Greg Zyla 2013-02-23 06:37:31
Best known for founding RACER Magazine, Paul Pfanner and his team at Racer Media & Marketing have re-purchased the high-end racing publication and its website, bringing a renewed excitement along with it. PAUL PFANNER, PRESIDENT & CEO OF PFANNER COMMUNICATION This month, we interview Paul F. Pfanner, president and CEO of Racer Media & Marketing, Inc. and Pfanner Communications, Inc. We previously visited with Pfanner in Industry Insights back in February 1995. A media and marketing veteran with deep entrepreneurial roots, Pfanner’s experience spans more than three decades, starting with his founding of Southern California-based Pfanner Communications, Inc. and Racer Communications, Inc. Both are best known for publishing RACER, SportsCar, Champ Car and IndyCar Series magazines. Shortly after its debut, RACER was picked as one of Car and Driver magazine’s “10 best reads,” and later chosen by Media Industry News as one of America’s “12 best magazines” in 1999. In January 2001, Pfanner sold the majority of Racer Communications to United Kingdom-based Haymarket Publishing, which produces nearly 100 magazines worldwide. From the time of the sale until the end of 2005, Pfanner remained as president and also served on the board of directors of the renamed company now known as Haymarket Worldwide. In January 2006, Pfanner left Haymarket and reestablished Pfanner Communications, Inc. as a marketing and brand consulting company. Pfanner’s clients have included American Honda, American Le Mans Series, Bridgestone/Firestone, Daytona International Speedway, ESPN, The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, International Jet Ski Boating Association, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, IZOD IndyCar Series, International Speedway Corporation, Jaguar, Saleen Autosport, SCCA Pro Racing, Sports Car Club of America, Swift Engineering, Toyota Motor Sales, Mazda USA, No Fear, Penske Motorsports and Porsche Cars of North America. In March 2012, Pfanner and Bill Sparks reacquired RACER and RACER.com from Haymarket Media Group on the eve of RACER’s 20th anniversary, and renamed the company Racer Media & Marketing, Inc. Pfanner is married and has young, twin daughters, and in his spare time enjoys collecting and racing vintage Formula Ford. Sit back as Paul Pfanner gives an enlightening interview on publishing, racing and market branding. PRI: Paul, before we get into RACER magazine and your publishing and marketing accomplishments, let’s start with what you see in the future for alternative fuels in motorsports. Pfanner: Sure. The original objective of racing is to drive progress and prove the future is here with automotive technology and mobility. When you think about why people race, it is to prove a product and gain acceptance. We worked closely with a friend and mentor, Herb Fishel, who has a terrific, brilliant and competitive mind. Herb did a lot of initiatives to focus racing on sustainability and relevance, and we moderated a SAE panel back in 2004 about these issues. PRI: How was it back then, as for awareness of alternative fuel racing? Pfanner: It was eye opening in that back then, people just weren’t focused on it. The only sanctioning body doing anything with alternative fuels was American Le Mans Series (ALMS), specifically Scott Atherton and his team. We ended up working with them on brand positioning and marketing. Today it’s a bit different, and there’s much more involvement. Racing can drive the future, define it and change the world for the better. You can have high-performance engines with far greater efficiency and with less impact on the environment because we have the prowess to do it. Give racers the rules, they’ll find a way to do it. We’ll have to see what the new owners of ALMS, specifically Grand-Am, do in this area. PRI: What about vintage racing? You still compete with your Formula Ford and the industry continues to grow. Pfanner: I think in vintage racing you see cars that were true competitors, and nothing like today’s parity cars. The vintage cars take you back, like music and film, to a time and place where you were younger, more hopeful and full of openness about what the world and life held. I see race cars now at vintage races and they are beautifully restored. And, they don’t have to be the famous race cars from yesterday—it can be any car that has been lovingly restored. Vintage racing is teaching us something we forgot, in all classes, from oval to drag racing to SCCA. It’s also impacting the racing aftermarket positively. Everyone at RACER is an SCCA member, and most of us race, too. PRI: Let’s talk publishing, branding and specifically RACER Magazine. In an era of newspaper and magazine closings, including noted racing publications falling by the wayside, what was it inside Paul Pfanner that gave you the fortitude to repurchase RACER magazine, which had been losing circulation at Haymarket? Pfanner: Ultimately, I’ve always loved RACER and the brand. I looked at the repurchase as more of an unfinished business scenario. We always wanted to take the brand forward in different ways, so when we sold it at the beginning of the new century (2001), we literally left it with unfinished business. I had a lot of time to think about what I’d have done differently. It was a miracle I got the chance to repurchase it. I only had a one-year non-compete, and I loved my time at Haymarket. They even offered me a contract extension back then to stay another five years, but being an entrepreneur, my heart was in another place. PRI: I notice from your client list at the re-formed Pfanner Communications that there was no way you were slipping away from motorsports. It’s loaded with major racing brands. Pfanner: True, and actually Pfanner Communications has always been the same business from our start in 1979. PRI: Weren’t you with Interscope then? Pfanner: Yes. Our first client was indeed Interscope in 1980 to launch the stillborn Porsche Indy 500 program with Danny Ongais. In 1980, we created the Skip Barber brand and visual identity, so we always had high-profile clients. PRI: So what happened, specifically, when you left Haymarket? Pfanner: I basically re-booted the name (Pfanner Communications) and moved the continuing stream of clients into the business. I took my staff forward that worked in the special projects side and basically moved out one day and we were in business the next. PRI: How was this possible, considering Haymarket was in the same business? Pfanner: I had a great relationship with Haymarket in that when I left the company in December 2005, Haymarket didn’t have the circumstance with which they could fulfill the branding and marketing work we were doing. Since I never sold the name “Pfanner Communications,” it was a simple reboot. We then worked on planning the Centennial of the Indy 500, re-branded ALMS and moved forward with many other interesting projects. PRI: You mention the unfinished business, and people like RACER’s founding publisher Bill Sparks as interesting catalysts to your present day initiatives, especially online digital offerings. From what I see, it sure looks like some of that unfinished business has not only been started, but it is thriving. Pfanner: Thanks. We’ve long believed in the digital area of publishing as I remember midnight Y2K, Bill led our team’s relaunch of what was then Speedvision. Com in December of 1999. We built this site for Roger Werner (See PRI, Industry Insights, July 1996). Additionally, we had a website for RACER.com as far back as 1996. We learned a lot working for Roger at Speedvision and then ultimately with SPEED, where RACER continued to supply content into the latter part of the last decade. This era was perhaps one of the best learning periods for us. PRI: When we interviewed Roger Werner, we all came away with a great business lesson in determination, non-complacency and utter endurance, as Werner at the time literally had no major advertisers and was running old-time Great Britain car commercials to fill in between his programming. Pfanner: Oh, yes, that is all true. Roger launched and branded Speedvision against all odds, and to this day, he remains a great friend. So, regardless of what segment of business one is associated with, the unifying bond is being involved with a brand. We do branding because brands have meaning. Brands create value and stand for something. RACER stands for something, and that’s why I want to always be actively involved in it. In our business, every single aftermarket racing brand stands for something. The mature brands are fully established, while new brands grow in respectability year to year. It takes time, but is a necessary component of success. PRI: Let’s keep talking about RACER. When I look at your columnists, they’re all top name drivers and/or motorsports heavyweights. I don’t want to say to our readers that you cater solely to open wheel racing, but your roots do go there. Pfanner: When we started the magazine, open wheel racing was still dominant. NASCAR had yet to achieve its prominence. Today NASCAR is very well served while open wheel and sports car racing is underserved. Still, we try to balance it and we love all racers from all types of racing. I never met a racer I didn’t like or a type of racing I didn’t like. Everyone here at RACER either races or has raced, so we’re all racers. PRI: So, what is your target reader? Pfanner: Anyone with a racing mindset. If you notice, much of the magazine last year was written by the racers themselves, which sure makes the magazine more authentic. When you read an article by Niki Lauda on what he thinks of Bernie Ecclestone, as he actually wrote, talk about real insight for our reader. And, these drivers are articulate, so it’s much more an authentic experience. PRI: With today’s ease of anyone forming an Internet “.com” and coming on the market with a motorsports edition, publishers must lean on the importance of “trusted news” when it comes to success, longevity and, not surprisingly, branding. This is where the respected publication can better succeed on the Internet while numerous “.coms” fall by the wayside. Pfanner: This is exactly the point. Ultimately, racing is driven by a quest for excellence. RACER isn’t here to be the lowest cost or lowest profit magazine. We’re not here to be the lowest cost bidder for custom publishing. We want to be known as the best, and we want to earn that distinction. We put it out there with our magazine and who we associate with because who you stand on stage with in life matters. My advice to all businesses out there is to try and employ the best people possible. Also choose your partners wisely. We have been blessed to have had racers and businessmen Rob and Chris Dyson as our investor/ partners in the first era of RACER and in this new era. PRI: I see your pricing strategy is notable. In this day of resurgence of car and motorsports magazines, you have been able to complement your publication with not only a full size slick magazine, but also a digital version that is most impressive at a very attractive price ($19.99), or both the print and digital for just $49.99. Those who wait for a RACER $8 a year offer are in the wrong park, correct? Pfanner: Yes. And I have to say our theory on publishing is working. One of the prior challenges we had with RACER was what to do in the winter months. Wintertime is more difficult to sell advertising. We did a lot of special projects that time of the year, things that were being paid for fully by manufacturers, sanctioning bodies or sponsors. So, we have six months of the year where we have to be monthly, along with a pre-season issue and a year-end issue to tie everything up. My co-founder Jeff Zwart and I went back and forth with our Publisher Bill Sparks and we came up with eight issues a year. PRI: How did that affect reader numbers? Pfanner: We went from losing five percent of subscribers per year for five years with Haymarket to gaining more than 10 percent on our subscriber base. PRI: What about your renewal rate? Pfanner: It is nearing 70 percent, and people aren’t buying one-year subscriptions, instead, they are buying multiyear subscriptions. PRI: And your advertising base? Pfanner: We have many great advertisers. But we’re not trying to reach a broader market. Our CPM (cost per thousand) will be higher, but magazines like RACER, which is $8.95 an issue, and other more expensive magazines are the magazines that are growing these days. Our Winter 2012 Issue was the largest we’ve ever produced at 140 pages with more than 60 ad pages. PRI: Well, considering you reacquired in March of 2012, and this interview is taking place in January of 2013, you haven’t even been in business for 12 full months. You’ve got to be proud. Pfanner: We found the most important thing is to have people hold an issue of RACER in their hands and read it. Then, we’ve got them. We have many theme issues and our Editor-In-Chief Laurence Foster is someone we really wanted here back in the Haymarket days, and he’s been here since 2004 and is doing an amazing job. He drives the magazine and everything we create, and his editor, David Malsher, oversees the day-to-day running of the magazine extremely well. I trust them, leave them alone and they always make great things happen. They are truly the best in the business. PRI: I see you published a special issue based on General Motors, Chevrolet/ Cadillac winning just about every major series in racing this year. How did that come about? Pfanner: When we realized GM was going to win every major championship and manufacturer championship they were entered in, we talked to them and explained that they deserved an issue. Since we didn’t have an issue scheduled until Spring 2013, we needed to add one to make it possible, so we put a number in front of them to make it happen with the understanding it would be a real RACER magazine. We would have editorial control and oversight. They said yes, then sponsored the issue and we gave this issue as a gift to our readers. They wanted it to be a real RACER, and also requested customized cover versions to go to the different racing divisions. PRI: For the sake of our readers, how about a GM, Cadillac and Chevy Championship RACER special championship roll call? Pfanner: Sure. Chevy won the IndyCar Championship, all three NASCAR Championships, ALMS GT Championship, Grand-Am Daytona Prototype, World Touring Car Championship, Brazilian Stock Car Championship and Holden took the V8 Supercars in Australia all in one year. To top it all off, Cadillac won the GT Championship in the SCCA Pro Racing Pirelli World Challenge. We felt Chevy and Cadillac may not have had a good way to tell that story, so for us, it was fantastic. Jim Campbell, Todd Christensen and Terry Dolan at GM had the courage to just close their eyes and see what we would do, and they never saw the RACER “Dream Season Issue” until it was printed. We had to tell the story of how they lost the Indy 500, Rolex 24 at Daytona and Le Mans, too. PRI: I see you used both digital and regular printed mail issues for the “Dream Season Issue” and all of your RACER magazines. Can you tell us about how the digital world is helping your cause? Pfanner: Well, I love having all these new tools in this age of publishing. In November, we launched our Apple and Android apps program and that’s going very well, too; and we also have one for Amazon’s Kindle. Digitally alone, we distributed nearly three million issues and we also utilize targeted mailing lists to make it appropriate, as in the case of the Dream Season Issue. PRI: Let’s take a look at your crystal ball when it comes to print publishing down the road. Do you feel the “print survivors” will succeed, or will the younger generations demand digital content over print? Pfanner: When the younger generation’s eyesight goes, they’ll want print (laughter). But I do think print will revert back to what it once was, and it was originally a luxury and an indulgence. The Dream Season digital issue, however, is an experience as it is embedded with video, which makes it wonderful. It looks fantastic on my iPad. But, when you hold the printed issue in your hand it’s like a book. It has a very satisfying feel to it, and it is in this world as a physical thing and you own it. To me, there’s something great about that. All RACER issues are numbered and collectible. I believe there will always be a place for premium print with a premium digital extension especially in cultural and industry niches. To me, print will always be the validation, talisman, the belonging. PRI: And a final comment? Pfanner: Racing is in the inspiration business, not just the entertainment business. It offers leadership and is a perfect metaphor for accelerating progress. PRI: Thanks much, Paul. Pfanner: Always my pleasure, Greg. See you at the Indy PRI Show.
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