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The midas of publishing (Amended)

CEO of Forbes, Mike Perlis, talks about how he remade a 95-year-old publishing business.
Saturday, October 1, 2016 - 05:50
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This is really important: When we made this dramatic shift to digital, we didn't do it by leaving print by the side of the road. Forbes - the content of Forbes, the cover of Forbes - is so iconic. The combination of that iconic status from the magazine and then the much bigger audience that we have achieved with digital - the two work hand in glove.

IN the world of magazine publishing, there are few, if any, who can match Mike Perlis for the sheer number and variety of titles he has managed. He has shaped and re-shaped magazines as diverse as Runner's World, GQ, Men's Health, Playboy, Car & Driver, Popular Photography and PC Magazine, to name a few. Now he's doing it at Forbes, which in the digital age he has transformed into one of the best-read business publications in the world. With sweeping silver-grey hair, an informal manner and gentle humour, Mr Perlis is a fitness buff, an adventurer and outdoorsman with a passion for hiking, canoeing, mountain-climbing and river expeditions.

But what really runs through his veins is publishing. It's what he's done almost all his working life. Even when he wasn't directly in the business, he was in it as an investor. And if results are any guide, Mr Perlis the publisher has the Midas touch.

"Not to sound lofty, but I've always been a believer in journalism, believer in content," he says, as we settle down to our conversation in a meeting room at the Shangri-La Hotel.

Soon after college in Syracuse where he studied communications, he moved to a small town called Camden in the US state of Maine in the early 1980s. He started a publishing house called New England Publications, which put out niche, region-focused magazines such as Canoe & Kayak,The New England Guide and Maine Invites You.

He immersed himself in every part of the business. "I wrote, I managed printing, production, circulation and advertising sales," he recalls. But after this all-round, hands-on experience, he figured that his biggest talent was putting it all together.

"My career has been really about being the conductor, not the player," he says. "I can play some of the instruments but not as well as the real players. But what has given me a lot of pleasure through the years is blending all of that and helping make the whole thing work. I have been lucky in my career to do that in some interesting places."

In 1989, after working on a series of sporting magazines, he joined Playboy Enterprises as president, and the first successor to the founder, the legendary Hugh Hefner, as publisher of Playboy, where he helped launch the digital version of the iconic men's monthly. More publishing stints followed, first at TVSM, where he re-shaped Runner's World and Men's Health; at Conde Nast where he rejuvenated the titles Details and GQ (aka Gentleman's Quarterly); and then at Ziff Davis, which published Car & Driver, Popular Photography and PC Magazine.

At the peak of the Internet boom in 2000, Mr Perlis took a detour into the venture capital business, when he joined Softbank Capital (owned by Softbank of Japan, which also owned Ziff Davis). "I used the 10 years I spent there to specialise in investing in digital content companies," he says. "It gave me the opportunity to combine my traditional magazine experience with this really special insight into digital content, through investing in startups. We were the first investors in The Huffington Post and then we followed the CTO from Huff to Buzzfeed." His team also funded other open-content publishing platforms including Associated Content (which was later bought by Yahoo) and Beliefnet, a portal for spiritual and inspirational content.

In 2010, he was approached by the Forbes family, publishers of the long-established business magazine that carries their name. "The family wanted to hire someone to run the company and they came and asked me, who do I think they should hire. But at some point along the way, they said: 'We keep asking who you recommend, but we think we'd really like you to come on board."

"It was a very flattering overture," says Mr Perlis, who would be the first non-family member to run Forbes in the 95 years of its history. "This was a stewardship role that I took very seriously. It was a big move for the family. They showed a lot of trust in hiring me. They completely turned over the reins of running the business to me and weren't equivocal about it in any way."

This was soon after the global financial crisis, which had ravaged the media industry. Mr Perlis recounts: "People say that when the economy gets a cold, the media business gets pneumonia. Forbes was in the same way as the rest... Not in deep trouble, but it needed to make the decision to move away from the focus on print towards digital."

A '95-year-old startup'

In Forbes, he saw the opportunity to combine two elements - as he puts it - "a traditional print brand that had big ambitions and a willingness to be innovative and inventive around moving to digital".

Apart from Mr Perlis's expertise as a traditional publisher, the key to the Forbes' shift to digital was something he had learnt during his experience as a venture investor in digital media: the importance of creating a content platform. A few months before Mr Perlis took over at Forbes in Dec 2010, Chief Product Officer Lewis Dvorkin joined the company. Mr Perlis credits him with much of the success that Forbes went on to enjoy. "Lewis and I shared the belief that if we created a great product - first and foremost in terms of content, format and delivery - that content will find an audience, and when content and audience are connected, at that point you have the ability to monetise.

"Lewis had a vision for a contributor platform. He actually ran a small business called True/Slant and when he joined the company, Forbes purchased True/Slant, and it became the contributor platform for Forbes. In a nutshell, this platform gives our veteran reporters, our fulltime journalists, the ability to post their own content onto Forbes.com - they post it, they populate it with photos and videos, they manage their commenting streams and they manage their own social network. We give them a lot of help, but in essence, they post their content and manage the site themselves."

Then Mr Perlis and his team broadened the platform.

"We made the decision to open the content and contributor platform to non-fulltime employees - people who would contribute to the site, who had a special passion or a special expertise, people from the business world. We vet them thoroughly and then we give them the same tools that we give our fulltime journalists to post their own content."

There are now some 2,000 contributors to Forbes.com, in addition to 80 fulltime journalists. "Every one of them has the opportunity to earn money, based on the kind of traffic, the kind of communities that they build," says Mr Perlis. "About 35 per cent of them meet the criteria, publish frequently and create enough traffic so that they are paid."

Initially, the contributors were US-based and the platform US-centric, but now it's open to contributors from around the world, and the diversity is reflected in the content. The result: a dramatic increase in traffic, from around 15 million unique visitors in 2010 to 53 million in July 2016. The rise in traffic opened up opportunities to monetise online. Mr Perlis and his team decided to embark on a strategy that centred on so-called "native advertising" or sponsored content. "On the business side of the company, not the editorial side, we opened up the contributor platform to marketeers, giving them the same ease of use, the same accessibility, the same audience opportunity.

"We gave it to Cadillac, SAP, Oracle and Microsoft, who followed certain rules of engagement around their content - that it should be thought-leadership-type content. For example, not 'my car has a bigger engine than your car' but 'why autonomous vehicles are important'."

Sponsored content has been controversial because readers might confuse it with unbiased journalism - especially if it is published in the same stream. But Mr Perlis points out: "The marketing is clearly delineated through colours and design and it is completely transparent and clear to everyone that this content comes from marketeers."

He claims that the marketeer content, which is called "BrandVoice", is high quality material. "We're not letting people use this as an advertising vehicle, and it's been really rewarding. We have about 130 marketeers on the programme and there are times when the BrandVoice content is the most popular on the site."

Listicles and millenials

Forbes has long been famous for its annual ranking of billionaires, a painstakingly calculated list. But it has since vastly expanded its repertoire of listicles. There are, for example, lists of rich people by country, powerful women, leading companies, top philanthropists, top colleges, best-paid athletes and entertainers, and more.

But one particular list that it created has generated especially handsome payoffs. Mr Perlis explains: "About five years ago, we started doing what at the time was a quaint list, but now has become important - we did a '30 under 30' list, where we named 30 game changers under 30 years of age in 20 categories, so it was 600 people in the US, per year. It has attracted a lot of interest from the millennials. People vie very ambitiously to get on that list. It's a fabulous thing to have on a resume.

"We've now got '30 under 30' lists in 10 categories in Asia. We're also doing it in Europe and the Middle East. This has helped with our move to digital - it's helped to create a downward shift in the average age of our audience. More than 50 per cent of our digital audience is millenials. Along with each of the lists that we publish, we do an event - a big event every year in the US, an event in London, last year in the Middle East and an event in Singapore. A high percentage of the people that we name to the list attend these events. For example, in the US where we named 600 people to the list, about 450 of them came, and they came with a sort of a New Age entourage - best friends, sidekicks, CTOs, sometimes even parents. These events have been really high energy and we've also created a mobile app that unites all of the under-30 audiences around the globe."

Forbes does a series of other conferences as well targeted at specific groups, including C-suite executives, women, entrepreneurs, healthcare professionals and more - and these are held in different countries. "The more we do events - we find there's an odd paradox," says Mr Perlis. "People spend a lot of time on their mobile devices, dealing with things digitally in an increasingly automated world. But there seems to be a real hunger for complementing that with actually getting together, seeing people face to face, shaking hands - you know, old-fashioned networking, as opposed to social networking on digital devices."

Another of Mr Perlis's initiatives has been to take Forbes global - and not only in terms of contributors and events. "Before I joined the company, we had eight to nine international editions - we now have 36," he points out. They are in local languages and the design is the same as that of the flagship magazine. "These are licensed editions by local publishers. They have the rights to all of our content and there are guidelines that they need to follow, on design and quality. But more than 80 per cent of the content is local."

He shows me samples of Forbes editions in Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese. "Here, look at the Japanese edition - see how slick it is," he enthuses. "Look at the size of the print. It's like the September Vogue."

Beyond publishing

Forbes is also exploring areas other than publishing, including real estate, travel and financial services. One way it is doing this is by licensing its brand.

Mr Perlis explains: "For example, we're working on a Forbes Financial Centre with a group called Century Properties in Manila. We broke ground on that project last year. It's a big office building and will have the Forbes identity on it.

"And there's this interesting story: the guy who is our partner - a very well-known guy named Jose Antonio, people call him Joey - has often told this story. When asked why you are doing this with Forbes, he says: 'I am building a financial centre and I can call it Joey's Financial Centre or I can call it the Forbes' Financial Centre.' I think it's really smart - he'll succeed."

Digital in sync with print

But the licensing deals and other new ventures are carefully chosen to fit the Forbes brand. And central to that is the original magazine. "This is really important," says Mr Perlis. "When we made this dramatic shift to digital, we didn't do it by leaving print by the side of the road. Forbes - the content of Forbes, the cover of Forbes - is so iconic. The combination of that iconic status from the magazine and then the much bigger audience that we have achieved with digital - the two work hand in glove.

"If we had launched the digital business site like the one we have without the Forbes name and without the continued commitment to print and to the magazine, I don't think we would have achieved anywhere near the success that we have."

On the future of journalism, advertising and publishing, Mr Perlis speculates that sponsored content will be a growth area and so will programmatic advertising, where algorithms help determine where advertisements should be placed. He also thinks content providers will consolidate through mergers and buyouts - he mentions that Forbes is also looking to grow through acquisitions - and that the likes of Facebook and Google will continue to control content distribution.

But what particularly fascinates him, as a publisher, is the evolution of citizen journalism. He points out that the citizen journalist has gone from being a blogger who would post content to his or her own site and hope to build an audience to being part of a huge machinery for creating traffic by contributing to big brands like Forbes.

"I think that the really fascinating thing is how we have gone from, using the US analogy, Walter Cronkite (a well-known US TV news anchor in the 1960s and 1970s) addressing the nation at 6.30 every evening and telling you what happened, how it happened and what it means, to a world where, from the time we wake up to the time we go to sleep, we have access to a thousand points of information. It has all happened in a relatively short period of time, and our ability to absorb all that content and make sense of it - to me, that is remarkable."


MIKE PERLIS

Executive Chairman & CEO

Forbes Media

1953 Born in Camden, Maine, US

EDUCATION

BA (Communications) Syracuse University

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

1989-94 President and Publisher, Playboy Enterprises

1994-96 Publisher, Conde Nast publications

1996-1998 President and COO, TVSM media

1998-2000 President and CEO, Ziff Davis

2000-2010 Partner, Softbank Capital

Dec 2010 Joined Forbes Media as President & CEO

July 2016 Appointed Executive Chairman & CEO, Forbes Media

Amendment note: An earlier version of this article stated that Mr Perlis brought Chief Product Officer Lewis Dvorki into the company, and that there were 10 million unique online visitors to Forbes.com in 2010. The company has since clarified that Lewis Dvorkin had already joined Forbes when Mr Perlis took over, and that online traffic numbers were about 15 million in 2010. Additionally, Mr Perlis' full title as of July 2016 should be Executive Chairman & CEO of Forbes Media instead of the Executive Chairman title mentioned previously. The article above has been revised to reflect these changes.