Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Culture for Health

This is the time for lists; for the last year, decade and even quarter-century. We live our lives this way of course, measuring out our spans with T.S. Eliot's "coffee spoons." Don't get me wrong; I'm still a fan of the very demanding Gregorian calednar. And I like the number 25 because it actually represents less time than I have spent in the magazine business.

All the notables have their "notable" magazines of the last 25 years.  Elle, Oprah, Cooking Light, Wired and, of course, Men's Health, are on most lists.  In this post I'll focus on Men's Health or, more precisely, what led up to the launch. Or what made it possible.

I spent a chunk of my magazine years at Rodale and that informs my opinions and biases. I got there by accident. As a newly minted PhD I was ready to go to Detroit, Michigan or Walla Walla, Washington, or St. Louis, Missouri to earn my stripes as a non-tenured professor before Yale or Notre Dame called.  Since that involved too much packing I accepted a chance meeting with Bob Rodale, late chairman of Rodale, who gave me copies of very early vintage Organic Gardening and Prevention and told me to consume both issues and come back in the morning.

I did and told him that the magazines seemed a little "down-market." Actually that was a phrase I learned later. I think the phrase I actually used was "scruffy," in my best English accent. He laughed and we got around to talking about the "Great Chain of Being," an Elizabethan notion that had been drummed into my head in graduate school stating, more or less, that "God is in his heaven and all is right with the world."  Then Bob Rodale spoke about his world view, a manifesto that linked the health of the soil with the health of the land. He was a rough philosopher to be sure but a philosopher nonetheless. So it wasn't the publishing side of the business that took me to Rodale but rather the chairman's caste of mind, his sense of humor, his utopian dreams, and I must say humility.

Did I mention quirky? What I loved most about going to work was that Bob Rodale always had another project, if not a scheme. Soon after I joined he told me he wanted to build a veldorome (a bike racing track)in Trexlertown, PA--he had seen one in his travels and thought Eastern Pennsylvania would be a better place with one. He asked me to coordinate the project, bringing together architects, engineers, and those with knowledge of track design. I visited all available tracks in the country. The Trexlertown velodrome still stands (I've provided more details about this project in an earlier post). Perhaps the most important by-product of the track is that it encouraged Rodale to acquire Bicycling magazine, an on-ramp to the men's market.

Mr. Rodale was a bit of an iconoclast in his own company. One day he came to my office and said he thought the Book Division was moving too slowly with launches. His solution: to create another department called Fast Access Books. This department would have one employee--me; and fast meant I'd be working seven days a week. In truth this was just a way for Bob Rodale to publish The Solar Green House Book, a subject he was very interested in. The book seemed to hit a nerve; selling a couple hundred thousand copies.

Not everything worked. New Shelter magazine which became Practical Homeowner was not a success, as we didn't understand that crowded market well enough and probably didn't have the skills. But that said, the company remained dizzy with experimentation. Bob Rodale provided the cover and the culture; President Bob Teufel provided the discipline and business expertise.  As noted, the acquistion of Bicycling was fortuitous. This made it possible to acquire Backpacker (subsequently sold). Then Runner's World, which was the jewel in the crown. Add Men's Health and you have the Rodale Active Advertising Network.

I made some missteps, such as when I launched Superfit which was meant to be a cross-training, fitness magazine for those that had outgrown special-interest activities. It was a nice idea but could not find a market or a voice. But it provided another angle on the men's market and a small stable of writers.

In the meantime Prevention Editor Mark Brickin and his team were enjoying success with fitness and health newsletters for men. This was an invaluable conversion platform when the company was ready to test Men's Health. 

I had little involvement with the launch of Men's Health in the states. I did lead the team that launched the first international edition in the UK. We sold 100,000 copies of the first issue. The rest is history.

Men's Health is a very big success story, perhaps the most important launch of the last twenty-five years. It was a very big editorial idea as well as a huge business success. There were other successes but few had such a large footprint.

But that is a story for another time. I just wanted to celebrate the 25th birthday of Men's Health by saying a few things about the Rodale culture that made it possible or at least did not drag it back into committee.

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