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So What Do You Do, Merri Lee Kingsly, Publisher of Saveur?

Boosting Saveur's ad pages and revenue despite the downturn, Kingsly takes a nontraditional approach to sales

- August 26, 2009
In the 18 months since she was named publisher of Saveur magazine, Merri Lee Kingsly has made the small circulation, hard-to-pronounce epicurean title one of the best-performing magazines in the U.S. As a veteran of behemoth publishing houses like Condé Nast, Kingsly wanted to steer clear of the attitudes and methods she had loathed while working for the big guys. "Everything I hated growing up in the industry, I've done away with," she said. "I've always challenged my publishers who have lost their relationships with their clients."

When Kingsly hand-picked her small ad sales team, she valued people with knowledge of specific industries, such as wine, over those with beefy Rolodexes, pulling some from rival books and hiring nontraditional candidates with little ad sales experience. And while revamping her approach to ad sales and marketing has improved client relationships, Kingsly has also focused on bringing in new sources of revenue through non-traditional partnerships with mixologist group Tales of the Cocktail and upscale travel agency consortium Virtuoso. "We couldn't go out and create a Food & Wine Classic because we are so small," Kingsly said of her competitor's annual food fest. "But we have this influencer platform. We can go after the decision makers who are really going to move that needle for our clients."

Her methods have paid off: During the first half of the year, Saveur (pronounced SAH-voor) saw ad pages increase 11 percent from last year, with revenue climbing 19.2 percent year over year. The magazine also unveiled a revamped Web site this month, putting an emphasis on an aggregator that pulls Saveur-approved epicurean content from around the Web. As Kingsly explained: "The site is for the users first, just as the magazine is for the readers first."


Name: Merri Lee Kingsly
Position: Publisher of Saveur
Background: Started her career in sales at Crain's New York Business and has worked at a number of magazines during her 20-plus years in the business, including Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, Outside and Men's Journal. Most recently, she worked as publisher for Four Seasons for a little over three years. Kingsly was named publisher of Saveur in January 2008.
Birthdate: September 1, 1962. "I'm about to turn 47 years young."
Hometown: Bernardsville, N.J.
Education: Syracuse University; Culinary Institute of America
Marital status: Married, with an eight-year-old daughter
First section of the New York Times: "During the week, I always read the 'Business' section first. On Sunday, I switch off between the 'Style' section and the 'Business' section."
Favorite TV show: "I have so many favorite TV shows. I'm a TV junkie. Now I'd have to say my favorite TV show is definitely Top Chef Masters. I love the [Real] Housewives of whatever, which is probably the best trash on TV. Also, Grey's Anatomy, and I'm a huge Mad Men fan, too."
Guilty pleasure: Entenmann's chocolate doughnuts
Last book read: Isadore Sharp's book on the Four Seasons: Four Seasons: The Story of a Business Philosophy.

How did you get into epicurean magazines?
I was working in advertising, and I left for a year. I went to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), and I spent a year there becoming a certified pastry chef. I had actually gone for a three-week baking program up at [the] CIA, and I loved it so much that I applied and went up there for an entire year. It was great -- I call it my 30-year-old midlife crisis. But I came back and I decided that I didn't want to be in the kitchen. So I decided to stay in advertising, but go back into food. It was kind of a no-brainer because I had the ability to match my passion with my profession, and people don't ever get to do that.

Do you still bake?
I do a ton of baking. I bake with my daughter. I used to bake for my clients all of the time as a sales rep. Sometimes I only have time for slice-and-bake [cookies], and sometimes the slice-and-bakes barely make it into the oven because both my daughter and I love the cookie dough.

"The advertising community has been receptive because [Saveur.com] isn't just another magazine regurgitating its content on the Web for the sake of squeezing more money out of its clients."

How is Saveur different from your epicurean competitors?
First of all, [Saveur is] the smallest of the entire group. Our circulation is 325,000 and everyone else is upwards of 900,000 and above. And our mission is very different: We're more about the experience of food than the recipes. The competitive set is primarily about the recipes. Everything we do is about heritage, authenticity and the culture of food, and it's all intertwined throughout the magazine. We bring our readers an interesting experience from a destination and then give them an opportunity to recreate that experience in their home.

Saveur's ad sales are up this year, but how is your circulation doing?
We had an amazing newsstand year. We were up six percent on the newsstand last year with an 82 percent renewal rate, which is incredible. Subscriptions are $30 for nine issues of the magazine, which is the most expensive sub price in the category, and yet we were up more than anyone in the category on the newsstand.

What is your relationship with the editorial side of the magazine?
The edit team is equally as creative as the business side. And that's why it is so harmonious. We got everybody together for the first time in June, and Jim [Oseland, Saveur's editor-in-chief], who is truly my partner, got up and addressed everybody. His philosophy about managing his team was exactly the same as mine, and my team just sat there with their jaws open because you would have thought that he and I had rehearsed it. We are an incredible pair together, and we take care of each other. Not take care of each other like edit will write something for me. But we nurture each other's relationship.

While your competitors have had trouble with ad sales, Saveur's ad revenues have been up this year. What do you attribute that to?
We have not changed the mission of the magazine. The competitive set has truly chased a weak economy, and they've lost the attention of affluent foodies. We still truly believe that people are traveling and eating and living a life of experience, so we continue to do what we're doing. There's also a sea of sameness, but we do something so different in how we focus on places around the globe. I've also hired a group of sales people that have taken a consultative approach to selling. I don't believe in squeezing my clients. I think that there are a multitude of things that we can do. Trying to get as much money out of them by doing a 360 program is just a bunch of baloney. The truth is, you really need to think about what their needs are.

Has Saveur been affected by the economy?
It has been affected by the economy because you have advertisers like Kitchen Aid and Viking not running print ads. So yes, without a doubt, we've been affected by the economy. It's going to be interesting to see what will happen heading into next year. We have something like 14 new advertisers [in] every new issue, because we have to go out there and really get every new page.

"If you take print magazines away from the epicurean category, right there you've lost it... People are obsessed with taking pictures of their food."

Why did you decide to revamp the Web site? How is it different?
First of all, I think that most magazines' Web sites are very narcissistic. Everyone put a Web site up because everyone was going to the Web and this was what we needed to do. But Saveur has always been very thoughtful of our readers. And just as we're thoughtful of our readers, we want to be thoughtful of our users who come to Saveur.com. They come for the recipes and they love the photos, but what else can we bring to our users that no one else brings? Well, we added an aggregator to the Web site that pulls handpicked information from all over the Web on a daily basis. It aggregates recipes, travel information, gadgets, and wine and spirits information. And the best part is that if you're taking a trip to Hong Kong and you want to know about the $5 noodle house that had the most amazing noodles, or you want to find out about a $300 meal, you will be able to do all of that on Saveur.com.

Have you seen an increase in traffic or online ad sales since the new site's launch?
We have seen an increase in traffic for sure, but it's so recent that it is difficult to give actual numbers. I can tell you that the advertising community has been receptive because it isn't just another magazine regurgitating its content on the Web for the sake of squeezing more money out of its clients.

Do you see a future for epicurean magazines in print?
I do, and part of the reason why I do is because one of the most-read sections on our Web site is the photo gallery. That says it all. 56 percent of the people that go to Saveur.com spend most of their time in the photo gallery. If you take print magazines away from the epicurean category, right there you've lost it. People love to take pictures of food and put it online. People are obsessed with taking pictures of their food.

Are you going to have a section for that on your site?
Yes, we will. We have a bunch of ideas about how to do that. And we're doing a lot of video stuff on there, too. People love that.


Amanda Ernst is editor of FishbowlNY.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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