Rolling Stone Names Gus Wenner CEO as the Legacy Title Expands Its Focus

From a story on by Mark Stenberg headlined “Rolling Stone Names Gus Wenner CEO as the Legacy Title Expands Its Focus”:

Gus Wenner, the son of Rolling Stone founder Jann S. Wenner, has been named chief executive officer of the 55-year-old media company, the latest move from the legacy publisher aimed at reorienting its business and brand to thrive in a new digital landscape.

Wenner, now 31, first joined Rolling Stone in 2012, and he helped orchestrate its sale to Penske Media Corporation in 2017. He has served as chief operating officer of the title since its acquisition by PMC and, on Jan. 1 he was promoted to the role of CEO by chairman, founder and CEO of PMC Jay Penske.

“I want Rolling Stone to be defined by two things and one is not new,” Wenner said. “The first is great journalism: that’s our North Star and it’s what made us into a globally recognized brand. The second is to build off that journalism into a bunch of new areas that are meaningful for young people today—and doing so in a multimedia fashion that was not the way of the past.”

Wenner takes the position at a critical juncture for Rolling Stone: the publisher hired Noah Shachtman, formerly the editor in chief of The Daily Beast, to serve as its new editorial lead in July 2021. The hire, in tandem with the dynamic paywall it launched one year prior, signaled the intent of the publisher to begin building its digital subscription program.

Alongside its push into consumer revenue, Rolling Stone has also embarked on a number of new business ventures, including a foray into film and television production, a dedicated channel on the streaming service Twitch and an array of new licensing deals, such as a partnership with the cannabis company Curaleaf.

Rolling Stone has been in the black since 2019—and 2021 marked the most profitable year the media company has experienced in two decades, Wenner said. It forecasts 20% overall revenue growth by the end of 2022, though it wouldn’t share precise financial figures. Its core business of digital advertising enjoyed a banner year in 2021—like many—and the publisher anticipates a 40% growth in direct ad revenue and sponsorships in 2022. Its website attracted 18 million unique monthly viewers, on average, from 2019 to 2020, according to analytics firm Comscore.

But above all, Rolling Stone is fixated on returning to its status as the authority on youth culture and emerging music. In 2021, its share of audience from the 18 to 34-year-old demographic rose from 33% to 41% and it predicts the number will reach 46% by the end of 2022. The publisher is navigating a tightrope familiar to other legacy titles, trying to entice a new generation of digital readership without alienating its traditional fan base.

The publisher divides its revenue into two macro buckets: 45% comes from digital ads, including branded content, sponsorships, event sponsorships and print advertising. The remaining 55% comes from a mix of subscriptions, licensing, commerce and multimedia projects.

Rolling Stone operates primarily as a top-of-funnel solution for marketers due to its associations with storytelling and cultural influence, said Brian Szejka, publisher and evp of global partnerships at the company. While the pandemic led to a downturn in ad revenue in 2020, the publisher rebounded in 2021, with overall revenue rising 15% from 2019. In 2021, as supply chain issues throttled performance marketing operations, Rolling Stone saw an upswing in spending on awareness campaigns that has continued into this year.

The rock and roll chronicle also anticipates it will generate at least $5 million from the return of live event sponsorships in 2022, including its upcoming Super Bowl party, South by Southwest Festival in Austin (which PMC acquired a 50% stake in last year) and its Creators Issue launch party.

Its subscription efforts, however, are less developed. The publisher wouldn’t specify how many digital subscriptions it has generated, but the effort is in its infancy.

Still, as the title hopes to diversify its revenue, subscriptions will be critical, said Rob Ristagno, founder and CEO of Sterling Woods Group. Newer ventures like its licensing, multimedia and streaming efforts offer welcome supplemental streams, but the publisher will need to develop and then hone its subscription pipeline to ensure its business is durable, Ristagno said.

“My sense is that partnerships and licensing deals are always cherries on top of business models: why not do them?” Ristagno said. “But I’m not sure they’re going to be a huge enough revenue stream to hit the growth targets.”

Since 2020 the publisher has expanded into the world of film and television production, an appealing avenue for legacy titles with troves of archival material. It produced Supervillain— a documentary about the rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine that aired last year on Showtime—and predicts the business will net over $3 million in revenue by the end of 2022. The operation, led by former Rolling Stone editor in chief Jason Fine, has hundreds of projects in the works, according to Szejka, including scripted series, podcasts and documentaries.

Rolling Stone has also taken calculated steps to expand its licensing business without diluting its brand reputation. The publisher launched a slew of international versions of its magazine over the last two years, debuting in Korea in November 2020, China in January 2021 and Rolling Stone en Español in October 2021. The company now has 16 international editions.

Its licensing ventures also extend to product partnerships, including a multiyear deal with cannabis company Curaleaf to co-brand a series of pre-roll joints and cannabis pods. The products are currently available in Nevada and will be in 11 states by the end of 2022, Wenner said. While provocative, the relationship between Rolling Stone and marijuana hearkens back to the earliest days of the magazine, when a roach clip came included with a subscription.

But perhaps its most experimental new endeavor is its presence on Twitch, the livestream platform, where Rolling Stone has broadcast routinely since launching on the site in March 2021. The publisher accrued 25 million views in 2021 and it now averages between 500,000 and 1 million views per week, according to Szejka.

“Our entire strategy follows Noah’s edict to drive youth culture,” Szejka said. “We want to take creative risks and do that with partners on the business side as well.”

Its presence on the site has led to sponsorship deals with brands like Coke Zero, but the platform is primarily a means of connecting with a younger readership. Such efforts, while more exploratory than concrete, signal a spirit of openness to new ideas that is critical for publishers in the midst of transformative periods, said Alice Pickthall, a senior research analyst at Enders Analysis.

“It’s positive when traditional media companies are willing to experiment,” Pickthall said. “The brands that experiment are often the ones that find new ways to engage with their audience.”

Mark Stenberg is Adweek’s media reporter.

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