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Looking at Michael Clinton, you’d never know he has the best chin in publishing.
It was a mere 18 months ago that many questioned whether his career at Hearst Magazines was over. Clinton had been very publicly passed over for the top job at the publishing company in favor of an outsider — and one from Hearst rival Condé Nast, no less: David Carey.
This story first appeared in the December 14, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
But Clinton, a 30-year publishing veteran, has had plenty of practice at taking a proverbial punch, shaking it off and bouncing back. Since his very public pass over, he’s been promoted to president, marketing and publishing director and one could argue his career is going better than ever. He is responsible for overseeing $1 billion in annual revenues from 17 magazine titles, including Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, Esquire and O, The Oprah Magazine. In March, he joined the board of 21 directors of Hearst Corp. A month later, he became chairman of the MPA-The Association of Magazine Media.
Clinton made his name in the publishing industry at Condé Nast, becoming the youngest publisher at GQ before rising to vice president of corporate sales, then a new position at the company. But he was dismissed after 13 years, the blow handed to him by then-chief executive officer Steve Florio on the orders of chairman S.I. Newhouse Jr. At the time, insiders said Clinton took the fall for leaks to the press about the inner workings of Condé.
Shortly after his ignominious exit, Hearst Magazines’ newly installed president Cathleen Black called and said she wanted to meet Clinton for a drink at Mickey Mantle’s, a touristy sports bar on Central Park South. Black was trying to make the company more modern, to “blow the dust off the curtains,” and a headhunter had pointed her to Clinton.
“We had this immediate connection and it wasn’t long before we were talking about where we came from and where we went to college,” Black recalls. “After an hour and a half, I wrote out a deal on a cocktail napkin with his salary, title, that kind of thing. People don’t do things like that anymore.”
The shidduch was a success, as Clinton was initially charged with reshaping the corporate group at Hearst and, within a year, also took on five magazines as group publisher. He followed the formula he’s adopted throughout his career: He was polished and smart, direct with Black and unfailingly charming — yet Machiavellian and cutthroat when it came to the competition. Black liked what he was doing and eventually had him oversee the publishers of all the magazines. While working with Black, Clinton was involved in acquisitions of Seventeen, shelter title Veranda and joint publishing partnership agreements for O, The Oprah Magazine and the instant 2008 hit, Food Network Magazine.
Over a recent lunch of mini sandwiches and pasta salad in his 43rd-floor office of Hearst Tower overlooking Central Park, Clinton was unfailingly polite and apologized profusely for running a few minutes late, even though he was coming from Evelyn Lauder’s memorial service. He quickly sat down and was ready to talk, not even providing a moment’s pause before thoughtfully answering a laundry list of questions about his career. The answers can roundly be summed up like this: “My goal is to always win as best we can in the right way.”
His competitors see it differently. “He’s cultivated an image of being well liked by people and he fosters that because any comment that is sideways, he’ll go straight for the jugular,” said one insider. “Like I’ve never seen.”
He worked closely with Black for more than 10 years. They complemented each other. She was the tough decision maker, he was the voice of reason. Publishers inside the Tower thought it was a foregone conclusion Clinton would succeed Black as the magazine division’s president. They had mentally prepared for it. But Hearst ceo Frank Bennack had other ideas.
In June 2010, when Black was named chairman of Hearst, it was Carey, then Condé Nast group president, who succeeded her. Clinton was furious, those inside the company now say, and threw a major temper tantrum in the office. After all, he had played the corporate game well and was well liked by Hearst brass. He — and many others — thought he deserved the top slot. Observers inside and outside of Hearst thought he’d jump ship — or quickly be pushed out by the equally ambitious Carey.
“The first two days were really weird; it was just uncomfortable,” said one publisher at Hearst. “We all thought Michael would leave. We didn’t know what would happen.”
But Clinton did what he seems to do best: recomposed himself, put his nose to the grindstone and pressed on. The Carey-Clinton relationship has worked. Bennack promoted Clinton — and made it financially worth his while to stay on.
“You also have to give David some credit here,” said another publisher. “Most guys wouldn’t have enough confidence to keep a guy who is also qualified to do that job [president]. I think [David] realized that if this is going to move forward, it will take the two of us. But everyone sees Frank as the big winner here. He got them to work together.”
Carey is quick to praise Clinton. “He’s our $1 billion man — you can write that,” he said.
Executives at Hearst declined to comment on the record about the working relationship between Carey and Clinton. “Carey seems to spend a lot of time thinking about the future, thinking about the digital space,” said one insider. “He is very cerebral. Michael is really smart, but he likes to roll up his sleeves and be with the clients. He gets on a plane to Detroit the way I get in a cab and head downtown.”
Publishers at Hearst have devised a system to work with both Clinton and Carey without stepping on either’s toes. They keep both men in the loop, knowing the things to report, the things they each care about.
Donna Kalajian Lagani, the longtime publisher of powerhouse Cosmopolitan, a magazine that makes more money than all of Hearst’s other magazines combined, doesn’t report directly to Clinton, but maintains a close relationship with him. “He’s the most creative person I know,” she said. “He’s close to everyone here.”
Most of the publishers at Hearst report directly to Clinton, though, and they profess immense loyalty to him. “There are two people I don’t want to disappoint,” proclaimed Seventeen publisher Jayne Jamison. “My mother and Michael Clinton. He is always out there for me, always in front of clients, helping any way he can.”
“When you have a boss you don’t want to take everything from them,” said former Town & Country publisher Jim Taylor, who worked for Clinton for 11 years. “Usually it’s one or two things. Maybe they are particularly strategic in marketing, maybe they are good at financials, maybe he’s really a jerk in real life but great at building client relationships. With Michael, if he has a weakness, he works on it and fills the gap.”
That comment, about addressing his weaknesses, was repeated in a variety of forms in dozens of interviews with Clinton’s colleagues and competitors throughout the industry. Clinton has a practiced, well-thought-out, almost rehearsed way of conducting himself, with self-effacing phrases such as “it takes a village,” or “I always hire people who are smarter than me.”
He doesn’t lose his cool often, but when he does, colleagues know to immediately pull back. He reacts to a tough question from a journalist about the business by turning slightly red in the face; stern, tacit disapproval in the form of a momentary stare, and then, by changing the subject. He’s the opposite of many of his colleagues throughout the industry, whose personality can be defined in one or two words.
Clinton doesn’t show his cards — or, at least, those he doesn’t want anyone else to see. Yet you don’t rise to running $1 billion worth of business — and survive the shark-infested waters of both Condé Nast and Hearst — by being nothing but sweet.
Professionally, Clinton spends his time these days talking ad models, new group buys that will include the newly acquired Hachette titles, such as Elle, digital strategy, more brand licensing, TV projects (Elle just taped an episode of the “Celebrity Apprentice”) and e-commerce. Clinton said Hearst will introduce an e-commerce play in women’s fashion early next year, although he declined to reveal details.
And he’s still making house calls, spending around 25 percent of his time on the road visiting clients. “I have five advertiser meetings a week,” he said. “Think about that in terms of what’s on my plate.”
But even personally, Clinton seems like the Energizer Bunny, always moving. If he isn’t meeting with publishers or clients, he is still on a plane for fun. He’s traveled to 120 countries and has booked a personal trip to Thailand and Laos. On top of it all, he’s published five books based on his travels, with his own photographs.
His new challenge is running a marathon on every continent. “My sister and I just finished our fourth in Australia this summer. Number five will be in South Africa. Then Asia and Antarctica,” said Clinton, ticking it off like a mental “bucket list.”
It helps all his globe-trotting that Clinton has a pilot’s license. “We see things in so many similar ways,” Carey said. “Small planes with one or two engines isn’t one of them.”
If that isn’t enough to keep him busy, Clinton started a foundation, Circle of Generosity, that grants random acts of kindness to individuals and families in need. One example: a donation was made to the Borough of Manhattan Community College Emergency Fund Office, to provide students food and transportation vouchers.
Jack Kliger, one of Clinton’s mentors, serves on the board. “We’ve been friends for years. We both share an interest in wine,” said Kliger, who happens to be part of another one of Clinton’s extracurricular activities, running a winery. “We’ve invested in a three-acre vineyard in Argentina,” Kliger said. The first harvest will take place in March or April and first bottles of malbec, syrah and cabernet franc will be produced in the spring. The first vintage will be 50 cases.
He maintains his personal pursuits are just that — personal — but a closer look reveals how much of the man is his work. His book signings draw figures from the publishing industry, his foundation has industry colleagues on the board, and Kliger and Martha McCully, formerly with InStyle, are investors in the Argentinian winery. He’s as competitive as ever, still standing, having outlasted many of his detractors. There are no plans to become a full-time winemaker. When asked whether he’ll finish his career at Hearst, he pauses, and then gives the perfectly balanced answer: “I think so. I think I work with the best people in the business. That sounds too Pollyanna, doesn’t it? But it’s true.”