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10 Questions With … Michela O’Connor Abrams, President/CEO, Dwell Media

Michela O'Connor Abrams, President/CEO, Dwell Media Michela O'Connor Abrams, President/CEO, Dwell Media

If you’re dwelling just on print, you’re missing a huge opportunity. Dwell Media’s digital platforms are growing more than 1,000% a year … and that’s not all. 

Michela O’Connor Abrams is a bit of a maverick. She sets her mind to something and just presses onward. Entering the industry with Dwell magazine—now among the category leaders in design and architecture—some 12 years ago, the company’s president and CEO didn’t let preconceived notions of what a publisher is, or should be, burden her mission and drive for growth.

She knew then, even before the “in print, online and in-person” phrase became an industry mantra, that Dwell Media would be virtually omnipresent. She wanted to bring modern architecture and design to “anyone, anywhere, any time, any place and in any form.”

On that front, Dwell magazine has been much more than a stepping stone; it was the impetus to the 11 platforms Dwell Media now spans:
• There’s print, of course; and Dwell Digital—Dwell.com, Dwell Mobile and Dwell tablet.

• There are the other digital components, such as Design Source—one of Dwell’s tour de forces, which will be relaunched next month with a new design and features; and the Dwell Store.

(Dwell’s digital presence, by the way, has done nothing short of skyrocket in the past few years. “We’re at 2 million uniques,” she says. “A year ago we were at 565,000 uniques, and about 6 million impressions, and now 25 million impressions.” And the revenue growth, well, that’s something likely to inspire a teensy bit of awe in all of us trying to build out the digital business model to achieve real growth and profitability.)

• There is Dwell Editions (featuring artist-designed collections); the Dwell Insights group (a study on “the new face of affluence”); Dwell Homes; and Dwell Custom Publishing (in which Dwell Media creates full publications, and/or handles the production and manufacturing, for other companies or associations).

• And last, but certainly not least, there’s the company’s unique and continually growing Dwell on Design show in Los Angeles (and, big news on the show front, as Abrams announces below), as well as Dwell Video and TV (the former involving an impressive boost toward growth, as Abrams explains, and the latter a former initiative that currently is being brought back to life).

Despite Abrams’ ongoing strategic moves that challenge the publishing status quo, she has unceasingly been an advocate for the industry she seems to love. There are few conferences at which she hasn’t spoken, and possibly even fewer people she doesn’t know—and hasn’t tried to help. (She is on mediaShepherd’s Advisory Board to boot.)

The fact is, Abrams believes quite passionately that too many publishers are burdened by history, burdened by questioning the success or failure of print. (Print, by the way, is still Dwell Media’s largest revenue driver.)

The opportunity, she stresses, lies in letting go of the philosophy that you’re a publisher. You are an audience builder and engager, a master of brand loyalty and community. And that, she believes, is what gives you power in today’s rapidly transforming world.

Here, Abrams talks with mediaShepherd about Dwell Media’s big revenue drivers, its challenges, the biggest changes and opportunities for media brands today, and how her company’s mission can, and should, be applied to almost any media company out there.

mediaShepherd: What is Dwell Media’s fastest-growing revenue segment?

Michael O’Connor Abrams: Right now, it’s a tie between digital and events. I have no doubt at all that digital will surpass everything.

And by digital what I mean is literally the digital foundation of Dwell Media. I don’t just mean Dwell.com. I mean Design Source—which is going to be the largest fundamental, foundational asset to the company, being the definitive source for modern architecture, design, product and services.

Also, the fact that we are going to be doing a great deal more with video in 2014 leading into 2015, which no one really has seen yet, and we’re just actually bringing on that resource. We have 60-plus videos on Dwell.com, so we’ll be doing a lot more.

We’re paying a lot of attention, of course, to native advertising—sponsored content—and the fact that our inventory is now about 25 million impressions a month.

If you add all those together, you really get a platform that’s growing, and [more] than 1,000 percent a year.

mS: What is its largest revenue segment?

MA: Print is still the largest.Dwell_magazine_cover

mS: What is the biggest challenge Dwell Media is facing right now?

MA: I think it’s the same challenge that everybody in the industry is facing. While things have been evolving and changing all along, there is an accelerated pace of change, especially in the digital world.

[If you look at] programmatic buying, those big networks … like Federated Media … they realized that that business model was great at one time, and it really isn’t really anymore. Because, well—big surprise—what we find out is that content and brands matter, that you cannot homogenize things in order to think that scale will win.

Scale is not unimportant. Eyeballs, and numbers of eyeballs and reach, is still a fundamental ingredient. But, … you can create what I’ll call more of an organic network of brands—meaning that a brand trying to reach a group of people can knit together a powerful brand and that content voice, and create something that is both effective and efficient without having to divide sort of indiscriminately some inventory against those targets.

And so we face the same kind of challenge in that we’ve got incredible growth. As any company that is firmly placed in multiple businesses under one brand, you must move everything along as you’re evolving. There’s no just paying attention to “the new stuff.”

So maybe it’s the greatest challenge I have as the CEO—at the end of the day, it’s the brand that matters—so how do you bring along the whole company and its assets in order to see the fruits of your efforts in the digital transformation?

And everybody—there’s no argument—everybody has to digitally transform.

It’s not about moving away from print. We knew 12 years ago that this was not going to be a publishing company. And you’ve heard this, Noelle. But the written goal on the business plan was bringing good design to everyone, anywhere, anytime, any place and in any form. So there’s nothing new about why we’ve gone into all the areas that we’ve gotten into. And we have 11 platforms on this brand. That’s because of that mission.

All that’s happened for us is that, as I said, the rate of change has accelerated, and we need to keep pedaling as fast as we can to do the right things to transform.

mS: How are you addressing it?

MA: … The attention that we have paid to digital—by hiring a discrete team that still works with everybody at the company, but whose mission is also to be unencumbered by anything else that we’re doing.

It’s a learned skill. It’s a delicate dance.

mS: What do you see as the biggest opportunity for media brands/companies right now?

MA: I would say the biggest opportunity is the fact that—through the last 5 years of “it’s all about just critical mass and networks” and publishers licensing their content to other brands and other commerce brands—it all comes down to the fact that brands really matter. And the communities around those brands expect a certain voice.

And so, in the end, everybody else who has started a new company in the digital pure-play world is realizing that they too need to create that brand love, that compelling reason for people to be engaged with them.

The best example I can think of is flash sales (like Fab.com, places where if you buy, for example, in the next 48 hours you get a discount, [often called boutique sales]). The bloom is off the rose there. There’s still some flash sales that exist, and it’s still a fun way to buy. But they thought people just wanted to shop and leave.

The problem is that you can shop and leave a whole lot of places. How is that a long-term strategy and model? They realized that they need it to be an engaging destination … and so, they’re amassing content. They start licensing content from publishers because they need [publishers’] audiences; publishers have already proven engagement around their brands.

I think we have an opportunity, and we’ve had it for a long time and frankly didn’t seize it. I’ve been pretty vocal about that over many years. [The opportunity is] if only media companies realized that it isn’t that they were experts at the publishing business, it’s that they were experts at creating a brand and a destination, engagement that is envied, and [that they] understood how to move that into the “anywhere, anytime, any place, in any form” concept.

So the mission statement that we set forth for Dwell 12 years ago is one that would really apply to anybody. Think about it: Cosmo—the definitive source for young women anywhere, any time, any place, in any form. It just means the brand is relevant in all these places. So why wouldn’t you offer an audience the opportunity to engage with you in these areas?

And I think, if anything, Dwell has proven to the industry that, in fact, it does work.

So I don’t think enough brands have seized that opportunity.

I think in this industry, we spend a little too much time defending print, or defending television, or wherever the heritage was. Instead of saying, “We can serve that. Yes, it’s a different expertise, but why not? In whatever form. We’ve chosen to own our stake in the ground in those areas. Some people license them, which is perfectly fine.

But I’m extremely bullish on the opportunity.

mS: What is something new and/or unique that Dwell Media is doing or exploring?

MA: I don’t know that this is terribly unique, but we were in television for three years; we had our own show, called “Dwell.” And it was wonderful. People still email us and say, “When are you coming back on TV?”

So we are in the process right now of making this happen, and I’m excited about it because that really rounds out everything.

Design Source is one of Dwell Media's tour de forces in digital, and it's about to launch a redesign with major new features, says Abrams.

Design Source is one of Dwell Media’s tour de forces in digital, and it’s about to launch a redesign with major new features, says Abrams.

But I think perhaps the most exciting and innovative piece is the digital piece in Design Source—really leveraging all of our content, the brand and the voice. It’s on our site right now, but the new design, and the bigger launch and bigger news will be in the middle of April. I’m very excited about that.

I’d say the last thing that we have not announced, so you’re the first to get this, is I’m bringing [the] Dwell on Design [show] to New York, but in a form that is completely tailored and unique for New York. Dwell on Design New York will be at 82 Mercer. No trade show booths, no expected sponsor representations. These will be installations, as if the MOMA invited these sponsors to do an exhibition on their brand, thus becoming part of the content.

So as you can see, no grass is growing under our feet. This is what I believe is necessary to continue to evolve and grow.

mS: What percentage of your web traffic is from mobile?

MA: 20 percent. That’s another area of complete focus here—our mobile strategy and apps and everything else.

mS: What do you expect it will be a year from now?

MA: 30 percent.

mS: What keeps you awake at night?

MA: Everything I just said! [laughs] It’s a lot. The metaphor I use is that all of our people are carrying 18 spinning plates, and you can’t drop any of them.

mS: What helps you sleep at night (besides counting sheep)?

MA: Having established 12 years ago that this brand could be anywhere, any time, any place and in any form. And it definitely proved itself true. I’m really proud to be able to say that in a relatively short time, we’re on 11 platforms and growing.

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