AMC06

Publishing Executive of the Year: Susan Lyne

MSLO Fortifies Quality, Builds Underdog Status

By Published on .

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- It's a story as old and familiar as the day is long. Gal meets media company. Media company swoons. Gal bucks the choppy waters and rights the media company's ship. Company namesake returns from exile with a head full o' steam. Gal, namesake and media company thrive anew.

MSLO's return
OK, maybe it's not quite so familiar after all. Nonetheless, months after most pundits trumpeted Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia's return to health, they're awed by the job that MSLO President-CEO Susan Lyne and her team did to protect the brand during the rough times of trial and incarceration of the company's founder.

"I've got to believe that [Ms. Lyne] had a lot to do with it," says Peter Gardiner, partner-chief media officer at Deutsch, New York. "Bringing her in said to the advertising community, 'We're not taking any prisoners.'"

"Susan did what all good leaders do," says George Janson, managing partner-director of print at Media-edge:cia. "She came in, assessed the situation, took charge and made gradual but deliberate changes where necessary."

MSLO Version 2.0
In a way, the resilience the company showed seems to have endeared it to competitor and partner alike. Meet MSLO Version 2.0, the beloved semi-underdog.

Ms. Lyne, 59, joined MSLO from ABC Entertainment in November 2004-the same year Ms. Stewart was found guilty of charges including obstruction of justice and sentenced to 10 months of confinement. But Ms. Lyne seems genuinely surprised when she hears about the bouquets being thrown her way. In true team-leader form, she credits her top lieutenants, stressing the importance of letting individuals like Lauren Stanich, MSLO's president-publishing, run their own businesses as they see fit. "I get out of the way and let them succeed," Ms. Lyne says.

Based on Publishers Information Bureau data, it doesn't seem premature to pronounce the company's flagship titles fully healed. Martha Stewart Living ran 882.4 ad pages from January to September, soaring 59.4% over the same period in 2005. Martha Stewart Weddings climbed 14.4% to 731 pages, while Everyday Food was up 40.7% to 396.6.

'Through the crisis'
"The company is through the crisis," Ms. Lyne says firmly, adding that it will be cash-flow-positive again this year after two years of losses. On the individual-magazine front, Ms. Stanich says that both Everyday Food and Body & Soul will be profitable in 2007. "That means that all of our core publications will be profit centers for us," she notes, promising that the publishing group is "going into investment mode" on the younger-oriented Blueprint.

The second test issue of Blueprint came out last August; six issues are planned for 2007, with a rate base of 400,000.

"We'll see growth in the core publications for the next several years," Ms. Stanich says. "By the time they've slowed down a little, we'll have Blueprint coming on like gangbusters."

Getting through the crisis, of course, required both patience and more than a bit of hard work. Ms. Lyne acknowledges the obvious: that her biggest challenge upon arriving at MSLO was "the advertiser flight." At the same time, readers remained fiercely loyal; Ms. Lyne says newsstand sales and subscriber numbers remained "pretty solid," even during the company's darkest hours.

Strong circulation performance
Strong circulation performance continued in the first half of 2006, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Total circulation for Martha Stewart Living was 2,003,132, up 3.9%; Everyday Food, 941,037, up 17.2%; Body & Soul, 381,445, up 48.2%; and Martha Stewart Weddings, 291,013, up 9.5%.

"We were insistent that we wouldn't cut the quality of our publications, even if it meant losses in the short term," Ms. Lyne says. "We didn't cut the paper quality. We had a full book of editorial pages every month. We made sure to keep the overall quality at a level that, when the time was right, we could go back and sell the properties on their merits."

To prepare for that moment, Ms. Stanich overhauled the sales operation. Instead of a single, centralized sales team, each magazine was given its own distinct staff. "And we brought in experts in particular categories," she says.

The media community was swayed. "The way they came back left them in a better position," says Beth Fidoten, senior VP-director of print services at Initiative, Los Angeles. "The magazines are more about Martha the brand and less about Martha the person."

Media planners and buyers
MSLO also receives a gold star from media planners and buyers for its online strategy -- specifically, the way its magazine websites complement the print products. Mr. Gardiner believes MSLO had an advantage in this realm from the get-go, as the brand was conceived as a multimedia entity from day one.

Ms. Fidoten describes the company as "the perfect storm of multiplatform," while Robin Steinberg, senior VP-director of print investment at MediaVest USA, New York, adds, "They do it right, online and everywhere else. The philosophy is expand, extend, grow. They do it naturally; they don't just build another platform so they can say they have another platform."

As for the future, executives seem bullish on MSLO titles. Mr. Janson describes Everyday Food as "pure genius"; every individual polled for this story predicts that Blueprint will prove a success.

Beyond magazines, 2007 should prove a busy year for Ms. Lyne and Co., even by MSLO standards. A 1,400-SKU-strong line of Martha Stewart home furnishings will debut in the summer at Macy's, a few months after a crafts line finds its way into stores ("Crafts is a $30 billion business in this country, and there's no national brand in it," Ms. Lyne notes).

Several additional Martha Stewart communities, homes planned and built in conjunction with builder KB Home, should open as well. "What's nice is that they're yet another laboratory for us to better understand our customers," Ms. Lyne adds.

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