LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- It took a return to the single life for Hugh Hefner and "The Girls Next Door" on E! to put the Playboy brand back in the spotlight, Mr. Hefner told Ad Age the week before he accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Promax/BDA Conference in Los Angeles.
"There was a point in time in the 1980s and the 1990s in which the brand was not so popular, and I think what we have seen is a tremendous resurgence to the popularity of the brand," Mr. Hefner said. "It's difficult for me on a personal level to not connect it to the fact that I was off the scene for the better part of a decade because I was married."
More recently, however, "The Girls Next Door" extension has helped Mr. Hefner, 84, and the brand recapture attention. Not only has "The Girls Next Door" consistently ranked as one of E!'s highest-rated series for more than five years, its spinoff, "Kendra," has made Mr. Hefner's former live-in girlfriend Kendra Wilkinson a reality TV star with enough fame to land the cover of celebrity magazines just for losing her baby weight. Fellow ex-"Girl Next Door" Holly Madison just debuted her own E! spinoff, "Holly's World," to solid ratings and a growing audience of female fans who previously helped 2008's Playboy-inspired comedy "The House Bunny" become a modest hit at the box office.
Christie Hefner left the CEO post at Playboy Enterprises in 2008. Last year the company formed a pact to outsource Playboy's production and ad sales to American Media, publisher of magazines including Star, Shape and Men's Fitness.
The first quarter was the first profitable one in years, Mr. Hefner said, despite a $1 million decline in revenue from the first quarter a year earlier.
Ad Age talked with him about his cultural legacy, his role as a reality TV star and his new status as a "Twitterbug."
Ad Age: You're being honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award for your 57 years as founder and editor in chief of Playboy and chief creative officer of Playboy Enterprises. When you look back at the last 50 years, what other brands or magazine do you think were influenced most by Playboy?
Mr. Hefner: I don't think any other magazine in the second half of the 20th century has had more impact on a worldwide level in terms of entertainment and communications -- I don't know if there's any other brand that has become more famous in that time frame or become more iconic. A remarkable thing for me with the brand is that's it's almost 60 years old and that it could still be growing. While the magazine part of the business has had its difficulties and print is having its difficulties, the brand itself is more famous than ever before. That's remarkable in the way things are generally. The nature of celebrity kind of ebbs and flows, and I'm glad I lived to see it.
Ad Age: What do you think has contributed to that sustained relevance?
Mr. Hefner: I do think without question it's related to brand extensions in a very unusual way. Particularly when one realizes that Playboy is a standalone brand, we're not connected to other magazines like Conde Nast or Hearst, and the extensions have taken on this unusual form. With the arrival of "Girls Next Door" on E! we captured the female part of the audience and that was a revelation and a very satisfying one for me. Over 70% of the audience for "Girls Next Door" is female, as are the spinoffs from that as well. Kendra just signed for a third season and Holly just started her own show, "Holly's World."
Ad Age: How have the TV shows affected the magazine or the brand's perception?
Mr. Hefner: Without question the television show and, some suggest, the internet have softened our image to a public audience. I also think it has to do with the fact that we live in a post-feminist time now in which a new generation of women have grown up and don't view Playboy as the enemy. They've embraced the brand to some extent as empowerment just as men did in the '60s. That's obviously true internationally. We see it in terms of the popularity of Playboy products around the world. In the mainland of China, where the magazine itself is not permitted, the brand of products is one of the most popular high-end brands. Also, the bunny is back and we're reopening a series of Playboy Clubs and Club Casinos; one of the first will be in Macau.
Ad Age: One of your most direct competitors, Maxim, tried and ultimately failed in trying to accomplish the same kind of brand extensions like its own hotel on the Vegas strip. Why is Playboy succeeding where those other brands have run into problems?
Mr. Hefner: People don't identify with the brand in a same way. Going to a Maxim club wouldn't have a lot of meaning to anybody. It is worth noting that in Las Vegas, some people were aware of the business problems that exist in Las Vegas right now and the one single dramatic exception to that is the Playboy Club. Downstairs the casinos are empty, but at Playboy they're packed wall to wall. But that's the cache of the bunny phenomenon. It's as big today as it ever has been.
Ad Age: What's your take on keeping the Playboy brand relevant in an iPhone, iPad world? Your most, um, popular content is pretty ubiquitous on the web -- what about your journalism archives? Do you own an iPad?
Mr. Hefner: I actually just took a meeting an hour ago related to the internet and the fact that we will have all the magazines available through search engines going all the way back to the very first issue on the internet. ... I just received my own iPad from my girlfriend on my birthday in April, so for the last month I've started to Twitter for the very first time. In the 1940s I was a jitterbug and now I'm a Twitterbug. But so far I haven't gotten any further than Twitter.