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Playboy CEO, Christie Hefner

As she discussed her career trajectory, the media landscape, the Playboy brand, and their recent international expansion, she did not capture the attention of the entire audience. One student stormed out halfway grumbling, “this is so damn boring.” Perhaps he was expecting one of those Playboy bunnies instead of a woman dressed in a demure beige skirt suit who ranked #90 on Forbes magazine’s list of the 100 Most Powerful Women.
A graduate of Brandeis University, Hefner came of age in the era of Vietnam and Watergate, and she explained that she always pictured herself as becoming a lawyer, journalist, or a judge. Business wasn’t on her radar then and as she put it, given the cultural milieu at the time, “business was the establishment. In that environment, it was the enemy.”
Still, when her father asked her to join the company post-graduation, she thought she would give it a try. Since then, she became the President of Playboy at the ripe old age of 29 and has stayed with the company. Though has not earned on MBA, Hefner says she did get the experience of an MBWA, or “management by walking around.” During her time at Playboy, she successfully re-capitalized the company, launched their products internationally, and steered the company towards the internet in 1994, making it the first national magazine on the web. In part, that decision was driven by a desire to engage consumers between the ages of 18 and 29. Citing the cautionary tale of magazines such as Reader’s Digest and Life, Hefner says Playboy did not want to fall into the trap of only having an aging consumer base of readers who had grown up with the magazine.
Still, there were missteps. Hefner noted that there was a period when the Playboy brand licensed out its name carelessly in the 70s and 80s, allowing brand-damaging products to appear on the market, like Playboy air fresheners.
As she tried to reposition Playboy, Hefner noted, “a brand should be a theme park, the products are just the souvenirs you take home.” Now, Playboy sells almost $750 million in products globally, ranging from bar wear to videogames and cosmetics, with sales concentrated in Asia and Europe. She has also established smart retail partnerships with upscale stores including Kitson in LA and Colette in Paris.
Interested in moving towards a full, branded experience, Hefner pursued a partnership with the popular Palms casino in Las Vegas where Playboy opened up the popular Playboy Club that includes nouveau bunny uniforms created by fashion designer Roberto Cavalli. Hefner stated that they plan to open up high-end Playboy clubs in London and Macao next.
Moving onto the actual magazine, which Hefner says is still at the heart of an ever-expanding empire, she addressed the competition Playboy faced in recent years from other lad mags like FGM, Stuff, and Maxim. At the time, Playboy decided not to make radical changes in their editorial content in order to compete. Instead, she saw those magazines as a possible gateway to Playboy, given that she did not imagine that a man who read those magazines at 19 would still read them at age 29 or 39. When some audience members seemed skeptical of this claim, she joked, “Well, at least not some guy I’d want to have dinner with.” Instead of cannibalizing Playboy readers, Hefner claimed that the lad mag audience consisted primarily of new readers who she generously and euphemistically described as “not print-oriented.”
An audience member noted that, although the magazine continued to feature some great writing (I guess some people do read it for the articles, eh?), there has been a certain decline in Playboy’s cultural relevance. The magazine had previously featured interviews with, or articles from, luminaries such as Alex Haley, Vladimir Nabokov, Ian Fleming, Salvador Dali, Bob Dylan, Princess Grace, Truman Capote and Miles Davis. In recent years, Playboy has had a harder time getting the same high-caliber notables to sit down with them for interviews. Hefner acknowledged this problem and said she blamed part of it on the increasing “gotcha” media culture that makes celebrities a bit gun-shy about having a freewheeling interview with an outlet like Playboy.
While the magazine is still softcore, the presentation largely glided past Playboy’s 2006 acquisition of Club Jenna, making Playboy one of the largest producers of hardcore content. Despite the fact that this content seemed to be somewhat far from the “lifestyle brand” Playboy promotes, little mention was made over how the acquisition might impact their brand or might, perhaps, contradict their avowedly pro-women stance.
Hefner noted that the issue of pornography “almost never comes up with investors” who remain primarily concerned with healthy financial returns. Moreover, pointing to America’s twin legacies of Puritanism and libertarianism, Hefner commented that, in other nations, people are shocked by the level of violence in American media but generally have a more permissive view of nudity and sexuality.
Hefner went on to explain Playboy’s commitment to gender equality. A longtime vocal supporter of social causes, Hefner noted that the Playboy Foundation has supported many organizations working on women’s issues and First Amendment issues. Still, when asked about the seeming tension between her feminism and the content of Playboy, Hefner said she believed the two can coexist, that women “can be both desired and admired”.
Towards the end of the presentation, Hefner dwelled on her role in a family-owned company. She explained, “there is no conflict between the role of father and daughter.” Hugh primarily stays focused on the creative and editorial aspects of the brand while Christie runs the business.
When asked for a role model, Christie cited Katherine Graham, the legendary late publisher of the Washington Post, who also inherited her position through family but made the job undeniably her own. When Graham assumed her position, she was the only woman in publishing with such a high-ranking title and, as such, had no female role models in her field and, initially, had a difficult time being taken seriously. Needless to say, the story resonated for Hefner.
Though Hefner is at the heart of the company’s operations today, she acknowledges that she’ll never be the iconic face of the brand, swaddled in a silky robe. Thinking towards a day when the Playboy Mansion might not be occupied by her father, what is the succession plan for an icon? Christie Hefner acknowledged the challenge, paused and, smiling, remarked: “There is no mini-me waiting in the wings.”

April 23, 2007
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