If it weren't for a fortuitous payroll mistake, Dan Lagani could have become the voice of American Top 40, the internationally syndicated radio show that was once hosted by Casey Kasem. Lagani's voice is a dead ringer for Kasem's and he once thought he'd follow in his footsteps and make a career in radio. Instead, Ryan Seacrest now hosts American Top 40 and Lagani is running one of the largest magazines in America.
Lagani, 47, was in his second job out of college in 1986, working the overnight shift at WBLI in Long Island, then an easy-listening and adult-contemporary radio station. He had been general manager at his college radio station at SUNY College at Oneonta in upstate New York before graduating in 1985. One payday at WBLI, he was mistakenly given the wrong paycheck -- that of a salesperson. It was double what he was making at the time; he knew then that he was one the wrong side of the media business.
That mistake was the catalyst for a career about-face that would see him move to New York City to start in magazine ad sales at the bottom and rise to the rank of publisher at brands such as Better Homes and Gardens and George, the now-defunct politics and lifestyle magazine founded by the late John F. Kennedy, Jr.
He's now the Reader's Digest North America president, having been recently promoted following the departure of long-time publishing executive Suzanne Grimes, who had been running the company's North America operation.
FINS spoke with Lagani about why sales is more creative than radio, his secrets to career success and how he has been able to survive and thrive at Reader's Digest.
Jeremy Greenfield: You were a liberal arts major in college -- communications and art -- and you started your career as a disc jockey in radio. Why did you transition into publishing?
Dan Lagani: I thought what I got into was creative, but it's a highly formatted and highly structured business. If you're an on-air announcer, you speak six times an hour and you know what you're going to say each time. What led me there was my interest in things creative, but what moved me away from there is that in that time and in that area of the business, it was not creative. That was a great irony for me.
I got a salesperson's paycheck by mistake. I was hired for $17,000 a year, and at that time she made almost double that amount of money and I thought, "my god, this is outrageous."
JG: If that didn't happen, would you be where you are now?
DL: I still think at some point, maybe not as viscerally, I would have come to the realization that there wasn't the creative excitement and interest and passion in radio that ultimately sustained me in the media business.
For my first magazine job, I was hired by an independent publisher's representative group, The Pattis Group in New York City. I represented magazines that needed ad salespeople.
One of the big accounts at the time was Chiquita and my primary competitor was a newspaper. Chiquita spent a lot of money on their creative and I solved their marketing and sales problems creatively. The ad wasn't being produced well in the newspaper and I showed them how it would look in the glossy magazine I was representing. That was a great jumping off point for me.
In my next job, selling ads at Country Home, I also used my background as an art major. It was at the time when Absolut Vodka had just started to get deeply into the whole art campaign. I started sending "Absolut Country" mockups directly to the CEO [of Absolut], Michel Roux. The ads showed the bottle in various country settings. I got invited in to pitch to the CEO and the agency, TBWA, and I won a two-year project where we commissioned folk artists to create their version of Absolut Country. Then we did Absolut Southwest.
It was that idea of taking the product to get the client to understand what the consumer was and what was the essence of the brand. I look back at those things and those were important parts of me understanding sales: It's about people getting to understand the brand. Once you can do that -- if you can bring it to life for people -- it's a whole different conversation.
JG: After Country Home, you were hired at Better Homes and Gardens, another Meredith publication, by Jerry Kaplan. When he became president of Meredith, he made you publisher of BHG. How important are mentors and sponsors?
DL: You have to find mentors at all levels in your career. There is no one single mentor. You can't only have mentors when you start. And you have to return the favor -- pay it forward. You need to mentor other people who are interested. It's a critically important part to being successful in business.
An early career mentor was Jerry Kaplan.
Mary Berner was and continues to be someone who is an important person in my career. She hired me into Fairchild to run the bridal businesses. When she left I became president and we continued to speak. She's been an important mentor in my life. She was the reason I came into Reader's Digest.
And it's not just people in my specific business. Organizations like the Young Presidents' Organization are for people who are in similar levels in their careers and need objective sounding boards.
I would even say people who I met as clients through the years have been mentors, like Steve Sadove, chairman and CEO of Saks Incorporated. When it comes to mentors, you can look for people in your company and in your business, or you can look for people who are just smart, sound, solid sounding boards to help you work through the inevitable challenges and opportunities that you're going to face throughout your career.
I can't say enough about the importance of having those people.
JG: When Mary Berner left Reader's Digest earlier this year, everyone she recruited to come with her -- Suzanne Grimes, for example -- followed her out the door. Except you. You were promoted.
DL: When you're in a situation where somebody you're directly working for leaves -- Jerry [Kaplan] retired, Mary [Berner] left -- you have to plan for the fact that change is inevitable. Ideally you're not in your spot only because you have a sponsor. You're in your spot because you do your job well. You have to deliver in the job that you're in. You can't have one without the other and expect to continue to be successful.
Another critical thing is to understand that in a large company, where there are multiple interdependencies, you have to have a broad-based network of people who you regularly interact with in both subordinate roles and peer roles. If you have those things, then you can continue to excel even at the inevitable moment of change when your sponsor or mentor leaves the organization.
JG: Another instance of mentoring relationships paying off was when you became the publisher of George. After that magazine folded not too long after the death of its founder, JFK, Jr., you went back to Meredith.
DL: Jack Kliger [the CEO of Hachette Filipacchi until 2008 and now CEO of TV Guide] called me in 1999 and said that as a company they were committed to putting a lot of resources behind George post-JFK, Jr. He had hired Frank Lalli* who had been managing editor at Money magazine and had a stellar career at Time Inc. He asked me if I would be interested in joining as publisher to revitalize George.
*Frank Lalli spent about seven years at RDA, starting in 2002, rising to the rank of international editor-in-chief at the company in 2007 when he was promoted by Berner. His tenure there did not overlap with Lagani's.
JG: You left George just as it folded and then immediately rejoined Meredith.
DL: The announcement that George was folding was in January of 2001 and literally the same month we made the announcement that I would go back to Meredith to become publisher of Ladies' Home Journal -- hired by Jerry Kaplan.
JG: What's your best advice for people who are trying to make a career in media?
DL: The more that I do it, the more I realize that it takes a lot of time to do your job well. I put more hours in now than at any point in my life. The notion that as you advance in your career you'll spend fewer hours is exactly the opposite. So, find something you love. You can't be successful if you don't love what you do because frankly it takes too much time. You can't do something well and invest as much time as it takes to do well if you don't enjoy it and love it.
The second critical attribute is that you have to have an outlook that you're committed to keep growing, learning and innovating. Without that outlook, in media in particular, which is an absolute moment of turmoil and innovation -- media is accelerating in terms of the pace of change -- if you're not committed to being a passionate consumer as well, then you can't love it and keep growing and innovating.
JG: What is going on in media right now anyway?
DL: As much as there's newness and transformation and an unprecedented rate of new technology in the media business, the most important thing still is what's the engaging consumer experience that you're offering. Without that and without the concept of what is it that you do to keep a consumer interested in coming back repeatedly, it doesn't matter what technology you have, you don't have a business.
My focus is on consistency of brand expression across any platform that the consumer wants. In the case of a media company like RDA, it's really critical that we start to take advantage of some of the improvements that technology does afford you, moving customer acquisition from the mail to digital. One of the critical issues is continuing to increase the percentage of customers who buy your products through digital means with an automatic credit card renewal. Apple and Amazon have figured out how to do it well. The traditional magazine publishers have been slow to get there.
JG: What's your stance on RDA, Apple and digital content distribution?
DL: I have no reason to believe that smart companies can't find workable solutions with all of the major players, Apple and Amazon included.
Every company has to approach the specific deals with their own point of view. I don't see any reason why RDA won't have a meaningful subscription deal in place with Apple or any number of providers.
JG: What about sales advice? There's a lot you can learn from other sales sectors.
DL: Know your client's business. Too many salespeople go in -- and you see it in all areas of sales -- not knowing what their client's products are and what their client's needs are. The most important thing is learn as much as you can about what the client is all about and what their strategic needs are. And that's what opened the door to the biggest, most important strategic deals that I've ever done.
You can't sell somebody something if you don't know what it is that they want.
JG: Anything I missed?
DL: Do something that you love; find mentors at all levels and be committed to returning that favor to people who you see promise in; keep learning, growing and innovating; and have really high expectations of the people around you but demand more of yourself. I've been fortunate to be in a business I enjoy, to have smart people help me throughout my career and to continue to learn and innovate and to work really hard at it; and it's been a successful combination.
Write to Jeremy Greenfield