Boy, Could the Former Editor of Maxim Ever Tell You Some Stories

Q&A With Keith Blanchard, Now of Story Worldwide

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For this latest edition of Dumenco's Media People -- an ongoing series of conversations with media grandees -- I interviewed longtime print guy Keith Blanchard, most famous for being one of the founding editors, and then editor in chief, of the U.S. edition of Maxim.

Keith Blanchard
Keith Blanchard
Blanchard was hired by puckish publishing legend Felix Dennis, whose original Maxim in the U.K. had already rocked the glossy world by popularizing the cheeky "lad mag" sensibility. Today Blanchard is North American executive creative director at Story Worldwide. I spoke to him about leaving a career in edit for life on the agency side. The interview took place at Story headquarters in Midtown Manhattan and was continued over lunch and supplemented by e-mail. What follows is a condensed version of a much longer conversation.

Dumenco: First, remind me how long were you at Dennis Publishing.

Blanchard: I was there for eight years, all told. Fall of '96 was when we started working on the launch issue of Maxim, which came out on April Fool's Day of '97. I left in fall of '04.

Dumenco: As a longtime company guy, there from basically the start of the U.S. operations, has it been surreal for you to see the rapid decline of Dennis? [Three of Dennis Publishing's U.S. titles -- men's magazines Maxim and Stuff, and music magazine Blender -- were sold to Alpha Media in 2007. Stuff was shut down later that year, Blender in March 2009. Dennis held on to the original British edition of Maxim, but shuttered its print edition last year, converting it to a web-only title.]

Blanchard: It is surreal, and kind of sad. In some ways maybe the company just burned too much wick too fast. Suddenly we were 300 employees instead of 50, and hundreds of millions of dollars instead of 10 million dollars, and we were all a little bit unprepared. Back in the day, Maxim was as big as Cosmopolitan -- the same book size and same circulation. It was a very, very parallel type magazine; we were doing projects together, like this great sex survey, and [Cosmo Editor in Chief] Kate White and I became friends. Today, Cosmo is still a massive brand -- and Maxim is not.

Dumenco: And Stuff and Blender are dead and buried.

Blanchard: What I would have done -- if it had been me advising the purchasers -- is make Blender online-only and fold Stuff back into Maxim. Stuff was launched specifically to fend off FHM, and it did that. Mission accomplished.

Dumenco: Yeah, I remember FHM seemed to be doing well in the U.K., and word got out that a U.S. edition was launching. Dennis was put on the offensive and launched its second U.S. lad magazine, Stuff. What did FHM stand for again? I can never remember.

Blanchard: Nobody could. It was really a terrible brand.

Dumenco: Seriously, what was it?

Blanchard: For Him Magazine. It's always a good idea to name your magazine after a demographic sampling. [laughing] Remember Swing, for the "swing generation"? And in England they were launching a post-Maxim, a magazine you would graduate into after you got too old for Maxim, which was called, like, After or Over -- literally, it was something like that, that made sense only to the ad-sales department. Just insane.

Dumenco: MFS -- Maxim for Seniors.

Blanchard: Exactly. [laughing] Oh, I remember: It was called Later. That's it. You know ... for your later years.

Dumenco: That's heartbreaking. [laughing] Resignation Magazine. For when you've all but given up!

Blanchard: Right, right, right. [laughing] One Foot in the Grave Magazine. OFITG.

Dumenco: You're going to make me cry. [laughing] OK, well, let's move on. I know that after Dennis you did projects and consulting for Hearst Magazines and for Bauer, among other companies, but let's fast-forward past your adventures and misadventures in the magazine world to Story. What's the story of Story?

Blanchard: Story's sort of an amalgam of a few different companies. It's about five years old, but some of the parts are 20. There's a traditional custom-publishing company and there's a digital agency in the U.K. and a digital agency in Connecticut and they all came together to become Story. Story was founded by five gentlemen: Simon Kelly, Kirk Cheyfitz, Oscar Mraz, Jon King and Jim Small. So it's like, the ad guy, the finance guy, the operations guy, etc., combined forces to form this company. The founding philosophy of it is the interesting part -- it's what attracted me to this company -- because it's all about what happens next after the broadcast age.

The idea is, we can see the evidence piling up all around us that traditional advertising is ineffective today: People aren't watching TV ads, people are not clicking on banner ads, nobody wants ads anymore. Advertisers have gotten more "in your face" -- with pop-ups and other unavoidable ads, like pre-roll before you can watch your video, but everybody hates that even more. So this is a company that's founded on the idea of engaging audiences, instead of just "reaching" them, with good content they actually want.

Dumenco: So, content as marketing -- that's the idea behind the 'Story' name?

Blanchard: Yes. We tell stories for advertisers. There's academic research that shows stories really resonate with people -- they're what people remember. There's a lot of information flowing over you all the time, but the things you recall tend to be those that we broadly think of as a "story."

Dumenco: A narrative.

Blanchard: Exactly. So, for marketers, it's about asking, "What are the stories that you have the authority, the credibility, to tell?" And "What do people want to hear, that they'll accept from you and that they kind of can't get from anywhere else?" Because these days there are just so many options for audiences to get information that if you are not operating at that core interest level, you're just going to be dismissed or not seen at all.

Dumenco: The custom publishing part of this business, how long was that around?

Blanchard: Twenty years, right from the start.

Dumenco: Well, custom publishing as one of the DNA strands of the company that eventually became Story makes sense, because narrative-as-marketing was always the idea behind custom magazines.

Blanchard: Totally right. Simon Kelly, one of our founders, is also a founder of the Custom Publishing Council, and they gave him a lifetime achievement award. Story does custom publishing for the likes of RCI, the world's largest timeshare vacation exchange network. We do their print magazine, which comes out four times a year, and we also do e-zines that come between the print issues. For Lexus we do a series of print magazines, a website, iPhone and iPad content, events. We recently signed with Holland America to do a new print title for them. We do maybe 10 titles in total around the world, and there's usually something beyond print for each.

Dumenco: Your job at Story -- was the position created for you?

Blanchard: Right. There was no North American creative director before I got here.

Dumenco: I'm sorry you don't have South America, too.

Blanchard: Some day. [laughing] We have three U.S. offices: New York, Connecticut and Seattle, and a couple of satellite offices around the world.

Dumenco: So a potential client comes to Story, intrigued by the fact that there's a veteran mass-consumer-media guy on board. What's happens next? What are you selling them? What are you saying they should do? "Tell stories"?

Blanchard: The basic philosophy is, first listen to your consumers and find out what they really want. I think it does make a difference having experience on the consumer-facing side, where you do live or die based on audience -- how well are your cover lines being received, your stories, your videos, your shows, whatever it is that you produce. There seems to be a lot of advertising work that pleases clients and gets commissioned and wins awards and nobody ever asks, "But did it work?" There's that famous quote from Google CEO Eric Schmidt: "Corporate marketing represents the last bastion of unaccountable spending in corporate America."

What editorially-minded folks like myself can maybe bring to the table is that sensibility of starting with what people want to hear instead of just starting with what we want to say, which I think is the classic marketing pose. And constantly asking, "Did this move the needle? Let's check."

Dumenco: Tell me a story about a major client.

Blanchard: OK, Chrysler engaged us on the social-media front to relaunch their Dodge blog, Red Letter Dodge. Soon that became also launching a Ram blog, opening up Twitter feeds and Facebook and Flickr channels, and doing active response for issues that would come up -- basically funneling questions and concerns to exactly the right person on the client side, for fast answers.

The brands were changing and management was changing, and everything had to move at top speed. One week the head of Dodge was going to go and test the next Viper, the 2010 Viper, on a test track at Laguna Seca, and they thought they might break a record. We got a call on a Tuesday -- the next Monday was the test drive -- and they asked, basically, "What can you do for this effort in social media?" So we invented this kind of social-media hub where reporters and bloggers could tweet in their questions and we would take them to Chrysler executives on the scene at the test track and get replies. We were uploading video updates all day long, and the Twitter stream updated every five minutes. So that was a very complex, real-time kind of engagement. Fun, high-wire stuff.

Dumenco: They broke the record, right?

Blanchard: They did break the record, which helped. Traffic on Red Letter Dodge went up sixfold, and there was all sorts of pick-up from auto blogs.

I think essentially it's about rolling up your sleeves and saying, "We're going to engage our audience, we're going to answer questions and comments in something like real time, and we're going to look for opportunities to tell positive stories."

Dumenco: And dealing with any negative sentiment that's out there, I suppose? Like, when people bash a brand in blog comments.

Blanchard: Right. We created this set of protocols so that when a negative comment comes in, before it can catch fire, we pass it onto the appropriate person at Dodge with a proposed response. Because the message that the social-media world likes to propagate is that if corporations won't respond to us, it's because they have something to hide, it's because they don't care about us. You have to respond.

Clients are only really comfortable speaking from a controllable broadcast perspective, and it's hard to just jump into this new pool where other people share the control. They always start by thinking -- hoping, really -- that they can use social media as another channel to push PR messages out. That's a broadcast mentality. It's hard to wrench corporate marketers' heads around the notion that the fact that people are commenting on your things, even negatively, is not a threat -- or, at least, it's also an opportunity. You can now literally read the minds of your customers, so what are you going to do with that knowledge?

Dumenco: I think a lot of corporate marketers don't take the term "conversation" literally enough. If consumers try to engage you in a conversation, positive or negative, they're not looking for a clinical, corporate, canned response. They want something that's, you know, conversational. It's about a human connection.

Blanchard: Exactly. Corporate blogs should be sort of as uncorporate as they dare. They need to publish interesting stuff that's useful to their audience. It can't be just about trying to sell cars to them: They know you sell cars. They're enthusiasts, so talk about road trips and music and pop culture -- and by the way, it's OK to talk about the new Lamborghini because it's not really competing with your Nitro; it's not going to hurt sales to talk about it.

We're already living in an age in which everyone is potentially a publisher. You have your Twitter followers, I have my Facebook feed, etc. If you're a corporation and you speak in a corporate voice -- if you're still thinking press-release style -- you're not going to be able to compete because there are so many interesting, authentic voices out there.

Dumenco: Give me an example of the offline work Story does for clients.

Blanchard: Well, Ilori is a good example -- they're a high-end sunglass maker, part of Luxxotica. We sat down with them and figured out what their brand was all about, and then we did some consumer research and figured out that people were getting intimidated coming into the stores. You go into a sunglasses store or an eyeglass store and you'll see all kinds of racks of frames and it's like a wall of eyes staring at you, so you walk back out again. So part of the solution was these fun, inviting little written-card displays that could be read almost kind of museum-style as you wander in the store.

Dumenco: Telling stories in print, but in a retail environment.

Blanchard: Exactly. And it worked -- their sales rose 94% in '09 vs. '08. We also did a physical print magazine -- a spiral-bound little beautiful book showcasing some of their frames -- that they'd give away in the stores. Not everything has to be digital; we find it's usually about simple solutions, extremely well-executed.

Dumenco: Do you ever think, I used to edit Maxim -- I don't want to tell a story, I want to tell fart jokes?

Blanchard: I can still tell fart jokes. [laughing] Nobody wants to hear them now.

~ ~ ~

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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