Corner Office: Maria Rodale on Thriving in Times of Change
The following article originally appeared in the spring issue of Publishing Executive magazine. Read more articles from this issue here.
The narrative of the magazine industry is starting to sound like an underdog story of triumph akin to Rocky or Rudy or Remy from Ratatouille. Despite pundit prognostications and being counted out of the Digital Age, 2014 was a successful year for many magazine publishers.
Health and wellness purveyor Rodale accounts for one such success story. In spite of challenges faced by the industry, Rodale had a fruitful 2014, expanding its digital and ecommerce business, extending its global footprint, and outperforming the industry in some core areas. Bicycling and Women's Health magazines were named to AdWeek's Hot List, the company reached The New York Times bestseller list with Thug Kitchen and The Bulletproof Diet, and the company grew its branded events businesses.
In 2015, Rodale looks to reinvent some of its pages from the past. In April the company launched the first issue of Rodale's Organic Life, previously titled Organic Gardening, which holds the distinction of being the first national title launched by Rodale in 1942. The Organic Life launch aims to capitalize on the growing consumer interest in healthy living.
Chairman and CEO Maria Rodale attributes a good deal of the company's success to its ability to change quickly, which was particularly advantageous as it positioned for a post-recession rebound. "We're a small enough company that we're nimble. We aren't afraid to make changes fast. There's not a lot of bureaucracy to muddle through. So we made a lot of the really tough decisions right when the recession hit, whereas a lot of our publishing competitors are only now just making some of the changes they should have made."
Following Maria shares further insight on Rodale's resilience and the strategy behind the launch of Rodale's Organic Life.
Can you tell a bit of the backstory for the launch of Rodale's Organic Life?
We've been publishing Organic Gardening since 1942. We tested the waters many years ago with a lifestyle magazine called Organic Style. It did well but not well enough to continue. Everybody said that was it was ahead of its time. In the meantime Organic Gardening really struggled with finding an advertising base that would support it. Readers actually loved it. It's was one of our top reader engagement magazines, but it wasn't enough to support it financially. At the same time we were seeing how the interest in organic is actually growing exponentially, but it's not just about gardening, it's about living your whole life.
I was reluctant to change the name because of my experience with Organic Style. Scott Schulman, our new president, said "No, we really should make this a lifestyle magazine and broaden the scope." It just all came together so wonderfully. We were able to bring on Jim Oseland, who had been the editor-in-chief of Saveur and also the Organic Style food editor when that was here. So we've got the world's best food team. We've got the world's best garden team. We're adding home, which is a new area for us. We're excited about that. And wellness and well-being, which are core to who Rodale is. It's really exciting. It's a really visually beautiful magazine. We think this time the time is right.
After the recession hit, what changes needed to be implemented immediately at Rodale?
The first was to reduce any unnecessary activities in the company. That's just responsible management. The second is the term we've used here, shift, which is shifting resources from the traditional part of the business to the newer part of the business. It's not just shifting people or dollars -- it's shifting attention and mindshare. Then the third thing is fostering a collaborative, integrated environment, because when you pull open a curtain on how a business operates, that's one of the secrets to digital success.
How do you do that? It's often easier said than done.
Well, it's a cultural thing. It's constant and [requires] reward and encouragement and leading by example. It's getting people in a room together that don't normally get in a room together. It's getting people on board who think collaboratively. It's definitely something that we hire for now.
We have to work together from the beginning of idea generation to when it goes out the door. It's all one process. It's uncomfortable for people because they're in their safe places where they've always been. It's our job as leaders to get people out of their comfort zone and push.
Do you feel some of the post-recession hysteria in the industry has died down?
I definitely think the whole industry is still a little traumatized. But I think it's time to get on with things and accept that this is the new world order, and we've got to learn to succeed in it. What I definitely noticed personally is we were early change agents. We got targeted with a lot of criticism [particularly for launching the ecommerce business], and now that's toned down a lot. I'm sure there are still skeptics out there, but I don't care. We're moving forward. It's working. It's a key part of our future strategy, and I like it. It's good.
What have you learned from trying to spur change within an organization
One thing I think I've learned is that it's almost impossible to change somebody's fundamental philosophy of life. If I have found somebody who is a good worker and I actually love them as a person, but our philosophies of business and life are completely different and not aligned, it's not going to work. That's when you have to say, "Thank you, but it's time to part ways." But if you share a general philosophy -- it doesn't have to be exactly the same -- but if you're aligned, then it's about creating an environment where people feel safe to fail and they're rewarded for the positive steps they do make. Incentivizing the positive as opposed to punishing the negative.
Has Rodale's audience growth been based on a lot of data initiatives?
Data is a huge part of our direct book business and magazine circulation business. We have a really strong data analytics group, but the growth has been happening really through organic growth through social media and mobile and people sharing.
One of the reasons the publishing industry has struggled so much is the traditional view of church and state, where edit doesn't mess with marketing and sales, and sales and marketing doesn't mess with edit. But in the social media universe, everybody has to do a little bit of everything. Every editor is a marketing person, and every single person has to be looking at what's working, what's not working. One of the great things is we have that data now as editors. Before you'd put together an issue and you'd measure by the response of letters you'd get in the mail, and usually they're billing complaints. Now you can see, "Oh my God, 4,000 people retweeted that tweet," or "This article got thousands of Facebook likes."
What's your plan for the continued growth of Rodale?
I feel like we've got a diverse amount of businesses now. Now we need to just grow and evolve those businesses to their full extent. I think there's a lot more we can do with events. There's a lot more we can do with ecommerce -- scaling it up, expanding it to each of our brands, and developing private label products. There's a lot more we can do with books and magazines. There's a lot more we can do digitally.
Denis Wilson was previously content director for Target Marketing, Publishing Executive, and Book Business, as well as the FUSE Media and BRAND United summits. In this role, he analyzed and reported on the fundamental changes affecting the media and marketing industries and aimed to serve content-driven businesses with practical and strategic insight. As a writer, Denis’ work has been published by Fast Company, Rolling Stone, Fortune, and The New York Times.