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So What Do You Do, David Zinczenko, Editor-in-Chief, Men's Health?

Rodale's resident health guru on what 'really gets him jazzed'

By Noah Davis - September 3, 2008
From his editorial discretion to his chiseled abs, David Zinczenko embodies Rodale's brand of healthy living magazines. In 2000, at the tender age of 30, he took over as editor-in-chief of Men's Health, and has since added editorial director of Best Life and Women's Health to his job description. Ad Week's Editor of the Year in 2008 was the architect behind last year's "Magabrand" theme of the MPA conference, which he chaired. Through frequent appearances on The Today Show, a line of best selling books, and two popular blogs, he's living proof of the potential success of Magabrands, as all three magazines he oversees bucked the trend and posted positive circulation gains in the first six months of 2008. mediabistro.com caught up with Zinczenko fresh off his recent trip to Beijing for the Olympics to discuss the publication of his new book, Eat This Not That! For Kids!, his brand's 1.5 billion media impressions a year, and whether fit is still the new rich.


Name: David Zinczenko
Position: Editor-in-chief, Men's Health; editorial director of Women's Health and Best Life
Education: Moravian College
Hometown: Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
Resume: Was previously editorial director, Men's Health International. Started as assistant editor of Men's Journal at the 1991 launch.
Birthdate: December 13, 1969
Marital status: Single
Favorite TV show: The Colbert Report. "Stephen Colbert openly fakes it, unlike so many who covertly fake it."
Last book read: J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace
First section of the Sunday Times: "I love the Week in Review, but not only because of the editorial content. It's fun to look at the jobs pages and contemplate other professions. Some of that ad copy is rather enticing."
Guilty pleasure: "I like to eat well even if it's the mac and cheese with truffles at the Waverly Inn. One of the reasons I care a lot about nutrition and exercise is because I have to eat and exercise in really smart ways to offset all of the cravings."


Eat This Not That! For Kids!, teaches children to eat healthily. It's a bit of a stretch from the Abs Diet books you started your book writing career with. Why the change of pace?
Eat This, Not That For Kids! is the follow-up to Eat This, Not That!, and I'm someone who dealt with weight issues growing up in small town Pennsylvania and made bad choices in regards to food. Nutrition and exercise is really important to me and especially with all this talk of nutrition and childhood obesity. It just felt like the marketers were constantly bombarding us with messages about really unhealthy food. We're spending half of our food dollars eating out, and this was an opportunity to get the information back in the hands of children so they could make smart choices wherever they are eating.

Do writing books and editing a magazine such as Men's Health complement each other?
Oh totally. This job, and particularly this time in publishing, makes you pretty format agnostic. You have to learn how to edit a magazine, how to write a book, how to pitch the Today show, how to blog. Not only is it very complementary, [it's] helpful to what I do with the magazine.

You were named editorial director of Women's Health earlier this year, in addition to your duties as editor-in-chief of Men's Health and editorial director of Best Life. How do you juggle all three magazines?
I'm not one of those jugglers who tries to throw a chainsaw, a bowling ball, and a live chicken, but it's more like juggling gold nuggets. They are heavy but uniform size and incredibly valuable to the readers and the company. The magazines all share the same mission: to serve the physical and emotional lives of the readers. In fact, the three magazines are hugely complementary because they are taking on the subject of mental, physical, and emotional health. What we learn about men in relationships will also be good for women in relationships if the advice is any good at all. Ditto the nutrition and exercise info. It just needs to be interpreted for different audiences that have different needs and different ways of taking in information. The appeal of healthy, vigorous living is universal across the titles, so we're applying what we know to solve universal wants and needs. Furthermore, each magazine has really smart editors who listen closely to the readers and understand what they are looking for, so it's a collaboration, and I'm just lucky to be a part of it.

How does your role as editor-in-chief of Men's Health differ from your role as editorial director of Women's Health? What are you doing for Men's that you don't do for Women's and vice versa?
Right now, I'm almost in my ninth year of editing Men's Health, and I'm very involved in the day to day of the magazine. The same is true right now with Women's Health because it's the early stages. But as an editorial director, what often happens is you can be a little bit more involved in the strategic things and not fly as close to the earth.

Best Life tends to be more strategic, long-term oversight and planning. Again, Women's Health is a little more of everything right now as I get my feet wet and get to know the magazine and all its various channels -- from online to international additions to books to DVDs to what will surely be Women's Health's own spinoffs.

"I look at the future of [Men's Health Living] like any homeowner does his home. An upgrade here, an upgrade there -- maybe we can convert those assets to pay for a move into a whole new neighborhood."

I would imagine there are no "normal" weeks in your life, but what percentage of the time would you say you spend on each magazine?
It's pretty evenly split right now on Men's Health and Women's Health. Best Life is less time. I'm usually in pretty early, at 7 or 7:30 [a.m.], and through to 7 [p.m.] with usually a dinner or something after.

You just returned from China. What were you doing over there?
Because of Men's Health and Women's Health I was at the Opening Ceremony in the presence of the healthiest people to have ever walked the planet. How could it not be exciting? As for the ceremony itself, I think it's a powerful demonstration of what a massive population with a central government can accomplish, but I still prefer the individualistic accomplishments that you see on the sports fields, the volleyball courts, and the running tracks. Still, the Opening Ceremony was a highlight for me. I was handling a few segments for the Today show, mostly gear and technology things looking at Olympic innovations.

Because of all your media outreach, you're one of the most visible editor-in-chiefs. When media industry people think of Men's Health, they inevitably think of you. In the short term, that's good for both you and the magazine, but at some point, isn't having you tied so closely to the face of the brand a bad thing? What happens when you leave?
[Laughs] This is a very strong company and these are very strong brands with very capable editors and writers. I think they'll be fine. It's not Dave Zinczenko's Living. It's Men's Health. It's Women's Health. It's Best Life. It's a very commercially minded crew that knows how to do incredible sophisticated lifestyle magazines.

Is there ever any conversation that "maybe we shouldn't send Dave on the Today Show. Maybe we should send someone else?" Is there ever any push to get other editors in the spotlight?
Well, there are. [Senior editor] Matt Bean, [Deputy editor] Matt Marion, and [editor] Peter Moore do dozens and dozens of radio interviews a week, and they are on Good Morning America, the Today show, and Fox News all the time. For Men's Health, there are over a billion and a half media impressions a year, and while I'm certainly a chunk of that, there are probably six to 10 editors on the Men's Health side who are representing in the media.

Men's Health Living is publishing its second issue in December. Are there any plans to increase the frequency?
Not at this time. I look at the future of that magazine like any homeowner does his home. An upgrade here, an upgrade there -- maybe we can convert those assets to pay for a move into a whole new neighborhood. I think guys are into their homes just like they are into their health, it's just that they are not currently being served as guys by any of the existing magazines out there. I think the magazine industry abhors a vacuum, and we aim to fill this one. Right now though, it's just a very complementary newsstand special to the main book, but we're all very happy with the kind of success it's been having.

This has been written about before, but [it has] an over 50 percent sell-through with 400,000 copies out there and a $5 price point. That's really cool and it certainly indicates the kind of need there is for this information. A lot of guys turn to Ikea catalogs when they look for new information and we aim to change that -- but after this next issue coming out in December, we're not making any promises.

The great thing about it is the brilliant service that drives Men's Health, Best Life, and Women's Health can drive Men's Health Living too because it's all about living your life to the fullest. There are very specific ways that you can set about doing that. That's where the special will excel. No, the housing downturn doesn't worry me particularly because a shelter book is all about maximizing what you have and Men's Health Living helps guys to [do] that.

The other reason I think [Men's Health Living] is resonating is that your home is the eye of your life's hurricane. It's where your emotional, financial, physical health and your relationships come together. It makes sense that once you've read Men's Health and learned how to improve your body and mind, you want to then turn to a magazine that will help you to put that ethos on display. It's the same way a lot of fashion companies have gone into the home. Ralph has suits, and he has sheets. Porsche has cars, and they have knives. Other designers have home collections now.

One of the big selling points of Men's Health Living from the industry perspective was that the first issue made a profit. How much of the success of a spin-off is determined by the bottom line vs. its ability to extend the brand?
I think paying attention the bottom line is so important, especially now, because there are constantly new forces and changing whims in the media world, particularly the publishing world. But for us, when we think about these moves, we are incredibly strategic about it, specifically, "How it will end up serving the brand?" Exactly how complementary is it? How is it going to extend the lifestyle messaging of the brand? Who it's going to be competing against? We look at all of these things, and we also say if we want to get into the space, should we first come in with a book or a newsstand special or an online venture? We're always thinking about these things at Rodale and at Men's Health.

It's an interesting, some might say bad, time to get into a shelter publication. Just yesterday, Home folded and Blueprint and House and Garden have closed recently. What makes Men's Health Living different? Is it that you feel it has a unique space in the marketplace?
Yeah, we've rather modestly put on the spine of the magazines, "The world's first home magazine for men." Certainly, there's nothing like this, and our internal research showed that this was something the guys wanted. They weren't getting this information anywhere else, which is why some of them were turning to Ikea catalogs, and they would trust us to give them the information because of the authority that we have in all of these areas of their lives that matter. That's all we needed to share and think that we needed to go into something like this. Look at the positive circulation numbers, not just for Men's Health Living, but for Men's Health, which is up three percent in the first half, with a price increase. With the January issue of Men's Health, we took the price from $4.50 to $4.99, so you're increasing the price 10 percent and your first half newsstand is still growing. We're seeing that growth at Best Life, which was over 20 percent, and on Women's Health.

When the economic going gets tough, what do you do? You set aggressive priorities for what's really important in your life and you reduce the rest as needed. I've always felt that for the people we really care about, health, fitness, and good living will be the last things to get cut from the budget and it makes sense. What's more important long term then your health and happiness? That's the business we're in and from the looks of the magazine industry right now, it's a good choice. I've always felt that for all the options that people have for entertainment, magazines that offer solid, useful, and life-alerting advice service that are exhaustively researched and well-written are the ones that will thrive.

In February 2006, you told FishbowlNY your five year plan was: "Continued international growth to the tune of five new editions per year, turning Best Life into a category killer, and I want to someday sell 800,000 copies at newsstand -- we just broke the 735,000 mark with our January issue." Halfway through the five year period, are you succeeding? Would you change these goals?
They are going great. We're the largest men's magazine brand in the world, Men's Health, with over 40 international additions, so we're on pace to launch the four to five magazines a year.

I think [turning Best Life into a category killer] is absolutely happening. With the circulation at 500,000 with our premium prices -- that's also a $5 price point at the newsstand -- and all the growth led by Michael Wolfe and his team, who have done a fantastic job bringing in advertisers like Louis Vuitton and others. It has high subscription prices, high renewal rates, and is a magazine that fills a hole in the market you could have driven a truck through. If you look at some of the traditional men's magazines, it's as though you don't have kids, you don't have a career, you don't care about your health or your marriage. Here was Steve Perrine, the editor-in-chief, coming in and showing that this was a magazine that could fill a real need. So I think we're well on our way there.

I'm going to have to call our senior VP, Rich Alleger, and ask him [about the circulation]. Jan/Feb was our biggest seller ever and I think it was somewhere between 780,000 and 805,000, but I'm not sure it hit 800,000.

Well you have two more years to get there so if you're that close now, we'll give it to you. Men's Health is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. How?
We're not big believers in self-indulgent anniversary celebrations because this isn't about how important we are as a magazine, but rather we've always placed our readers first. What do they need and what are they trying to do with their next 20 years? We'll play it low-key and add an extra dollop of cool service as a little fist bump, if you will, to the readers on the way to their next 20 years. No big plans as of yet. We don't need a flashing billboard on the newsstand to advertise how cool we are. In fact, if we start to think we're cool that's when we're in trouble. We're not ahead of you. Our motto is we're right here with you, and we totally understand.

I think Esquire's trying to monopolize that flashing sign anyway for their 75th anniversary issue.
[Laughs] You said it, not me.

If you're not working at Men's Health for the 25th anniversary, any thoughts on where you'll be?
You know, I don't know. This is what really gets me jazzed, Noah. Men's Health, Women's Health, and Best Life are successful as magazines, but they are also each primed to make a splash in books. If you look at the success of The Abs Diet and Eat This Not That! and the tremendous anticipation over our first Best Life book, The Defining Moment: A Guide to Achieving Maximum Success, that Steve is going to write, you can see how the magazines translate into longer form, smartly conceived products: online, online video, TV, wireless content, and any other medium that's embedded in the next decade. What's great about what's happening here is that it's intensely personal and relevant, which I love. It's adaptable to intensely personal delivery systems. That's what a magazine is. So is a newsletter. So is a diet plan. And so is an exercise program delivered directly to your Blackberry. I think we're woven into millions of people's lives and that takes a lot of thread. It's the whole Magabrand concept, which is just a conference name, coming to fruition. The medium isn't the message any longer. The message is what matters. How we deliver it can totally change depending on the readers' needs.

So you think there's room at Rodale for you to continue moving up and creating a niche?
Yes, because Rodale has gotten incredibly smart about how to launch brands, starting from anywhere. When you have a magazine platform and you have a books platform and you have an online platform and you have an international platform and then you have a database of 24 million names and on and on and on, you can grow personally and professionally and create great things forever.

Okay, last question. Is fit still the new rich?
[Laughs]. I think I'm gonna leave that one buried.


Noah Davis is co-editor of FishbowlNY, mediabistro.com's New York media blog.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.



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