The next American Playboy: Cooper Hefner on his father's legacy and bringing back nudity

Cooper Hefner

The legacy of Hugh Hefner, founder of one of the world’s most famous media brands, is unique and impossible to live up to. But that’s the task his son Cooper, now chief creative officer at Playboy, is set to take on.

Catching up with Cooper Hefner at SXSW following the launch of Amazon’s new drama-documentary series American Playboy, which tells the life story of his father Hugh, The Drum spoke to the heir to the throne about his plans for the global brand, its online strategy and the headline making decision to renew nude photography within the magazine only a year after its removal.

It quickly becomes apparent that while Hefner is confident and highly knowledgeable about Playboy and the publishing needs of modern media, his confidence never comes across as arrogance – surprising, perhaps, considering the less than modest lifestyle this 25 year-old has led. He speaks with a clear vision for the brand, and with real admiration for the man who built it.

Why did Playboy agree to get involved with Amazon to make the series?

Amazon has some fantastic pieces of content – Transparent, The Man in the High Castle… It has a substantial group of content creators and it is hard to find anyone else better when you are trying to put together a show for digital or television. We were honored to work with Amazon on this.

What do you think your father and the Playboy brand mean to American culture?

I just got back from Asia where I was meeting with partners – we do over $1bn of retail products with partners in China and Asia – and then we met with Coty, our fragrance partner which does over $150m a year globally. It certainly transcends.

I would say, internationally, the brand represents Americana. It represents American culture in markets that have known the brand for decades (the company is 63 years-old in America and some other countries).

When you take a step back it represents freedom of choice and freedom of expression. It represents a sexual challenge and it challenges the status quo and, in a very strange way, five years ago that might not have been as relevant. It's really remarkable how history has a way of repeating itself and so many of the conversations that were happening when my dad first started the magazine in the 1950s are happening again.

There is a major conservative motion pushing across the American political landscape and across Europe, in France and other countries. It's pretty unbelievable to see so much of the conversation that happened throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s which led to this culture and sexual revolution start to come up again.

What does the magazine stand for in the 21st Century?

The magazine is the flagship, in the sense that it started the company. We understand that. We have the most popular men's brand on social media with 44 million followers across all of our social media platforms.

The numbers of people we get to the site we would never be able to get to the publication, but what is remarkable about the magazine is that because it started the brand and the company there is an understanding that what we publish in the book is what the market talks about and that's what people talk about.

So we're thoughtful with that and we understand that, from a circulation or subscribers standpoint, the magazine is never going to be a major opportunity for us to get in front of people's faces. But we do understand that the content that we publish in the magazine and then repurpose on .com or dish out to press is what people are really interested in reading about, because it's almost like the brand bible. That's how we treat it from a content point of view from a strategy across media.

How does that transcend into digital and marry together?

Here's the reality – I always make the joke that publishing exists in a completely different timeframe, so the editors working on the magazine are working at a much slower pace while on digital not only are you finding stories that are much more on brand but you are also covering topics that are trending and unfolding in real-time, that we need to cover moment to moment, that you can't even relate to from a publishing standpoint.

How do they marry together? From a time perspective they don't, but from a narrative and brand perspective they do. Making sure the magazine is reflective of the same brand values and statements that .com and our other channels are – that's really important and it's what I spend my day-to-day doing from a content media point of view, making sure that all of our channels are reflecting the same narrative.

How do you hope to continue to evoke your father's legacy with Playboy?

The important thing at the end of the day is to not be provocative for the sake of provocation. It's really to be provocative with a point of view. If there isn't something to say then don't say it.

That’s what I admire about my dad. He really valued the message and believed in what he was fighting for. When I take a step back and think ‘what are the best pieces of the brand?’ you could say the model is great or the editorial is great or pieces of the lifestyle are great, but I don't necessarily identify any specific ingredient and say ‘this is my favorite part of the recipe’. I like the entire thing and at the end of the day that is a brand that stands for freedom.

When I take a step back and wonder what I want to spend the next 60 years guiding this brand to be, it’s at the forefront of fighting for sexual values and civil rights or reminding people that you can have a bit of fun while being philanthropic and that is core to our DNA.

Is that length of time daunting to you?

The reality is that we are going through an evolution with media in the sense that the ad game is changing. We built a business for .com that was based on CPM that is no longer sustainable. We are competing with social networks that are getting tens of millions of visitors a day and we are never going to be able to compete from an ad standpoint with those so there are real-world business challenges that we are faced with.

When I say 'years' I am not naive to think that where we are today we are going to have to be very entrepreneurial and thoughtful of where we take the brand in the next two years and then the next 15 years. I don't want to sound narcissistic or put a bullet proof vest around the brand and say 'in 60 years’ time we'll be here' – the reality is I'm on a team that is responsible for really figuring out the maze.

That maze is ‘who is the consumer we are trying to reach’ and ‘what is evolving outside of our office in real-time’ and ‘how are we reactive to that’. For me I love those challenges and as long as the brand stays true to its values and its philosophy then I'm happy.

How are advertisers changing and where do you see that going?

I spend a lot of time with our ad sales team and with our larger clients and what we're seeing is that when you take a step back, both politically and culturally, a lot of brands are taking on points of views that they never did before because they have to. Anheuser-Busch had a Super Bowl commercial that, while it denies it was political, was incredibly political. These brands are taking on points of view for the first time and they have never done that before. Reality is that we have always had a point of view and that ties directly into our ad strategy so we understand that value is not to try to compete with search engine sites like Google or Facebook or Twitter.

From an advertising standpoint we need to approach our business not holding ourselves accountable only from a CPM standpoint and a page view stand point and also, how can we deliver a unique value prompt in an RFP that no other brand can do. We are working with Indian motorcycles and we are throwing a Playboy Indian motorcycle party and we are also designing bikes that are Playboy branded and we are developing a content experience around it because they are our partners.

That's something when you take a step back and think about, you can't imagine Maxim or Vice creating an Indian bike. We can just step back and say 'what can we bring to the table, specifically with our ad business, that is unique and how can we approach it, not from an old ad perspective whether that is print or banner ad, but how can we approach this from a brand strategy point of view for creating content that is native and selling it across platform? I'm talking about something that is evolving in real-time.

Is Playboy looking to expand its readership to engage more of a female audience?

We have that conversation a lot where we discuss how we can continue to evolve the brand while continuing to ensure that we are as relevant as we can be so that we are authentic and we hold onto our point of view. If you don't have a point of view you don't have anything.

Do I take a step back and say 'I wish that we had a brand that everyone liked’? Sure, but the reality is we are only as good as our ability to understand who our target audience is and there are going to be people who will come at us and say ‘I don't believe in what you are doing’ or ‘I don't believe in your depiction of sexuality’.

That's fine. Thank you and you're not our audience. But of course there are a lot of people who are my age, whether it is experiential or events, or the content that we are putting out today, it is pretty different to what we were putting out five or 10 years ago because we have a different team and I am participating in directing that narrative. It's important to not force the brand into people who really don't want to be a part of it while understanding that we are evolving and we have already seen people engage with the brand that probably wouldn't have two or three years ago.

You recently returned to using nude photography. How big a decision was that for you?

It wasn't for me, but there was quite a bit of debate and that came from both internal and external. People really didn't understand why we had nudity. But for me, I looked at our values and when you think about it, the entire thesis that my dad pushed was that the act of sex is considered bad. For whatever reason we want to, as a society, keep sex detached from intellectual conversation. And his argument was 'how can an act that is responsible for our creation be completely separated from anything that is intellectual?'

That's what Playboy was and is and the company made a decision to step into a non-nude space because it felt like the war was won. My personal belief is that the fact there was even a debate over whether Playboy should or shouldn't continue to publish nudity in the US magazine indicated that the war had not been won.

People still had an issue with nudity and had an issue with sexuality and were weird about it. If anyone is going to tackle that fight today it should be us so my return to the company brought about a number of changes which was focused on from a press standpoint, and we had a lot of subscribers say that they didn't want to be a part of it anymore. The running joke was that people probably didn't read Playboy for the articles, but I don't think it had anything to do with that. The long-time subscribers and fans of the brand felt that Playboy had stepped away from what made it Playboy and the challenge of sexuality in society.

What changes have you seen as a result of the change back?

We have 52% sell through our newsstand which is really the most successful that we have had in four or five years. This is a part of the change in mindset. We are legacy media so there was a lot of emphasis on the magazine, which does still sell even though we launched .com in 2014. A lot of the muscle was still put behind the magazine because that was what was important for my dad.

Having a digital downloadable copy for the first time and doing things like that and understanding where the magazine should be positioned within the rest of this media story – in real-time we are still implementing strategy.

What did advertisers say?

We had advertisers that came to the table that said 'we don't want to run with you anymore' when we took away nudity. And there were people who understood what the brand's point of view was. Nudity is not the problem. I will be the first person to acknowledge that the way in which the magazine portrayed nudity was dated but removing it all together was a mistake because that's like saying that nudity is the enemy which is completely unauthentic to what the brand has stood for for the last 62 years celebrating that attraction between both sexes. We did see some advertisers pull back and then there was interest from other advertisers. I took a step back from the company at that time because I didn't agree with the direction that it was going in. The reality is I wasn't here during that period.

And what is your focus now that you have returned to Playboy?

Making sure that the brand is represented appropriately across all of our media channels. That is day-to-day and something I am working on. Playboy has a major subscription opportunity online for millennials and Gen Y for the next couple of years behind a paywall. You are seeing other media companies have success with that, like the New York Times and other organisations that are playing with that platform.

Playboy is another brand that elicits a premium experience. We have an audience that is willing to spend a lot on our brand when we put it in the right place from a media perspective. These are early stages but we will be rolling out a handful of new pieces of the new business over the next year to year which I am incredibly excited about but they are currently stamped as private and confidential so I can't tell you any more about that.

What do you hope people will appreciate about your father once they have seen the new series?

Firstly, I believe it is a good piece of storytelling and hope that viewers feel the same way. I could not be more proud of the product and I feel my family feel the same way. And then I hope that the show causes a little bit of debate – that's what the company has always done very well and my dad's life has facilitated debate on sexual values and social norms – and that it tells a great story and it facilitates conversation about the status quo. There is no doubt in my mind that it will do that.

American Playboy airs on 7 April through Amazon Prime Video.

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