01 Apr 1999
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A Vibrant Brand

Keith Clinkscales takes Vibe Magazine to a New Level
by Susan Young

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In the course of an hour-long interview, Keith T. Clinkscales (MBA '90), president of Vibe magazine, drops close to fifty names. Those mentioned by this 35-year-old CEO of an enterprise that is considered "da bomb" (a high compliment) among its urban youth audience are not the hip celebrities with whom he regularly rubs shoulders. Instead, they include the likes of Dick Serafin, a production manager at Time Warner, and Sherill R. Heron and Jonathan A. Kraft, HBS classmates whose support he is "determined to pay back."

Clinkscales's view of his own success, as he sits - casually dressed and surrounded by Vibe posters - in the Manhattan office where he oversees the Vibe brand, is clear: he owes a tremendous amount to others.

Insightful and likable, Clinkscales would be equally at ease in a trendy New York dance club or in the Harvard Club. The names of this month's top rappers are as much his stock-in-trade as the advertising revenues for Vibe, Spin, and Blaze, the three magazines he now oversees at Vibe/Spin Ventures. As a founding member of the Vibe team, Clinkscales has watched the magazine's circulation grow from 100,000 to 700,000 in six years. Under his guidance, the oversized monthly that covers hip hop, R&B, soul, reggae, and jazz - and the cultures that surround them - has made hugely successful forays onto the Internet and in the fashion, book publishing, and music industries.

Catching Rolling Stone

Vibe was the brainchild of music producer and arranger Quincy Jones, who, in 1993, teamed up with Time Warner to launch a magazine that would cover the traditionally black music genres that Rolling Stone magazine often overlooked. "Rolling Stone created the category of music journalism," says Clinkscales. "We wanted to be Rolling Stone, only with different music."

Back then, Rolling Stone was in a league of its own - with a 25-year history and a loyal readership of 1.2 million. "For me to even utter in a meeting that we were going to challenge Rolling Stone sounded crazy," reflects Clinkscales, "but I knew that if I didn't lay out the vision, it would not happen." Timing was on Vibe's side: hip hop, one of the primary genres Vibe covers, was gaining momentum among black and white urban youth, and advertisers were eager to reach this audience. Today, Vibe is the country's fastest-growing music magazine and, in addition to garnering recognition from groups such as the Society of Publication Designers, it has been nominated for five National Magazine Awards.

In fact, two of Vibe's recent accomplishments have put the enterprise in the company of Rolling Stone. With the 1997 acquisition of Spin, a 500,000-circulation magazine that covers the alternative rock scene, and last summer's launch of Blaze, a monthly that covers hip hop and caters to 12-to 24-year-olds, Vibe/Spin Ventures now reaches 1.5 million readers.

Martha as Mentor

As important as circulation figures are, Clinkscales realizes that expanding the Vibe brand to other media and markets is what will keep it alive. While it seems an unlikely pairing when looking at content, Clinkscales admits that the similarities between Vibe/Spin Ventures and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia cannot be ignored. Just as the queen of home entertaining launched her own publishing partnership to bring her devotees books on pies and wreaths, the king of hip hop has published a best-selling biography of slain rap star Tupac Shakur and will soon release an illustrated history of hip hop. Both multimedia franchises are continually finding new ways to branch out: the Web, retail stores, and television, for instance.

Yahoo!Internet Life recently called Vibe Online "the most comprehensive and attractive hip-hop site in cyberspace." Vibe/Spin Ventures has also teamed up with entertainment giant Walt Disney to host Vibe Live, an annual Pleasure Island, Florida, music celebration, and in 1997 the magazine cosponsored "Jamizon," a national urban music festival that toured two dozen cities.

Entrepreneurial Drive

Clinkscales's remarkable accomplishments began with a fundamental observation that led him to launch his first publication, Urban Profile. In the mid-1980s, while working as an account officer at Chemical Bank in New York, he began to notice a disturbing phenomenon among the media: a lack of balanced journalism relating to African Americans.

The idea of starting a magazine dedicated to issues affecting young African Americans sparked his entrepreneurial enthusiasm, and with three thousand dollars he collected from fifteen friends, Clinkscales put together a prototype of the magazine. With a cover story titled "Divided We Fall" and with the 24-year-old Clinkscales listed as editor and publisher, the debut issue of Urban Profile was sent to fifteen thousand potential subscribers. When Clinkscales received three thousand subscription cards back - an unheard of response rate in the magazine business - he knew he had found a niche that needed to be covered.

By 1988, when Clinkscales entered HBS, Urban Profile was afloat with four annual issues and a strong subscription base. Clinkscales, who had a pact with his business partner that school would come before the magazine, managed to keep on top of both, as well as to take advantage of the overlap between them. His classmates, impressed by his entrepreneurial drive, were a source of great support. When he graduated and returned full-time to Urban Profile, its circulation increased to 75,000, due in part to the financial support and connections provided by his HBS network.

The move to Vibe came about in part because Clinkscales had sent copies of Urban Profile to the HBS African-American Student Union's annual conference. After initially ignoring calls from an HBS alum at Time Warner because he was so busy running Urban Profile, Clinkscales finally realized that with their invitation to take the helm at Vibe, the Time executives were offering him the chance of a lifetime.

In 1996, Time Warner sold its stake in Vibe, and Clinkscales is now one of five owners of Vibe/Spin Ventures. Focused on the continued success of the Vibe brand, Clinkscales is too busy working at what he loves to think about his next venture. Maintaining even a tenuous grasp on the market of what is hot, he explains, is all consuming: "The moment you think that you dictate what is hot is the moment you lose your cool."

Blazing New Territory

"Pigeonholing Vibe as a hip-hop magazine is the rough equivalent of calling Sports Illustrated a basketball magazine," explains publisher Keith Clinkscales, who founded the spinoff publication Blaze in order to have a monthly magazine that could concentrate solely on hip-hop music and culture.

Launched with much fanfare and a tremendous vote of confidence from advertisers in August 1998, Blaze calls itself the "fifth element" and celebrates the four elements of hip hop: DJs, MCs (rappers or masters of ceremonies), graffiti, and break dancing. While hip hop recently marked its twentieth birthday, the genre's steady growth has led it into the mainstream. According to a February 1999 Time magazine cover story, rap (the rhymespeak that pairs with beat-heavy music to create hip hop) recently surpassed country as the fastest-growing musical category. Rap sold more than 81 million units (CDs, tapes, and albums) last year - a 31 percent increase over 1997.

With a youthful, cutting-edge visual style, Blaze embodies the vitality and wit of urban culture. Since its target audience is 12-to 24-year-olds, the magazine does not accept advertising from cigarette and alcohol manufacturers. Hip hop is known for its profanity, and Blaze uses a creative smudge technique to avoid printing any offensive words. "It would be moralistic and foolish to think that kids don't know these words, but that doesn't mean we should print them," says Clinkscales, or "The Clink" as he is listed on the Blaze masthead.

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