Dan Brewster missed the Kellys but was still the talk of the town

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At laguardia tuesday morning, I was bumped, without request or explanation, to first class. A young guy, in his early 20s, came down the aisle and pointed to the seat next to mine.

He was wearing the uniform: black tee, khaki pants, wire-rimmed frames, backpack, headphones. He settled in and pulled out a book: "All About Options." You can't make this stuff up.

Also riding in the good seats were Jim Berrien and Bill Kupper, the bosses of Forbes and Business Week, respectively, and two of the many media sellers reaping the rewards of the same dot-com revolution that propelled this kid from a college classroom to a first-class cabin.

This was on the way to Chicago for the Kelly Awards, which honor creative excellence in magazine advertising. A Wieden campaign for AltaVista, not the best of the 25 finalists, won top prize.

The award underscored a dot-contradiction: The Internet is at the same time the best opportunity for magazines' short-term growth and the most severe threat to their long-term survival. The AltaVista victory was also a mea culpa from a creative community that levels blanket criticisms at Net ads. The creative who accepted gave a one-line speech: "Not all dot-coms are bad."

The mood was decidedly upbeat. Newsstand is a nightmare, sweepstakes continue to sink, postal rates are on the rise and audiences are fragmented. But ad pages and profits are up and the view of Lake Michigan from Navy Pier is lovely, so why not smile?

There were few clients in the audience, giving the Kellys a self-indulgent air. "You look marvelous," said one publisher to another. "No, you look marvelous."

Dan Brewster was listed as an attendee. But he had transferred his president-CEO titles from American Express Publishing to Gruner & Jahr USA the day before, so he stayed home. Brewster's move was still the talk of the event, especially since his likely successor, Travel & Leisure's Ed Kelly, was a presenter.

Brewster's peers agree it was a coup for G+J to get him. But they question why he would take the reins at a company with a rather tired collection of assets (McCall's, Family Circle) and a vague U.S. identity.

The easy answer (besides Brewster's millions): He isn't bound for G+J because of what the company is (although at $400 million in gross revenue it's already twice the size of AmEx Publishing) but what he believes it can become.

"The job isn't the titles as they exist today," Brewster said by phone from New York. He is a former journalist and takes pride in his candor. "It's a commitment to invest substantially in the existing titles, to aggressively pursue acquisitions and to provide funds for line extensions."

G+J is majority owned by Bertelsmann, which sits atop a breathtaking pile of cash. It is already in the hunt for Inc., which would be a nice acquisition since this is perhaps the only U.S. publisher that hasn't benefited from the technology explosion.

Bertelsmann Chairman Thomas Middelhoff "is . . . obsessed is too strong a word . . . preoccupied with developing an Internet strategy and sees us as the perfect platform," Brewster said.

The 44-year-old Brewster isn't arrogant, but he is justifiably proud of his AmEx accomplishments, of the profits he grew and the culture he created. He has a Harvard degree and collects art, but isn't coated in the same gloss as many of his publishing rivals.

Brewster spends most of his free time at his rural Connecticut home with his three kids. He's never read a sports page, but enjoys golf and hits the links with his 11-year-old son every Sunday morning. "He's about two years from beating me," Dan says.

Family time will be an even more precious commodity as Brewster pursues an aggressive goal of doubling the business in five years. "They realize," he said ("we" doesn't yet roll off the tongue), "if they want to compete in the future, they can't waste any time building a presence here."

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