Commentary by Randall Rothenberg


Tearing Down the Walls

By Published on .

Maxim transformed the U.S. men's magazine market by bringing over the cheeky, ironic and sex-soaked "laddie book" concept from the U.K. It may turn out that its proprietor's more significant contribution will be the export to these shores of a U.K. magazine-management model.

Dennis Publishing, which also owns music magazine Blender, lusty consumption guide Stuff and The Week, a newsweekly, has a general manager running each of its properties. It's a deceptively modest designation. The G.M. is, in effect, the president-chief operating officer of the title, running advertising, distribution, editorial and strategy, and responsible for profit and loss. That's in contrast to the convention in U.S., where editorial, distribution and advertising leadership are separated, with P&L adjudicated at the corporate level.

Teamwork, not fragmentation
"The European model is better because it makes it more of a team, with one agenda and one mission," says Dennis Publishing President Stephen Colvin. "U.S. magazines now are filled with chief officers -- chief sales officer, editorial directors. Everything is fragmented, not based on the actual product."

Strong words. But Mr. Colvin, 40, looks like a man made for mischief. There's something about his goatee, fast cadences, British accent and glinting eyes that make him seem straight out of Oliver Twist. The twist here is that, under his guidance, Dennis has upended a core assumption of the U.S. consumer-magazine business: that only giant, multititle publishers will have the distribution and ad clout to compete.

Mr. Colvin says Dennis' management structure has been central to its success. "I don't know how magazines can operate without a single team living, breathing the product," he says.

Changes at The Week, for example, included the shifting of a production plant to facilitate Saturday delivery and upgrading the magazine's paper stock. They were made because G.M. Justin Smith, a corporate strategist for The Economist Group before joining Dennis, was able to make a credible case, with metrics attached, that the changes would reinforce editorial credibility, increase renewals and generate more ad income.

Antagonistic structure
Most American magazine companies have antagonism embedded in their management structure. The phrases used to express the separation between advertising and editorial ("Chinese wall" and "church and state") underscore the tension. In part, this reflects an American journalism culture, dating to Walter Lippmann's Public Opinion, which saw editorial as a profession and the other functions as support.

Even as magazines have become more modern in their approaches to product development and marketing, they still lag other industries in the use of unified, team-based leadership structures. Editors are treated as impresarios, not as business people. Publishers are viewed as those who would sell the publication's soul for a schedule. Circulation chiefs are caricatured as idiot savants who know one thing: cover lines with numbers on red backgrounds sell.

Boundary breaker
Having the senior staff report to a G.M. acts as a boundary breaker, Mr. Colvin suggests, persuading them to concentrate not only on their departmental responsibilities but on the overall goal of creating an increasingly profitable business.

"A lot of editors, because of the isolation, think their job is winning ASME awards," he says. "Our editors know how editorial quality will be judged: Blow-in card response, renewals and remits."

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Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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