From Mimi to The Drive: Time Inc.’s patchy record with digital verticals

In March 2015, Time Inc. unveiled Mimi, a “social-first” brand that it breathlessly described as the “ultimate destination for all-things beauty” and a “substantial opportunity” to reach millennial women who weren’t reading its stalwart magazines like InStyle and Real Simple. The goal was to get the site upwards of 5 million monthly uniques in a year or two, a former Time Inc. digital executive said.

At the time, Time Inc. was appearing rather long in the tooth compared to digital-first upstarts like BuzzFeed, Refinery29 and Vice, all of which were closing big rounds of venture capital infusions in 2015. For Time Inc., home to legacy brands like Time and Sports Illustrated, growing digitally native brands like Mimi was critical to having both digital cachet and achieving scale to match the BuzzFeeds and Refinerys.

But then reality hit. Mimi never got big enough to compete for ad dollars with digital-only startups, and advertisers shunned it. It depended on existing titles to feed it content and bounced from one sales executive to another. “No one owned it,” a former Time Inc. sales exec lamented. After a year, Mimi ceased to exist as a standalone site and became a vertical of Time Inc.’s fashion behemoth, InStyle.

The experience of Mimi and other digital experiments that followed speak to the challenge facing any legacy publisher trying to modernize. Another launch, home decor site The Snug, like Mimi was folded into a bigger brand, Real Simple. Time Inc. upped its game for The Drive, a vertical for millennial car fiends, and breakfast food site, Extra Crispy. These were started out of The Foundry, Time Inc.’s new branded-content studio based in Brooklyn, and had experienced editorial teams. The Drive came out strong with Volvo, Pennzoil and the BuyPower credit card as sponsors.

But as small launches surrounded by big, entrenched brands and a lack of dedicated salespeople, it was hard for the new properties to attract readers and advertisers. Last summer, Time Inc. reorganized its sales teams around ad categories, not brands, and execs who championed the new launches left, making it even harder for smaller properties to get attention. Of these various sites, only The Drive meets comScore’s minimum size for measurement, hitting just 792,000 uniques in January — a 63 percent decline versus a year earlier (though it’s worth noting that The Drive doesn’t buy traffic to scale fast like a lot of young publications do).

Building new brands in a distributed media era is hard for any publisher, but as a newly public company, Time Inc. had the added challenge of showing growth while managing decline and keeping Wall Street happy — all while making itself attractive to prospective buyers today. That burden first fell to former CEO Joe Ripp, who led the company through its spinoff from Time Warner in 2014. In 2014, the company was heavily print-driven, with only 15 percent of the revenue coming from digital. (It was 29 percent by the end of 2016.)

But the expectations from the top didn’t match the resources put behind the launches, multiple former execs said. While other, venture-backed publishers seemingly could spend with abandon and burn through cash (and other legacy publishers Hearst and Conde Nast, as private companies, could invest without the pressure to meet quarterly demands), Time Inc. had to demonstrate growth to the public markets while trying to manage a core business that was declining. Print and other ad revenue declined 10 percent and subscription revenue, 4 percent, for all of 2015. The challenge for the new experiments was, said the ex-digital exec: “How do you staff these things when your business is declining and you’re dealing with Wall Street?”

John Wagner, group director of published media at PHD, said that initially Time Inc. sold its verticals aggressively, but the attention didn’t last, and they never got enough scale to compete with bigger, better-known brands.

“You have to have the people who can understand it and sell it as a priority and you also have to be able to drive some traffic to it,” Wagner said. “I also didn’t really see any [paid] social promotion around it. They’re made with good intentions and they’re trying to find revenue, but you need the audience and time to develop them, and audience doesn’t happen overnight.”

It didn’t help that the company culture was long organized around operating big magazine brands, not entrepreneurial startups, the former digital exec said.

“There was a lack of understanding about what it takes to build a digital brand,” this person said. “You can’t put two, three people on it.”

Ripp stepped down in September 2016, handing the reins to top sales exec Rich Battista. Battista elevated the company’s digital president Jen Wong to COO.

Under Wong, who came from digital upstart PopSugar, the digital experimentation has continued, but she’s emphasized new digital brands based around broad topics that are designed to draft off Time Inc.’s legacy brands rather than the standalone ones of the past. Thus there’s been Time Health, personal finance brand Coinage and Well Done, a recipe brand made for social media.

Wong said that these newer launches represent a philosophical shift from when the company thought it had to launch new sites in order to reach young audiences. “Our core brands [already] have millennials on them,” she said. “They have a lot of growth left in them.” 

Time Inc. has a history of operating like fiefdoms, and in the past, it was hard for small launches to get the big, legacy titles to give them promotional support. Since then, the company has pushed more editorial collaboration with virtual digital “desks” and consolidated brands onto a single CMS, which could give the new launches a better shot at success. The history of the earlier launches notwithstanding, Wong said it’s “absolutely possible” that the newer ones could even become big brands in their own right.

“Could Well Done have a huge amount of social followers that could be as big or bigger than our core brands?” she said. “Yes, we think it will.”

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