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Ed Lewis on Growing Essence Magazine Empire From Those First 13 Ad Pages

Media Pioneer Says He Still Believes in Print

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Advertising Age Player

If it hadn't been for baseball legend Jackie Robinson, Edward Lewis might not have been able to start Essence magazine.

Jackie Robinson was Ed's "hero and idol," the magazine founder said. "I had the great pleasure to meet him," and that inspired Ed to make a call to the bank Jackie Robinson helped start, Freedom National, to apply for a $13,000 loan.

Ed had no collateral, and the president of the bank wondered how he would pay it back. But the bank president said he believed in Ed, thought he had character and lent him the money. "If he had not done that, I may not be sitting here talking to you now about starting a magazine for black women," Ed told me in a video interview a few days before he was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame.

In the beginning
Ed and four partners came together in 1968 to try to get funding for Essence. They had a business plan for $1.5 million, but they could only raise $130,000 -- and part of that was the $13,000 Jackie Robinson's bank lent Ed.

Essence's first issue, in 1970, had 13 ad pages. "Thirteen pages of ads is very minimal, as you can truly recognize. … But we just worked hard, told our story, crafted statements about the importance of the market and how it was going to grow and that it should be taken seriously. And over time, with additional financing and making the right decisions and having the right people, we were able to survive and to carry on this journey that's now 44 years old."

Ed's challenge was to persuade advertisers to take more than one ad. He said "we would discourage" running a single ad. "We would say, 'You're doing yourself a disservice by doing that. If you're going to advertise, make an investment.' Because the audience is going to see that this particular company is trying to advertise in a medium that cares about me. If I see you there one time and don't see you afterwards, why should I be supportive of you?"

Early advertisers such as Bergdorf-Goodman and Dreyfus got the message.

Essence has been adept at extending the reach of its brand. In 1995 the magazine started a music festival in New Orleans, and Ed says "It's been a real joy to see the festival morph into a party with a purpose -- and to see the extraordinary number of people." Almost 540,000 people came to New Orleans over the Fourth of July weekend last year, Ed said.

Like other print mavens, Ed is very aware that "we're going to have to look at other revenue streams in order to continue to grow -- digital, conferences, festivals." But he believes that print "is still going to have a major role in how people get information. … And for those publications that really still have an identity, really have an editorial niche, they will continue to do well. They may not do as well as they had in the past, but they will continue to do well."

Teaming with Time Inc.
I asked Ed why he decided to sell a minority interest in Essence to Time Inc. in 2000. "Time Inc. is a company that believes in brands, in terms of all the products that they had. So being a part of Time Inc. said to me that they cared about my brand that I helped bring into the world."

"So it was about their resources, it was about them caring about the brand, and then caring about developing African-American women that suggested to me when they came to me in 2005 and said they'd like to buy the remaining 51%. I thought it was a good deal for the shareholders of Essence, and it certainly has turned out to be correct."

Ed has just written a book, "The Man from Essence," giving credit to his partners who helped start the magazine.

"In the beginning we were all equal partners, equally making decisions about how to run the company. A prescription for disaster. Conflict. And so we had to make changes. Or I made changes over those years in terms of making decisions, very difficult decisions with respect to asking my former colleagues no longer to be with the company." That's why Ed almost called his book "The Last Man Standing."

Ed credits his mother and the other "she-roes" -- strong women -- in his family for inspiring him. "I saw strong women, I saw how they were not appreciated, how hard they work."

So what Ed is proudest of is "to know that I may have made a difference in making black women feel good about themselves. About their beauty, about their intelligence."

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