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HBO chief on factors underlying subscription growth

Talent is sacred; culture eats strategy for breakfast; brand is a magnet; and, great journalism and smart storytelling help your brand stand out in a world of white noise.

These were four of the lessons shared by HBO chairman and CEO Richard Plepler at the MPA’s American Magazine Media Conference (AMMC) in New York on 8 February. Time Inc.’s chief content officer Alan Murray interviewed Plepler in a session where the HBO chief discussed factors underlying the network’s strong, ongoing subscription growth.

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Above: Richard Plepler, HBO (left); Alan Murray, Time Inc.

Talent and a culture allowing them to thrive

Asked about HBO as a legacy brand compared to newer entrants such as Netflix, Plepler said, “brand is a magnet”, with talent and culture two key factors in driving the quality and value of brand to consumers (a further factor is storytelling, more on which below).

“We’re only as good as the talent that comes to work for us,” said Plepler. “To me, that talent is sacred… It’s all about gifted writers, directors and producers. We live and breathe that.” 

Attracting talent into the right cultural framework means people will in turn talk about it, so starting a virtuous circle to benefit of the business. Plepler shared an anecdote about actor Robert de Niro once telling him about HBO: “I’ve been doing this a long time. I don’t know what is in the water here. I have never seen this anywhere.” 

According to Plepler, the fact that “people want to come back” to do work with HBO “is our competitive advantage. Culture is the essence of success. Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” 

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Empowerment is important. While business leaders ultimately have to make decisions, allowing people the freedom to question and/or make suggestions is part and parcel of HBO culture. “If the environment is not healthy or transparent and people cannot push back on authority, you have a problem… A healthy culture where people can push back will produce healthier results every time.”

More from AMMC: An Award-winning filmmaker, a TV CEO and a magazine editor in chief on storytelling in today’s America

Brand and excellent storytelling as driving forces

According to Plepler, the HBO brand is about excellence in content. “With every decision we make, we think about elevating our brand.” This means stories are not judged only in potential audience numbers it will deliver. “That's not how we think.” 

For them, it’s about the excellence of the story as part of the overall bouquet HBO offers – “a wide range of quality (content), curated thoughtfully” to justify the $14.99/month in subscription fees. 

He said the emphasis on quality is working for the brand, as evidenced by HBO’s subscription growth over the years. “We’re going to keep doing what we do.” When something goes on HBO, people should associate it with quality. They should know when “they come here, they will be rewarded.”

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While acknowledging the HBO business model is different from magazine media, the underlying foundation is the same – investing in quality content and elevating the brand in consumers’ minds. “If you keep providing the consumer with excellent content they’ll be driven to your brand.” 

Quality storytelling should happen across genres. “We need to not only inform and enlighten our audiences, but also delight them because that’s why people turn up,” Plepler said.

More from AMMC: Factors driving growth at Forbes and Gwynnie Bee

Plepler used an analogy from politics to suggest a course of action. “In any political campaign you try to shore up your base (of loyalists), win over undecided (voters) and leave the ones you know you cannot get.” 

Magazine media executives should “shore up their base with quality content and (then) go after ‘undecideds’,” providing a premium experience of the brand.” 

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