Legacy media companies, particularly those with print products, are often told they should learn from digital startups who have allegedly disrupted norms and transformed the industry through innovation and a new, creative mindset. While this is true in some instances, there are plenty of examples that contradict this idea. So perhaps a more sound model is one that marries fresh thinking with practical, proven experience.
Bustle Digital Group certainty believes in this formula. The digital publishing company has become a recent success story as it continues to grow its portfolio—both from acquisitions and in-house launches. Still, like many other digital publishers, it, too, has had to right-size its company over the past eight months, including a recent round of layoffs in April, when it also shuttered The Outline. But unlike some of its contemporaries, the company is confident in its path forward and believes that its startup sensibility can benefit from industry vets with proven track records in legacy media.
Take for example its hiring of Elizabeth Webbe Lunny in September of 2019 as EVP of revenue. Webbe Lunny’s career highlights include a 13-year run at Condé Nast, where she served on brand and corporate levels. She then headed up digital and integrated sales at Rodale, and before joining BDG, she was a VP and publisher at the New York Times’ T magazine.
Webbe Lunny joined BDG as it was building out its portfolio further and was tasked to ensure that initiative generated revenue and profit. Of course, in March things changes quickly and Webbe Lunny’s experience handling crises became added value as the company, like nearly every publisher, was forced to rethink everything.
Given her background and BDG’s still-aggressive forward-looking plans, we wanted to pick her brain a bit on how she confronts challenges, and manages through change while keeping an eye towards critical business objectives .
FOLIO: You’re approaching your first anniversary with Bustle Digital Group in September. Looking back, what brought you here and what has been your primary focus?
Elizabeth Webbe Lunny: It was a big decision to make the jump from the New York Times to BDG. I’ve known Jason Wagenheim [president of BDG]. He’s grown the company in a few different chapters and my joining was part of the next chapter. They had brought in very senior talent into a very young company, which I think is important and you don’t always see that happening. I think experience is very valuable.
When I came on board I knew that the company wanted to broaden its portfolio and start to reach a different audience and create a culture of innovation. That was done through three sites—two that we acquired in Mic and Inverse and one homegrown site, Input, which we launched in January. So that was very exciting to me because it was, in essence, building something from the ground up and I was there from the beginning.
I was very excited about the editorial direction those brands were going to take. Also, the technology and CMS behind it that was going to drive it and become the backdrop to where we are going to migrate all of our sites. When talking about digital, not much has changed in the past 10-12 years. You have the standard IAB units of squares and boxes, so we’re forced to ask how to make a product that better speaks to the mobile experience.
FOLIO: Is there a piece of the business you have been especially focused on?
Webbe Lunny: I wanted to deepen certain category relations, especially in beauty and fashion. I believe we can really own that. From a 10,000-foot level, we have a group of sites within the lifestyle portfolio with readers in different stages of their lifecycle, especially when we added Nylon to the group. So it was important not to miss that because there is something special in different life stages and passion points. We wanted to intersect those things. The Bustle woman is going to be very different than the Nylon or Elite Daily woman, so it’s important we really articulate that. That is not a nuance that’s lost, and it helps carve out differences.
FOLIO: A little less than halfway through your tenure everything changed overnight with the pandemic, but this wasn’t the first significant crisis you’ve been through. How has your experience helped you manage through this crisis?
Webbe Lunny: I was at Condé [Nast] during 9/11 and the recession, and both gave me the experience to deal with challenges no matter how big or small. So the two things I have learned is to listen and pause. But interacting and leading during a pandemic in a virtual environment has its own set of challenges.
I think to really be able to lead you have to have balance and humanness, along with the understanding that everyone is going through something in a very different way. But we still have to do business, so you have to manage that so you and your clients can move forward. Our partners have KPIs and stakeholders of their own, so how can my team help them as human beings and business partners?
I’m so proud to be here because we have handled this entire situation in a very human way. I feel very lucky that the team has really responded in a way that means something. The relationships we build internally and externally are different now.
FOLIO: Staying with this, how have you had to pivot your strategy as a result of the pandemic?
Webbe Lunny: In the beginning you’re going through denial and then reality starts to sink in, much like the stages of grief. Each month has brought something different. For instance, March was a state of shock. April was accepting reality and how to adjust.
Retail is one of our biggest categories, but one of the hardest hit. So we had to think about how could we partner with those clients and help them even if we weren’t getting business. To do that we worked very closely with the editorial team. We were spiking traffic wise, like most sites, so we needed to understand what readers were consuming and why they were coming in and where there was stickiness.
It was all about working with editorial and being able to turn around a down-and-dirty offering that spoke to the client and the content our audience was experiencing. We have won so many awards for our branded content because we don’t use the word no. instead we ask how we can work with you. It’s always very tailored. So it was being able to get programs out there and make it easy for clients to buy.
There was a stop gap where people weren’t buying, but then once they were, we had to work quickly. BDG does something well that I have never experienced, which is when we want to do something, we just get it done, no matter what it takes. We set the strategy and look forward and do it.
FOLIO: Again, as somebody who has been through past crises, how do you identify the teachable moments as we’re in the midst of something like this?
Webbe Lunny: I was at Vogue on 9/11, things like that you remember so vividly. It was obviously a very difficult time. We had clients—both U.S. and global—that had to pull their advertising back immediately and that was their answer to the crisis. What I learned then was don’t panic. You might not have the plan or strategy that’s one size fits all for each moment, but it’s [about] understanding that you acknowledge what’s going on, understand the market conditions and the different categories of business that are crucial to you and what it is you need to do to keep the business moving. You also need to understand that it’s short term.
FOLIO: So by following this ethos, what do you think some of your biggest wins have been so far?
Webbe Lunny: Building the culture and innovation portfolio. We were bringing that to life when I came on. We have made such headway into breaking into new categories and signed Samsung, Microsoft and Google as clients. We are very proud of this progress. Broadening that kind of client base and looking at one or two of them being in our top 25 this year is major.
FOLIO: 2021 is seems pretty far off in the distance given everything that’s happening right now, but it is something publishers need to start thinking about now that we are already in Q3. How do we begin to plan ahead for next year when we are saddled with so much uncertainty?
Webbe Lunny: We have a lot of very positive and exciting things happening. You have different layers of strategy and we knew we were going to be elevating the tech and have not deviated from that plan.
We will be done migrating all the sites by January or February. This will help us move forward. The sites are beautiful along with the content to back it up. That’s very important for us. We know we will be able bring in new visitors and new advertising.
Second, we going to really lean into our branded content. It’s a point of difference for us in the marketplace. A client doesn’t know what they are going to be messaging in Q4 or Q1 next year. So we have to ask how can we work in a consultative way? What are the trends and what’s going on in the world and right now with their category and businesses? That’s how we have always approached our business but it’s much more sensitive right now. The relationships we have are very deep and clients can lean on us. Being able to adapt to the constant changing climate is what works.
Operational excellence is also incredibly important to us from top to bottom. We care deeply about our audience. It’s more important than ever to really understand who you’re speaking to. And your readers having a place at the table.
We are always going to be looking at acquisitions and partnerships as well as growing out own sites. That’s not something we are going to stop just because it’s an unusual time. We’re going to see more consolidation.