Media Fortune Fame & Folly

Shanken: publisher of pleasure

The publisher Marvin Shanken may have smiled to himself (or not) as the outgoing President Trump metaphorically declared war on the island of Cuba. But this week, he will be hoping that Biden reverses the decision to treat the Caribbean island as a sponsor of terrorism. 

Shanken is the banker turned magazine publisher who greeted Obama’s election in 2008 with advice on “what you should do about Cuba.”.The message came from his Cigar Aficionado magazine whose readers have a special interest in being able to buy Cuba’s most famous product. The message to Obama came almost 15 years after Shanken had flown to Cuba to interview Fidel Castro – only to discover that he had given up smoking. 

The episode neatly illustrates the fun Shanken has had in almost 50 years of turning his passions into a successful publishing business. M. Shanken Communications, Inc., guides sophisticated global readers to the best in wine, food, cigars, dining out and travelling. He organises stylish events, and publishes some of the drinks industry’s leading B2B publications.

In consumer terms, the New York-based publisher is best known for the 29-year-old Cigar Aficionado, which celebrates the rituals and vanities associated with cigar smoking “for affluent men who enjoy living a luxurious lifestyle” including travel, sports, cars, watches, fine wine and food. That is the appeal to upmarket advertisers of the bi-monthly print magazine which has a 250k circulation and 5,000 visitors to its events (in non-Covid times). Whisky Advocate, another luxurious print magazine, has a claimed 1m readership. 

Shanken started in 1972, when he paid $5,000 to acquire Impacta wine-and-spirits industry research newsletter. Today, it’s read in more than 200 countries and is one of his clutch of B2B publications, research reports, events and websites for the drinks industry. 

His big breakthrough came in 1979 when he paid $40k for the struggling three-year-old Wine Spectator. Shanken added the killer ingredient of panel-based ratings and tastings, and lavished loving care and cash on the 15-times-a-year magazine he had admired all its short life. It now reviews no fewer than 18,000 wines a year, has a global circulation of some 385k (mostly $59.95 subscriptions) and a total readership claimed to be almost 3m.

Wine Spectator exudes authority and reflects Shanken’s preoccupation with well-written, sharply-designed content: “Our reader comes first, and we’ve built trust with our readers over the years. Along the way, people have tried to push down, and be critical of us. Basically, we march to our own drumbeat. And I’m pretty uncompromising in our philosophy and our direction. If there’s pushback on a winery not getting good ratings—years ago, they used to say it’s because they don’t advertise, until they figured out that…most of the people that get great scores don’t advertise anyway. But I would always say, ‘You want a higher score, make a better…wine.’ Cultivate vineyards better, get a new winemaker.”

That willingness to risk offending notoriously sensitive brands in the cause of editorial integrity has been a powerful business builder for Wine Spectator: “We are reviewing wines blind for our reader. And there are some tasters that taste for the trade, so a retailer can put it in their ad. That’s not our goal. Our goal is to direct our reader to great quality and great value.”

He outlined his publishing philosophy to Forbes magazine as:

  • Revenue is secondary. It’s all about the product.
  • Subscriptions are critical. “All I want to do is turn my readers on so they renew”.
  • Transparent, audited magazine circulations.
  • Price indicates value. “The higher the better”.

Shanken often says he is lucky he got into growth industries but the heart of his success is a strategy that was ahead of its time: publishing both consumer and B2B media, and organising a range of innovative (and profitable) events, including:

  • New York Wine Experience attended by more than 6,000 people paying $2,500 since 1981
  • Big Smoke attracting more than 3,000 cigar smokers
  • WhiskyFests all over the US attracting 2,000 visitors
  • Impact Marketing Seminar whose guest speakers have included former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton

This is a specialist media company woven with passion.

Last year, Shanken launched a cannabis newsletter (as part of his Shanken News Daily) at a time when some US states have legalised the drug. Some expect the federal government (eventually) to create the opportunity for what is already a booming industry in California to become a national phenomenon.

Shanken doesn’t talk much to media and closely guards the financials of his privately-owned company. But it is believed to have revenue of some $30m. He employs 150 people. There is no sign that he plans to sell-out to any of the companies or individuals who would love to own it. He gets approached, of course.

He likes to describe himself as an editor, obsessed with the detail of content. He is also a considerable figure in the international wine and spirits and tobacco industries: an ambassador and an authority on their most committed consumers. But, above all else, he has a passion for publishing: “We invest in very relevant information for readers who are passionate about the topics we’re writing about and, in all instances, we’ve established enormous credibility for the work we do. It comes back to the fundamentals of good journalism.”

The style and swagger is all Marvin Shanken but his 360-degree approach to media, information and entertainment both for business and consumers is what every specialist publisher might seek to emulate. They could enjoy it too.

M.Shanken Communications