Why these top US-based CEOs are excited by magazine media’s future

A recurring theme throughout the MPA’s American Magazine Media 360º Conference (AMMC) in New York, this was reinforced during a panel session with top CEOs on the last afternoon of the conference on Tuesday.

The panel – moderated by media columnist Michael Wolff – included Bob Sauerberg Jr., president of Condé Nast, David Carey, president of Hearst Magazines, Stephen Lacy, chairman and CEO of Meredith Corporation, Maria Rodale, chairman and CEO of Rodale and Joe Ripp, chairman and CEO of Time Inc. FIPP’s Cobus Heyl looks at some of the key points.

Content at the core, delivered to where people are

Wolff kicked off the conversation with a question on the difference between “magazines” (it is strongly associated with “print”) and “magazine media” (it is used to reflect the multi-channel [or omni-channel nature of the industry today).

Time Inc.’s Joe Ripp said “for too long” the industry defined itself by “distribution vehicle” [i.e. print as a vehicle], which was the “wrong measure” of the industry. Instead, content is at the core, with delivery of the content dictated by consumers (i.e. in whichever channel). “We have great content and it will be moved everywhere…however our consumers want to consume it…[through] whatever vehicle they choose to do so,” said Ripp.

A recent example of magazine media content transcending into new channels was the launch of brands such as Cosmo, People and National Geographic on mobile messaging app Snapchat’s new “Discovery” feature. Hearst’s Carey referred to this as an example of how the company – in this case with Cosmo – is aligning their content with where audiences are. (Carey, as well as National Geographic’s chief media officer Declan Moore, who spoke earlier in the day, were both pleasantly surprised with the Snapchat results. According to Carey, Cosmo achieved “millions of interactions” on the first day. Moore said engagements “were off the charts.”

Social media, talent and brands

With social media remaining a crucial channel to reach existing and new consumers, it was never far from the agenda at the AMMC – including in the CEOs session.

Key points included usual components such as its role in reaching audiences, increasing usage and building brands, but in addition Lacy mentioned how it helped bring print subscriptions for Meredith and Carey as a source for “talent” (e.g. YouTube stars) around which businesses can be built.

Wolff read an email exchange between him and a Facebook employee to the panel, in which the Facebook employee argued that content-centric businesses need more engineers to fully exploit the social media opportunity. The panel fully agreed with this, adding that in addition to hiring talent it is important to fully empower them, with Condé Nast’s Sauerberg telling the audience how their engineers and product people pushed the company in ways that surprised them. “When we saw that, we embedded them in the middle [with other teams].” 

With so much of consumer engagement with content now through social channels, an ongoing conversation is whether brands still matter. In response to a question about by Wolff, Carey said he does not agree with thesis as “all data suggest people will [still] go to brands they trust.” Ripp also alluded to this. “There is a lot on the Internet you cannot trust. Brands give people a sense of comfort because it is trusted content… That won’t change.”

When it comes to building online audiences, there will almost always be a question the extent to which brands should compete with “cat photos” to drive users to their content. Wolff, in a version of this question, asked whether Time Inc. wants “buzz” or trusted content, as well as to what extent they look at highly social-centric content businesses. 

Ripp agreed that it is important to consider what others are doing to attract audience, but at the same time brands need not give up creating high quality content. A case in point, he said, was the tremendous growth seen with Time’s own website, which has also gathered a large millennial audience on a stable of quality and trust.

Integrated advertising solutions

The conversation touched on the changing TV market in the US, which, as Carey put it, “is changing in front of our eyes” with “significant [advertising] dollars getting freed up.” Ripp agreed. “TV spend will move, and they [advertisers] are looking for places to spend it.”

Being multi- or omni-channel, with strong content including video as a key component of the overall offering, magazine media executives are bullish about capturing a “fair share” of the market.

According to Ripp: “There is a lot of clutter in marketplace. We all know our audiences well, we have great content and can speak to our readers in ways that others don’t. [Moreover] we can come up with comprehensive, integrated solutions that no-one else can.”

The robustness of print

While the emphasis is often on print’s decline, or death for some, the reality is it remains a business worth billions of dollars. Consider this: Lacy referred to Meredith’s recent earnings statement for the last quarter, which showed 30 per cent of advertising for its national business came from digital. The make-up of the business is therefore changing, but within this print remains hugely successful with an “ROI factor twice that of digital.”

And while print titles are disappearing, it is often the natural cycle of things with others launched again. Rodale, like others, are heavily investing in new channels, but according to Maria Rodale print at the company is very stable and she remains upbeat about its future. 

Carey added that consumer demand for print “continues to surprise some people,” while Lacy referred to the example of All Recipes, originally a desktop-only site acquired by Meredith. Not long after the acquisition the company sent out copies of a prototype All Recipes print product. Within three weeks they had 400,000 cash subscribers. “This will not work in every business, but you will see investment where audiences allow.”

Sauerberg referred to the ongoing, proven strength of print as an advertising vehicle, a medium where consumers are “completely engaged” with advertising – a strength not always reflected in conversations about print.

But…what if print dies? Overall, there is a pragmatic view of print and it’s role within the wider ecosystem, and magazine media as a whole.

Ripp said even with print in a state of decline, it is a time of “tremendous excitement” in an industry with “incredible brands,” access to content and advertisers and strong cash flows to invest in new revenue opportunities. “Don’t cry about print. Understand your strengths and capitalise on those.”

Sauerberg said, “Fear is not a strategy. I am not afraid of everything. I come to work every day and look at the print brands we have… I think of what they can be… There’s nothing really to be scared about.”

Things that excite

Here are some of the things that excite these CEOs with a view on the next 12-18 months:

  • Sauerberg: Video. It is hugely exciting and it is big, both in terms of audience and revenue. And print remains “a fantastic” medium and advertising vehicle, with opportunities to innovate.
  • Lacy: Developing digital into major profit drivers. Magazine media have invested a lot in digital. These are now at scale and companies are getting smarter at developing them into profit drivers.
  • Ripp: Investing in future businesses and employing cash flows to fund growth ideas, as well as expanding their audience and developing creative advertiser programmes.
  • Rodale: Creating awesome content and engaging audiences in new ways, whether e-commerce, learning and/or events.
  • Carey: Hearst’s global publishing platform, which allows them to roll out their brands into new territories (such as they have done with Cosmo’s online-only launches and planned launches in Nigeria and the Nordics).

Last but not least, Lacy referred to the sense of cooperation between the companies on stage, further rooted in the MPA’s Magazine Media 360º Audience Report, to make sure others understand how large the total magazine media universe (audience across platforms), as well as how it is growing.

Others will be well served to do the same for it changes the narrative from an emphasis on newsstand declines to a much more constructive narrative looking at brand performance across all channels.

More from the AMMC

How magazine media fits into the “new advertising game”

Twitter co-founder: we’re in a “publishing renaissance”

Economist exec on the role of “brand” in today’s media landscape

Condé Nast’s Vogue named US magazine of the year

More on Magazine Media 360º

Magazine media audiences grew 9.3 per cent year-on-year in the US

A changing narrative for magazines – backed by evidence

About Magazine Media 360º

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