Most consumer magazine publishers may be forecasting declines in print advertising revenue during the second quarter as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Danny Seo isn’t one of them.
The editor-in-chief and publisher of the eponymous Naturally, Danny Seo—a quarterly, clean living-focused lifestyle magazine that emerged from the collapse of its original owner, Harris Publications, in 2016 and was subsequently picked up by Bridal Guide publisher RFP Corp.—says he just closed the biggest issue in the magazine’s six-year history, up 15% in advertising revenue over last year’s Summer issue, even gaining new clients after the country shut down.
“It wasn’t growth that was pre-pandemic,” Seo tells Folio:. “It wasn’t things that were in place. These were insertion orders and contracts that were coming in three weeks after it all happened. I was perplexed.”
We wanted to learn more about how the (more or less) independent magazine has managed to punch above its weight, drum up new business and continue to drive consumer interest in a time of crisis, so we sat down with Seo for the interview below, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Folio: We’ll get to the business side, but let’s start with the Summer issue itself. How did you go about putting together a new issue remotely, amid everything that’s been going on?
Danny Seo: Creatively, we do all original photography. It’s part of our business plan to give the reader premium content but also just beautiful, fine-art level photography. We have this story that’s in the Summer issue called “Prime Picks,” about our favorite things for home, beauty, fashion, that are sustainable but you can’t buy on Amazon.
We had to think creatively about how we could shoot this without using stock or provided images. So we sent all of the high-res images of all of the products to one of our photographers in Santa Barbara, and then he printed them out, and we had him shoot the photos of the products throughout his home, so that you would see like a picture of a blanket on a clothesline, or his child holding a giant print-out of a chocolate bar as if he’s taking a bite out of it.
At first, I was like okay, at least this will be interesting, but now I love it even more. Shooting a one-dimensional picture in a three-dimensional environment and then printing it as a one-dimensional image again, it was very artistic and a tiny bit perverse at the same time. So for our Fall Issue, we’re doing something about recycled products, and I have a photographer who’s going to shoot them in random spots in New York City. It’s a great way where he can art direct and self-shoot, and then I can direct with him through FaceTime as he’s running around the city. So that’s one way of doing it. I feel for people at the fashion books, though.
Folio: Other than the logistical challenges of shooting, did the pandemic force you to change your editorial strategy or the content mix for the Summer issue?
Seo: I thought about doing a feature about how to create your own emergency kits, but I threw it out. I saw that QVC and HSN were having record business during this time, which makes sense, it’s at-home shopping. But they made a very deliberate decision not to sell products like hand sanitizers or face masks, and they actually captured an audience because it’s the only place people can turn to escape from all of this.
I wanted to just give people a moment to breathe and forget. It’s not about being in denial about what’s going on, but we all don’t have to cover the topic in-depth. So we’re not covering it. The only way I address it is with two sentences in my editor’s letter, and that’s it.
Folio: What were you hearing from your advertising partners in March and April when the pandemic and the lockdowns were beginning, and what was your pitch?
Seo: I assumed we were going to lose so many people, like everybody else. PR and marketing is the first thing to get cut. A couple of weeks went by and we were checking in with people and getting reassurances that they were committing to us and staying with us, and I was like, “What is going on?”
Our four buckets are food, supplements, beauty and home. When it comes to food and supplements, they’re having record business, but they all acknowledge that it’s temporary. Let’s face it, we were not all baking bread six months ago. So they want to maintain that messaging and capture that audience and say, even when things return to normal, maybe you can incorporate some of these things you’ve learned into your normal life.
We lost only one advertiser, and it was in fashion, which made total sense. When it comes to home, we thought we were definitely going to lose some advertisers. But these are global brands. One of the advertisers, once things started going back to normal a little bit in Asia, their business went way up, because people spent a lot of time at home going, “Wow, I really hate my house.” They were investing in home improvement projects. So a lot of these companies based in the United States know that this is just going to be temporary, and they have a captive audience.
When it comes to beauty, they’ve been cutting across a lot of books, but we had an accidental savior in our partnership with a shopping channel [ShopHQ], that we’ve been doing for the last year. When Sephora and Ulta and Nordstrom and Macy’s closed their doors and cancelled their purchase orders, literally half of our brands said we were the only person putting orders in. We had the power of television, and we exceeded forecasts by 20 to 30%. $200,000 in sales isn’t going to rescue a beauty brand, but it gives the people who work on these teams a lot of hope. Their advertising partnership was tied to being sold on the show, so they didn’t want to cancel it.
Our Summer issue is our biggest issue yet, and we’re optimistically looking at Fall now, too.
Another way we’re breaking some new business with our brands is we’ve created a partnership with a literary agency, and we’re now producing books for them. Part of that is guiding them through the process, because we’ve published 12 books. The first one comes out this summer, and we’re close to signing three major food brands to produce books for them. Between the advertising campaign, the book advance and all of the production costs, we budget it so that it comes out even. So worst case scenario, they lose nothing, but they have a beautiful book that’s in 50,000 stores. It’s added value.
Seo: If you notice, I never talk about integration. As an editor, I always felt that advertorials or integrations just cheapened the product. It suddenly becomes just a big book of ads, and you lose the faith and trust of the reader and they stop buying the product. So I’m trying to protect the well and all of the content, that’s first and foremost.
The second thing is, for the bigger partners, the reason our show on the shopping channel is so successful is we present our products with an editorial voice. I don’t understand why a fashion book doesn’t curate fashion blocks on QVC or HSN. These are very easy things, where it doesn’t dilute the brand, it only elevates the expertise, and it creates a new revenue streams for your marketing and advertising partners.
The best assets these publications have is their army of experts. They need all of their editors to have the biggest social media accounts possible, and that’s fine. But when everyone is running in the same direction, sometimes it’s interesting when you run the opposite direction. Even if you just do it quietly, it’s as loud as possible because you’re the only one doing it. You want to give a third-party perspective, whether it’s a home brand or a food brand or whatever. Having that editorial voice that’s been fine-tuned and trained to really critically look at everything is something you don’t get from a pool of influencers. I think that’s a huge strength.
Folio: To that point, since you launched in 2014, we’ve seen a number of these personality-driven lifestyle magazines pop up. What makes Naturally, Danny Seo stand out?
Seo: I think it’s great that we’re having success with SIPs and personality-driven brands, but what the advertisers tell me is that they appreciate the fact that it’s a direct relationship. I also pick and choose. We turn down a lot of advertising. If it’s something that I don’t believe in or something that I think the reader would react negatively to, I don’t like the short-term gain where long-term damage is possible. It’s not just about trying to be ethical, it’s really just a smart way of looking at the business.
I’m involved with the book, with our art directors and editors, down to the font, the layouts, the photoshoots. I art direct every single photo shoot, and when we do proposals for advertising partners, I craft the proposals. It’s all custom by me, so when we talk about a promise, we know that it’s absolutely going to happen. We’re also aware of the fact that I’m not Chip and Joanna Gaines, so we have to give a little bit more. But what we’re seeing now is that we’re constantly in the same RFP pools, so that’s a testament.
Folio: It’s not everyone’s experience to launch a magazine and then have their parent company go under two years later. But it sounds like you don’t have many regrets about not joining a larger publisher.
Seo: We had an opportunity. One of the big ones approached us. The reason I went with Harris Publications was that it gave me the creative freedom that I wanted. But when Harris went down, I was able to get out of a company that published some magazines that I felt uncomfortable with. A lot of gun titles. With RFP, we publish Bridal Guide and this. My business partner, Barry Rosenbloom, is fantastic to work with. He’s very supportive and what I really respect about him is that through all of this, he’s kept his entire staff employed.
Folio: Looking ahead to the Fall, what are you hearing from advertisers?
Seo: I think we’re going to see an increase in food and vitamins and supplements, for sure. They’ve seen a massive upswing and they all want to try and capture as much of it as possible. The biggest thing for any brand at a supermarket, for example, is they just want people to try it once, and that’s what they’re trying to get right now.
Folio: What kind of impact have you seen on the newsstand—and are you doing anything to mitigate potential interruptions there?
Seo: Our publication is mostly newsstand: supermarkets, Walmart, Target, Costco and drug stores. I know that our Spring issue was probably our best-selling issue so far in the history of the magazine, but we’re looking at a couple of things.
With our TV shopping partners, customers are given a free digital issue with their order. It’s not as rich, obviously, but it’s something we’re working on. The other thing is we’re trying to find a different distribution model. I can’t get into the specifics, but it’s one of the largest retailers in the United States, who we have a great relationship with, and we just want to see if there’s a different way of selling the publication in their stores. But what we heard from our distributor is that the topics we cover are what they’re looking for.
Folio: Have you seen any trends on the subscription side?
Seo: We’re only about 10% subscriptions, total. It’s not cheap to subscribe with us. It’s about $30. If we went down that road of selling $5 subscriptions, I’m sure we could significantly increase it, but the SIP model has done really well for us.
Folio: Do you worry about this spike in interest in cooking and wellness receding once things return to normal?
Seo: I try to go one day at a time. I think forecasting is a little useless right now. Like everybody else, I would like everything to return to normal. If that means our advertising revenue declines, great. If you look at our magazine, we’ve always adjusted with the times. We’ve always mixed up the editorial content. To be unaware of what’s happening can be a really dangerous thing. I know I said we aren’t covering COVID, but I’m aware of the fact that we’re not covering it. There’s an intention as to why we’re not covering it. That’s the difference, the intention of every word, every issue, every story.