Randall Lane began his career as a reporter for Forbes’ “rich list.” Putting a dollar value on some of the world’s wealthiest individuals proved a difficult job—one his subjects largely viewed as prying. There were constant walls and deceit.
After starting a few publications of his own, Lane came back as the magazine’s editor in 2011 to a renewed outlook on the potential of the Forbes 400. Attitudes toward the list had shifted.
“When I was doing the list, we were chasing everybody and they were avoiding us,” he says. “Now, most of the list cooperates with us. It doesn’t mean we take their word at what they say they’re worth, but we have an ongoing relationship because they understand the importance of the list. So why not, given the access we have to the most elite audience in the world, turn it into a three-dimensional meeting of the Forbes 400.”
Lane decided to leverage those relationships for the 30th annual edition of the franchise, pairing those connections with a rebranding effort. With the tagline “Making It Big, Giving It Big,” the issue focused on the group’s charitable endeavors. Lane launched an accompanying event, The Forbes 400 Summit on Philanthropy, to bring the issue to life.
He first pitched the idea to Warren Buffet who came on board within minutes, Lane says. Bill and Melinda Gates were next. From there it snowballed. In all, 161 of the Forbes 400, more than 40 percent, came to the day-long event at the New York Public Library last June. The goal, Lane says, had been 100.
The education and networking opportunities were significant draws—attendees were seated by their area of philanthropic interest—as was the opportunity to use Forbes’ voice for a specific cause. The latter was viewed by most as a key service. Lane was able to combine the goals with a shared public-private format.
Each 30 minute to 1 hour session was divided into halves. The first portion was filmed and reported on—a chance to speak not only to those in the room, but to the magazine’s larger audience.
The cameras were turned off and the notebooks put away for the second half, however.
“It was just the room,” Lane says. “People who might want to talk to their peers but were afraid of sharing something very private with the world were able to do that. We were able to print a lot of amazing content, while also keeping the ability for these very well-known people to talk candidly.”
Not Profitable Yet, But Worth It
The event itself wasn’t profitable, though most of the cost was underwritten by a sponsor, Credit Suisse. However, Lane believes the derivative print and digital content, along with a survey of the attendees and the branding exposure the historic event carried, made the event worthwhile from a cost perspective.
It was successful enough that Forbes is making the event an annual one. The magazine hasn’t nailed down its 2013 program yet, but future gatherings will be focused on a single issue like fighting poverty or improving education. Lane is hoping to expand the attendee list to about 200, while also staying mindful of the need for an intimate atmosphere.
“There were different ways to extract value from it,” he says. “The survey was a way, digital was a way, the print magazine, obviously, was a way. It wasn’t just an event, it wasn’t just a magazine, it was an initiative we’re going to be doing on an ongoing basis.”