Not surprisingly, Christie Hefner, the outgoing CEO of Playboy (NYSE: PLA), was a no-show for her scheduled appearance at the UBS Global Media and Communications (PDF) conference. Instead a quartet of the company’s execs sought to make the case that Playboy’s long-awaited web relaunch will turn things around. The new website debuts January 20, which Bob Meyers, Playboy’s EVP, alluding to more than just President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration, said is “the day change starts.”
Not much was said about the announcement that Hefner is exiting the company. Linda Havard, Playboy’s CFO, offered a brief comment: “We don’t know how long the search [for a new CEO] will take. The board will be looking for candidates. In the meantime, I’m sure Christie will make herself available as we need her.”
While Playboy has made a number of well-regarded digital moves over the past few years, Meyers conceded that web traffic has been flat the last few years. When Playboy’s new site is unveiled in Q1, it will sport a wide array of social net features. Aiming for local ad dollars, it will also have a city guide, which will be based on a content-sharing deal with Blackbook. Also, taking advantage of the rise of smartphones, Playboy’s mobile site will be loaded with new photos and access to archives.
Asked about the state of the company within a darkening economy, Havard, Playboy’s CFO, made a point of saying that the publisher is recession-resistant, mainly because “we’re not as dependent on ads.” However, as Meyers added, the magazine is dependent on ads. And the website is designed to generate more ad dollars as well as additional subscription revenue. To aid those efforts, Playboy is forming an online-only ad sales team.
More after the jump
– Playboy’s changing ad needs: I spoke with Meyers after the panel about the company’s stance on being less ad-reliant. While the website will have premium content — mostly for the photos, not the articles, in case you were wondering — advertising will become a greater focus, he said. “Advertising will still be a small part of our overall business. Especially over the last few years, advertising has not been a material piece of our business. But it needs to be.”
— Maintaining the subscription model: During his presentation, Meyers noted that the WSJ.com has been able to thrive with subscriptions, despite the availability of so much free content elsewhere. So why can’t Playboy do for men’s lifestyle and entertainment what WSJ.com does for business news? Well, there’s a world of difference there, but Meyers says that the Playboy brand and its history offer a guide to making the pay-model work. “We have a large and loyal base of fans. People save issues of Playboy magazine for years. Even though there will be a wealth of free content on the new website, the better we make the digital experience, that will make people only want more. And that will drive more subscriptions. And the more they pay, the more they’ll stay.”