers or serving our readers. We work like hell to make sure we are, so we worry about it in essence, but we don’t really worry. We don’t wonder because we have such instant feedback and look into it in such depth. Anything that comes between us and our readers and isn’t in our control is going to keep us up at night.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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