Last week, enthusiast publisher Active Interest Media announced the launch of a new marketing services unit, Catapult. Folio: sat down with AIM SVP of digital and creative services Jonathan Dorn, the man who will be leading the new operation, to learn about what factors were behind the launch, and what's planned for the future.
Folio: For starters, why is now the time to launch a separate marketing services unit?
Jonathan Dorn: I think a lot of people who have been in the media industry for awhile are intrigued by this because it feels like a new way of going forward. A lot of people have looked at some of the challenges that magazine media faces and have kind of put their heads under a rock and said, “This is horrible! What are we going to do?” and others have looked at it and said, “You know, this is a really interesting challenge.” We’ve been doing a lot of the same things for the last couple of decades and this is an opportunity to reinvent some or all parts of our business.
Knowing that there’s a lot of transition going on in the media business in general, and being part of a company that, from its beginning, has had a very entrepreneurial spirit and always tried to work on one, two, or three big pieces of strategic innovation each year, this is one that really felt right coming into Spring and Summer 2015 because of market feedback that we were getting.
Previously in AIM’s history we have done things like expanding our events and experiential business. We knew that, given the way we’re embedded in these endemic markets with these highly engaged enthusiasts, it wasn’t a big leap to take what were doing on our pages and websites and transplant that into an event environment. That’s something we really pushed hard for a couple of years, and now in the last year we’ve been looking more at marketing services and also more on the data mining, lead-gen, and technology sides of things. We see ample opportunities to recreate our business through being savvy about using data to deliver the best content we can at the right moment.
Folio: Is this something you felt you needed to do to keep up with your competitors?
Dorn: With marketing services, we’re clearly not the first to the market. We’ve watched as the big mass-market media companies have either gone into content marketing or full-blown marketing services. But we do believe that it’s something that is critical for us to provide, and critical for us to do to diversify our business. The moment that we’ve done it has been right for us in a lot of ways, because we’ve been evolving a couple of the key pieces that go into us being able to launch with a complete and mature marketing services set of offerings.
For instance, we’ve built out a really strong in-house video production unit and we’ve also built out a really strong team around lead-gen and data services. Those are two things that we feel are critically important to being able to serve clients better. If we had launched two years ago or three years ago, there are things we certainly could’ve done around custom content and content marketing, custom publishing, ad creative, but the things we could’ve offered in the way of video production and lead-gen would’ve been less robust than they are now.
Folio: Having built out those services, was Catapult the next logical step?
Dorn: Yes. Catapult is, in some ways, a very new launch. But in some ways its an aggregation of things that we’ve been doing, that we’ve given a name to. It’s both old and new.
Folio: What’s the benefit of setting it up as a stand-alone agency?
Dorn: It’s a really clear statement, both to our internal staff and to our markets, that we’re serous about this, that we are investing in it. It’s not just taking a couple of people who wear other hats and adding something to their plates. We’ve hired. We have space. We’ve created a website. We’ve done all these things that say and show that this is an enterprise that the company believes in and is putting some serious resources behind. I think that’s important to instill confidence and to make people comfortable that if they work with us on a project, it’s going to get our undivided attention.
Not everybody who we work with as clients operates in the world of big ad agencies and big media. A lot of our endemic clients are small entrepreneurs who are sometimes working out of their garages and for whom this is a really new thing. They haven’t seen it before. This is a really purpose-built operation, whose purpose is to provide these services but also plug them into the magazine media that they know.
Folio: So not only will you be able to leverage these deep relationships you have with your audiences, but also the relationships with these smaller clients that might not necessarily have access to one of the big ad agencies?
Dorn: In a lot of cases we’re working with people who may not even have a real marketing department, where the owner is sweeping the floors and hiring the graphic designers. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but our roster is not necessarily full of P&G and PepsiCo. We have a lot of people who are making hiking boots and horse saddles and yoga mats and don’t have big elaborate in-house marketing operations. The ability for us to be able to go to them and provide everything from strategy to media exposure to audience engagement to execution of marketing materials, video, and other things, and do it all in one bundle, that’s part of the secret sauce that we’ve found a lot of these clients really love. It simplifies it for them, both in terms of the strategy and execution and also on the billing side, and it creates an integration across all pieces of the marketing puzzle that keeps the message consistent. That’s one of the things that clients we’re working with already have been really keen on—consistency of the message.
Folio: What about new staff? Can you tell us about any additional staff you’ll be bringing on, and what types of people you’re targeting?
Dorn: We have plans to do additional hires this year. We need to see what kind of business we have, because this is a start up, essentially. We have expectations about what that might be, but until we see it, we want to keep our options open. Once we’ve signed a couple more partners, we’ll take stock. That I think will define whether we’re looking for, for instance, a more distinct creative leader or whether we need people who are social strategists or hardcore data people. We’ve got a good mix to start to cover content, digital, lead-gen, event activation, and we’re going to see what comes next. One thing we’re definitely going to need when we grow is good old fashioned account administration to deliver good customer service, people who are project managers. In the agency, that’s really the backbone. People who are great at moving the ball down the field. Those people are invaluable.
Folio: What can you tell us about the work you’re doing with your current clients, and what kind of plans do you have to bring on new clients?
Dorn: We’ve already been producing work for a handful of clients. As an example, in the marine industry, we’re working with Bertram Yachts. Bertram is a classic American company, loaded with heritage. They came to us last year and signed on, and one of the first projects that we did was to create an event activation for them at the Ft Lauderdale International Boat Show in November. It’s a show that AIM runs, so we’ve got a unique ability to activate an event like that. Catapult did all of the planning and execution for Bertram’s coming out party at the boat show. They introduced the designs for the first boat in the relaunch of that brand. There was a really cool, interactive build your own boat app that was also introduced there. We did PR for that, hosted parties, it was a really big event activation. That’s one of the bigger partnerships we have. We’re designing their ad creative, as well, and doing custom content on a weekly basis.
On the other end of the spectrum, we’ve got a new client in the equine world, Weaver Leather, which makes a variety of products. We’re working with them to build a new website for an initiative they’re coming out with in the Spring.
Folio: In this industry, when you hear about publishers looking to diversify revenue, the thought is that it’s because other revenue sources are tapering off or not where the next big growth area is. Is this a reaction to that?
Dorn: We haven’t seen an aggregated decline in print revenue, but it's definitely been challenging, and it's not where our current growth or our expected growth is coming from. Being sort of an enthusiast endemic space, our story is sometimes a little bit different than the media at large. Some of these trends affect us in different ways, because people are so engaged with these titles. But to be fair, print is a really tough business. We don’t want to rest on our laurels there. So while we haven’t seen a big decline, Catapult is one of a number of innovations that we’re working on that are not just about diversification, but about growth.
Folio: What are some of those other initiatives?
Dorn: We continue to really work hard on events. That’s been a major focus over the last several years. In addition to that, video has been kind of a blockbuster for us in the last two years. We expect that to continue, both within Catapult and also just on a direct AIM level. We launched, in the last year, three online universities, so we’re getting into online education. We’re pretty interested to see how interactive education platforms work. We’ve had a really good response so far.
The last area is lead-generation. That is something that we’ve really been watching closely for a number of years in some of our B2B operations, where there tends to be a much greater level of sophistication and adoption in lead-gen than in the consumer market. It’s about being able to go to advertising partners and show them how—by using our database, our email systems, content, customized content, delivered in really appropriate ways based on interest that users are showing—we can deliver to them a couple hundred people who are currently in the market.
Being able to hunt with a sniper rifle rather than a sawed-off shotgun is both appealing and effective. The receptivity is pretty high and we’re kind of bullish on this area, even though we don’t have a huge operation built out just yet. On the client side, there are so many people who are also looking at data. How do I find them at the moment when they’re ready to buy the boat or buy the horse or buy the ski vacation? How do I message them to interest them in my product? We have a unique ability to help them without those data questions, but also key them into an audience that is primed for that messaging by virtue of being readers of our magazines and attending our events and being on our social pages, and so on.