Commentary

Meredith's Doug Olson Charts Course Through Pandemic

Meredith Corp. is undertaking a companywide effort to contend with the coronavirus pandemic that has profoundly disrupted the operations of every publisher. Amid the dire worries about personal safety and the effects of the health crisis on the economy, the company is developing strategies for everything from advertising sales to the reopening of its offices as lockdowns gradually lift.

“It was easy to send people home," Doug Olson, president of Meredith Magazines, said in an exclusive interview. "It's going to be a lot harder to bring them back.”

While acknowledging that many employees had to adapt to work-from-home arrangements and get used to attending virtual meetings on video services like Zoom and Cisco Webex, the bigger challenge will be to reopen offices with new safety practices.

The company, whose magazine group publishes People, Better Homes & Gardens, Real Simple, InStyle, Shape and Food & Wine, created a COVID-19 response team whose responsibilities include employee safety. It's also evaluating how to equip offices to enable social distancing -- perhaps by spacing desks further apart -- and to be hygienic with the distribution of hand sanitizer and face masks.

While Meredith is based in Des Moines, Iowa, the company has 1,800 employees in the New York City region, most of whom work in Manhattan. To help employees uncomfortable taking crowded mass transit to their offices, the team is evaluating how to make traveling by car easier.

Olson said Meredith is looking at reopening in stages, prioritizing functions like video and photo shoots that are essential for a media company.

"Sales and marketing can work from anywhere, but they are the ones that want to come back right now because they're used to entertaining, they're very social," Olson said.

As for the company's longer-term goals, its advertising team is focused on coordinating the efforts of its brands and their "tent-pole" marketing programs that offer higher visibility for sponsors.

For example, People in July will feature its annual "100 Reasons to Love America," a theme that's especially poignant as the county grapples with the pandemic and its economic fallout. The issue will feature stories about people who support healthcare workers with food and companies that have revamped their operations to make needed products, such as ventilators and face masks.

Olson sees more marketing possibilities for its digital properties, like AllRecipes.com,whose web traffic has doubled in the past year as families hunker down and cook more at home.

Maintaining Morale
The pandemic has pushed every publisher to maintain employee morale amid worries about personal safety and job security. Meredith isn't immune to the negative effects of the crisis, having announced pay cuts and hiring freezes last month.
With the pandemic's disruptions making formerly routine tasks feel like major accomplishments, the company is working to praise those achievements, Olson said.

“It's a small thing, but it ends up being a huge thing," he said. "We're trying to celebrate wins.”

For its sales and marketing teams, those victories include keeping advertisers that were at risk of canceling their marketing programs, helping clients with revamped programs and gaining new customers. For editorial and product staffers, finishing a magazine while working remotely is cause for celebration.

"It's been a lot of work from a lot of people, and we're very proud of that," Olson said.

Sales Goals
Amid the gloomy outlook, the company set new sales goals that include increasing market share, as measured in the revenue attached to ad pages tracked by the Publishers Information Bureau. Olson cited his experience with the 2008 financial crisis, when Meredith's titles picked up four to five percentage points in market share.

“My fundamental belief is that your sales force has to have a goal to rally around," Olson said. "Our goal is to have a pretty big improvement in share of market by the end of calendar year 2020.”

The company is focusing on the longer term after dramatically shifting gears when the pandemic hit the U.S. in March.

“We had a lot of good momentum behind us, and when all this hit, our sales force and our marketing team had to resell everything," Olson said. "Now, most of the advertisers have made their decisions on whether they're pausing or changing the messaging or whether they're moving forward in some shape or form, so we're focused on growing our share of market.”

As part of its marketing efforts, the publisher last month unveiled the Meredith Audience Action Guarantee (MAAG), which assures that a specific number of readers take action after seeing brand campaigns in its magazines. The guarantee is based on insights from MRI-Simmons' Starch AdMeasure study, which measures consumer responses like clipping an ad or visiting a website.

"The action guarantee was something that we could do fairly quickly," Olson said. The program requires buying a minimum of five ad pages among at least two of its magazine brands, and the results can be measured within several weeks instead of months, he said.

“If it's not working, which is a very small possibility, then we'll be do a make-good for them," Olson said. "There's really not a lot of downside for the advertisers; it makes everybody feel like they had a safety net under them.”

Advertiser Categories
Among categories of advertisers, food, pharmaceuticals, pet care and home improvement have performed well, while travel and luxury stand out as the hardest-hit industries, Olson said.

Travel can snap back quickly in a "V-shaped" recovery -- to borrow a term that economists use to describe charts showing economic growth -- rather than a more prolonged "U-shaped" improvement, he said.

“It fell off quickly, but when it comes back, there's going to be a lot of rooms to fill, a lot of seats to fill on airlines and a lot of cruise ship capacity," he said. Advertising for travel-related services "will come back, because it has to.”

Luxury faces a longer-term recovery amid the difficulties faced by many retailers, he said. Many department store chains and apparel boutiques have been forced to close their doors, leaving them more reliant on digital sales channels.

"That's the one that makes me the most nervous, even though we don't have a huge part of our portfolio in luxury," he said.
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