It’s been less than a month since Playboy Enterprises Inc. moved onto Wilshire Boulevard, up to the 22nd floor of a Westwood high-rise.
A bar and social area for staff will be built out on the floor below. There are still boxes strewn about the office of Cooper Hefner, chief creative officer and youngest son of founder Hugh Hefner. A white board serves as visual evidence of the heavy brainstorming and plans the youngest Hefner has for the storied brand.
He called the move a fresh start that will eventually consolidate the company’s Burbank office there and keeps the ball moving on a brand that’s helped generate $1.5 billion of retail product sales globally. The privately held firm declined to say what it does in companywide annual revenue, but it’s the brand and its intersection over the years with everything from political to social and cultural issues that inspired the 26-year-old to join the business in 2016. The aim? Not only to preserve and push forward the brand built by his father, but have it speak to a new generation of readers and consumers.
Hefner sat down with WWD for a wide-ranging conversation, touching on where the Playboy brand currently sits, where it’s going and, of course, its role in a number of hot-button issues.
WWD: Let’s start with the new tag line for the magazine, “Entertainment For All,” which debuted for the first time on the May cover. What was the thinking behind the move away from “Entertainment For Men”?
Cooper Hefner: Really, the idea behind it was a symbolic gesture. The statement we wanted to make was that we understand the good old boys club as well as the brand talking to only a particular consumer, which was a heterosexual male, was not actually realistic when we took a step back and evaluated the breadth of the business. The company does $1.5 billion of retail product globally and a substantial amount of that product is for women and is for different demographics — both male and female — that transcended the good old boys club of “Entertainment For Men.” So I took a step back and said, “What’s the next iteration of Playboy and how can we make sure that we’re inviting to different sexes and different people?” The “Entertainment For Men” to “Entertainment For All” seemed like an appropriate and natural evolution.
If I walk into a Playboy Club, why is it not appropriate for Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi to be sitting there and having a drink?
WWD: When you look at the readership across digital and print, is it still predominantly men?
C.H.: The readership for dot com is predominantly men 18 to 34 and then the readership for print actually skews older just because it’s a legacy publication, so its 40-plus. From a product standpoint, 50 percent of our product globally is purchased by women. There is an inherent fascination that women have with the brand based off the fact that just because we are a content company that predominantly focuses and talks about male interests, we’re actually not a brand that has interests that only speak to men, meaning that the brand really does represent a philosophy. It’s a celebration of sex and freedom, the right to choose the way you want to live. And that is not something that is only desired by men.
WWD: How do you see the general media business evolving?
C.H.: I see the media landscape going through a remarkably interesting evolution that I think a lot of people saw coming a long time ago, but a lot of other people didn’t. Examples of that are Vice missing their revenue by $100 million; Sports Illustrated recently laid off about 100 of their employees; Buzzfeed missed their revenue again by over 20 percent. The point and the common theme being that there are these content providers and brands that really took advantage of the free media landscape and produced content and, really, the business is falling through the floor.
The media landscape is going to continue to change. I think we’re seeing the end of the era of these sites that built advertising businesses when in reality they’re not able to compete with Google or Facebook, or any of the other giants that are actually collecting most of the ad revenue. You’re still seeing sites and will continue to see sites, I suspect, that have banner ads and advertising on site, but even advertisers are more sophisticated than just wanting to spend dollars on impressions that don’t actually add up to anything.
I don’t know necessarily where it lands. I just know we’re fortunate to be in the subscription business and it has certainly taken quite a bit of time to have senior management pivot back to that. Playboy actually in 2013 and ’14 was really also stepping into that business model which, really, you’re not going to build a lot of business. You’re going to do $5 [million] or $10 million of revenue, but it’s not a substantial bulk of the business.
WWD: Do you think there is still a case to be made for print?
C.H.: I do. I do think that there is an opportunity for print to come back. I just think it requires people to really take a different approach to the business. So newsstands, I think, are a disaster. Most magazines have to buy back what you don’t sell. The print industry as a whole is also in the same boat, to a certain extent, as the digital media landscape, although very different circumstances. A lot of publishers will spend on bulking up their circulation so that they can get advertisers, so they’ll give their magazine for free essentially. They’re paying to have their magazine in dentists’ shops and other places and, what we’re finding and what other publishers are finding, is that you’re essentially spending more money to run an ad business than you are actually making the money on the ads.
I would love to see print find a place where it makes sense in the same way vinyl records have to a certain extent. Does print become a coffee-table luxury for the generation that follows, you know, Millennials? I don’t know.
WWD: What’s been Playboy’s general experience with having a paywall online, especially considering a base of consumers that have been conditioned to expect the content they view online be free?
C.H.: The response has been very positive but we have several subscription businesses, not just in publishing, and we have different platforms.
Playboy.com in particular has been challenging to the note that you suggest which is, is there a consumer out there that you can convince to pay for content, and I think there certainly is. Look at The New York Times, right? I think they have gone through an amazing rebrand of making themselves relevant to the old and young, while actually building a substantial business because they defined a clear product behind the paywall.
What is really important for us to do is define a product that our fans are willing to pay for and we’re trying to understand what that balance is and, again, taking into consideration why people have historically interacted with the brand on the content side. It has been for the lifestyle and sophisticated content and it has also been because they want to interact with the brand and celebrate sex and arousal in a way that most other companies don’t. I will tell you in real time we continue to have that conversation because there are real-world implications to the business. The media side is one portion. It’s 50 percent of revenue. The other 50 percent is licensing and joint ventures and we have to be mindful of how those two interact with each other constantly.
WWD: Does the company like having revenue split 50/50 like that or does that change moving forward?
C.H.: The benefit of growing licensing is that your margin is so high, you’re not spending a lot on actually running the business. The challenge with media is that your content is very expensive. So a licensing business is more appealing if you look at the numbers, but the media business is what is constantly communicating what the voice of the brand is. So it’s just a balance.
I certainly see an unbelievable amount of potential to not just grow licensing but also grow media. It’s just, again, there has to be a defined product on the media side that resonates with an older and a younger consumer, which is a complicated recipe to figure out with a brand like ours because you have a lot of young people that want to interact with the brand through product like the Supreme collaborations and Anti Social [Social Club], which sell out in minutes. But you also have a legacy consumer and fan that wants a different type of Playboy. I mean, look at the announcement we made with our naming our first trans Playmate. The LGBTQ community responded positively. Our subscriber base was up in arms. Advertising revenue was impacted, so there are challenges just based off of being a legacy media company that we’re dealing with every week.
WWD: A while back you posted on Instagram a response to a tweet from someone who accused Playboy of upholding social gender norms. In your response, you mentioned a movement afoot led by Millennials that intends to put sex back in the closet. Why do you believe it’s Millennials driving that?
C.H.: The woman who wrote it was a Millennial and the point she was trying to make was Playboy is very regressive and doesn’t represent progress. To me, I take a step back and just find it absolutely fascinating that there’s a movement among young — I don’t even want to say thought leaders — but just young folk that seems to be very anti-sex. There’s so much conversation being had, which is so important, around consent and making sure women feel comfortable in life, in the workplace and at home and are protected, and conversations about gender identity and just a lot revolving around sex. And, for whatever reason, as we’re exploring these, it seems like a lot of young people are giving sex a bad rep, and I find that bizarre.
I think Facebook and these platforms that have been built off of some of the most brilliant Millennial minds of a generation are very anti-sex, very anti-arousal. There are a lot of, I think, women who label themselves as feminists that look at Playboy as an enemy and I find that fascinating because what the brand has tried to do since its inception has been to bring sex out of the closet and say this is not something that we should be ashamed of. The act is the reason why we’re here. The act is what allows us to continue. That should be celebrated. That should not be criticized. I try to encourage the editorial team to discuss that at every opportunity and there seem to be a lot of people who want to discuss it.
WWD: Is it concerning to you, within the context of Playboy Enterprises as a business, this idea that an anti-sex movement is afoot?
C.H.: This is the reason why I would have a tough time stepping into the role of chief executive officer here because I oftentimes don’t think about the business decision. I think about the social implications first of what we’re doing.
I really do believe the reason people connect with Playboy is because they believe in the philosophy and, of course, I care about the bottom line. I care about the social piece of this and the impact the brand makes in that way more than, oftentimes, how the business is actually performing. So do I worry about it from a business standpoint? I don’t because the fascination with sex and the fascination with Playboy representing Americana isn’t going to go anywhere for the next 50 or 60 years. Do I worry about it from a social standpoint? Yes, of course. I do not think it’s healthy. I think sex being led into the closet or being criticized or how we approach sex should be talked about and critically discussed, but to make the act the enemy is what leads to a misinterpretation and abuse when it comes to women. It leads to abuse in the LGBTQ space. The fact that people don’t see that connection is fascinating to me, and I don’t think that they do a lot of times.
WWD: There’s obviously a lot of traction right now with the MeToo and Time’s Up movements. When the dust settles on all of this, will we have made some real progress to where they are not simply social media hashtags?
C.H.: I see the fact that it’s a social media hashtag as actionable. The fact that we are talking about it is taking action and the idea of men taking a step back and listening to the women in their lives is really important, but also the women in their lives having the courage to talk about it.
I genuinely took a step back when I had heard about everything that was transpiring with Harvey Weinstein and then a lot of these other figures in society who are or were incredibly influential and successful. You saw them falling from grace for good reason. I took a step back and thought, how far does this go? I remember just being absolutely shocked by it and I remember talking to my sister about it at dinner. We never had these types of conversations, but she had opened up to me and said, “I really can’t think of a single woman in my life that has not in some capacity interacted with sexual assault or harassment” and I was so taken aback by that. I started to have the conversation a lot more with my fiancée and as much as I was proud of the fact that we were having the conversation personally I was actually really upset that my grandma and my mom and other women in my life had not approached that conversation with me before.
So, for me, I think we get to the right place in the short term by continuing to have the conversation. Mothers talking to their sons, talking to their brothers, talking to their husbands. It really is an opportunity for women to talk to men who did not know that this was happening or were sitting by and letting this happen. And that is very positive. This is really a movement that was and it certainly has, I think, changed more in society in a shorter amount of time than anything I can ever actually remember, specifically in the U.S.
WWD: You have a really strong sense of history and politics that comes through to anyone glancing through your social media feeds. Could you ever see yourself getting into politics at some point?
C.H.: I have a challenging time imagining not being here, but I think that certainly what I engage in outside of Playboy I’m inherently interested in government and history. As much as I like the idea of going into politics, the older I get, the more it becomes clear to me you don’t have to go into politics in order to make a difference. I sit on a couple nonprofit boards and like to engage as much as possible in that particular community, the community being service. I’m in a fairly extraordinary circumstance. I don’t know why anyone who is in a position to do good things would not want to try and make life better for other people, not just themselves. So that has always been of interest to me and I will do that, whether it’s at another place or whether it’s here.
WWD: Have you always had that interest in government and history?
C.H.: I’ve always since high school had a love for history. I was a history major for a period of time but ended up graduating with a minor in history and a major in film. I don’t necessarily know where the passion comes from. I’ve just always been interested in people, candidly. You don’t know who you are if you don’t look at where you came from, and history tells us where we came from. I’m not talking about the biased history that you learn about in high school. I’m talking about real history, seeing different sides.
WWD: When you look at where society sits today are there parallels you see to past periods in time?
C.H.: Absolutely. I see a lot of connections to the Fifties and Sixties. The nationalism that is transpiring because of [President] Trump I think there’s a lot of similarities to McCarthyism. Even later than that, up into the Nixon administration of the fake news and the White House trying to bash the Fourth Estate and discredit it is deeply concerning.
It’s pretty wild. History seems to be repeating itself a lot.
WWD: It always does.
C.H.: It does. The difference is the new movement, which is the isolationism piece. There seems to be this mindset that is coming to the forefront of a lot of Americans’ minds that is being driven by the Trump administration and that is that isolationism is the best practice. And I say, “OK, well, that’s really a scary thought to think that a lot of Americans feel that way” and the America First slogan is really “Let’s look internally and stop focusing on what our role is internationally as a super power.” The idea being that if you have influence, then you have a responsibility to do certain things and the idea that there are a lot of people that are not actually seeing that as an obligation is really terrifying.
What’s even more scary is you take a step back and you see, wow, this is not just a pattern and a theme that Americans are experiencing, but it’s a theme that is happening in various countries around the world with the U.K. I don’t know what the future of the United Kingdom is. We certainly don’t know what the future of the European Union is. We don’t know the future of these other agreements that have held us together for a long time that have allowed us to step in a direction that puts globalization and a global community as something positive humanity’s working towards. That’s not something that is at all connected to what was happening in the Fifties and Sixties. That’s relatively new.
WWD: Moving back to Playboy, where do you focus your energies now in the short and long term?
C.H.: My short-term goals are to launch a few new platforms that really speak to new consumers and people who are fans of the brand that want to interact with the brand, but we’re not doing a really great job of facilitating a content and lifestyle offering for them.
The larger opportunity really and what’s of interest is just continuing to communicate this sex-positive piece of the brand that has historically been associated with it since its beginnings for a younger generation. What’s amazing to me is you have 17-, 18- 19-year-olds buying the Anti Social Social [Club] product because of a fascination with the rabbit head, and they don’t have the hangups or the interpretation of the “Girls Next Door.” That’s really interesting to me. Just growing the business and brand. We’re so lucky. You’re talking about a company that has 97 percent global awareness, which is pretty wild. It’s hard to find a place in the world where somebody doesn’t know of the rabbit.
WWD: So the new platforms you’re thinking about here—
C.H.: You could imagine them, and I don’t want to give too much until it’s introduced, but you can almost imagine it to a certain extent like Vice in the sense Vice has channels or Gawker had Jezebel and other channels. What we have done an amazing job of is we’ve told our brand story from a product standpoint, but Playboy’s a much larger brand to just be the only platform that people interact with, especially when women have an interest in actually interacting with Playboy. But Playboy’s still really carving out, for the most part, a male heterosexual 18- to 34-year-old point of view.
What does it look like if you start to craft a channel for this consumer or this fan as well as this fan as well as this fan? So it’s understanding that you protect the mothership brand but there’s a larger opportunity to create these subchannels that really talk directly to a Playboy fan that is really just interacting with a piece of product today.
WWD: Did you always know you wanted to be a part of this organization?
C.H.: Honestly, I didn’t. When you’re an 18-year-old, you’re thinking about what do I want to spend my life doing? I played with the idea of joining the Peace Corps and then also played with the idea — it sounds like such a ridiculous thing to suggest — but I was very serious about considering joining the military.
WWD: Why’s that ridiculous?
C.H.: A lot of people I’m saying would take a step back and not necessarily relate to the idea of to serve when you have the opportunities that were afforded to me. A lot of people enlist in the military because of the opportunities the military provides — education, the opportunity to travel and see the world, the structure. So I think a lot of people might take a step back and ask why would I want to do that but that was always something that was of interest to me — serving and being a part of something that was larger than self. The dedication.
I actually watched a documentary on HBO that a woman named Brigitte Berman did on my dad, which was called “Hugh Hefner: Activist, Playboy, Rebel” and it focused a lot more on the activism side of the brand rather than what typically is talked about in pop culture. I just dug into all this research and learned about all of these amazing — speaking of history — historical notes that my dad and the brand had hit at particular moments in time. My dad held onto notes that he and MLK Jr. and Jesse Jackson put together in the Chicago mansion in the early years with the Civil Rights Movement. Or, he kept notes of him exchanging letters back and forth with President Reagan of what the sexual norms should be in the U.S. and this documentary told that story and I was absolutely fascinated with it and thought I get to be another chapter in this amazing legacy.
WWD: Did you have the opportunity to speak with your father about Playboy from that activist standpoint, or was it not until that documentary you really had a sense of that?
C.H.: It really was not something that we spoke about, actually. He wasn’t a braggy person, so I actually got upset with him after I had watched the documentary and just had suggested, why would you not talk about this stuff? And he said, “Well, I didn’t think it was important.” I was like, “Important? This is the most amazing information that you could have ever told me.”
We certainly had a lot of conversations about politics and government and had a lot of conversations about the brand and sexual norms. All those things connect to the company and what he was trying to accomplish in his life.