Ninety years after commencing on the journey to advocate the best practices in the global management domain, the Harvard Business Review (HBR) Group today is regarded as the first stop for smart management thinking.
Under Editor-In-Chief Adi Ignatius, the print publication, website and the book division of the group have undergone a big transformation in operations as well as in the overall presentation. During a recent visit to India, Ignatius spoke to Rajarshi Bhattacharjee about the recent developments at the group and the way forward.
Do you think print media across the world been able to exploit the potential of the net yet? Or for that matter the entire digital platform?
I don’t think the print publications deliver on the net very well. However, the tablets, the iPads represent a great opportunity for us. Some day, may be, we will no longer be in print and will be 100 per cent digital. But it’s not anytime soon. If the picture changes, it will be because the print industry has reached a certain critical mass in terms of the numbers sold or the reconsideration of its form. But it’s a great experience. Like we have a design/style memo, wired magazines also have a design style. They can actually represent themselves effectively in a tablet and give a lush appearance like a magazine. I think the print never really used the web effectively — communicate the way you want to — but probably are learning now.
You joined the HBR Group when the US was in the throes of a huge economic crisis. Have you witnessed any fundamental changes in the way the print media industry operates?
The Harvard Business Review Group is 90 years old. It has been successful for a long time. But to me, everything changed in 2009. It was the worst economic situation we ever faced. We started thinking, what do we do? Should I fire a lot of people and be rude? Or just wait for the market share to grow? We had an opportunity there to help share the knowledge. We decided we have to be relevant to the people and our customers right now and started working on special reports around how to come out of the recession, how to deal with risks etc.
Even for the online business it has been a really tough time. People didn’t have enough money to subscribe. Unlike India where people are used to getting information free on the internet, in the US the consumer paid even for content online. The challenge was how to maintain the paid customer base. But then it was comparatively less difficult for us. I used to work for the Time magazine, which is huge — many years of success, four million subscribers. I think it was hard for them, to keep their rigid model going. We are not so much like the Time magazine; our base is not as much as the Time, but we are a niche publication addressing a specific audience.
News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch has been a champion of the paid-for online content model and has urged publishes time and again to abandon the practice of giving away news in exchange for attracting a large audience for advertisers. Do you subscribe to that view?
Yes, I do, but it is difficult. This is because the first generation on the net lived it off for free and developed the value ethos that the internet content has to be free. When you say free content or space, it is backed by advertisements. And if the consumer is paying for content on the internet, it is actually consumed by them in a completely different way. So, I totally agree with Rupert Murdoch that to get on from where we are you have to pay for content you access online. I believe the suitability and the command of the internet would have been more effective by now if everybody had been paying for everything on the internet for the last five years.
What was the idea behind the unification of the three editorial divisions and re-launch of the magazine? Was it just about keeping the costs low?
When I joined the Harvard Business Review Group I didn’t have any idea how to do that. But see, we have a standard magazine division, the web and the publishing division and they all do the same thing — write about the same topic, work on the same ideas in the same office. But if they are competing with each other that’s not very professional. So we broke down the wall between each of these divisions. With this, we now have enough editors who are specialised in various areas for the special editions. We now have a bigger pool of editors, developing better ideas. In fact, one of my predecessors had once said, “HBR will never blog. We will be blogged about, but we will never blog.” But, that’s ridiculous, because that way we could do more.
This brings me to our next question. How important is it for a magazine like HBR to have a social media presence and enter the digital platform with free and paid apps?
Huge! The social media has become one of our most important drivers of traffic. You can come to the site and read our daily blogs for free. That’s where we generate the advertisement revenue. If you want more than that, you need to register and pay something to be a subscriber. We are up to approximately 1.5 million followers Facebook-Twitter combined. We are also active in LinkedIn. As an interactive platform, for example, we requested our readers/subscribers to choose the cover image for the next issue based on certain aspects and we have learned that it is a good way to involve readers with the product. So, in one way when the social media helps us to push traffic, on the other, it helps us to listen to our readers, get feedbacks on what we should do and much more.
The magazine also dons a new look today in terms of design and treatment of the content. Why did you think you needed to rework the entire package?
The fact is the world is becoming more digital. Also, if you look at the covers of HBR before we redesigned the magazine, they looked like academic journals with just the list of articles on the cover. We have a focus group, which hired a design consultant. The consultant said, “Do not touch the cover.” He said, the table of content on the cover is iconic to you as the red border is around the Time magazine cover.
But with the table of content on cover, for a marketing executive looking for a relevant article, all he will check is if there is anything about marketing on the cover. If he doesn’t find anything, the transaction is finished and marketing executive will not even open the magazine.
We want the readers to look at the HBR as a complete magazine. By changing the design, we didn’t want to make it harder for the readers; instead we wanted a design that feels lighter. We want the magazine to develop a different relationship with the readers. My theory is, everybody should read the HBR that was originally seen as ‘this magazine is not for us’ by many people — for being too hard, too smart, too boring. So we wanted to increase the number of touch-points so that people can experience the Harvard Business Review with more modern design and presentation.
If you can talk at length about the editorial treatment at HBR — what are the key things that you keep in mind to ensure it is relevant to a global audience?
That’s a challenge. One of the reasons that I come to India now is not just to forge a connect with the brand, but also to ensure we generate more content from India and the region. What HBR needs to do is to go diverse. If you look at the latest copies, they will delight you with content on business and management from around the world and not just from Harvard and other Western universities. We are not there yet, but want our readers to acknowledge that the whole world is reflected in the magazine.
How is the brand recall, the readership, for HBR in India?
I don’t know about brand recall, but we have around 10,000 subscribers from India. Our Indian partner tells me that HBR, in terms of circulation and revenue, is one of the most profitable businesses in India. I don't remember the exact figures, but with 10,000 subscribers now we have a huge scope to grow. On the other hand we are a premium publication — the price is little higher than others — but the impact is much higher than 10,000 subscriptions because the average number of people reading the magazine is much higher. Also, in terms of global reach we have 11 other foreign language verticals.
Do you think a Hindi edition could be a good starting point to increase your subscriber base in India?
We have started with translating some of our books. We will try to analyse the impact and then take it forward. Also, the target readers for HBR in India are broadly the managers and industry leaders who are quite comfortable with English. So we don’t have immediate reasons to move to the Hindi language. Hindi may offer an opportunity as an emerging market, so we have started trying out the possibilities with book translations.