NEW YORK, United States — Troy Young, the new president of Hearst Magazines, has a proper office now. Before he succeeded David Carey in July, back when he was president of the publisher’s digital division, Young could be found hot-desking like a tech chief executive from cubicle to vacant conference room. Now he is charting the future of the publishing giant — which owns Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, Esquire and hundreds of other glossy titles — from inside a large and still sparse corner office on the 43rd floor of Hearst Tower.
“It's an incredibly cool job,” Young tells BoF, six weeks into the role. “I’m totally fearless about it.” But the scale of the challenge he faces is clear: publishers like Hearst Magazines, which still depend on print advertising for the majority of their revenue (two-thirds of its US business, in Hearst's case), are under tremendous pressure as media consumption moves online and advertisers follow eyeballs. And while a majority of luxury advertising budgets are still allocated to print, the tide is changing.
If anyone is up to the task, it’s Young. In his previous role, he successfully rebooted Hearst’s digital strategy, swiftly replacing top digital editors at publications like Cosmopolitan and Elle; uprooting the company’s online teams from their homes at individual titles to form a new multi-brand digital media group; and encouraging content and data sharing across brands, enabled by a new platform called MediaOS. The results speak for themselves. Hearst Magazines Digital Media reported 108 million monthly unique visitors across its portfolio of brands in June 2018, up 300 percent over the same month five years ago, when Young joined Hearst as president of digital. In that time, revenue for Hearst Magazines’ digital business increased over 200 percent.
But digital-attention unicorns like Google and Facebook dominate online advertising to such a degree that the market is sometimes referred to as a “duopoly.” And then there are digital media competitors like Vice, Vox and Refinery29 to contend with.
“I am conscious that magazines need to be really thoughtful about how hard it is to compete for consumers' attention right now and what it takes to get an hour of time,” says Young. “We are awash in content. Those companies that really understand how to serve an individual — and take advantage of all of the data to do that better — will survive.”
We're going to have to broaden our notion of what it is we sell.
A cornerstone of Young’s strategy is “content with purpose” which he believes attracts users who are not only valuable to advertisers but who will also pay for what Hearst has to offer. Critically, this may be quality journalism, but also things like experiences, access to a club or community and deals and discounts. “We're going to have to broaden our notion of what it is we sell,” says Young, adding that consumer revenue opportunities will “play a really important role in defining what it is we are creating.” Young wants Hearst to experiment with “different ways of cutting up our IP and offering that to consumers in interesting ways packaged to fit the shape of ever-changing consumption environments,” he explains. “If you want to sell a product to a consumer, you have to understand what motivates them.”
Boosting consumer revenue is every publisher’s priority right now, from legacy competitors like Condé Nast to VC-backed digital players like Vox. But Young says one thing that gives Hearst an edge is the data insights derived from “millions of consumer interactions,” which are used to inform both online and offline content products, as well as advertising. “I don't want to define [Hearst] as print and digital, I want to define it as content and insight,” he says. “You’ll see us invest a lot more in consumer research,” continues Young. “For example, I'm really interested in how we completely change the feedback mechanism for print editors, so they understand more about the impact of what they create.”
Young says there are several under-exploited connections between print and digital arms of the businesses. “That doesn't mean that we are suddenly going to abandon the great things that we've achieved by having focus, but we can work together more closely to make a bigger impact,” he explains. “And if we can do what print does well and do it in tight connection with what we do well in video and online, then I think we can make our dent [in culture] more effectively.”
Young say it’s too early to divulge the structural changes he is contemplating for the organisation. It’s unclear if and how he will continue to grow the content hubs established by his predecessor Carey and continued by chief content officer Joanna Coles (who announced her resignation shortly after Young’s appointment) which grouped titles such as Good Housekeeping and Redbook and other “lifestyle” brands together to share editors and resources.
But ultimately success will come down to the content. “If you want to sell a product to a consumer you have to understand what motivates them and what the transformational promise of the content is,” he says. “If you have purpose, you have a loyalty.”