From start to finish, Michael Clinton’s tenure in media is an unusual one.
First off, he started as a business reporter for DNR, the now defunct men’s wear industry paper and a brother publication to WWD under the Fairchild Fashion umbrella. Not a typical training ground for marketing executives. But it proved to be a good one for Clinton, who went to the advertising side of the business in his 20s, more or less on a whim, 41 years ago.
Then there’s that number. Forty-one years is a long career in any industry, but to be an executive in magazine media, with its frequent regime changes, upswings and downturns, it’s an eternity. After seven years at Fairchild, where he got his first experience on the ad side with the Fairchild launch Sport Style, which covered the sporting goods industry, he headed to Condé Nast. After 13 years there, starting as publisher of GQ and then up the executive ranks, he jumped to rival Hearst Magazines, where he’s been for the last 21 years. Clinton has led marketing and publishing for the entire outfit under three presidents and three chief executive officers. Now retiring of his own volition and staying on as an adviser to ceo Steve Swartz by request, Clinton is fully aware of how many colleagues have been nudged or shoved out the door.
“It’s nice to be able to write your own script,” he told WWD. “I was teasing someone saying, ‘It’s nice to be a media executive who actually gets to retire on his own terms.’”
The word “retire” is something of a misnomer, though. Yes, Clinton is dropping the day-to-day work of being president of marketing and publishing director of Hearst, but there seems no end to what he will be working on otherwise.
There’s a book coming out in September, essays on running marathons called “Tales From the Trails,” and another book he’s already ruminating on but has yet to formally pitch, likely something along the lines of a media memoir. He’s got a year left on a master’s degree from Columbia University (finals just ended) focused on philanthropy, a passion of Clinton’s and an area, like media, where he says there’s “a lot of disruption.” Clinton is a major traveler, too, and will be hitting his 124th country this year with a trip to Ethiopia. Don’t be surprised if you see his byline pop up either — he’s written for The New York Times and CNN.
And Clinton will still have a couple of toes, at least, in the media pool. He’s keeping his office at Hearst (and his assistant of more than 30 years) and with all of the professional relationships he’s built over the decades, there will likely be more advising in his future, however informal.
“I have a lot of ceo’s or cmo’s who will let their hair down and say, ‘Michael, can you just explain to me why this happens or that happens?’ etc.,” Clinton said. “I’m sure in my own informal way I’ll continue to do that.”
But before Clinton gets to advising and writing and further globetrotting, he’s got a successor to find. He does have his own short list of people he’s considering, but said the process is open to whomever is interested. For anyone who is, here are a few additional excerpts from a conversation with Clinton on his career and what one needs for success in media.
WWD: What has kept you in the industry, especially with so many other interests?
Michael Clinton: It’s always been a business that I loved. I came to New York as a 22-year-old literally to be in this business and I just fell in love with it and I always wanted to stay in it. Over the years I was recruited by digital companies and fashion companies and retail companies and other media companies, but I really loved being in the magazine business. It’s a really special business that has huge relevance and influence in the culture and it’s always changing.
WWD: What are some moments from your career that stand out to you as being the best?
M.C.: Certainly being part of the team that launched Oprah magazine was momentous. It actually came about through Ellen Levine [former editorial director of Hearst Magazines], she had a personal relationship with Oprah, and Ellen went to Oprah with our then-ceo Cathie Black and they were the first ones to pitch it to Oprah. It has been to date the most successful magazine launch in the history of magazines period.
One of my great joys has been assembling a group of publisher leaders who are extraordinary. And that takes time. You don’t do that in six months, you do it over the course of years. When you have a great team you can walk through walls.
WWD: On the flip side, what have been some tough moments?
M.C.: Well, we launched some things that didn’t work. We had to fail fast. I was inspired by the British publishing world with their giveaway magazines, the daily tabloids on fashion and style. I came back from a trip there and thought we should try this. We launched something called Trending and we ran it for about a year, but it wasn’t working. The consumer liked it but the advertisers couldn’t get their heads around it. That was a disappointment we had to deal with.
And many years ago we were having a really rough time in finding a digital strategy. I remember when Troy [Young, Hearst Magazines president] first came to the company, we were all in a room and we made the decision that we had to blow it up because we were failing. We decided to lean into what was of the moment at the time in terms of digital strategy — took off like a rocket ship. We had many years of failing, but then spectacular success on the digital front that continues today. So that was a nice pivot. That was a great story to live.
WWD: You came in during the glory days of media, so were you ever scared there wasn’t going to be a publishing industry anymore?
M.C.: Well, first of all, it was great to live the glory days. I always say to our team “Adaptability is the key.” Things are always evolving and changing and either you adapt or you leave. And also you have to be a student every single day. The industry has always gone through cycles, like every industry. I never felt that it was ever going to be an endangered species by any means.
WWD: Given the people relationships that you’ve built over the decades, do you feel they are still as vital to the work and the industry?
M.C.: More than ever. There should be more, if you want to be successful. Oftentimes, especially with certain parts of the digital world, like programmatic, you live in a transactional world. And there’s nothing more magical than sitting down with a client and hearing what they want to accomplish and developing a concept or an idea that can move their business forward. And the only way you do that is through relationships. For successful people that’s what they’ll always hang their hat on.
WWD: Any other thoughts as you head to “retirement?”
M.C.: For a working class kid who came from Pittsburgh with $60 in his pocket and a dream, no contacts, and said, “OK New York, I’m here” — I’m in my office right now looking out over Central Park. So if I was to reflect, I’d say, “You didn’t do so bad.”