Lessons Learned from a Content Marketing Pioneer

Lou Sabatier Content Marketing

Few would argue that CONTENT MARKETING is key to brand marketing, and it continues to be an evolving discipline. With its roots in owned media—first, custom publications and later, websites, Mike Winkleman has had a ringside seat in this evolution. He has worked in traditional and custom publishing and has watched new channels and formats broaden the definition and role of content. Throughout his career as a journalist, editor, publisher and content marketer, Mike has helped guide marketers, many of whom are still working to figure out how to handle their accelerating content needs.

Over four decades Mike worked as executive editor of New York Affairs, editor and director of Publications at Public Relations Journal, editor-at-large and Special Reports editor for Adweek, group publisher of the Business Magazines Division at Faulkner & Gray, Sr. VP Editorial Operations and Production at Chief Executive Magazine, director of Custom Publishing at American Lawyer Media, editor-in-chief and chief content officer at Chief Executive Group and owner, president and chief creative officer at Leverage Media. Couple this with serving as president and chairman of The Content Council and on the board of Association Media & Publishing and one can see why Mike is often referred to as a content “expert” by colleagues and clients.

In college, you studied journalism and urban studies, an interesting combination.

My family owned a lumber yard in a very depressed section of Philadelphia, and that helped develop an interest in urban issues. I was heavily influenced by reading Philadelphia magazine, which was a bastion of hard-hitting investigative and service journalism in the 60s. I knew I wanted to work in journalism, but I wanted to tie that interest to my passion for shedding light on and helping to solve urban problems. I enrolled in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, and after completing a city planning course as part of a required social science major, I saw that there was a way to use my journalism to explore the issues behind urban problems. After I transferred to New College for my junior year, I pursued my urban studies major by teaching urban studies to junior high school students and writing a guidebook to Sarasota, Florida.

My first position out of college was a dream job working for Clay Felker at New York, a magazine that clearly tied into my urban interests. What I discovered after two years there, however, was that while I knew a lot about architecture and design, I did not know enough about urban planning and policy to do the type of journalism that I wanted to do, to solve the urban problems I saw confronting America in the seventies. So I went to Hunter College for graduate school in urban planning, and that’s what landed me a job at New York Affairs. This was a magazine put out by NYU’s Graduate School of Public Administration. I applied what I was learning in grad school to developing content for this quarterly magazine, where it turned out I was in charge of everything…content, design, production, and circulation. For six years we actually had a pretty significant impact on city policy in New York.

During that time, I also wrote for a number of architecture, design, and policy magazines, including producing a monthly column on New York City neighborhoods for Metropolis. I also worked on a number of city guidebooks, including Rick Wurman’s NYC Access. And I even gave bus tours of New York. But I found that despite my commitment to urban change, I was beginning to question the impact my work had had—and I was making no money. So I flipped the equation and put my “major” focus on magazine journalism and my “minor” focus on urban planning.

That took me to John Henderson & Associations, a magazine consulting firm. This turned out to be a great decision from a career development perspective. We did a lot of research (focus groups, surveys, in-depth interviews) for clients such as Texas Monthly and Working Woman, which helped me develop an in-depth understanding of just how editorial, circulation and advertising worked in concert. This convinced me that I wanted to be involved in all aspects of publishing…putting together the whole publication and thinking through how to meet reader and sponsor needs at the same time.

It was now the early 1990s and thanks to innovators like Chris Whittle, custom publishing was taking hold. My entry point into custom publishing was creating special reports as often as 47 times a year for Adweek—and covering the burgeoning field of custom publishing in its pages.

During the next 25+ years you worked as a business journalist, editor and publisher in public relations, advertising, B2B publishing, custom publishing and content marketing. That’s a wide berth of experience.

Content is the key word. And content marketing is where all these disciplines now come together. Content marketing can look and feel like a B2B or a B2C magazine or website. But with content marketing, the reader and advertiser are of equal importance; it’s a delicate balance. If it tilts too far toward sales in terms of content and tone, then it feels out of sync and readers don’t embrace it. If the message—or the sponsor’s connection—is too subtle, then there’s no value to the sponsor.

What motivated you to co-found Leverage Media in 2001? What were some challenges and “early wins” during the first few years?

I had tried to start a custom publishing company with some friends who ran an integrated marketing company back in 1992, but we were somewhat ahead of our time. After about a year, we gave it up and moved in other directions. Several years later, I was working at American Lawyer Media in custom publishing and running their magazine incubator. In 2001 they decided to move away from custom publishing and offered me something else within the company, but I decided to strike out again with a custom publishing venture and see if I’d be successful this time. This time around, I had contacts, expertise and a solid network of freelancers, so I launched Leverage Media with my wife, who remains involved as COO. While at ALM, I had been doing freelance work and when I went out on my own, I found that clients stepped up their work and helped the new venture to thrive. And ALM gave me leads and even custom work as it came along.

At the same time, I also got very involved with what was then called the Custom Publishing Council (now The Content Council). It was a feeder for business development; larger companies would often refer work my way. More importantly, it also exposed me to trends and issues in the field, which helped in educating my team and soliciting clients.

Throughout most of your career, you have worked with business and/or association employers and clients. Have you ever worked in consumer publishing or did you want to and if not, why?

I started out to do B2C…that is what I knew and those were the magazines that made me want to go into this field. It never occurred to me to do B2B. But as the jobs I got exposed me to B2B publications, I ultimately found that the range of topics and business angles being covered were much more interesting to me than those I saw in consumer publishing.

If you look at our mix of clients today, you’ll see that within a given day I am thinking about multiple fields and disciplines and their impact on society, on culture, on the world—and that, combined with figuring out how to communicate that information in a way that serves both reader and sponsor needs, is something I find fascinating.

While serving as president of the Custom Publishing Council and editor of their publication, Content, you fielded notable studies with Roper and Readex. What was ground-breaking about this research at the time?

This was about the state and acceptance of custom publishing. We surveyed CMOs in both B2B and B2C as well as the population at large.  We were collecting incredibly useful information that had never been collected before. We found, for example, that about 75% of the general population said that they would rather learn about a company through content than through advertising, as long as the information was relevant and valuable. The consumer was fine with corporate-created content. In fact, we found it bred customer loyalty. This was critical information for both our members and their clients, and I would suggest that it helped establish content marketing as a viable and important discipline.

A traditional publishing company has always had much of its value attributable to the brand names of its publications as well as their circulation lists.  Companies that create content for their clients don’t really have either.  Is that a concern for someone building a content marketing business?

Absolutely. I think that anyone who has a content marketing or custom publishing business always has to deal with the fact that they rarely “own” any of their titles—or any of their lists. Like an ad agency or a marketing company, our asset is service, and we traffic in content.

What are the economics of a company that produces content for clients and is there a way to scale up these businesses?  Are there any other strategies that can be used to ramp up profits?

I’d say the two key strategies are getting more clients and increasing the amount and types of content provided to each of them, broadening and deepening the involvement you have with each client. We can develop a strategic content plan and work with the company to execute that plan. At the same time, it’s important, especially in B2B content marketing, to have a diverse roster of clients to protect yourself from industry swings or volatility. And I cannot stress enough the importance of building relationships with clients.

What represents excellence in content marketing?

Content must grab attention, break through the clutter and rise above the noise.

And content must be informative and something that the reader is going to gravitate towards. It has to be strategic, rather than tactical, and multi-channel, playing across not only print and digital, but also video, social, and other emerging or even retro platforms. One of our most successful content vehicles was an old-fashioned ViewMaster reel used as a conference room drop. Getting content to the right audience through a well-developed distribution stream is also critical.

You received the Content Council’s John Caldwell Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013. Who was John Caldwell?

John Caldwell was an early pioneer in custom publishing. During his long and distinguished career, he ran a number of Boston-based custom publishing companies, such as Marblehead Communications. When we launched this awards program at The Content Council (to complement our Pearl Awards), shortly after he died in 2006, we felt that naming it after John set the bar for the sorts of winners we’d be looking for in subsequent years. I was tremendously honored to be presented with the award we’d named after him.