HEARST’S VIRTUAL REALITY: Troy Young has been likened to a lightning rod, or a disruptor of sorts, in the quiet corridors of Hearst Tower in Midtown. But his guise — calm, avuncular, with a bookish look — is unlike that characterization, even when he addressed the progress he has made on the digital front.

Young, who joined Hearst 18 months ago, took charge of the publisher’s Web properties in order to grow its audience and design a platform to help increase advertising revenues. He told WWD on Wednesday that since last year, Hearst has pulled a 98 percent increase in unique visits across all its brands combined to 112 million. The top-three sites include cosmopolitan.com, which pulled in 30.1 million uniques; esquire.com, with 11.4 million, and goodhousekeeping.com with 8.8 million.

This story first appeared in the December 4, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

While Young couldn’t disclose Hearst’s financials, he said revenue for the last quarter grew more than 20 percent over the same quarter last year, and that digital represents more than 15 percent of the magazine division’s annual profit. He added that in 2014, his division hired 150 people, including site directors and employees for Hearst Content Studios, a branded-content division.

Where Young has raised eyebrows is how Digital is organized. All digital editors report to him, not to the editors in chief of the various magazines. Digital staff also sits on a separate floor from their print counterparts.

“It’s not a power play,” Young said. “I view digital and print as two separate businesses.”

While many in the building have come to terms with the division, the latest might not sit as well. Despite the fact that it has its own staff, Content Studios often consults with editors, mainly on the digital side to develop and “shape” advertising content, which has traditionally been a no-no.

Young and his counterpart Lee Sosin, who heads up Content Studios, takes the separation of editorial content and advertising to refer to labeling content. It does not necessarily refer to a separation of staff working on both ads and edit.

When asked if he sees a conflict of interest, Sosin responded: “Why?”

The idea that editors can work on content for advertisers and also select brands for their own fashion stories, for instance, didn’t sound an alarm. “A lot of editorial content that we do make, we talk about products in our content,” Sosin said. “If all the [sponsored] article is, is featuring products, then we probably haven’t done a good job. That’s why the editors want to be involved. We always look at things from a user’s perspective first. If a user clicks on something and it’s really just an ad for Bloomingdale’s, that’s not going to be a good experience for readers.”

Young chimed in: “This is the year that I’ve seen attitudes change editorially, where they actually see that there’s something in it for themselves. When we can find a dialogue with a brand to say we can create content that is good for the user, the editors, therefore, want to shape it, and they want to make it great because it builds their audience.”

Young said editors at magazines and dot-coms “are very involved,” but when pressed about lines blurring, he reiterated that there is “no conflict of interest” and that it’s in fact in the interest of “one person: the consumer.”

Talk of consumers and brands sounded less like journalism, and more like advertising, to which he responded: “You have to differentiate between different types of publications, hard news and lifestyle publications are not the same. I think how it takes shape in The New York Times versus a fashion magazine is worth understanding. These are lifestyle publications.”

When reminded that some of Hearst’s magazines feature investigative news stories, a somewhat annoyed Young agreed and said: “Let’s move on to the rest.”

The rest is really about how Hearst Digital is positioning itself to help brands solve marketing problems through creating online content that sits next to editorial. It is the next phase for Hearst, which is focusing on improving its Web and mobile platforms, to optimize ad placement and premium viewability. That translates into charging higher rates for digital ads.

“We’re in a time of tremendous change in how media is bought and how creative is made,” Young said. “There was a very structured approach to that historically. There are media agencies and creative agencies and media outlets, and a lot of that is being blurred right now.”

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