69 - Jason Wagenheim, Bustle Digital Group
Conor Begley: It's always fun to do episodes with friends. Jason and I became friends through Clubhouse, which was awesome at the time. Not only is he a friend, but he is an unbelievably accomplished executive across the publishing industry. You guys are going to love it today. If you do love it, make sure to be a friend. Tell a friend that is the best way that you can help out. Thanks guys. Enjoy the show.
Speaker 2: Explore the minds and marketing strategies behind today's winning brands and businesses. Tap into the Power of the Creator economy with Earned by CreatorIQ. Here's Conor Begley.
Conor Begley: Hi everyone. Welcome to Earned Today I've got Jason Wagenheim on the show. Welcome Jason.
Jason: Hey Connor. Good to be here. Longtime listener, first time guest.
Conor Begley: I am really excited to have you on. It has been a long time coming. I'm trying to remember when we started our Clubhouse together with you, Corey and Friends. Was that like a year ago, two years ago? I feel like time is blending.
Jason: I have no concept of time anymore. Clubhouse that was so fun for a minute, wasn't it?
Conor Begley: I think I predicted that it was going to be a $ 10 billion company, which is why you should not listen to my predictions or most peoples for that matter. For those that don't know you, I'm going to brag about you for a second. Jason was the Chief Revenue Officer, took over as president as well for Bustle Digital Group. Prior to that you were the CRO at Teen Vogue and Glamour. You were a publisher at Entertainment Weekly and Vanity Fair. I feel like you have really hit every major entertainment celebrity publication out there. It's really impressive.
Jason: I'm blessed to have been at some great brands. I've been around the block a few times. I'm embarrassed to say how old I am with that pedigree you just read off. It is a big birthday this year. I'm going to be 50.
Conor Begley: I will tell you, not based on your appearance, but based on your resume, I was like, " What is he going to say?" I didn't know if you were going to say 60. I was like, in my head I was like, "60?" I was like, "He doesn't look 60." You said 50. I actually think that's quite the resume for 50 years old. That's pretty wild.
Jason: I'm still 49, Conor, I've got nine months, so hanging on to 49 as long as possible.
Conor Begley: Also, I should add, just for those that don't know Bustle Digital Group. Collection of digital publications, you guys have over a hundred million readers monthly, which is wild. Bustle, Elite Daily, The Zoe, Gawker, and obviously now you're competing with all your old friends, which has got to be fun.
Jason: Yeah, it's been amazing. We've built a great business portfolio holding company. I look forward to talking about it today. Digital media can be wildly successful and profitable if housed in an organization like ours with shared infrastructure. It's been a great ride. It's been six and a half years here and just really fun to build with this business.
Conor Begley: A hundred percent. Let's take a step back in time. When I looked at your resume, the first thing that popped into my head was The Devil Wears Prada. I don't know why, but that was the thing that popped up. I looked it up, it debuted 2006. I was like, " Where was Jason when this movie came out?" In 2006 you were the executive director at Conde Nast, which oversees Vogue, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, which I think frankly is a lot of what that movie was modeled after. It's safe to say, I think you were at the peak of that industry because that was a pretty seminal movie. How did that movie go over inside the walls of Conde Nast? Was that well received? Were you allowed to watch it?
Jason: It was at the time. This is pre- social, pre- mobile, it was a very real picture of what it was like to work at Vogue at the time. The writer of that, I think her name was Lauren Weisberger, if I'm not mistaken. She was an assistant to Anna Wintour, and I don't know if everybody realizes that, but it was a really popular book that she wrote as almost this fictitious take on her time at Vogue that became a movie. Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway, it was amazing. They nailed so many parts. I think what most people didn't really see in that movie was more about the end of that movie when Miranda Priestley sort of has that moment in that wink, in that nod to Anne Hathaway, as she's going off to do her next thing. You saw some humanity that you didn't see in the prior hour and a half of that film. Anna's fierce, she is the original girl boss. I have so much respect for her and everything that she's built. I think, from what I hear from my friends still at Conde, she's definitely softened up in the last 15 years since that movie with her experience and wisdom that also comes with age. She's great. I think there was a lot of satirical things that you could absolutely draw back to reality about what it was like at Conde Nast at that time. It was a lot of fun, but it was a lot of pressure and it was super serious.
Conor Begley: The other thing I thought about when I was looking at your career was like you got to go through the bloodbath transition from physical publishing to digital publishing. I wanted to look up the data. I think right around that time that movie came out was when publisher revenue hit its peak. It was about 46 billion at that time. Then just over the next call it five, six years, it got cut in half down to about 24 billion. Then it started recovering since then. What was it like to be at the center of that transition? What's it like when an industry goes through so much change in such a short period of time, specifically from outside. It wasn't like they made mistakes. It was outside influences really, social media specifically blew up that business model for a little while.
Jason: It did, and it's a critical time you're talking about in 2006 because I think the iPhone came out in either 2007 or 2008. The iPad was in 2009. Social media was around in 2003, 2004 before that with things like MySpace and other things. Facebook really got big in like 2004, right?
Conor Begley: Yeah.
Jason: The critical juncture for that change from consumption was not so much social media, but it was when social went mobile and all of a sudden you didn't need a Canon point and shoot camera that had like 128 megabyte, whatever memory card. You had this really great camera that's gotten better in the palm of your hand that was also your phone, that was also connected to the internet. You had apps, you had mobile websites, responsive design. That was the critical change. Once that started happening, the re- adjudication of what Conde Nast did or didn't do back in the early aughts was up for discussion. What the mistake was at Conde Nast back in 2000, 2002 was launching brands like style. com or epicurious. com or concierge. com, these were the internet homes of brands like Conde Nast Traveler, Vogue, GQ, Bon Appetit and Gourmet. I don't think Conde Nast fully appreciated how well their brands could travel online if they just stuck to the brand. There was such fear that print would have massive attrition, advertisers would flee print for the internet and let's protect our core business that's 99.9% of our revenue by almost imagining the internet didn't exist for these brands. Let's launch other things around it. I'm convinced that when we talked to Si Newhouse in 2001 or 2002, we wouldn't have had a style. com. We would've had this powerhouse called vogue. com and we wouldn't have had epicurious. com, we would've had Gourmet and Bon Appetit. Inaudible mistake was not embracing the internet quick enough while other companies just passed us by, I remember very specifically being the publisher of Teen Vogue in 2013 and watching this little upstart in Brooklyn called Bustle launch out of a brownstone with seven people as the tech bro internet story typically goes. I was banging my fist on the desk going, " Why are we allowing this little thing called Bustle, this piece of startup?" The amount of unique users, the engagement, the advertiser demand all within two years was just epic. I was like, " How are we letting this happen?" It was an interesting time. We got really big on social first. If you think about influencers, we were on Instagram first. We were on Snap first. We were on Facebook first as publishers and editors of the original influencers. It was just a different form. It was ink on paper instead of a screen.
Conor Begley: I've never heard that take before, but it makes a lot of sense because if you think about it today, you think about NewYorkTimes. com, these have become very large digital assets.
Conor Begley: Again, at the same time, it's very difficult to kill the golden goose. It's very difficult to look at something that's making all of your revenue and to take out a piece of that. They also wouldn't have known how to monetize it, right? It's like, " Okay, well I put it online now people can access it for free, but I can't charge one- tenth what I was charging for the print publication."
Jason: Yeah. It was so wild West. I mean, when the iPad came out in 2009, we were charging advertisers$ 300,000 to be included in a PDF version of the magazine that you could read on the iPad, because that's all we really had to sell. We thought that would be super interesting. We had no scale, we had no context. We didn't even know if readers were interested in reading a PDF of Vanity Fair on the iPad, but that's all we had to sell. Conde Nast and the legacy publishers could not accelerate digital growth as quickly as print was declining. They spent years righting the ship and they're caught up. I mean, they're savvy digital businesses now. They're doing great in a lot of places, but it took longer, unfortunately.
Conor Begley: Yeah, music obviously went through a similar kind of upheaval. In some ways it's not really anybody's fault, it's just what happens, right? It wasn't like Conde Nast was the one that screwed up. It was like the whole industry got cut in half. Now obviously it's recovered. Another area I think is really interesting right now, particularly when it comes to digital publishers. Brian Sugar, who is the CEO and co- founder of Pop Sugar, along with his wife Lisa, was a very early investor and advisor to Tribe. We've paid attention to it more closely. I think over the last call it 12 to 18 months there's been incredible amount of consolidation within that space like at Vox, Buzzfeed, Group Nine, Discover. What do you think is driving that consolidation? Then do you think that continues moving forward? How do you think the industry shakes out over the next few years?
Jason: It's a great question and we're living in the middle of it. I think let's just continue with the theme of a history lesson and go back in time because-
Conor Begley: Yeah.
Jason: Consolidation is not a new thing. Since there were etchings on caves, tens of thousands companies have consolidated. Radio consolidated in the forties and fifties and sixties, TV consolidated after that. The big broadcasters were rolling up with digital publishers that telecom companies consolidated. It's just a natural progression of how industry works. The fact of the matter is it's really hard to operate a small, independent media company, whether you're a magazine or a website or a local radio station outside Cincinnati. Consolidation is just a natural part of a business' life cycle or an industry's life cycle. We were an early adopter on the consolidation train back in 2015/ 16 when we acquired Elite Daily. That was actually early 2017. We gobbled up a lot of small publishers like The Zoe Report, mike. com, Elite Daily. We acquired the Some Spider Studios' properties, the parenting sites, Scary Mommy, the Dad, fatherly. It's a very natural thing that should continue to happen. It makes companies stronger when you can have like we do 12 brands and 400 plus people in a company and shared infrastructure around Sales, Marketing, Tech, the Finance Team, all the things it takes to make a company run well, and you can underpin an entire org with that infrastructure all 12 of those sites have a much better chance of being successful from an audience profile, from a advertiser one, from just being well run businesses. I'm a big fan of the consolidation. It will continue to happen. Tough market right now. It's tough to be a media owner and want to sell your company because prices and valuations are just much lower than they probably should be. It'll continue to happen. We're a big fan of it. We've got a huge M and A strategy. There's lots of room for us to be acquired by the right suitor one day. It is a very weird time in the universe. I've been doing this more than 25 years. I've never experienced anything like the last three years and it's going to continue to be wacky. I keep telling my team, " Keep your head down, avoid the noise, and just do good work. The rest will fall into place."
Conor Begley: Like you said, going back in the annals of history, history rhymes. It doesn't repeat, but it rhymes. You look at the historical media entities like Conde Nast as a thing, it's a collection of publications. It's logical that that would occur. Something I think a lot about, obviously when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, right? We're in the influencer space. Influencers are creators are functionally just individual publishers. I looked at the data on Mr. Beast, his numbers have grown six X in the last two months. He had 1. 8 billion views on his YouTube videos in the last 30 days. Just shocking numbers. Have you guys thought at all about acquiring individuals as publishers? Is that something you've explored at all?
Jason: We've done it before. There were some influencers that created a handle called Please on Instagram. It was a beauty born handle. We always said that if Allure or one of the big beauty brands was launching in 2015 or 2016, it would be an Instagram thing, not necessarily ink on paper or on any other platform. We have gobbled up a few handles and a few influencers along the way. I think the bigger thing moving forward is this idea of a triangulation between content, talent, experiential. Publishers are very well suited to create their own influencer networks or creator networks, we're frankly already doing it. I think what drives me a little bit crazy with some of my top advertising partners is this idea of influencer and creator. It actually started with publishers. Publishers, like I said earlier, are the original influencer with editors and writers who scoured the world for the greatest destinations, clothes, food to eat, places to visit, things to do, and published those in a format. Again, it was ink on paper, but that's what... Magazines have always been influencers. When I talk to advertisers and they're like, " Oh, we're looking for somebody with a lot of reach on TikTok and we need somebody with a half a million followers on TikTok or Instagram." I'm like, " BDG has 30 million followers on Instagram and Inverse alone has 5 million plus on TikTok." We're an influencer and we need to start getting the credit for it. Look, I remember at Teen Vogue, Bethany Mota, do you remember Bethany Mota?
Conor Begley: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
Jason: 16, 17- year- old girl living in Northern California, babysitting, whatever she's doing on the side starts making fashion and hall videos and grows to 10, 11 million followers in a couple years on YouTube. I remember reaching out to her and others and saying, " Come do this party for us. We'll put you in the magazine." They would be so psyched to be featured in Teen Vogue or so psyched to be part of some kind of Conde Nast event. Then a couple years go by and all of a sudden they're bigger than us and we have to call their agent at William Morris just to get a deal with them. We've created these monsters and it's just the format has changed. Again, it's a screen, it's not ink on paper, but there's definitely a great relationship between publishers and influencers working together.
Conor Begley: What's funny is the way that I've always described influencers, particularly to people that have a longer or more traditional background in marketing, think of them as publishers. I say this all the time, I'm like, " They're no different than Glamour. Their goal is to build their audience. If they build their audience, they can charge more money for advertising. The way that they build their audience is by creating really cool editorial content and supplementing that with advertised content to pay the bills in addition to partnerships and otherwise." If you want to approach them, think about that, think about them in that mindset. You're going to do a mix of editorial work, trying to get coverage in the editorial side of things, as well as advertising. Obviously if you're a big advertiser, you're going to get better access to the editors and some of these other benefits that you get. It's funny, so I describe it in the reverse direction. I'm talking to people that are looking at influencers and saying the same thing. I think you have more experience than most people in the world, particularly on the Sales and Marketing side at integrating these new publications. You go out, you buy Fatherly. Obviously a lot of these people are entrepreneurs that have run their own ships. What are some of the challenges of doing that and what do you think are some of the things that are the most positively surprising like, " Oh God, I don't have to worry about finance anymore." What are those positives and negatives?
Jason: Yeah, it's a great question Conor, and you nailed it where you went with it to start is you have entrepreneurs in the form of founders who created incredible businesses and scaled them and raised money. They had their vision that they had their team execute upon. All of the founders who started companies that we launched, with the exception of Rachel Zoe, because she still stays involved with The Zoe Report as Editor at Large. She does a lot of events and content for us. It's really hard and it's nothing personal, but when you're rolling up as part of a bigger organization where there's another founder with his own ego and his own entrepreneurial spirit and his own vision, those things don't have to align and they typically don't. It's fine. What founders really want is for their brands and the businesses they started to end up in really good places with the future. When we acquired Mike, we acquired Inverse we love those guys, they were awesome founders, but it was hard to keep them on long term.
Conor Begley: Yeah.
Jason: With teams the biggest challenge, frankly, is just the cultural disconnect. No company is created equal, no company has the same corporate culture and you can't just buy a company with a hundred people, drop them in your office, tell them where the coffee maker and the bathroom is and expect everything to be okay. We've acquired 13, 14 different properties in the six and a half years I've been here. It's crazy.
Conor Begley: It's like one every six months. That's wild.
Jason: We learned a ton through it though. Everyone comes with its own nuances, not one looks like the other. I think the most important thing is we've written a great playbook that's gotten better every time we've done it. We're very, very patient with teams. We're very good about picking talent to stay and integrate. We can grow revenue by 30, 40% pretty quickly and drop OpEx by 30% so it becomes very lucrative for the business. I don't mean just profit, but I mean we can run these things more efficiently. I think the biggest lesson with integrations is patience. Some things work really well in a couple months and other things take a year to get right. You have to take the long- term vision. You have to just think ahead of, " If we miss a quarter or two or if this thing doesn't fire on all cylinders right away, it's okay. Let's look at the long term." Scary Mommy is a great example of inaudible of the parenting brands. We had a couple missteps in the first three to six months. That thing is firing on all cylinders now, working really well, driving a ton of revenue for us. We love those brands, very supportive of them. A lot of the people who we brought over are still with us and doing great.
Conor Begley: We just went through our own acquisition about 15 months ago and I think the first six months we were killing it from a business perspective, just crushing it. Everybody was like, " Under the surface, it doesn't feel good." Then the last six months it's been, I think Q3 was a challenging quarter for everybody because nobody knew it was happening, but it was like you have some macroeconomic shocks and whatever, but under the surface it feels a lot better. It feels like things are really kicking into gear. It was a little behind on the numbers, nothing huge. It's funny to have that long- term perspective. If there's a problem, we will figure it out and we'll move forward.
Jason: You nailed the ancient Wagenheim family proverb that goes back to Lithuania in the old country is, " Everything's going to be okay and if it's not, don't worry. We'll figure it out." That's the way we have to approach this business. One of my favorite books is Who Moved My Cheese? It's like 40 pages long. It's about these mice that live in a labyrinth and the cheese is moving and some mice find the cheese when it moves, and other mice just look for it in the same exact place every day. You know what? They die. It's this great story of surviving through change. I bought 300 copies of it a couple years ago. I gave it to every one of my people. I'm like, " You're going to read this. It's 40 pages, don't panic." We talk about it a lot. Those that are comfortable with change and embracing it and not hanging onto the way things were. When we've acquired companies, the people who aren't with us anymore are the people who say a lot, who start sentences often with something like, " That's not the way we do that here", or" That's not the way we used to do it", or" That's not going to work because that's not what our company does." I'm like, " It's not going to work for you. The cheese just moved, babe. You got to go find it." If you can have that attitude in business and be comfortable with change, you'll survive and you'll be very, very successful to boot.
Conor Begley: Totally, totally. I think particularly, I mean you've gone through an industry where there's a lot of moving cheese over the last couple decades. You mentioned a founder earlier, that's Brian Goldberg. It seems like he's got a little bit of a magic touch when it comes to publishing, whether it was Bleacher Report or Bustle and obviously now all these acquisitions and what's his secret sauce? What makes him so good at this?
Jason: I thought when I was publisher at Teen Vogue that I was an entrepreneur because I was running my own business for Si Newhouse and I just met with them quarterly and I can make decisions. I had a P and L to run. I'm like, " I'm running my own business under Conde Nast." I'm not an entrepreneur the way you are frankly, or Brian is. To have that no fear, not listen to the noise and just go forward with all the thousands of no's you get before you get a yes is really the biggest quality that I admire about Brian. He's got real vision. You have to think about somebody who disrupted the sports entertainment, sports journalism business the way he did with Bleacher Report in his twenties and then turned Conde Nast, Meredith, Hearst and all the big publishers on its head when he decided to be this early 30- something tech dude from the Bay Area launching a women's lifestyle company called Bustle and taking on Glamour and Cosmo and all the other legacy brands. There was a lot of people that were naysayers. Brian just kept moving it forward with his vision and his strategy. He saw the need, he saw the opportunity to disrupt. I think that really separates a really successful founder and entrepreneur like Brian from the rest.
Conor Begley: I remember having a conversation with one of my mentors. We were still figuring it out, a year in we were making a thousand dollars a month, we weren't making very much money. He is like, " Sometimes you got to know one to hang it up." I'm like, " Hmm, not today." I remember we had this favorite bar, so my co- founder and I lived together for the first three and a half years and we had this favorite bar. It was a half Indian food restaurant, half Irish bar. We're sitting there playing pool and I remember telling him after a couple beers, I was like, " I don't give a shit." I was like, " I'm going to drag this thing kicking and screaming into existence whether it wants to exist or not, that's what I'm going to do." I think it takes some of that, right?
Jason: Yeah. Courage, conviction, belief in your dreams. That's the magic. You're another great example what you did with Tribe. You saw a need on influencers and measurement and what the world wasn't getting, and you took advantage of that and had the courage and conviction to just go through. I imagine all the thousands of people laughing in your face or the no's, doors shutting to keep moving. I don't think you can learn that. I think that's a born quality.
Conor Begley: Well, let's talk about another impressive leader. We met through Lory Marchisotto, who's the CMO at Elf, and they are the best performing stock on the entire market in the last year, up 90% year over year, which is wild in this environment. I think what that brings up that's interesting is for you, you've gotten to spend again as a CRO, as a publisher at some of the best publications in the world, you've gotten to work with some of the best marketers in the world like Kory. I'd be curious, just from an observational perspective, what you've observed about those advertisers, what makes a Kory or somebody else so special? Especially if you can kind of identify it pretty quickly, what do you see in there?
Jason: Kory has so many great talents and I adore her. She's a good personal friend. She's a very important client of ours. I know she is of yours as well. What I think I admire most about Kory is the courage to dream and the ability to bring people together to use her words force multiply. Kory's very good at triangulating partners in her orbit and getting them to do amazing things together that they could not accomplish individually. We've been lucky enough to be along her side the last four or five years now as a big publishing partner where we create so much great content, but we're constantly in touch with her agency partners, her in- house teams, the platforms directly and working on her behalf. At the end of the day, she doesn't have L'Oreal budgets or Estee Lauder budgets, but you would think with what that woman and that company has accomplished under her leadership on the Marketing Team the last four years she's been there, you would think she had the most massive budgets on the planet. I so respect her ability to bring the right partners in the room and do incredible things. What also comes with that that some CMOs at really big public company's fear is risk. Kory is completely risk adverse. She learns from mistakes. She picks her people up when they fail and pushes them forward. She is the first to cheer us and her internal teams along when they're successful. My friend Craig Brommers at American Eagle is a great CMO. Tariq Hassan at McDonald's and Brommers at Eagle. They have the same qualities of navigating uncertain times and taking calculated risks that pay off and triangulating partners together. I think that's probably the biggest thing. Kory calls me with the most crazy shit and I'm just like, " That's never going to happen." It does because she puts it in the universe and makes it happen and she gets like the Pied Piper everybody to follow along and it's a pretty magical thing to be part of and to be inside her orbit. There's a handful of CMOs that have that magic touch and she's definitely one of them.
Conor Begley: I remember our first event we did, I was like, " I think we need to do an event in New York." I was like, " I know a lot of people there, do you think it'll be a good time?" The team's like, " Oh great, yeah, when are we going to do it, like a few months?" I'm like, " No, three weeks, two weeks. We're going to do it. I'll get it done, we'll get it going." There's another time where the pandemic happened and so everything in person got shut down and I had seen somebody do a virtual summit at a bunch of speakers, which it was pretty innovative at the time, and I was like, " Fuck it, let's do it. Two weeks we got it." Got it done, I think we had 40 or 50 speakers and it was really cool. I'm a big subscriber, and Kory, I think in the interview we did with her, is a big subscriber. She moves fast and it's okay, if it doesn't work out. On the Craig front, I actually hadn't met Craig until this podcast. That was the way that I met him. I didn't know him before that. They're killing it too. Their numbers are wild.
Jason: Crushing it. Crushing it. These guys have longevity. I think the average career span of a CMO is two years or 1. 9 years. These guys have survived that. They will continue to because Kory will call me and she'll be like, " Okay, here's the deal. You got a second?" I'm like, " Sure." She's like, " I want to put a billboard on the moon. I want to stand in front of it. Alicia Keys is going to perform. Elon Musk is going to get us a rocket and we're going to take 10 influencers and we're going to do the first ever TikTok from the moon." You're just like, " Wait, what?" Then you have to take it seriously because you know what it's probably going to happen. She just has that power and most of her stuff works really, really well. Some of it doesn't. She learns from those mistakes and those risks that she may have taken to make it better the next time.
Conor Begley: Obviously marketing, publishing is a big part of your background, but sales is as well, big part of your career and also big part of your blood. I think I heard the story of your dad being a fax machine salesman back in the day when that was a totally new technology. When you think about sales and the role that it's played in your life and what it's taught you, what are those, why would you advise somebody to get that background earlier in their career?
Jason: I think it's such a terrific career. I'm an accidental salesperson. I went to college for journalism and writing and I started a student magazine in South Carolina that's still publishing. I was Editor in Chief of the school newspaper. I had dreams of going to GQ and other big magazines and following that dream to be a writer. I just landed in a marketing role at News Corporation my first job out of school. Didn't even know what it was. I was designing coupons for the Sunday inserts, the FSIs that News Corps published at the time under a company inaudible America. I got the sales bug right away and found the right mentors and companies and had just great brands that I got to work for. I was the first online ad director for maxim. com in 1999. I think what I love most about sales is every day is different. It's about problem solving, it's about critical thinking. It's about trying to convince people to take money out of their pockets that they may not even know is there and getting them to spend it. It's a lot of fun. I think what I love most about it is the trust I've been able to build for myself and for our company and for our people over the years. It's really the trust that people have in you. We make a really, really big deal at BDG about customer service. The internet is a wild and complicated place that is changing by the minute. When somebody decides to spend$500, 000 or a million or$ 2 million with us, I don't want to mess up.
Conor Begley: Yeah, totally.
Jason: inaudible their money. What are the things and who are the people that we can have in our orbit to make sure that our clients can trust us? When you have that kind of relationship, it's really satisfying. It of course also leads to renewals and really great relationships that you take with you everywhere. It's a great business, it's a frenetic business. There's mayhem. No day is the same. I think that's really exciting.
Conor Begley: I mean that perspective, that approach though is really important. The long- term thinking there, which it's not just about getting somebody to buy from you, but it's actually about having that be successful because that's actually where the long- term value is, right? Is you build these relationships with people that are mutually beneficial in which you're helping them get done what they want to get done. I know that for me, I remember this phrase I always really liked, " It's better to become friends because of business than to do business because you're friends." I've had sales conversations with friends, it's like, " I don't want to do that. That feels weird." Then when you become friends with somebody, it's like, " Oh wow, we've done a podcast podcast together and we've done this and we've done that and we've helped you do this and that." Then you become friends because of that success. That's I think pretty cool.
Jason: My best relationships with the Kory's and the Craig's of the world are we've been through the ups and downs of business together and I always take the long view. I've never once called any of them that said, " I can't believe you're not giving me this campaign for this month for a hundred thousand dollars. It's over."
Conor Begley: Yep.
Jason: I take the long view and when they have money to spend and the opportunities line up and we can deliver a product for them, we work together. When we don't, that's okay too. When you establish and build that kind of trust and relationship, it's so much bigger than any$ 1 that you might bring in or not.
Conor Begley: The other thing that, again, just thinking about what makes you special, you spent a lot of time in this kind of CRO role, which a big portion of that is overseeing kind of sales while we're on this topic. I think one of the more difficult transitions for people is to go from really successful salesperson to successful sales leader. Just very different kind of skill sets. What do you think are the ingredients that make a successful CRO?
Jason: It's a great question because I've seen so many great sellers fail as managers. The story typically goes like this, killer seller crushed their numbers, got the salesperson of the year trophy and a big bonus because they were up a hundred percent, they crushed it. You don't want to lose that person. That person wants to climb and they have every right to want to climb. You make them a manager, you make them a VP, you make them an SVP, whatever because you're afraid to lose them and you're afraid to lose that magic that they brought as an IC, as an individual contributor. The sellers who are very, very successful are the ones who can put every single one of their problems aside and solve everyone else's problems. When you are an individual contributor, you are CEO of yourlist.com. You're just running your business and you have hundreds of people. When you're the boss, when you're a CRO and you're the VP or you're running a team, you have to put everything aside and solve everybody else's problems. You have to be empathetic and you have to understand everybody's point of view and there's drama internally and really look at everything through their eyes. People that can do that, and I think it's a human quality that again, maybe it's something you're born with, I think it's hard to learn; when you're an empathetic leader, when you can lead from behind when you don't have to be the hero and you can let other people do that, really put your ego aside. That's the difference in a successful leader and I love to push our people forward. That sort of empathy or compassion that you might have for the way others view the world as a difference maker if you're going to be successful or not. I've unfortunately had some situations where I've lost some really good people because they didn't get that and they couldn't see the world through a manager's eyes. They can only see it through me, me, me. That's the fundamental difference.
Conor Begley: Yeah, it's funny because my early career was in sales and I was like the number one guy, number one person by revenue by a good margin for a while and had a similar ambition. Like, "Oh, I'm killing it. I'm getting all the trophies. I want to go up." That actually eventually led to me starting Tribe because I was like, " Nah, I'm going to do it myself." We did that and then I ended up having two- thirds of the company reporting into me, but I was gone half the time or doing other things, et cetera. Just wasn't available. We ended up pivoting all kind of internal ownership under my partner John. I was like, " I'll do all external fundraising, thought leadership, top clients, all the stuff you need executive presence in, I will do and I'll do it really well." It's been a real philosophical issue I've had to think a lot about in terms of myself personally. Is this personally how I get fulfillment or do I get more fulfillment from racking up the trophies? I don't know. I'm not sure. I remember we brought in a new VP, I was like, " What's your plan?" He's like, " I'm going to listen to everybody, solve all their problems." He built so much loyalty that way. All he did was ask people what their problems were and solve them. That's how he started and ended this day. It just reminds me so much of the way that you're talking about things.
Jason: There's a great book called The 90 Day Plan or The Hundred Day Plan, or The First 100 Days. It's one of those 90 plan books. I think the guy's name is Michael Watkins. I mean, you can fact check me on this if you want, put it in the notes. I ask a lot of my leaders to read it because somebody asked me to read it 15 years ago. The most important thing when you come into an organization for the first 30 days is to shut up and just listen and observe and not come in with opinions. Understand who your allies and enemies are. Look for the pitfalls in the company. Really just study and be a student and find some wins. A win doesn't have to be a big win on a deal. It could be like you literally helped somebody get a meeting or you took something off their plate to make their day a little lighter. I really subscribe to that theory of listen, learn, understand the environment and then attack and then you pick your spots where you're going to go and try and make some impact. I think the most successful leaders and people that transition are just really great observers and students and they can pick their spots accordingly once they understand the lay of the land. You talk about fulfillment. I mean, I've, not to derail the conversation, but I think as I'm heading toward my golden years, I think that the most fulfilling thing for me has really been over pronounced during the pandemic. That is the importance of my team's wellness and mental wellbeing. It's a very weird time in the world and business and all the other outside factors in the universe are impacting us directly, whether it's supply chain or war in Ukraine or inflation or recession or holiday sales. It all trickles down to how people spend money in advertising and through it all, I want really smart people who can be critical thinkers and solve their own problems, but I want them getting out of bed every day and feeling really, really great about coming to work no matter how tough work is. That's what fulfills me now. It's not the trophies or whatever, it's having a team and a culture where people feel fulfilled. That's fun to have that vision now and not just have it be about the rat race and the money.
Conor Begley: I want to skip to the last question, the fun end of show question.
Conor Begley: There's another way that you're fulfilled that I know of, which is barbecue, which also fulfills me not as a producer, but as a consumer. Where did this love for barbecue come out? Then I think you had your own brand for a little while. Talk to me about barbecue.
Jason: It's cool. This is another pandemic thing, but I love barbecue. I went to school in South Carolina. I'm a Jewish kid from New Jersey. Barbecue's not necessarily in my blood, but I love barbecue. I love the science of it, studying it, the relationship between fire and smoke and meat. I dig it. It's fun for me and my friends. I'd have these big barbecues at my house with like 50, 60 people and they're like, " You got to open your own restaurant." I'm like, " That's stupid. Nobody's ever done that who was a CRO and actually made money. I have dental insurance that I need and a real job, but I could bottle this sauce." I make my own sauce. I started a brand called East End Cowboy. You can go to eastendcowboy. com and check it out. We use all local ingredients from all the great local farmers on Eastern Long Island and we put it back in the jar as a sauce. It's a super small batch bespoke thing. The fun part of the story is, I was just doing a couple cases at a time as a hobby and Citarella, which is a big gourmet store in the New York City area, they've got stores in the Hamptons, in Connecticut, slid into my DMs one day, they heard people were talking about my sauce. I sent some samples to this guy in the Bronx and two months later I got a purchase order for 150 cases, Conor. I'm like-
Conor Begley: Oh shit.
Jason: I know how to make three cases at a time. I don't know how to make... Sure enough, I figured it out and I work out of a commercial kitchen. A buddy of mine banged out 150 cases over like four days and it's taken off. It's a hockey stick on the revenue and it's a side hustle. It was an accidental business that just happened and it's been super fulfilling to have some balance and something else. Work has defined me for so long. It's been my number one thing. Now to have something else I do for me is pretty great. I'm a big fan of the side hustle and having that balance.
Conor Begley: What's the secret to the sauce? What do you do that's different?
Jason: It's made with a lot of love, a lot of tender loving. Literally, Conor, I'm not joking. I literally am inaudible 12 ounce jars of barbecue sauce by myself in a kitchen. I've got this buddy of mine that helps me. It's just the great local... We have a honey peach, we use local peaches, local honey.
Conor Begley: Ah.
Jason: It's a thing. It's real. We're inaudible Kansas City and Austin and all the great barbecue towns.
Conor Begley: I'm going to have to buy some. I'm definitely going to buy some now.
Conor Begley: Well Jason, I really appreciate you taking out the time. I've got another 50 questions I could ask you, but we'll have to have you on again in a couple years. So glad we got to meet and excited to see where you and BDG go.
Jason: Thank you Conor. Big congrats to you on all the great work you guys are doing. I'm a big fan and I love what an advocate you are for your own industry and that you do this. Thanks so much.
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In our latest episode of Earned, we sit down with Jason Wagenheim, President and Chief Revenue Officer at global media company Bustle Digital Group. To start, we dive into Jason’s long-spanning career in publishing at Condé Nast, including his time at Vanity Fair, Glamour, and Teen Vogue. Jason reveals how accurate “The Devil Wears Prada” was, then unpacks how digital publishing took the print world by storm. We learn about the triumphs and challenges of acquiring and integrating a portfolio of independent media companies under one roof, including Elite Daily, The Zoe Report, and Inverse, before Jason emphasizes the importance of being comfortable with change. We discuss how publishers were the original influencers, and why advertisers should continue to see their value. Next, Jason shares the learnings he’s applied from his background in sales, and explains why empathy is key to being a successful leader. We close the show with the origin story of Jason’s current side hustle and passion project: East End Cowboy barbecue sauce.
In this episode, you will learn:
+ How the evolution of digital publishing took the print world by storm
+ Why publishers are the original influencers
+ The qualities you need to be a successful leader
[04:27] The rise of digital publishing and its impact on print media
[07:33] Why publishers are the original influencers
[15:58] The benefits and challenges of acquiring independent media companies
[26:54] Jason’s biggest learnings from his background in sales
[30:16] The key qualities of a successful leader
[35:32] Jason’s BBQ sauce side hustle
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Connect with Conor Begley & CreatorIQ:
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CreatorIQ LinkedIn - @creatoriq
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