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. He is the first non-family member to run Forbes in the 95 years of its history.
“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.
“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.”
Here’s what Perlis thinks about the future of the media industry:
1. Print magazine is still central
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 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.”
2. Sponsored content vs editorial content
On the future of journalism, advertising and publishing, 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 sponsored content has been controversial because readers might confuse it with unbiased journalism – especially if it is published in the same stream. 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.”
3. Listicles, millennials and the popularity of old-fashioned networking
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. One particular list that it created has generated especially handsome payoffs.
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 millennials. Along with each of the lists that we publish, we do an event… 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 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.”
Adapted from The Business Times.