From Mimi to The Drive: Time Inc.’s patchy record with digital verticals
By Lucia Moses
In March 2015, Time Inc. unveiled Mimi, a “social-first” brand that it breathlessly described as the “ultimate destination for all-things beauty” and a “substantial opportunity” to reach millennial women who weren’t reading its stalwart magazines like InStyle and Real Simple. The goal was to get the site upwards of 5 million monthly uniques in a year or two, a former Time Inc. digital executive said.
At the time, Time Inc. was appearing rather long in the tooth compared to digital-first upstarts like BuzzFeed, Refinery29 and Vice, all of which were closing big rounds of venture capital infusions in 2015. For Time Inc., home to legacy brands like Time and Sports Illustrated, growing digitally native brands like Mimi was critical to having both digital cachet and achieving scale to match the BuzzFeeds and Refinerys.
But then reality hit. Mimi never got big enough to compete for ad dollars with digital-only startups, and advertisers shunned it. It depended on existing titles to feed it content and bounced from one sales executive to another. “No one owned it,” a former Time Inc. sales exec lamented. After a year, Mimi ceased to exist as a standalone site and became a vertical of Time Inc.’s fashion behemoth, InStyle.
The experience of Mimi and other digital experiments that followed speak to the challenge facing any legacy publisher trying to modernize. Another launch, home decor site The Snug, like Mimi was folded into a bigger brand, Real Simple. Time Inc. upped its game for The Drive, a vertical for millennial car fiends, and breakfast food site, Extra Crispy. These were started out of The Foundry, Time Inc.’s new branded-content studio based in Brooklyn, and had experienced editorial teams. The Drive came out strong with Volvo, Pennzoil and the BuyPower credit card as sponsors.
But as small launches surrounded by big, entrenched brands and a lack of dedicated salespeople, it was hard for the new properties to attract readers and advertisers. Last summer, Time Inc. reorganized its sales teams around ad categories, not brands, and execs who championed the new launches left, making it even harder for smaller properties to get attention. Of these various sites, only The Drive meets comScore’s minimum size for measurement, hitting just 792,000 uniques in January — a 63 percent decline versus a year earlier.
Building new brands in a distributed media era is hard for any publisher, but as a newly public company, Time Inc. had the added challenge of showing growth while managing decline and keeping Wall Street happy — all while making itself attractive to prospective buyers today. That burden first fell to former CEO Joe Ripp, who led the company through its spinoff from Time Warner in 2014. In 2014, the company was heavily print-driven, with only 15 percent of the revenue coming from digital. (It was 29 percent by the end of 2016.)
But the expectations from the top didn’t match the resources put behind the launches, multiple former execs said. While other, venture-backed publishers seemingly could spend with abandon and burn through cash (and other legacy publishers Hearst …read more