Kate Lewis only wanted art by women in her new office on the 45th floor of Hearst Tower, and that’s what she got.
There’s a photo by Cindy Sherman, another by Uta Barth, another by…Lewis can’t quite recall on a recent afternoon. But she knows why the black-and-white photo of a woman whose entire body, save for the nose and mouth, is submerged in water spoke to her when she went looking though the Hearst art collection after her promotion last year to chief content officer.
“It’s good to remind yourself that your head is slightly above water — slightly.”
Salient as that quip may be for a woman who is in her first c-suite position after 25 years of working in magazine media — seeing the digital takeover of the medium and inside the walls of Condé Nast before coming to Hearst Magazines in 2014 — it belies Lewis’ generally perky, positive and pragmatic outlook. Right away, that makes her different relative to a lot of other women in magazine publishing, particularly when the purview includes fashion titles, who often fulfill the testy and aloof stereotype. While Lewis takes her work seriously, she doesn’t seem to take herself that way, something else that sets her apart.
Then there’s the fact that she’s kind of a nerd, in a good way, with a love and understanding of data coming up in conversation again and again. Already she’s gotten a new metric system in place to measure the impact of covers and there’s more to come. She also took obvious pleasure in recalling how she scored her first job out of college at Condé: A job fair where she walked into “a sea of black suits,” and immediately turned around to go buy a red suit, returning to get offers from Condé and ABC News, the only places she interviewed.
Although she described her first few months of work at Condé as a “putting-tape-on-the-bottom-of-shoes-type of thing,” Lewis chose it over news because she’d just “always” wanted to be in magazines.
Lewis is obviously aware of just how much the industry has changed since she started out in the heyday of the Nineties, but remains hopeful that magazines are not destined to disappear for good. WWD recently caught up with her, going on six months into the new job, to talk the future of print, what advertisers really want, what people “secretly” read and much more.
WWD: The industry that you started in, do you recognize it in the industry you work in today?
Kate Lewis: I do. It’s funny, I started at Vanity Fair for the first Hollywood issue — Graydon [Carter] had been there for two years and it was sort of a legendary one, it had Uma Thurman and Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh on the front panel. It was the first gatefold, where all of the ladies folded out, and I think there’s that same power and momentum possible with covers now. That magazines are still an event when they come to be.
Obviously media is so everywhere now, so having the attention on a magazine is harder to achieve, but there still is that thing that I experienced then. The way we do it now and all the things we have to do, that is wildly different.
WWD: Do you think it’s harder now, or just different?
K.L.: In the same way that technology has made it harder, it’s also made it easier. I started in the art department where I would Xerox photos in different sizes so we could paste them [by hand] in layouts. So we’ve moved on. That was really slow, so some of the things that were painstaking before aren’t now, but now the amount we have to produce is so intense — it’s kind of offset each other.
All the data has been influential for print, too — what [readers are] interested in and what they share and what they read secretly.
WWD: Oh, interesting — secret reading…
K.L.: We have a lot of things that do really, really well but no one is sharing it.
WWD: What’s an example?
K.L.: Well, all sex content. And utility things that people are searching for, like “What’s the best perfume for winter?” They’re not sharing it but lots of people want to know.
The other thing is that it’s often easy, when you look at top-performing content, to judge the audience. We have a mantra here, “Don’t judge the audience.” A thing that spikes does not define your whole brand. You really have to look at the nuance — we talk a lot about the things that get anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 reads because that’s your audience, not the 100,000 reads. You can’t reproduce that. Like, every Tuesday we have a spike because of “This Is Us,” but I can’t create that because I need “This Is Us.”
WWD: Are there things you enjoy about the job now that didn’t exist before and are there things that you miss?
K.L.: There are so many things about this job that I had not done before. In November I went to Europe for 10 days and I met our biggest clients there, in fashion primarily, and I hadn’t done that grand tour before and it was so interesting and good for me to understand the needs of those clients and where their head is now and how that works.
We’re the biggest in fashion, we’re the biggest in beauty and it was a great deep-dive for me into that experience. I also went to fashion week for the first time in a real way and that was super fun, too. I have really enjoyed digging in deep to that part of our DNA — we do so much beauty online and we do fashion online, but to do the big storytelling around beauty and fashion in print is different. So it’s been fun to a get back to that, but also to be more immersed in the client part of it and understand those things. In general being back in print is lovely. And I come to it with fresh eyes.
The things I miss are probably that gritty camaraderie of sitting in the pen with everyone being like “This news is happening!” I get that now on Slack — it doesn’t have the humanity.
WWD: Meeting with all of those clients, what are you hearing are their concerns or needs?
K.L.: In the luxury fashion space, there is a lot of concern with how their brands are represented. So much with these brands, beauty, too, is about their image — you are buying into a feeling. If you’re an Elle girl or a Chanel girl, it’s the same idea: you’re buying into a feeling. So, I can really relate to that point of view.
There’s also [a sense that] when you distribute something on the web, it goes into the ether and you have to accept that and so, talking with these folks about marketing and their marketing strategy is really interesting to me. To be honest, there’s not a one-size-fits-all, all the brands are sort of in a different place in terms of how they’re approaching their ad-buying life, content creation — there wasn’t one theme, but a general concern of like, “My brand is sacred and in the world we live in now I need to set it free, I need to reach people.”
WWD: They want to try and go places they haven’t gone before.
K.L.: Exactly. And those are fun conversations to have.
WWD: Did you ever see yourself in this role, the c-suite of a huge media company?
K.L.: Umm, I mean, in my dreams. I’m a hard worker. I’ve always believed that if I work hard and I’m creative and I contribute, that there’s potential for me to grow. So, I guess there’s a part of me that believed this could happen — I certainly wanted it. I owe a lot of this to Troy [Young, president of Hearst Magazines] — we’ve had a really creative, interesting partnership. I’m along for the ride.
WWD: In media, really any industry, do you think you can get to the top just with hard work?
K.L.: I think it’s hard work and something else. And it could be many things. It could be that you have a network and you’re super well-connected; it could be that you have an excitement and notoriety, in a good way, about you; it could be that you are extremely creative; it could be you’re extraordinary at managing talent. There are many pluses, but I think you have to possess some of those to get there.
WWD: Where you are now, what exactly are you doing?
K.L.: Really the first months have been very much focused on understanding the print landscape and getting to know the people running the print brands here and working with them and digging in. I definitely come to it with fresh eyes, so I’m asking a lot of questions like, “Why do we do it this way?” I’m taking a lot of the things I learned from the web and instilling them into the print teams.
The biggest, most important thing we’re doing here is integrating print and digital teams and thinking. In some places we’re directly integrating the teams as we’ve done with House Beautiful and Cosmo and Men’s Health and in some places we’re just integrating the thinking. So that is the focus of my work. I still spend a lot of time looking at the web sites, but now I spend a lot of time looking at covers. I spend more time with clients. I understand what I need to achieve, but the way to get there is windy.
WWD: What is it that you want to achieve?
K.L.: When I think about my job, I want to make sure that these brands have resonance and meaning for a big audience for 20 years to come, that’s the big picture. And the small way to achieve that is to think about the significance of print and what role it plays in people’s lives; to think about digital and how we continue to scale that; how we leverage digital to connect with readers differently. Are we helping them shop? Are we helping them think or solve problems? Are we inspiring them? What are we doing? And video, video is big — I took on video and we’ve grown a lot, so thinking about creating series that are offshoots of the brand and that whole piece of it. All of those puzzle pieces are about the emotional engagement and stickiness that readers have with our brands.
WWD: With print, I know the company has said it’s still dedicated to it, but are you looking at it now brand by brand, at what has vitality still?
K.L.: Yeah. I would say that most of the brands we publish all still have a strong print component to them, but you’re right that they do it in different ways. Some may be utility players, like this is a bible that helps me get through a home renovation, or my recipes for this week. They all have different functions, which also makes the job harder because [the brands require] different ways of thinking. What we’re doing for our women’s service books is really different from what we’re doing for luxury books — that’s part of the craziness of it.
WWD: Do you think there’s still an appetite, broadly speaking, among people for a monthly magazine, or five?
K.L.: I do. Our loyal readers are very loyal to us. Our loyal subscribers are strong. This is how I think about mags from a print format — you and I probably buy a ton of stuff on Amazon every day, or at least every week, and I have this feeling when I buy myself something online that I’ve given myself a present and I think that magazines are similar to that. Magazines can fill that [role] of a gift that you’re giving yourself. In some case, they’re both an indulgence and a utility…it’s a combination of those things and I think there’s an appetite still. I really do.
The newsstand is a whole different landscape because there is not a habitual place where we see magazines displayed, except for supermarkets. When we think about magazines [in the U.S.] we need to think about them in the home. They’re competing for your attention with your phone and making dinner and folding laundry and playing with your kid — so how do we make this a little gift in your own house?
WWD: It really is sort of flat, the landscape for attention. A Hearst magazine is competing with a Netflix show and Netflix is competing with Walmart or Amazon.
K.L.: One hundred percent. And we are still a part of that mix, across the country. Different brands in different places, but we are still a part of it.
WWD: So, overall is revenue still mostly print ad-driven?
K.L.: That’s a big focus for us — diversification of revenue. We’re still more ad-based than anything else. One of the things that we’re really motivated to do online is to connect consumers to the products they want — i.e., e-commerce. That’s been a really nice growing part of our business and I feel like that’s been really fun to be a part of. When people search “best vacuum cleaners,” I want Good Housekeeping to come up.
So e-commerce is big for us. We’re also doing some experimentation with digital subscriptions. We launched a subscription for our columnist Charlie Pierce and that’s been really successful for us, so we’re thinking how do we make a sub worth it for people? Can we be in touch with them more than on a monthly cadence? There’s lots brewing in terms of valuing our product and what we give to consumers in new ways.
WWD: It sounds like you’re thinking about reader-driven content as opposed to advertising-driven content.
K.L.: Yes. I mean, we think about both things…on the Internet you can do both pretty well and it’s kind of easy because there’s not a single product that’s delivered. There’s so much content on a given day. In print, we’ve had such strong advertising relationships for so long and we are really dedicated to delivering high-quality products for fashion and beauty consumers and advertisers, so we think about both.
WWD: Do they always meet in the middle?
K.L.: I think it depends on the day. We are extremely influential in fashion and beauty and our readers look to us for that kind of information and I think we do a pretty good job, as far as I can tell, satisfying advertisers. So I think we do meet in the middle. And we certainly never compromise what we feel the reader wants.
One of the things I do here is I oversee the branded content studio and [brands and advertisers are] hungry for content that performs. They want to reach humans — that’s what they want us to help them do, so those conversations and those deals, which we’re quite good at now, are really moving the needle in terms of how we work with clients.
WWD: And is that an area you feel is going to make up more revenue going forward?
K.L.: I think it already does — it’s such a big part of our advertising relationships now and in print, too, and this part is new to me, but we also have a team that makes content for print advertisers that we run in print. That part I’m still learning, but we just appointed Brett Hill to oversee that group. There is lots happening there.
WWD: When you’re thinking of content, since that’s in your title now, and covers, are you thinking in terms of how is this going to play on Instagram, on newsstands, about getting separate images and content for social and print?
K.L.: Yes. In fact, because I’m very metrics interested — I like to measure and then assess and then measure again — we’re changing what we see as cover performance. We’re still toying with it and newsstand is still one aspect, but Instagram engagement is one of them, now, onsite views, press impressions — looking at the complete impact of that image and that story in terms of influence. I do think the cover is the event and if we can’t make the most out of the event then we have to try harder.
WWD: Then how are you thinking in terms of creating cover “events” — is it still celebrity-focused? Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but it seems that may be dying down a little bit.
K.L.: Yes, I think you’re right, but there’s still a huge appetite for celebrities. Probably how we think about those celebrities has changed — there’s probably a new “A-list” that isn’t the person who’s opening a big Hollywood movie. We’re open to not having celebrities on a cover that’s traditionally had a celebrity on it. We did a story with Esquire that had the little clay figures. We’re trying stuff. We will definitely evolve the cover thing — just try things and then measure [the impact].
WWD: Have you rolled out these new evaluations yet?
K.L.: We just did our first round so what I would say is, we have a benchmark now.
WWD: Did anything surprise you?
K.L.: Not terribly — I’m still trying to understand the press impressions piece of it.
WWD: I don’t understand it, either.
K.L.: OK, good. Because you look at it and you’re like, “Wow why did that happen”…but there are interesting things, like the Steve Carell cover for Esquire got hundreds of thousands of reads online — because he talked about “The Office.” It wasn’t for “Welcome to Marwyn,” his movie now, it’s because he has this iconic place. Editors have always seen a cover line backwards, but this will influence that even more. Like, if you’re looking for online reads, make sure you get the juicy nugget about the Internet sensation thing that that person was involved in.
WWD: Going forward, you’re thinking longevity, but where do you think Hearst will be in five years, 10 years?
K.L.: I don’t honestly know. One thing I will say, I have a pretty long career, I’ve been doing this for 25 years…and the appetite for the kind of content that we produce in the magazine world still exists. There was a bunch of chatter, “pivot to video” la, la, la, and we on-boarded video, but did not abandon what we were doing, because I think that people are interested in lifestyle content, they’re interested in magazines that solve problems in their lives, whether those problems are what fancy dress to wear or how to clean your sink the best. They’re interested in culture and those interests will be consistent. I don’t know how the delivery mechanism will change — the distribution is the thing that has most radically evolved in my career, but the thing we make is still compelling to humans.
One thing we talk about, maybe two things: I’m obsessed with chat, because I feel like phones and e-mail will disappear, so I think chat will be a bit part of our future. How media inserts itself into chat is still a question for me.
WWD: Does that include voice commerce-type chat?
K.L.: So, the other thing I would say, and this is not mine, I steal this from our search guru here who is constantly reminding me that today 20 percent of searches in America are voice, which feels really high. But I think a lot of people do that in their car, Americans are so much in their car and telling their car things. But chat and voice to me feel big and, as I think about expanding media, places where we’ll go. How and when and why I don’t know.
WWD: So in this chat-voice future, are there still print magazines?
K.L.: I hope so. I truly believe there will be. Again, I think women like stuff and I think magazines are compelling stuff, so yeah, I believe it.
WWD: I won’t disagree because I have no clue what is going to happen, but Gen Z and Gen A, they haven’t been trained to appreciate print, they’re looking at their phones. So where does print media fit into that and how are you planning for those generations?
K.L.: I’m not sure we can say because Gen Z doesn’t have that behavior now [they never will], because magazines are fundamentally for people over 25. I think there’s a chance that generation may grow into consumption of it. Because when I go to [the houses of my daughter’s friends] and drop off a pile of magazines they read them, they look, they’re interested. And my son reads Car and Driver and Road and Track like it’s his job. That’s all he cares about. So I do hear you, I don’t think this generation is exposed to it, it’s not part of their daily vernacular in any way. But if can figure out a way to get [magazines] in their line of vision, I think they’d be interested.
WWD: With that, are there brands out there that you see and think “Oh, I would like to have that for Hearst,” or “That’s something we should do.”
K.L.: Of course there are, but I’m not going to tell you.
WWD: Fine. But is that a headspace you’re in — new brands or just dealing with what you have?
K.L.: We have a lot, we don’t need more brands, so if we were to get more brands it would be because we want them, because they would teach us something, fill a hole in the portfolio. We’re the biggest in beauty and luxury, now that we have Rodale we have a really nice foothold in men’s and enthusiast, we have a big women’s service group, so our buckets are full, but there are many, many people doing interesting things, or maybe squandering good brands that I personally covet and I think Troy probably covets some, too. So time will tell. Right now, that’s not our agenda.
WWD: There is a consolidation in media, especially around digital. It grew like crazy for a while and now it’s coalescing around a few brands — do you think that’s actually helpful for the future of magazines and magazine content?
K.L.: Interesting. Um, I think yes. I like competition; it drives me. I’m actually happy when others succeed because we learn things from their successes and all that. So, in some ways I’m invested in there being more brands, more people trying and pushing and pursuing, but the consolidation actually is its own form of competition. We also consolidated in a way with Rodale, so I’m curious to see how we now operate like this. I’m curious to see what’s happening with the Bustle Group. There are lots of interesting things going on. I like when there are people out there worth watching.
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