Back In Black: Forbes’ Champion Of Innovation

When Meredith Levien joined Forbes in April 2008, the future looked promising for both the outlet and the industry. She came aboard after eight years at The Atlantic to run Forbes Life, a luxury and women’s magazine. The Forbes brand was strong then, the company yacht would ferry around ad buyers, and it was building out a powerful digital platform. But then the financial world nosedived, taking Forbes with it.

The next 24 months were not easy times for Forbes. The company went through three rounds of layoffs, and according to a 2011 Fortune article, had an operating loss of $19.7 million in 2009 and an operating income of $2.7 million by 2010. But in early 2010, after impressing management with her ability to take the money pit that was Forbes Life and get it to break even by shuttering the print magazine to focus on digital (as well as start an events series, which turned into Forbes’ Women’s Conference), she was asked to be Forbes’ group publisher.

But before Levien would take the job, she laid out her terms to Tim Forbes, then the chairman of Forbes Digital: the time had come to rethink the core purposes of the magazine. Under her stewardship, the website and magazine would be brought into one operating unit with an integrated sales team. She also laid the foundation for two other big Forbes initiatives – programmatic buying and Brandvoice – which helped propel Forbes comfortably into the black.

At the beginning of 2012, Levien was named the chief revenue officer, and since then, the company has seen six consecutive quarters of growth, and last year was its best financial performance in half a decade.

“For the revenue piece of that puzzle, the buck stops with her,” said Mike Perlis, Forbes’ CEO. “She exceeded her plan and delivered those great results. I give her a lot of credit on the revenue side of our turnaround.”

Mark Howard, svp of digital advertising at Forbes, concurred, saying that Levien played a “crucial role” in the company’s recent turnaround. But Levien demurs, insisting that it stems from Perlis, who gives his team authority and autonomy to be independent thinkers.

Programmatic Innovation
Levien has been a vocal proponent of programmatic buying, the process of executing media buys through automation rather than person-to-person sales. Today, programmatic buying accounts for 20 percent of Forbes’ ad revenue. Digital ad revenue, which is up 19 percent year-over-year, accounted for half of the company’s total ad revenue in 2012.

“Meredith sees her role as being a champion for being innovative,” Perlis said. “We all understand programmatic is going to play a bigger role in our lives moving forward. She’s of the ilk where she would rather open a door and power that revenue instead of being resistent.”

The other area that’s generating quite a bit of ad revenue for Forbes is Brandvoice, its somewhat controversial sponsored-content engine. Led by Lewis D’vorkin, Brandvoice is another tool for Levien and her sales team to use to get brands on board. The blogging platform is Forbes’ approach to “native” advertising, and it allows brands to create their own content under the Forbes logo. This has caused a stir, with opponents arguing it blurs the line between editorial and advertising. But for Forbes, money talks: It commands between $50,000 and $75,000 a month (for a minimum of three months).

Levien builds these plans from within her spacious office on the sixth floor of the Forbes Building at 60 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Family photos of her parents, husband (Jason Levien, CEO of the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies) and 2-year-old boy adorn her walls and sit atop her radiator. Her office is Forbes’ Grand Central Station, a hub of foot traffic where teams from edititorial, sales and advertising file in and out. In front of her desk are two chairs; behind them, a couch invites clients to sit and discuss current and future plans.

The Road To Forbes
Her journey started in eighth grade when she worked on a newspaper project in an English class. The love for the medium continued through college, where at the University of Virginia, she majored in rhetoric and worked on The Cavalier Daily, the school’s newspaper.

Levien thought she’d end up writing or in journalism. But when she graduated, she needed a job and landed a gig in the reading and writing group at the The Advisory Board, a think tank founded by David Bradley, who now owns The Atlantic.

“She had this spark about her, this level of engagement of what we call the ‘shiny factor,’” said Elizabeth Baker Keffer, who worked with Levien at The Advisory Board and is now svp of live events for Atlantic Media. “She was so confident beyond her years, in an agreeable way. I got to know her across time and thought she was one of the most intelligent people I met at such a young age.”

Not that she didn’t wrestle with self-doubt. When she was 23 and in her first job at The Advisory Board, she had to be persuaded to not join a fledgling D.C. riverboat cruise line catering corporate functions. “I was always struggling with this,” Levien said. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. Do I spend my career in sales? So I left there and moved to New York.”

She wound up going to an Advisory Board client, i33/AppNet, a digital agency, as the head of accounts services. It was during this time Bradley bought The Atlantic. In 2003, he called her up and said he had a job for her in New York.

Levien sold ads for a year at The Atlantic and then worked her way up from ad director to associate publisher. By 2006, she was ready to take on something bigger. That year, she became the first publisher of The Atlantic Media’s 02138 Magazine, a luxury magazine for Harvard alums. In 2008, she got the call from Forbes. It was time to jump ship.

“I was working for a Bradley organization for 10 years, and I just felt like if I didn’t go out and work for other people, I would never stretch in my own career and be successful where I didn’t know people,” Levien said.

At just five-foot-two, Levien casts a long shadow. In more than a dozen conversations with colleagues past and present, not one person had a negative word to say about her. Levien’s greatest strength, they say, is connecting with people on a personal level.

“She brings a degree of professionalism, her own high-energy way that makes her so great to deal with, such that what started off as a very much professional relationship turns getting to know a person into a friendship as well,” said John Kennedy, vp of corporate marketing at IBM, who’s known her for four years. “She makes everyone feel that way.”

Part of Forbes’s success lays with Levien’s ability to forge those relationships. When in a meeting with an advertiser, everyone knows she’s there to sell, but having that more-than-business relationship matters.

“If you go to Meredith and pick up the phone, she’ll be the first one to jump on plane or train to talk about your business problems,” said Jim Speros, Fidelity’s CMO, who’s known Levien since her days at The Atlantic. “She’s very accessible that way and always willing to help out.”

Whether that’s criss-crossing the country for a client or assisting a junior staffer until 1 a.m. on a Saturday morning perfecting a deck, Levien’s personal approach in a cutthroat industry is about the long haul.

“She’s been my mentor,” said Sebastian Tomich, Forbes’ East coast director, who has worked for Levien for three years. “She’s very inspirational and leads by having an unmatched work ethic. As long as you can keep up with the pace, she’s the best person to work for.”

Image via Shutterstock

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