Atlantic Media Loses Its ‘Mary Poppins’ To Bloomberg Media

Justin B. Smith didn’t spend his whole career at Atlantic Media but there were times in recent years where it looked as though he might stay there for the rest of it as long he could keep growing, innovating and pushing out new brands. In the end, it really wasn’t big enough for someone who hits just about every tick on the list for a major media company in need of a top executive in the digital age — and who deserves a chance to see what he can do on a bigger playing field. Smith has that bigger field now: Bloomberg Media Group, where he will be the new CEO. David Carr broke the story Sunday evening. [I rarely quibble with David’s writing choices but the kicker quote from Google’s Eric Schmidt is unnecessary; Smith doesn’t need Schmidt to establish his digital cred.]

So what does this have to do with Mary Poppins? The comparison never occurred to me but it did to Atlantic Media Chairman David Bradley — and it works, although whether it will turn out literally to work in practice is a different issue.

Bradley wrote an extraordinary staff memo, provided by the company and included below in full, about Smith’s role in dragging Atlantic Media into a profitable modern age and what his departure means. The mix of details and genuine emotion illustrate much about what makes  Atlantic Media different; imagine Politico owner Robert Albritton writing anything like it.  

At the end of Mary Poppins, the Banks family has learned it can live quite happily without a nanny as long as everyone pulls his or her weight, lessons that couldn’t have been learned without the outside influence who quickly became integral yet not irreplacable. In this case, the staff Smith built and leaves behind will report directly to Bradley.

Compare that to Bloomberg Media, which will now be run by someone from the outside. That doesn’t mean Dan Doctoroff is hiring Mary Poppins or that Bloomberg Media needs a spoonful of sugar, but he has opted for an outsider who knows both how to launch and how to change from within without wrecking the foundation or leaning on it too much. His hands-on involvement in the 2012 launch of Quartz, a digital global finance publisher, adds another layer of expertise that should help at Bloomberg and may have made him more attractive.

Unlike Mary Poppins, which leaves us with the feeling that Mr. Banks can make a go of his new life and that the family will be just fine flying their own kites, we’ll get to keep watching what happens with Bradley and Atlantic Media — and Smith at Bloomberg Media.

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July 28, 2013

Letter of Appreciation

My Atlantic Media Colleagues,

As I settle into this writing, I think some will have heard by now of Bloomberg Media Group’s recruitment of Justin Smith as chief executive officer. In truth, Justin did hesitate before accepting the offer; he has loved his work with Atlantic Media. But, it’s hard to see how he reasons to “no”: global CEO, global brand and reach, television, radio, conferences, three magazines and burgeoning digital traffic.

 Though this will tax your time, I decided I would rather write a letter of appreciation for Justin than the traditional corporate press release. I want you to know what I hope Justin knows already—what a gift he has been to this enterprise.

Our First Meeting

 On reflection, I suppose our first meeting was a bit staged: dinner in Manhattan’s Carlyle Hotel dining room, seated beside the fireplace, talking for three hours. An aging owner, in an old-world setting, pitching a mid–19th century long-form literary magazine to a next-generation leader. I decided on Justin in one meeting.

Still, I seem to have gotten a detail wrong. I just assumed we were welcoming Justin into our storied magazine and its storied past. Justin understood—or at least decided—that he would time-travel the whole lot of us to media’s future state. Looking around now, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Correctly, Justin would give credit to Scott Havens, James Bennet, Scott Stossel, Bob Cohn, Jay Lauf, Elizabeth Baker Keffer, Zazie Lucke, Kevin Delaney and their many Atlantic colleagues. But, I also think it’s fair to name as “the Justin era” what Justin and those of you at The Atlantic and Quartz have accomplished: reversal of fortune for a magazine in a 60-year decline; doubling of revenues; return to profits; constant original creation including The Atlantic Cities, The AtlanticWire and Atlantic-initiated Quartz; growing events business; growing website; 25 million monthly Atlantic readers and visitors; and, just now, two more National Magazine Awards.  David Brooks once told me that, if I turned around The Atlantic, it would become the only thing for which I would be remembered.  Now, Justin has gone ahead and done it already.

An Intense Instruction

Justin led The Atlantic for two years and then Atlantic Media for an additional four. In one sense, my time with Justin reminds me of the time I spent with the Atlantic’s late editor, Michael Kelly—the everyday, dialed-up to intensity. After six years, and speechless, any of us might ask, “Wow, what was that about?”

In my frame, Atlantic Media was earning its doctoral degree in modern media from one of modern media’s master practitioners. What Justin believed, he taught, and, as with Michael again, Justin’s beliefs were fierce: That the revolution underway in media is more radical than we—the industry—appreciate. That the contest between legacy and insurgent players is mortal, with advantage to the insurgents. That surviving legacy properties will have had to learn the disciplines of the insurgents—and that they can. That velocity is first among the virtues. That the speed of change is unprecedented. That ideas have their season but not more. From search to social media to native advertising to the next advantage. And, that Atlantic Media could and would and has leapt to the frontier.

More personally, watching Justin taught me truths about media I’d failed to learn in my first decade in the sector: the centrality of brand; the importance of brand excitement; the very particular importance of New York and New York talent to creating excitement. Justin exhorted me to “go for my inner Don Draper;” as I didn’t have the least idea what Justin was talking about, this never really caught on.

As to Atlantic Media

Justin will leave us a changed—and much better—media company. That begins with his—and now my—Atlantic Media leadership team. Scott, Bruce, Tim, Jean Ellen, Kat, Zazie, Michael, Tom, Emily. As with Justin, I have complete confidence in this group. More generally, and as to “extreme talent” across the board, I think Atlantic Media is at its record high-water mark. After reflection, I’ve decided that, rather than appoint a Justin successor, we will let the current leadership continue independent of any reporting structure—save to me—and grow to fill the empty spaces Justin’s departure leaves behind. In fact, I found this an easy call.

As to Bloomberg

Here, I need to redouble my effort. I just can’t seem to find it in me to dislike the Bloomberg enterprise. I’ve always trusted and liked Justin’s new boss, Dan Doctoroff. Even now, I’m affecting a furious countenance. It just needs work.

As to Justin

Like Mary Poppins, if a little more euro, Justin came, changed the family and, when the work was done, moved on. I will miss him.

With my best wishes to all.

David