Forbes clan masters the art of keeping in touch with targets

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Here on a hill overlooking the vineyards of Napa Valley and the Sonoma ridge beyond, I have encountered firsthand the power of the Forbes marketing machine, and learned a vital lesson about branding: Intimacy counts.

Like brands in other categories, media brands are transitory-and more ephemeral now than ever. In a world where the largest, most august accounting brand, Arthur Andersen, can disappear almost overnight, nothing is secure, certainly not in a category whose content is, almost by definition, impressions. So when CBS News suffers a hit to its credibility, it seems a little bit more serious than an editorial error would have appeared two decades ago; in the winner-take-most game that marketing has become, clients are more apt than ever to shift budgets now and ask questions later. When a Maxim magazine suffers a first-half newsstand decline of almost 16%, it causes more than a few rapid reassessments. Was last year's enduring trend, buyers wonder, really just a fad?

Throughout the three-day Forbes CMO Summit, I observed how the venerable financial magazine is grappling with the heightened competitiveness in its category by applying some of today's best practices in brand marketing.

Instead of a massive conference, overwhelmed by celebrity presenters, Forbes President Jim Berrien and Chief Marketing Officer Kendall Crolius invited a select group of under a dozen CMOs and their spouses to Napa's tony Auberge du Soleil to play, learn, and bond. The goal was less to impress the collective with the periodical's convening power than to help senior marketers in the automotive, finance and aircraft-leasing fields create a network among themselves.

Instead of pummeling this group with their own research (and unsubtle selling messages), the Forbes executives saw fit to bring in outside experts to provide insights relevant to the conduct of the CMOs' business.

Premium Knowledge Group CEO Richard Baker presented a deeply intriguing new segmentation study of the luxury market. Charlotte Beers gave a presentation on her two years as U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, a talk as heartfelt as it was riveting. And I gave an advance peek at the marketing organization study my colleagues would present to the full Association of National Advertisers' annual meeting a week later.

Where conversations at most marketing meetings center on tactics, here the group felt comfortable to engage in spirited discussions about the big stuff: the difficulties in leading company transformations, gaining the trust of your CFO and deciding which metrics matter.

Equally impressive was the way the publication has adapted the symbols that signified the flamboyant era of its second-generation patriarch, Malcolm Forbes, substituting quiet substance for the once-prevailing flashiness. Forbes CEO and scion Steve Forbes lent more than a family presence: He provided insider's insights on the current Presidential campaign. Yes, there was hot-air ballooning, but for those who didn't rise to the occasion, there were ties and scarves festooned with balloon imagery, to serve as reminders of the magazine and its fancies.

In the struggle that is contemporary marketing, it's frequently said that media brands need to touch their audience and become partners with their advertisers. It's quite impressive to experience a third-generation family magazine company that still knows how to do exactly that. n

Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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