The Manifest Destiny of The Atlantic

Many magazines today are on the endangered species list. But not The Atlantic, the 155-year-old magazine that has gone from survive to thrive mode thanks to live events.

“This is the magazine that started examining the great American idea in 1857, railing against slavery,” says Elizabeth Baker Keffer, who served as publisher shortly after David Bradley purchased the perpetual money-loser known as The Atlantic Monthly from real estate mogul Mort Zuckerman in 1999.

“But the financial model was not successful for 30 years,” says Keffer. “In recent decades the magazine was described as tweedy, cerebral and esoteric.”

Many assumed the purchase was just another wealthy man’s trophy, more of a pet dinosaur than an investment. Bradley proved doubters wrong by making bold changes to take the publication to the people. He moved the editorial offices from isolated Boston to well-connected Washington, D.C., hired away James Bennet from the New York Times to be editor, and expanded the platform to include digital content and gatherings. He put Keffer in charge of an events division, now called AtlanticLIVE, which conducts more than 80 events a year.

Keffer started making event deals as early as 2001, gradually building up a full-fledged events component by 2005 when the magazine, along with the Aspen Institute, launched the Aspen Ideas Festival, a week-long summer retreat set in the hills of the famed Colorado ski resort. Along with recent gains in digital advertising revenue, the events business also has been credited for stopping the flow of red ink, said Keffer.

Taking a cue from the Davos-esque conferences The Atlantic already produces in Aspen and Washington, D.C., Keffer formed a partnership in 2011 with the University of California San Diego (Henry’s employer, by the way)  to create an event called The Atlantic Meets The Pacific (www.atlanticmeetspacific.com ). The event organizers describe it as “at the horizon of technology, energy and health in a globalizing world.”

The new West Coast partnership seems a perfect fit. Nestled on the Pacific Ocean in the enclave of La Jolla, UC San Diego is one of the nation’s most accomplished research universities. The university’s award-winning scholars (Nobels, Pulitizers, Oscars, Tonys, you name it) are experts at the forefront of their fields with an impressive track record for achieving scientific, medical and technological breakthroughs. The goal of the event is to link the strengths of the traditional achievements of the Atlantic Coast with the promising ideas and opportunities emerging from the Pacific Coast.

Keffer manages to attract big names to speak. The inaugural 2011 event included such luminaries as Deepak Chopra, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, and Twitter co-founder Evan Williams.  The October 7-9, 2012 conference features genome-breakthrough researcher Craig Venter;  Chris Cox, Mark Zuckerberg’s right hand man at Facebook; and Steven Spielberg’s film partner Stacey Snider, the CEO of DreamWorks Studios.

Consider Many, Like Some, Love Few

Like Keffer, it pays to think big in concepts, looking for breakthrough ideas and aspirational partnerships. Regardless of your business, there is a mega opportunity for you somewhere.  That’s the end you’re shooting for.  Pick your ultimate target.  Build a company that is big in size and big in name.