A lot of legacy publications out there are struggling, but not The Atlantic. You attribute part of its success to running it like a startup. What makes startups good role models?
There’s a lot of money flowing into the Buzzfeeds, the Voxes and the Mashables of the world. These guys are no longer five dudes in a garage – they’re much bigger than that.
The idea is that they move fast, they aren’t hierarchical, they take risks, they have less to lose, and they generally hire young, hard-working, aggressive and smart people who are passionate about their brand and their mission.
They iterate. They launch things fast. If it doesn’t work they’ve got data that tells them it doesn’t work and then they might kill it or modify it.
But isn’t it risky? The Atlantic, after all, isn’t a startup. It’s a large operation with a storied past and is accountable in a different way.
If you want to compete with the up-and-comers, you’ve got to act like them. Are there risks to it? Do you have that luxury as a storied brand? It’s an existential question. I don’t think you have a choice.
Launching new products and channels, stretching the brand into new categories – those aren’t risks, though there are areas where you want to be a little more careful to maintain trust and brand credibility.
If you want to compete with the up-and-comers, you’ve got to act like them. Are there risks to it? Do you have that luxury as a storied brand? It’s an existential question. I don’t think you have a choice. Tweet
One asset media brands like The Atlantic and Time have that most digital startups don’t, is print. Do you see print as a competitive advantage?
I think so. I’ve come around on this a little bit. It was not so long ago you heard people saying that owning a magazine or a print asset was a huge legacy problem. Digital doesn’t cannibalize print. It actually reinforces it.
Everyone predicted four or six years ago that with the rise of reading devices people would abandon magazines. They haven’t. The newsstand is suffering because you don’t need to pick up a magazine while you’re in transit anymore – you’ve got plenty of reading material on your Kindle or your iPad or iPhone – but people still like getting a magazine at home.
That’s changed my perception, certainly, and I get to see the numbers that show print actually gets to be a real competitive advantage.
And that’s what a lot of digital-first guys don’t have. They have to fight and grind it out on the advertising side and they are dealing with increasing pressure on CPMs from programmatic advertising, so they’ve got to keep scaling the size of their website to get more and more unique visitors.
So the competitive advantage is in print subscriptions, specifically?
Yes, we have seen growth there but at the same time we have also seen growth in live events and digital advertising. I think there’s been a fear in the industry that one would hurt the other.
This is marketing speak in some ways, but I really don’t think of The Atlantic at all as a monthly magazine. I think of The Atlantic as an ideas platform. A platform for debate and discussion around provocative ideas, which is what it was designed to be.
When you think of yourself as a platform then you can do all kinds of things to fulfill that mission. It’s not about being a magazine, it’s about being a platform.
It’s not about being a magazine, it’s about being a platform.
At this point, we’ve moved past the print-to-web migration and are now seeing the launch of mobile-first publications, like Quartz. How are you looking at this new content challenge?
With mobile, you’ve got some of the opposite problems of when you build for a desktop-sized screen and work your way down. Now you’ve got to retrofit advertising back into a huge screen for the desktop.
But what’s key is that the mobile future is not only coming, it’s here. People are going to read on small screens throughout the day and throughout the morning and night.
It’s smarter as a publisher to start thinking about not only what your audience needs but what they are doing at different parts of the day. How do you program the right content for them? That’s one piece of it.
I think you’ll start seeing publishers hiring mobile editors to think about that. What’s your email team doing? What’s your overnight team doing for mobile?
Then, of course, you have to get the monetization model going. How do you make money on these devices? That always lags by a couple years. You’ve got to get everybody on the same page – the agency, the clients and the publishers.
Speaking of monetization, “programmatic” seems to be the buzzword of the day, alongside “native.” Some are calling it the next great hope of the advertising world. Is it?
In publishing everyone’s always looking at what the next big saviour will be and I’m definitely not someone who believes that there is one.
Programmatic is still developing, clearly. It’s not going away. The idea that very, very efficiently, advertising and trading desks can find certain individuals on certain websites at certain times, makes a lot of sense.
The Atlantic decided to experiment with it last summer after many years of shunning it because of the possibility it would cannibalize our directly sold business.
So why have we decided to do this? Because for publishers like us, the market is dividing into two very different types of advertising: We’ve got high-end, multi-platform, generally content-based custom campaigns that we run for Fortune 500 companies. For us that’s 70 to 80 percent of our advertising business.
We still do some direct display advertising buys. Then the small piece, which is growing for us, is programmatic.
I think what you’ll start seeing – you saw Time cut a deal with Google for a private exchange, for example – is premium brands that have leverage in the market working more closely with clients and agencies through direct premium programmatic channels.
Both that market and the so-called native advertising market, which is a terrible name for it, are both growing pretty fast.
Right now they’re not being bought through the same desk. They’re separate. They have different goals and objectives and if you have some level of scale, you can really benefit from both.
Native advertising isn’t going away, either, but neither are its critics. In a recent article in The Guardian, media critic Bob Garfield calls it a Faustian bargain. Is that overblown?
I don’t think it’s a Faustian bargain at all. Do there need to be high standards and labels and guidelines? Absolutely.
The one thing I don’t disagree with is that trust with our readership is key, so we do have to make sure that we don’t harm the brand in an effort to make money. But that’s not what we’re doing, there’s a misunderstanding there.
Also the definitions are all over the place. Just because you do content and work with a client on putting content on your website doesn’t necessarily make it native.
But native seems to be the catch phrase for anything that’s done that’s not display advertising or that runs just through the CMS. It’s just about allowing a brand to tell a story and connecting to the audience.