Since taking the reins as chairman and chief executive officer in 2013, Joe Ripp has led Time Inc.’s spin-off from parent company Time Warner in June 2014, cut costs at the company and made acquisitions of digital firms such as Cozi and FanSided. Ripp began his media career at Time Inc. in 1985 as assistant comptroller. Eight years later, he was promoted to senior vice president, chief financial officer and treasurer. He moved over to Time Warner as executive vice president and cfo shortly after, and rose to cfo of America Online, and later vice chairman. He left the company in 2004, serving as chairman of Journal Register Co., which owned more than 50 newspapers, and later was ceo of digital marketing and information services firm OneSource Information Services.
WWD caught up with Ripp in his second-floor office in Time Inc.’s headquarters in Midtown Manhattan. Ripp sat at a small round table that looked like it was borrowed from an elementary school teacher’s classroom. Its placement — in front of an archetypal dark wood-paneled executive’s desk — seemed a fitting juxtaposition. But Ripp’s soft-spoken, slightly folksy delivery belied the executive’s unsurprising mission to reduce debt and evolve the publisher’s traditional business model.
WWD: Time Inc. is investing in digital and video. Is the goal to be an entertainment company?
J.R.: The goal is to be what we are, a great content company, and not a magazine company. We are a great content company that survives and lives on every form of distribution.
WWD: Who’s doing the digital transition well?
J.R.: I’ve used the example in the past, but look at what National Geographic did. They started out as a sleepy old magazine company owned by a not-for-profit organization. They are now a channel. You can go on trips with them around the world. They have stores. They have games for schools. They have educational materials. They have super-served their consumers in a way that their brand allows it to be served. All magazine publishers should be thinking that way.
WWD: How does a journalist fit into that?
J.R.: They fit into it quite nicely. In a world of a thousand choices and 10 million bloggers, high-quality journalistic traditions are important because it says that this is reliable content. I think the journalistic traditions of the company fit into that view. What does journalism mean that you can’t make a video about Time magazine? Why does journalism say that I can’t have a mobile Web site? I actually think there’s more of a need for journalism than ever before — especially when governments are racking up massive debt and there’s a lot of silliness going on in Washington. Having high-quality journalism is absolutely vital for our democracy. It is what defines us from the rest of the world.
WWD: Should a journalist get involved in advertising in video?
J.R.: There’s been product placement in video for years. Vodka came into this country because Smirnoff paid James Bond to drink vodka martinis instead of gin martinis, so there’s been product placement in video forever in this country. I don’t think anybody thinks the James Bond series was violated because he drinks vodka martinis.
WWD: But James Bond wasn’t a journalist…
J.R.: He wasn’t a journalist. But there is a difference — I have journalistic enterprises like Time magazine and Fortune and Sports Illustrated, and I have service magazines. Journalism had been defined to say, “We do printed pages.” That never was it. It was always about producing high-quality, independent opinion for consumers and never selling that opinion to an advertiser — and we will never, ever do that. Our journalistic standards are higher today than they were many years ago.
WWD: How does selling ads on the covers of your magazines jibe with those standards?
J.R.: When we took an ad on the cover from Verizon on Time magazine, there was a big flap over that. I defy anyone to find the ad on the cover of Time magazine. It was like that [makes small gesture with fingers]. We’ve done cover wraps for years, so the question we ask the MPA and the American Society of Magazine Editors who recently changed their guidelines: “Why can’t there be an ad on the cover?” There’s one on The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal — those are journalistic enterprises. Now, we don’t plan on placing ads on our covers, but my question was “why?”
We were following old standards that were holding us back.
WWD: How do you view the newsstand?
J.R.: In supermarkets, magazine racks have shrunk. Sales are down because mom is distracted, she’s texting the kids and checking her e-mails. Walk down the street in New York and you see half of the population is looking at their phones. We’re experimenting with new ways for consumers to reach us by newsstand, but it is clearly one of those areas in the business that is going to shrink.
WWD: InStyle has dismissed two publishers in one year. Why? What are the plans to grow InStyle?
J.R.: I’m not going to comment on publishers who left. InStyle is doing well. We’re looking to grow that brand. It’s the most responsive brand in our company. Readers do really want to figure out how to get these things [products]. I think that InStyle probably does have commerce opportunities. We haven’t pursued a lot of them yet, but we are working on that.
WWD: Why can’t publishers get e-commerce right?
J.R.: For many years, Time Inc. tried to sell products and services. What they did was, they’d assign publishers to sell products and services. What you really need to do is to hire merchandisers to work with people who actually know the business to sell those products and services. I think the opportunity for Time Inc. going forward is to sell more things but we’re going to do that by acquiring the right kind of talent that knows how to do it.
WWD: Why is the consumer more apt to buy food or home goods versus fashion?
J.R.: It’s more of a natural extension of the brand itself.
WWD: Why doesn’t it work for fashion as well?
J.R.: Fashion is a little harder, but I think you’re seeing more and more fashion magazines click to buy. If you like this outfit, click here and you can find a way to buy it. We’ve just launched Mimi, which is a Web site that will allow you to buy fashion and to engage in conversation about those fashions. I think there are a lot of fashion magazines that are experimenting with “Where do I buy these things from?” Quite frankly, the readers have become more used to Web sites that they trust, trusted Web sites that recommend products…magazines are actually falling short of readers’ expectations.
WWD: Does the struggle to succeed have to do with the fact that fashion tends to cost more than kitchen utensils?
J.R.: No, I think it’s because they define themselves as magazines. When you define yourself as a magazine, you automatically limit yourself to printed pages. I don’t believe you should describe yourself by your distribution vehicle. I’ve joked in the past that if the movie studios defined themselves as celluloid distribution companies, then there would be no HBO and there’d be no DVD, and there’d be no Amazon. When a fashion magazine says, “This is what a star is wearing,” readers say, “I like the look. Where can I get that?” And we have failed them in the past. The reason Web sites have done so well and grown so dramatically online is because they fill that need.
WWD: What you’re describing is the business of retailers. Why should magazines get involved?
J.R.: The problem is magazine companies define themselves as magazine companies, and then they had publishers and editors trying to sell products and services. Retail sales and magazine publication are just two different things. The skill sets are different.
WWD: How do publishing companies integrate commerce and make that transition?
J.R.: They hire the right kind of talent. When we got into video aggressively in this organization, we hired the right kind of quality staff that know the business, and that can grow those businesses for us. We didn’t take an existing magazine publisher and say, “Go do video for us.” That’s certainly what Time Inc. had done in the past.
WWD: What kinds of acquisitions is Time Inc. looking to make?
J.R.: We are looking at experiential companies right now — live media. We are looking at acquisitions in other publishinglike companies. There are the large publishers out there that I’d certainly be interested in. Normally when a business area is in a downturn, you see consolidation. I suspect there’s less of an opportunity in the magazine business because of private ownership — Hearst, Condé Nast, others, even Meredith, in essence are privately controlled. There’s probably less of an opportunity for consolidation in this industry unless those owners decide to do something. If they should decide to do something, Time Inc. is more than willing to look at that. We’ve done a great job of eliminating our costs and figuring out ways to drive new revenue streams.
WWD: You mentioned Condé Nast. If it came to market, you would be interested?
WWD: Hearst tends to invest in joint-venture opportunities. Does that model interest you?
J.R.: The key to a joint venture is that you’ve got to understand what both parties are bringing to the table, and what are the expectations of the parties. It’s kind of like getting married. You have to be careful whom you marry, and you’ve got to make sure you want to marry them for a long time. Joint ventures are hard because you’ve got to make sure that both parties have the same expectations. If you acquire something, if you don’t have the same expectations, you can always change the staff and get the right expectations.
WWD: Which digital companies do you admire?
J.R.: They’ve all brought a sensibility to the marketplace and taught us that it’s not about editors telling audiences what’s important. It’s about editors leading conversations. Most of those places are about conversations and engaging people about a certain topic.
WWD: How do you grow Time Inc.’s smaller titles?
J.R.: The way you handle the small titles is you give them the advantage of being part of the mothership — investing in systems, technology and capabilities they simply couldn’t afford on their own but they tap into.
WWD: There was a lot of noise when Time Inc. said editors would report into the business side. How has that worked?
J.R.: The reality is the separation of church and state meant that the editors weren’t involved in helping us think through a broader array of products and services. What we said was, in that relationship, the print editor is in charge of all manifestations of the brand. Most print editors are not very good at making videos and TV shows, and most print editors don’t know a damn thing about selling products and services. They are really good at magazines. We limited our ability to expand those brands beyond print magazines by putting print editors in charge of them.
WWD: Is it problematic for journalists to work on native advertising?
J.R.: No, as long as you’re labeling what you’re doing as advertising. Journalists and the advertisers have a very strong opportunity to work together. Journalists know consumers, and they understand what’s important to the consumers and their audiences. You cannot violate the trust of your consumer.
WWD: Why is native advertising important?
J.R.: A lot of marketers I’m talking to are asking, “Does digital really work? What am I getting out of digital? The fact that someone clicked on the ad, so what? What did that do for me? Did that sell any cars?” Engagement is becoming a conversation. Magazines engage and quality content engages, which is why you’re hearing about ad agencies creating content. They understand that they need to do something to break through the clutter that has become advertising in America.
WWD: What do you do in your spare time, aside from reading all the Time Inc. magazines?
J.R.: My hobby is flying so that’s what I do. I fly planes. I’ve done that for about 25 years.
WWD: Do you have your own plane? How many people fit in it?
J.R.: I do. Eight people fit in it.
WWD: Where do you go?
J.R.: My son lives in Charlotte [North Carolina] — we go down there once in a while. We go to Nantucket.
WWD: They should do a video of you flying a plane.
J.R.: That would be great for Breitling. [Shows watch.] I have a Breitling watch on.