Bo Sacks Interview Q & A with Mike Gillen/EVP, Comag Marketing Group

By Bob Sacks

Thu, Feb 8, 2024

Bo Sacks Interview Q & A with Mike Gillen/EVP, Comag Marketing Group

BoSacks: Can you tell us a little about your background and your responsibilities at CMG?

Michael Gillen: I’ve been in the magazine newsstand business for over 30 years. I spent a little more than a decade at TV Guide, Rodale, and Weider, but most of my time has been on the national distributor side of the business representing third-party publisher clients. Currently, I’m the EVP at Comag Marketing Group, overseeing client publisher relationships for almost 500 newsstand publishers.

BoSacks: How are retailers feeling about the magazine category?

Michael Gillen: Retailers are very engaged and bullish about newsstand sales, and some recent metrics support this. With a few exceptions, checkout space remains largely intact as scan-based trading continues to be a superpower for the magazine category at retail, as it differentiates the category from competitive Impulse categories. Scan-based trading model eliminates retailer inventory cost and shrink concerns.

The largest bookstore chain in the U.S. reported flat YOY magazine retail sales in 2023, while mass merch retailers (Walmart and Target) are seeing some of the best YOY retail sales comps in years. A large mass merch retailer has agreed to a Q & A with accelerate360, (the largest magazine wholesaler in North America), CMG, and a360media on what it sees as the positives from selling magazines in its stores. accelerate360 is working to finalize adding >100k checkout pockets back at the front end with selected retailers and has expanded mainline coverage in a major retail chain. The impact to sales has been exceptional in the impacted retailers.

We also see Retailers being very encouraged by recent national and regional success stories like the TIME person of the year featuring Taylor Swift and SIPs highlighting the University of Michigan championship win. In both cases, it shows the industry can respond to cultural trending moments with highly desirable content. This highlights how magazines fill key experience and operational voids in top performing retail Checkout programs. No other checkout category builds that draw or achieves a similar price point.

BoSacks: How do you see older distribution models for magazines changing? And on what timetable?

Michael Gillen: Given challenging industry trends over the years, various channel partners have explored alternative distribution models and have independently determined the existing model is currently the most effective method for getting product to market on a timely basis. While some new distribution initiatives are being tested and different methods to market explored, nothing has been formally announced or established.

BoSacks: What magazine categories are performing well, what trends do you see?

Michael Gillen: With Consumers seeking a “digital detox” in event hours, they’re opting for tactical experiences to fulfill purchase need states. This trend has supported the growth of special interest publications. The category continues to expand, with many publishers now participating in the single-topic, high cover price segment. Puzzles and Hobby both had a strong 2H’23, and anything Taylor Swift jumped off the shelves.

BoSacks: What changes do you foresee in the retail marketplace over the next 12 – 24 months?

Michael Gillen: Aggressive retail work toward stabilizing/growing in-store displays (checkout, inline, and promo).

As the highest trafficked area in any Grocery or Food store, the Checkout experience has been the center of many technological- and experience-based test and learns over the last decade, including self-checkout. It’s pretty safe to say the evolution for Self-checkout continues. The magazine industry is working hand and hand with retailers and merchandising experts to reimagine these spaces to make them more inviting. Again, magazine content provides a unique advantage here in developing an experience the customer enjoys with unique, trending content.

BoSacks: How is CMG helping publishers navigate a challenging newsstand environment?

Michael Gillen: In addition to helping publishers identify/implement traditional newsstand sales opportunities and efficiencies, CMG has expanded our publisher service offerings beyond the standard national distribution services. We’ve extended our data platforms to allow publishers to obtain more timely reporting and partnered with Cover Rocket to offer publishers access to a state-of-the-art platform of newsstand cover images and real-time sales to enable them to create covers that resonate with readers. CMG has also created opportunities of cost-saving programs, such as outsourcing various publishing functions (paper procurement, printing, premedia, etc.), while also spearheading third-party licensing agreements and publishing partnerships with our affiliated partner a360media.

BoSacks: What can publishers do to increase their retail sales?

Michael Gillen: Take advantage of every bit of data available to them, while monitoring media trends for hot/topical content opportunities.

BoSacks: I am fascinated to learn about Cover Rocket. What is it, who is it for and what can customers who use Cover Rocket expect?

Michael Gillen: Cover Rocket is a data-driven software solution to help circulators, art directors, designers and editors create covers that resonate with readers, increase single-copy sales, and strengthen subscription renewals. The platform uses leading edge technology to categorize covers by personality, color, theme, coverlines, etc. and then aligns those variables to timely national sales data. Publishers can use Cover Rocket to see what trends are emerging in the market today, along with the fundamentals of cover design, from personalities to color choices and beyond. What covers are working well and what’s not working well. What are the emerging trends. What images, layouts and cover lines work and finally and just as important as what works, what doesn’t work. 

CMG has partnered with Cover Rocket to bring the tool to market, and we are having a webinar on Thursday, February 15th from 3:00 – 3:30 PM Eastern to demonstrate the tool. There is an advertisement in the newsletter with a link to register.

BoSacks: In your position today, what is your biggest challenge as well as your company’s biggest challenge? How are you meeting these challenges?

Michael Gillen: Personally, and company-wise, the greatest challenge is working with publishers to navigate a challenged category amidst higher costs. CMG is meeting challenges by treating each publisher situation individually and using all tools available to help improve their newsstand profitability.

BoSacks: In defining a blueprint for success as our goal today, what are some key attributes for a successful information distributor (publisher) in the 21st century?

Michael Gillen: Being quick to react, and CMG’s purpose is to help publishers identify opportunities, navigate challenges, monitor industry trends and provide all tools available to create a custom newsstand plan for each publisher. For instance, last quarter CMG introduced a handful of large and small publishers to Magazine Shop, an online eCommerce platform, to help them grow revenue and lifetime of their content by expanding their consumer reach with new “digital pockets.” Simply put, digital pockets are helping publishers grow household penetration and sales for the category.

BoSacks: How have you and your staff adjusted to the rapid changes in technologies and the different processes required to perform our industry’s magic of reaching valuable readers?

Michael Gillen: As stated above, with almost 75% of industry sales coming from retailers that are on a scan-based trading agreement with our wholesalers, access to current and timely data allows for immediate results and analysis.

BoSacks: How have your role and responsibilities changed as the industry as changed?

Michael Gillen: Historically, distribution targets were more of a shotgun approach, where you’d invest copies wherever your competitor was on display. These days, it’s a more surgical approach, utilizing all the data available to us which allows for a more targeted expansion/retraction process.

BoSacks: What is your best advice for publishers during this time?

Michael Gillen: Many magazine publishers are content-rich, and some are also book publishers. That content could be reimagined for high-quality, high cover price Special Interest Publications. If publishers are not interested in publishing it themselves, our affiliated partner a360media is open to working with publishers to bring their content to market.

BoSacks: What are some of the things you see publishers doing differently now?

Michael Gillen: Many are in tune with the latest cultural trends and capitalizing on these trends by producing SIPs or using multiple covers to drive retail sales and consumer engagement.

BoSacks: Were there any mistakes that you made that you turned into success?

Michael Gillen: Oh geez, tons of mistakes to sift through here … and this might be more of good fortune instead of a mistake, but what jumps to my mind is when I decided to leave a stable, great position at a publisher like Rodale in early 2000s for Weider Publications, only to have Weider sell to American Media, Inc. shortly afterwards. I landed with CMG a few weeks after and have been here since.

BoSacks: What is the best advice you ever received? From whom?

Michael Gillen: During my short time at Rodale, John Griffin used to have a saying to focus on your “circle of influence.” Always reminding me to stay within the areas that I could impact.

BoSacks: If you could give a young person 1 piece of advice, what would it be?

Michael Gillen: Take the time to fully listen to someone before responding. It’s an area I’ve always tried to focus on … complete the listening process before jumping to a quick response.

BoSacks: Finally, what is your favorite magazine and why?

Michael Gillen: As a kid, it was always TV Guide. I loved the way they would promote the Sunday afternoon/Monday Night Football games by printing the rosters of each team. Today I would say Men’s Health for great health/fitness guidance.

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