NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- When rich guys buy prestigious but historically cash-hemorrhaging magazines, the presumption is always that it's about the personal brand -- i.e., the rich guy's ego -- as opposed to the publishing brand. Ownership of a trophy property, being the "savior" of a thinky title, is supposed to be reward enough. Absorbing continuing losses is seen as cultural duty, a form of philanthropy.
Turns out David Bradley had other ideas. When the chairman and owner of the Atlantic Media Company installed Justin Smith as president of Atlantic Consumer Media in 2007, he set in motion a radical transformation of The Atlantic's business operations, having already shaken up the edit side by moving the magazine's editorial headquarters from Boston, where it had resided since its birth in 1857, to D.C. in 2005, and hiring New York Timesman James Bennet as editor in chief in 2006. (Mr. Bradley purchased what was then known as The Atlantic Monthly from real estate magnate Mort Zuckerman in 1999.)
Mr. Smith came from the U.S. edition of Felix Dennis' news digest, The Week, where he was president and publisher; he'd previously been at The Economist and the International Herald Tribune. In the spring of 2008, he hired Wired publisher Jay Lauf to become VP and publisher.
Wait, what? The Atlantic, the dusty literary institution once home to Mark Twain's prose, raiding not only a future-forward title, but one published by gilded glossy conglomerate Condé Nast?
"I do remember being a little bit embarrassed inviting Jay over to look at our tiny little one-room offices with a dangling wire and a light bulb" -- a temporary space on 42nd Street for a new Manhattan sales operation -- "but then I realized that he's someone who had not only operated at a very glamorous level in this business, but someone who has really been trained in the trenches as well," Mr. Smith said.
Before Wired, Mr. Lauf had been ad director on the U.S. launch of gadget title T3 and had previously been with tech-trade publisher Customer Interaction Solutions. Given that Mr. Smith's vision was to convert The Atlantic into much more of a digitally focused multiplatform brand, Mr. Lauf's background made perfect sense; it helped that Mr. Lauf was a huge fan of The Atlantic and was able to name-check his favorite Atlantic writers and stories when he first ran into Mr. Smith, by chance, at a publishing event. "Hiring Jay was like finding the needle in the haystack," said Mr. Smith, "He is a strategic driver of revenue who cares deeply about the world of thinking and ideas."
With the help of a slate of provocative, prolific bloggers including Andrew Sullivan and Ta-Nehisi Coates, a revamped TheAtlantic.com has seen its audience surge. Brand extension TheAtlanticWire.com, an opinion aggregator, is just a year old but is already gaining a major audience of its own.
Digital revenue, which contributed 16% of overall ad revenue in 2008, grew to 32% last year and is on track to reach 36% by the end of this year. Meanwhile, print-ad revenue is projected to be up 26% in 2010. The Atlantic is also overdelivering on its paid circulation guarantee of 450,000 copies, up from 400,000 in 2008.
This year, The Atlantic has 65 high-powered events on its calendar, including the Aspen Ideas Festival, Future of the City and Cyber Security. "Elizabeth Baker Keffer, the president of Atlantic Live, has done a masterful job of building out that business in a way that makes us a very differentiated media brand," said Mr. Lauf.
That differentiation is evident in the caliber of speakers and panelists Atlantic Live draws, from CEOs like Google's Eric Schmidt to various members of the Obama cabinet. The eagerness of D.C.'s power elite to commune at Atlantic events makes perfect sense given that the magazine and TheAtlantic.com are considered must-reads among the halls of power (e.g., The Washington Post revealed that President Obama is an avid reader of Mr. Sullivan).
No surprise, then, that the Doublebase 2010 MRI report ranks The Atlantic No. 1 against all 214 measured magazines for Influentials, "the 10% of the population that influences what the other 90% think, do, and buy."
Mr. Smith, who this year was promoted to president of Atlantic Media Co., giving him oversight of The Atlantic's sibling titles including National Journal, noted that all the momentum is making a mark on the bottom line. "We're going to make a profit at The Atlantic for the first time in many decades," he said. "And we've added almost 20 new head count this year."
In 2010, that amounts to something of a minor miracle, which is why The Atlantic takes the No. 2 spot on this year's Advertising Age Magazine A-List, and why Justin Smith and Jay Lauf are our Publishing Executives of the Year.