Thursday, January 6, 2011

Hachette-Filipacchi hands ex-racer Andy Leisner a set of jumper cables

The last year has been an eventful one at Cycle World Magazine. While CW's readers may not have noticed wholesale changes in the magazine this year, there were certainly some big changes in the corner offices down in Newport Beach. David Edwards, the long-time Editor-in-Chief, and Larry Little, the Publisher were replaced, and CW's parent company (the giant French conglomerate Hachette-Filipacchi) transferred responsibility for the magazine to a division called Jumpstart Automotive Group.

Hachette obviously felt that it was time to, ah, jump-start Cycle World. Mark Hoyer, one of the editors who worked under Edwards, moved into that chair. The publisher's position was redefined, and there's not, technically, a publisher there any more. But those duties and more were assigned to Andy Leisner. It will be up to him to make this venerable 'old media' brand relevant in a new-media world.

At the end of the year, at a time when we're all prone to looking back and looking forward, I thought it would be interesting to talk to Andy about his job and the path that led him to it, and get his take on the future this grand old title...

Backmarker: What's your job title at Cycle World?

Andy Leisner: It's a mouthful; it's Vice President, Integrated Sales and Marketing.

BM: Are you replacing the publisher?

AL: The brand has been reorganized. We have a new parent company, Jumpstart Automotive Group. So I'm heading up the marketing and sales side of the brand; the business side of the magazine and Mark Hoyer is heading up the content side. It's not replacing someone; it's a reorganization and Mark and I are leading our respective divisions of the brand.

BM: First, since we're both ex-racers, tell me about your racing history...

AL: I raced motorcross as a kid, and I lived at the base of the Angeles Crest Highway. After school I used to ride with my friends; I had an RD400. Then, at 16 I got the roadracing bug. I did very well at Willow Springs, and at 18 I started doing the National series. So through 1988... in '88 [AMA 250GP] I had a really good year; I crashed a lot, but all of my finishes were in the top 5.

That made me want to go to Europe. So I bought a plane ticket to the Milan show, and I went around talking to teams, and I ended up getting signed by a small team and in 1989 I raced the 250 class in the World Championship, which was an incredible experience. The highlights for me were, in '88, we had a lot of Europeans racing [in the AMA series] and I raced people like Kork Ballington. As a kid, I had a little Kawasaki bicycle and I used to race around my neighborhood imaging that I was a Kawasaki star like Greg Hansford or Kork Ballington and there I was beating them!

In Grands Prix, I was on a stock RS250 and I out-qualified Masahiro Shimizu a couple of times, once at Spa, which was a real horsepower track. That was another highlight because he was another sort of hero of mine. I guess the lowlight was having the most crashes of any rider in Grands Prix that year – 25 in one season, which was a record! Alex Criville broke that record the next season.

In 1990, I was talking to a team about the 125 World Championship, but my program hadn't come together completely. I did Daytona as a one-off race, and I had a water leak and was high-sided exiting the chicane. I slid feet first into an unprotected concrete wall and pushed my femur through my pelvis. I ended up with a lot of surgery and ultimately a replacement hip, so that was the end of my racing career. I was going to UCLA at the time, so I focused more intently on my studies. As soon as I graduated, I wanted to work in the motorcycle industry and I have my whole life.
Leisner was one of the fastest 250 riders in the U.S. in the late '80s, 
and earned a shot in Grands Prix.

BM: Before you took on this gig, I knew you as one of the partners in Hardcard. You were a sports agent, but I think there was more to Hardcard's business plan than that...

AL: We were a general motorsports marketing agency that did athlete representation and event marketing. We worked with sponsorship sales with tracks and for series. We were taking companies that wanted to get involved with motorcycling or motorcycle racing, and we helped them get the most out of it. We helped companies that weren't endemic to our business navigate it – whether they were trying to monetize it or just gain exposure and market their brands. We served as a tour guide for companies that recognized the power of the motorcycle consumer.

BM: Was that a right-idea, wrong-time deal?..

AL: That's an understatement. We started the company in late 2006 and had a great first year. We did some fun things and really enjoyed it. In 2007 things looked about the same but in 2008 the wheels fell off the motorcycle business. External marketing services were not something people were looking for.

Involving non-motorcycle businesses in motorcycle racing is not easy in the best of years, but when the economy took a turn for the worse... Now, that being said, I didn't necessarily leave Hardcard for those reasons – it was to come back to the Cycle World brand. I loved it and had missed it since I worked there ten years ago. [Hardcard continues to exist, run by Scott Hollingsworth, the former CEO of AMA Pro Racing - MG]

Back in the late '90s, I'd worked at Cycle World as the Western Regional advertising manager. It was a great group of people; it was a real honor to work for the brand then, and I left to go to work for AMA Pro Racing. I was sad to leave, but it was an opportunity to work directly in the sport of racing. I was pleased to be asked to come back and lead the magazine.

BM: As an outsider looking in, I wasn't surprised to see changes come to Cycle World, but I suppose I would have expected someone to be drafted in from a different magazine or media property. Did it come as much of a surprise to you, when you were tapped for that job?

AL: I've always been a friend of the brand, and consider the people who are with the magazine now (and were there in the past) to be good friends of mine. I wasn't completely surprised; I'd worked in the advertising side of the business, and since then I've been involved in the digital side of our business – the content shift to digital. Cycle World was looking for some help and guidance there; the pieces just fit together.

BM: When you came in, and learned what the position entailed – when you had complete access to all the magazine's business – was it what you expected to find, or were there some real surprises?

AL: It was pretty much what I expected. Our business has been affected by the economic downturn; the decrease in motorcycle sales. I knew it would be down, but it's not down as much as the rest of the industry. That was good to see. The one thing, coming back to it after running my own company, where we really had to stretch and scrape and roll up our sleeves and work hard – the one thing that I saw there was that to continue to succeed in these tough times, we had to dig deeper and work harder.

A lot of people there were doing that, but we looked at it a little differently and I brought a different perspective. Cycle World was owned by the world's largest publishing company, but I try to get our staff to treat our brand as a small business, that we all have a vested interest in, and that we have to work hard to help grow.
Lately, he's transferred those competitive urges to cyclocross. 
Impressive, for a guy whose hips were never the same 
after an encounter with an exposed wall at Daytona.

BM: There's been a sort of perfect storm in the motorcycle magazine world, with the motorcycle industry being hit particularly hard by the recession in particular, and the so-called 'old media' generally having to re-evaluate roles, relationships with consumers, and revenue models. I read some business analyst's comment the other day, that Craigslist had eradicated billions of dollars in value from the market capitalization of newspapers, but had only recaptured a tiny fraction of that value. I have to say that as a motorcycle journalist, that seems to have happened in our industry, too. The magazines have no budgets, and in the Web 2.0 world, users provide content for free. Talk to me about Cycle World's role as America's 'motorcycle magazine of record'. What's your strategy for keeping Cycle World relevant? Is there a role, at all, for mediated expert content?

AL: I've noticed the same things, of course. We've always been the largest print magazine in the motorcycle world. We're not the largest online resource, though we want to be recognized as the most authoritative brand, wherever people go for the their information; at a newsstand, at their computer at work, on a mobile device, or at an event – we want to be the most visible and professional brand in the business.

A lot of advertisers think they can get more for their money online, and they can in some instances; they can target accurately and track results, and monitor their return-on-investment. We continue to see print as a viable advertising medium, but it's not the only way to reach consumers. We put together packages in all media.

I read all the magazines, I browse the web, I get information from my mobile devices... I can't get enough. We know our readers are like that, and we want to deliver the best content wherever they're looking for it. Let's be honest though: we deliver a very general, wide-ranging look at motorcycling. There are places for a guy who's looking at a new Suzuki GSX-R600, where he can get more information that's focused on hard-core sport riding, riding on racetracks at track days, but... when we do the GSX-R article we want to do the best feature, with the best tech analysis, the best photography. We're still a strong magazine and with our new parent company which is digitally based, we're determined to remain the strongest brand in motorcycle media.

BM: Hachette also shifted the portfolio a bit. It seems that Cycle World is now part of a branch of Hachette that, previously, had been all-web. Should I infer from that that Cycle World magazine is now effectively a subsidiary of

AL: When we were part of the general Hachette-Filipacchi magazine group, it was a massive, powerful organization but we were in with brands like Elle D├ęcor. Two years prior, Road & Track and Car and Driver, our two sister automotive magazines, had been shifted into Jumpstart Automotive Group. So Jumpstart began as a digital group, but now it has 12 websites and three magazines. It's a media group that works across multiple platforms; mobile, online, print, and events. We're now a part of that, and we can take advantage of Jumpstart's resources – which are considerable, they're amazingly intelligent people.

BM: In a recession, the first thing OEMs cut is marketing budgets. If you were on a 1-minute elevator ride with the president of Honda, what would you say?

AL: Right now, on the sales floor in motorcycle dealerships, people just aren't buying enough motorcycles. New motorcycle sales are what supports our whole business, so there's no denying that it's a problem. But, people are still out there riding. I go out dirt-riding with my kids and there are just as many people out there riding. I go to track days, and most of them are full.

The passion for motorcycles has not gone away; only the ability to purchase a new one every two years has gone away. That will come back, eventually. There are a couple of factors that will influence how long it will take. The credit market has to come back.

People still love motorcycling; I still love riding motorcycles. I don't think it will ever be back the way it was in 2005. It was influenced by some really aggressive credit markets...

BM: ...And by the housing bubble; people were spending their home equity.

AL: I'm not ashamed to say, I took out a home equity loan and bought a Ducati Multistrada. That's not going to happen again any time soon. But people still love riding, and people are still reading Cycle World. With our magazine, as with all the motorcycle magazines, our advertising is down but our readership is still incredibly strong. I'm optimistic. We may not have seen the bottom of this, but we're close to it.

BM: We had about 15 years of strong growth in the motorcycle industry that ended two years ago. When the bottom fell out, it seemed to me that most OEMs just threw up their hands. Let's pull our ads, shut down our race teams. One of them flat shut down the press relations department. There's a part of me that wants to slap those guys and say, You doubled or tripled your business in 15 years and didn't put anything away for a rainy day? Am I being too hard on them?

AL: All of us in this business, although we should have been saving for a rainy day... things were so good that even when we realized that the economy as a whole was on shaky ground, motorcycle sales continued to increase, and none of us foresaw the credit market collapse. Budgets grew, to drive more sales and gain more market share. Not much of that money got saved. I'll tell you this, though: the OEMs that can spend some money to market their products in this difficult time are going to buy market share at pennies on the dollar. It used to cost millions of dollars for [a company like] American Honda to buy a point of market share. It doesn't cost anywhere near that much now; there's a lot of opportunity there.

Motorcycle manufacturers who can write their own paper and who can write loans for people who may not be able to qualify [in this tough credit market] are going to gain brand advocates for life. Sure, some of those loans are going to be bad loans, but if you can qualify someone who's had a hard time lately, and you can get them on a new motorcycle, you're getting a brand advocate for life. [BMW had the perfect moment to start selling the S1000, at a time when people selling similar motorcycles had completely stopped marketing them – MG]

BM: Through those years of growing sales, the average age of consumers was increasing almost a year with each passing year. They say 40's the new 21, they say 70's the new 50, but the problem is, 85's still 85. Without attracting a new young mainstream audience, our whole industry faces senescence. At Motorcyclist, I remember the editor at the time complaining that my attitude was too 'young' – which was ironic since I was almost the oldest person on staff. He told me, Our average reader is 44 years old. My response was, Yeah, but do you think 44 year-olds ride motorcycles to feel their age? If we pitch the magazine younger, it won't alienate older readers, but if we pitch it older, it won't appeal to young ones. I didn't just lose that argument, I got fired. Have the big general-motorcycle-audience mags like Motorcyclist and Cycle World just aged along with their readers? I mean, I love Kevin Cameron and Peter Egan but how long will it be before we need to debut a new title called “GOB – The magazine for Grumpy Old Bikers”?

AL: Our readership has aged every year; it's gotten older and older. I think the aging of this audience is product-driven. Motorcycles are expensive now; it's hard to find one less than $10,000, and they're expensive to insure and you probably can't qualify for a loan to buy one. [No kidding! - MG] So we're forcing that age up; only someone in their late 40s with a lot of disposable income can afford to buy them. That's why I applaud Honda for introducing bikes like the CBR250R, that will introduce new people to motorcycling. We have event marketing initiatives – events at colleges, for example – to try to get younger people into motorcycling.

But, our readership is in their late 40s, and the product reflects what they want to see. We've tried to change up our editorial mix to attract a younger audience, and it hasn't sold well on the newsstand. We track that very carefully. So we're serving up what the readers we have, want.

BM: No one could blame you for focusing on Cycle World, and trying to make it flourish in the motorcycle industry and culture we have, whatever it is. But hypothetically speaking, if you decided, Screw it, the AMA, the MIC, the big OEMs... none of them are really taking a leadership position – I'll make Cycle World the thought leader of the entire industry. If that was your approach, what would your five-year plan be to put the industry back on it's feet, er, wheels?

AL: Again, our industry is driven by new-unit sales. If I had the ability to affect OEM's decisions, I'd try to price motorcycles as affordably as possible. I'd encourage them to have affordable bikes that appeal to new riders in the line and, more than just have them in the line, actively promote them. Make them sexy and fun, the way Honda did when they first came to this country. I'd extend credit to hard-working, good people who have jobs and who want to ride motorcycles – knowing that some of those will default, but we need to get new, younger people on motorcycles and we need to grow the motorcycling base.

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