@ EconWomen: MSLO’s Millard: Known Brands Will Win In This Economy

image“I am so not a Wendy,” Wenda Harris Millard, co-CEO of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (NYSE: MSO), declared, picking up on an audience member’s incorrect reference to her as “Wendy” in the Q&A portion of her interview at ContentNext’s EconWomen conference. Millard also addressed her relationship with Martha (it’s solid as ever, she insisted), the company’s earnings (she repeated a mantra I’ve been hearing lately at other industry events: “Flat is the new up”) and her usual bête noire, remnant ad networks.

Millard, in an interview with Ernie Sander, ContentNext Media’s managing editor, began by saying MSLO’s varied media offerings — online, print, TV, radio, as well as its extensive merchandising deals — make it strongly positioned to weather what it shaping up to be a severe media downturn. After Sander mentioned that MSLO’s overall Q3 revs were flat, Millard made her case: “We’re not called ‘omnimedia’ for nothing, you know. Our financial outlook bodes better than most. We have that hedge, not only across media platforms, but the media and the merchandise business. So, for example if people stop buying sheets, they’ll still be going online. If one part of the business is down, another is likely to be up.”

Brands are havens: At the end of her appearance, Millard said that if you look at any pullback period in advertising, there’s an ineluctable flight to safety. “That used to mean flight to TV. Not anymore. Flight to safety means flight to brands — brands that are solid and represent quality. What I’m seeing happening, is that online advertising, the only part of the business to increase by double digits, is continuing to grow, although it is slowing. That’s what the ad nets don’t get. If I have a finite ad budget, I’m not going to throw my money anywhere, unless I’m just interested in a pure direct response play. The best place for quality advertising is with reliable brands. Not all brands will thrive. But it will still be a very good time for online publishers that have a respected name.”

The omni-party planner: On the investment stake that MSLO took in party planning social net tool Pingg, Millard said “Most people think (online invitations are) ugly. It’s different than the Wedding Wire investment. It’s a really smart idea. It will help our mag reader, who has 17 parties a year — that’s more than I have! Now, she can plan them online. Our franchises are in food and in whole living. We can invest in other companies in that space.” With last February’s $50 million purchase of chef Emeril Lagasse’s media properties, Millard strongly hinted that MSLO would consider making other, similar purchases.

Yahoo’s problems: It’s not a tech issue: Since departing as Yahoo’s chief sales officer to become MSLO’s president of media in June 2007, Millard is used to questions about the constant flux at her previous employer. Whether its Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) bidding for Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO) or the recent pact with Google (NSDQ: GOOG) (currently in abeyance), Millard was asked how she would handle things if she were there. Millard said part of the problem is the online media industry’s focus on “platforms instead of brands.” Millard: I’m a media person, not a tech person. We live in a world that is not and should not be binary. I would put the ‘and’ back in that company.”

More about ad networks, tabloid rumors and Time Inc. after the jump.

The scourge of ad networks: “What the proliferation of ad networks has done to pricing is heartbreaking. We don’t need 300 of them, and we don’t need them unrestrained. I’m very sorry that a lot of the big guys have decided they don’t want to be in the media business, they want to be in the platform business. I love behavioral targeting. Women 18-34, that’s a target. Men,18- to 34 — they’re all alike, right? That’s as spray and pray as TV. Behavioral targeting without context — no wonder marketers are skittish. I would put the content and context back into these companies.” Millard did acknowledge the rightful place for remnant ad operators. “[Publishers] are not going to monetize every part of our inventory. There are many organizations that cannot afford an ad sales force. But who needs 10 million impressions? You need to roll all this inventory up to get scale. But ad nets need to take some responsibility. This is not a direct marketing medium solely, it is also a branding medium.

Replacing Ann Moore?: Before former MSLO CEO Susan Lyne took a job at discount fashion e-tailer Gilt, she had been talked about as a possible successor to Time Inc. CEO Ann Moore. Moore has said she will not renew her current contract when it expires in the second quarter of 2010. Millard: “I don’t know if I would want that right now. I would be presiding over the 600-person layoff last night. Seriously, I’m just focused on my job.”

Too much tech: “I go to a lot of industry functions and I have to ask myself, ‘Is this the tech business or the media business?’ I’m on a plane four times a week. I don’t think about how it stays up there. I’ve watched TV for many years and have never taken the back off. Why do we in media do that with online? There’s a saying that advertising should be so effective as to make you cry. Well, a lot of the advertising I see on the internet makes me cry — and not for the right reasons. We’re still doing a lot of navel-gazing and not talking about what makes great advertising.” She said the key is to have an appreciation for the creative part of advertising.

Hot rumor: Media Mavens Spat!: There is no feud at MSLO, Millard said adamantly, in response to a question about tabloid reports. Last week, the New York Post cited unidentified sources saying there was a rift between Stewart and Millard. “People are fascinated by Martha. They love to read about her and they love to write about her. I don’t read the NYP. I read the NYT and WSJ. I guess a lot of people read NYP. I don’t see where they get this stuff.”