How Hearst’s Executives of the Year Are Building a Magazine Company for the Future

Working with brands—and competitors—keeps things fresh

Headshot of Emma Bazilian

If Hearst Magazines had a theme song, it might be the 1966 Motown classic "It Takes Two." Because if there's anything that can be credited for the 129-year-old publisher's enduring success in the often-perilous magazine business, it's Hearst's appreciation for the power of partnerships—whether with competitors, advertisers or even the partnership of its two top executives, president David Carey and president of marketing and publishing director Michael Clinton.

Hearst has invested in media entities most would consider to be competition, like ESPN and A+E Networks. More recently, it has bought into digital publishers like BuzzFeed, Vice and Refinery29. "We like to invest in companies who wake up every day trying to kill us," cracks Carey. "They want to build companies of stature, so our association helps them, and we like to be nimble, so it's a good exchange through two cultures."

Those relationships have allowed Hearst to learn important lessons that it has since applied to its own businesses. "We learn how they house their employees, how they attract their teams, and it helps us a great deal," Carey adds. "These companies know that if they don't evolve their products, they go out of business, and we want to think about that metabolism."

These companies' willingness to experiment with branded content has also informed how Hearst operates. "I think in the area of native advertising, big companies like ours, historically, have had too many rules," says Carey. "It really took BuzzFeed to be the early pioneer of native to open that door." And that has also extended to print: Hearst was one of the first magazine companies to test innovations like sponsored covers and to have editors work on branded content.

One of Hearst's buzziest recent partnerships was with Lenny Letter, the newsletter (and now site) founded by Lena Dunham and her frequent collaborator, producer Jenni Konner. Hearst now runs the back end of as well as all its ad sales, and according to the Hearst team, the association has resulted in many more upstart digital brands knocking on the company's door.

Working with individual influencers like Dunham is an increasingly important part of Carey and Clinton's strategy to keep Hearst moving forward. In 2012, the company made headlines by tapping former Paris Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld as global fashion editor of Harper's Bazaar, creating twice-yearly spreads in international editions of the fashion title. This past September, Hearst tapped Linda Wells, former EIC of Allure, to create a 16-page insert, "The Wells Report," on beauty trends. (Sponsored by Estée Lauder, it ran in 1 million select subscriber copies of Hearst titles including Elle, Harper's Bazaar, Town & Country and Marie Claire.) Next up, another Condé Nast alum, former Condé Nast Traveler editor Klara Glowczewska, will create a sponsored travel-themed insert in multiple Hearst books.

Deals like these "often have very positive, unintended consequences," says Carey. Consider Hearst's announcement last week that it will further expand its partnership with Roitfeld to encompass her own magazine, CR Fashion Book. Hearst Magazines Digital Media will now host on its proprietary MediaOS platform, while the CR Fashion Book magazine will be printed and distributed by PubWorx, a joint venture between Hearst and Condé Nast.

At a time when some publishers minimize the term "magazine," Hearst remains bullish on print. Partnering with outside brands and influencers, it's launched new magazines at a time when others are shutting them or scaling them back. In 2008, Hearst partnered with Scripps to create Food Network Magazine. The highly successful launch (which involved testing a couple of pilot issues before introducing it full force) has informed other products since, including HGTV Magazine and Dr. Oz The Good Life.

This year has seen the introduction of another couple of print brands: The pilot issue of the revived Metropolitan Home, which Hearst gained the rights to as part of its acquisition of Lagardère, debuted last spring, with the follow-up to hit newsstands in early 2017. And just last week at the Airbnb Open, Airbnb Magazine was revealed. The new title—Hearst's first stand-alone travel book—aims to fill a specific void in the market, explains Clinton. "What we learned is that there is this incredible emerging community of travelers who don't want the 'packaged' travel experience. There is a huge market of consumers who now define themselves as Airbnb-ers when they travel, and when we realized that this was a bona fide emerging community, we saw a big opportunity," he said.

Investing in new magazines certainly goes against industry and consumer trends, but for Hearst, listening to what its audience wants trumps conventional wisdom.

"An important lesson is listen to the consumer and don't talk to yourself, meaning the industry," says Clinton. "If you look at our consumer metrics for our new launches in the digital era—Food Network, Dr. Oz, HGTV—they're phenomenal. All three are in the top 10 on the newsstand."

Adds Carey: "You have the age-old 3M adage that every five years, they want 25 percent of their profits to come from products that did not exist. In our case, for 2016, between our digital businesses—which were losing money in 2010—and our Scripps ventures, those now account for 35 percent of the profits of the U.S. company. If we had not taken the steps we have done in digital, or if we had not launched these magazines, we'd be a much smaller business. You almost have no choice but to continue to innovate, because if you don't you are likely to atrophy rather than expand."

Check out the rest of this year's Hot List honorees:

This story first appeared in the November 28, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.

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@adweekemma Emma Bazilian is Adweek's features editor.