When Christopher Whittle and friends from the University of Tennessee teamed nearly 20 years ago to publish magazines, the dapper doctor’s son who wore bow ties was drafted to court the advertisers.
“He was an absolutely superb salesman,” recalls Wilma Jordan, a former Whittle colleague who now runs an investment banking firm. Besides, she said, Whittle’s flair was just what the young publishers needed “for calling on conservative clients.”
At 41, Whittle still wears the bow ties. He also has sold some of the nation’s biggest advertising clients on his company, which has expanded beyond magazines into a $150-million business recognized as an industry innovator.
Its 44 properties range from magazines to videos to wallboards, which resemble miniature billboards with a mix of brief articles and ads, hung in offices and schools.
Whittle’s latest venture is a satellite-delivered television news show aimed at high schoolers, which he’s launching in early March. Book publishing may lie ahead.
Several Major Clients
He has fostered the growth by arguing that conventional print and broadcast media aren’t delivering the audiences they once did. His creations are designed to deliver ad messages to precisely defined audiences such as new mothers, college students, pet owners and travel agents.
That message has won big-name clients such as Procter & Gamble, Ralston-Purina and Warner-Lambert. It also has saddled him with a reputation as a maverick because of his unsubtle jibes at magazines and television.
For instance, Whittle heralded Special Reports, his glossy package of quarterly magazines designed for pediatrician’s waiting rooms, with full-page ads featuring this headline over a photo of a torn and smudged magazine page:
“Few things equal the special quality of magazines in a doctor’s waiting room.”
Whittle promised doctor-subscribers that he would send someone by every month to replace tattered copies. But he asked them not to keep more than two other magazines titles in the office.
The request enraged rival publishers, who count on waiting room readers to bolster circulation. Some threatened lawsuits but never filed any.
Robert Teufel, president of Rodale Press Inc., which publishes Children magazine, conceded that he and other publishers have cooled off.
“I think our reaction was to his hype,” he said.
Made a Fortune
So what does he think of Whittle and his magazines now? “I think their products are graphically superb. Whittle is probably the best salesman in the publishing business,” Teufel said.
Whittle doesn’t need compliments to know what the industry thinks of him. He’s got cash instead--$40 million for himself alone when magazine giant Time Inc. paid $185 million last fall for half interest in his company.
“He has a track record; the rest have hopes,” said Reginald Brack, chief executive of Time’s magazine group.
Whittle, a country doctor’s son born Aug. 23, 1947, in Etowah, Tenn., went to the University of Tennessee, where he met Philip Moffitt and others who would become his business partners.
Eighteen months after his 1969 graduation, he went back to Knoxville, bought a two-room log cabin he still calls home and joined ex-Tennessee classmates already working on the magazine company.
They called it 13-30 Corp., named after the age group they hoped to reach. Their first magazine was Knoxville in a Nutshell, a guide for incoming Tennessee freshmen.
After making $2,000 the first year, they decided they could multiply profits by publishing guides to other locales. The costs of keeping as many as 115 magazines in operation at once nearly crushed the company.
Whittle said the money crunch became so severe he once asked an advertiser: “Would you mind if I go down to the finance department to get the check?” The advertiser agreed and the check paid Whittle’s office phone and electric bills.
The company eventually consolidated its city guides into a single national magazine for college students called Nutshell, and began making money.
In 1974, Whittle sold Japanese auto maker Datsun on the idea of a single-sponsor magazine, a twice-a-year travel publication aimed at college students. The combination has lasted 15 years although the cars now are called Nissan.
In 1979, the company bought a controlling interest in Esquire magazine, which Whittle said was losing $100,000 a week at the time. It took five years to refocus the magazine, fix circulation problems and make it break even.
Whittle decided he was spending so much time in Manhattan that he needed a second home. In 1980, he bought a five-room apartment in the Dakota, a sprawling building on the west side of Central Park where the late singer John Lennon had lived. Whittle’s apartment is filled with paintings he’s collected in the past six years, mostly from the late 1800s and early 1900s. His Dakota neighbors include singer Roberta Flack and actress Lauren Bacall.
By mid-1986, the demands of Esquire split Whittle from his founding partner, Moffitt, and they divided the company. Moffitt took Esquire and Whittle got the rest.
While the initial reaction was that Moffitt got the best deal, Whittle saw the writing on the wall. The renamed Whittle Communications LP plunged headlong into developing wallboards as advertising vehicles that could be displayed in school lobbies and gyms and doctor’s offices.