Michael Clinton on Why Hearst Is Winning the Publishing Game

by Ashley Baker
Michael Clinton

As Hearst’s president of marketing and publishing director, Michael Clinton has been ensuring his company’s success throughout one of  the most disruptive periods in media history. As he gallops into 2019, Clinton takes stock.

How are you feeling about what’s happening in media as 2019 kicks off?
There’s a big shift back to quality. A lot of advertisers who were chasing the shiny, new thing have come to the realization that content matters, context matters, quality matters, and real people who consume content matter. You’ve got to be aligned with brands that have authority and legitimacy.

Why are Hearst brands in particular poised to benefit from this attitude?
It takes a long time to build a brand with trust. Whether it’s in media or fashion, there are always new players coming in. But [Hearst has] the consistency, longevity, commitment. We’ve been at it for decades and decades, always moving with the culture. The big difference now is that we do that not just in print but in digital, social, video, and other platforms. That allows us to lean into that legacy, but [moving it into] the modern world.

Events are an important part of your business. What was the impetus behind building those, and how have they grown throughout the past few years?
We’ve been aggressive on the events front, and we’re going to be even more aggressive in the future. Harper’s Bazaar Icons, the [Town & Country] Philanthropy Summits, the Marie Claire Power Trip, and Elle’s Women in Hollywood event are all important for the franchises, and we’ll build on those. But we also have the ambition to build, and we’ll be doing bigger, consumer-centric events off of those brands and others. Imagine opening it up to even more people to come and experience our brands in unique and different ways.

You recently announced some major changes on the publishing side of the business.
I think we have the best talent in the business, and being able to promote from within is always my No. 1 priority. Donna Lagani, the publisher at Cosmopolitan for a long, long time, had been talking to us for a year about a new career. She’d been interested in philanthropy, and she landed at the Hearst Foundation. That opened up some movement in the company. Nancy Berger, who was the very successful publisher of Marie Claire, now moves into that seat. Jennifer Levene Bruno, who has run Town & Country very successfully for 10 years, had been the publisher of Veranda and the associate publisher of House Beautiful. So as [Hearst Design Group publisher] Kate [Kelly Smith] announced that she was going to go to her third chapter, it gave us an opportunity to have Jenn expand her portfolio. With Nancy’s move, we were able to promote from within with Blair Hecht, who was the longtime No. 2 at Elle.

How are you selling these brands at the moment?
We’re kind of agnostic, actually. With our partners, we ask, “What are they looking for? What are they trying to solve? What is their objective?” Sometimes, that’s a video-first approach; sometimes, it’s a native content approach first; sometimes, it’s print first. It really doesn’t matter to us, because we can bring a solution to [marketers] on any and all platforms. At the end of last year, we repositioned our entire go-to-market strategy, which is called Hearst Media Solutions — tell us your goal, we’ll come back to you with a solution. So that can include many things, and there are a lot of dimensions to the relationship, which allows us to grow our revenue in many ways.

Hearst has a reputation for hiring, and also promoting, star performers. What are you looking for when you hire these days?
Creativity and innovation on the publishing side is just as relevant as it is on the editorial side. I look for executives who are fluid and creative when finding solutions for a particular client. You have to have expertise built into your skill set, so you understand the important role that print plays. Particularly in the fashion luxury world, there’s such a deep community, and editorial relationships that are really unique and important. You also have to understand what roles digital and native content may play.

For the past several years, we’ve been talking about native content quite a bit. Is it as important as ever?
Explosive. We’ve done huge projects over the past year; we’re doing a lot in the fashion luxury space. We’ve done major projects with Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Rolex, Armani, Tod’s, and others. The beauty is that we can help brands create a lot of assets that live in a lot of places through our content relationships. That, combined with data insights and segmentation, is really a big part of our go-to-market [strategy].

We’ve seen a lot of print titles shutter in the past year. Why isn’t that happening at Hearst?
Our editors are very much on the pulse of the culture, and of their readers. You have to evolve an editorial product; you can’t just make a sharp right turn and think everyone is going to follow. The best editors will always say, “If you pick up an issue from six months ago, you’ll say, ’Wow! That’s really different from [what the issue looks like] today!’ ” But you’d never notice it, because we’ve been really great at bringing the reader along. We’ve also made big commitments to print. Our fashion luxury books are oversize, and we’re committed to high production and quality. We’ve made huge investments to our print products, and maintain those, as opposed to others who have not. Our consumer responds to that. Our editors are really good at finding unique ways to tell a story, and the customers connect to that. I think a great example of that this past year is the project we did with Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey, which was a new type of editorial approach. Portions of that interview landed in seven or eight of our titles. I call that an “editorial happening,” and we’ll do more of that in the future. We’ve always been very print-proud, in addition to being very digitally proud. I think others have moved away from their heritage. We embrace our heritage, build off of those products, and then expand into other platforms; that’s our difference.

It’s good to be Hearst!
[Laughs] It’s good to be Hearst.

You sound very optimistic.
I’m an optimistic person, for starters, and we’ve had huge success in our global, digital offering that is unique for a multi-titled publisher. We’re making huge investments, and we have more data-consumer insights and segmentation, which is going to be a game changer. We now produce more fashion luxury content than any other media company in the world, in both the U.S. and globally. We’re the No. 1 partner for fashion luxury brands in their print and digital businesses. We’re well poised to add muscle to that in the things we do. One of the things that has been explosive for us has been the huge digital growth, particularly with Harper’s Bazaar, which has about 26 million uniques. I kind of always chuckle when a site is born. They have a few million uniques and proclaim that they’re the next big thing, and you’ve never even heard the name. Well, the fashion consumer knows Harper’s Bazaar’s [name], and 26 million uniques have real impact. Our big strategy on the content side at Hearst this year is something we call “Content With Purpose,” which is born out of data insights. We have a proprietary tool that allows us to mine the insights of our consumers to then create the content that really has great connection. This is [chief content officer] Kate Lewis’s initiative.

We really enjoyed your latest photography book, Santa Fe. What’s next?
I’ve done eight photography books, and I also wrote a book called The Globetrotter Diaries. I’m writing another book — a type of memoir — that’s coming out at the end of the year.

Between running the publishing side of Hearst and traveling all over the world, where do you find time to write books?
It’s built into my personality. People who do many, many things are just wired that way. I’m not particularly unique. I think of the old expression “Give a busy person more to do.” People will always say, “Do you ever relax?” Working on this project or training for a marathon is relaxing to me. I’ve never been a couch potato; I need to be busy. Life is a banquet.

Take a closer look at Hearst’s newly promoted executives.

1. Kevin O’Malley
Senior Vice President, Publishing Director/Chief Revenue Officer of ELLE and Marie Claire

Kevin O’Malley

Star sign: Cancer
Lives in: Rye, New York. “I moved out of the city years ago — my four boys need space and fields!”
Leisure pursuits: “Spending time with my family, reading, and training in new, different ways.”
If you weren’t a publisher… “I’d be working in the entertainment industry. My dream job is playing pro soccer in the European league.”
Pro tip: “Pay careful attention to how new technologies are used by consumers (i.e. AR), offers insights on pathways for brands to follow. Be wary of AI. It may be predictive, but that doesn’t make it prescriptive.”
Favorite recent read: Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande

2. Blair Hecht
Publisher of Marie Claire

Blaire Hecht

Star sign: Sagittarius
Lives in: Pelham, New York
Leisure Pursuit: Traveling
If you weren’t a publisher… “I’d be working full-time with a nonprofit organization supporting underprivileged kids, such as WIN or Association to Benefit Children. In fact, my New Years’ resolution is to commit more time to both of those organizations in 2019.”
Pro tip: “In our busy, fast-paced world, find, and more importantly, work hard to stay connected and in touch with a mentor you respect and admire, professionally and personally. The onus is on you to stay in touch, but these relationships are invaluable both for your career and your life.”
Favorite recent read: The Lightkeeper’s Daughters, by Jean E. Pendziwol

3. Nancy Berger
Senior vice president, publishing director/chief revenue officer of Cosmopolitan, Women’s Health, and Seventeen

Nancy Berger

Star sign: Leo/Virgo cusp
Lives in: New York City. “I recently moved back from Westchester, and I’m loving my new commute from the Upper East Side to the Hearst Tower.”
Leisure pursuit: “Walking
our Bernedoodle puppy, Madison, in Central Park.”
If you weren’t a publisher… “I would be a professor teaching sales and marketing. I would also teach SoulCycle on the side.”
Pro tip: “Ask for forgiveness, not permission.”
Favorite recent read: Leadership: In Turbulent Times, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

4. Jennifer Levene Bruno
Vice President, Publishing Director/Chief Revenue Officer of Town & Country, House Beautiful, Veranda, and Elle Decor

Jennifer Levene Bruno

Star sign: Aquarius
Lives in: “The Jerz, on a mountain overlooking a lake.”
Leisure pursuit: “Exercise, at 5 a.m. in my home gym on weekdays. I got into biking last year and signed up for a Jersey Shore 55-mile ride benefiting Alzheimer’s Association.”
If you weren’t a publisher…“It’s a toss-up between executive recruiting or a nutritionist, as both focus on wellness and personal development.”
Pro tip: “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement.”
Favorite recent read: The Other Wes Moore, by Wes Moore

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