Amer Yaqub ’92

Amer Yaqub ’92 is tackling one of the biggest business challenges of the 21st century: how to keep journalism profitable.
July 1, 2009
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Amer Yaqub ’92 was appointed the publisher of Foreign Policy magazine soon after its acquisition by the Washington Post Company last September. In his new role, Yaqub must tackle one of the biggest business challenges of the 21st century: how to keep journalism alive and profitable.

Where I Aspired to Be

I had studied economics at Carnegie Mellon as an undergraduate, and before attending the School, I worked in telecommunications sales at AT&T. But I knew that ideally I wanted to be in brand management at a top consumer-products company like Procter & Gamble. These companies usually only hire top-10 MBAs, so I was fortunate to get into Columbia—the only school I applied to.

When I graduated from Columbia Business School in 1992, the market was not strong. I was recruited by Quaker Oats through on-campus recruiting. Columbia delivered. It got me situated in a top-notch job—exactly where I aspired to be.

I learned a lot at Quaker Oats and had lots of fun too. In my first month there, I met Michael Jordan, which is a pretty exciting way to start any marketing career. I also was the Captain Crunch mascot at a Chicago Bulls game! Ultimately, however, I wanted to do something else but wasn’t sure exactly what that was.

Very few of us are lucky enough to know early in life what we want to specialize in—that’s nirvana. I had to experiment with different industries. I found that my dissatisfaction with my job at Quaker Oats wasn’t related to business, but rather, I hadn’t found the position or industry that was right for me.

After a detour to law school, I landed at the Washington Post in international advertising. I know that the Columbia Business School name helped get me noticed among the pile of résumés they received. It was a glamorous job—I traveled the world representing the Post and helped almost triple the international ad category revenue over 10 years—and an amazing opportunity that ultimately led to my current position.

I work with two fellow alumni: John Alderman ’00, the general manager of the Slate Group and the publisher of Slate magazine, and Angel Florenzan ’06, Foreign Policy’s new general manager. Three Columbia Business School MBAs at a DC magazine is truly rare.

Biggest Challenge

Foreign Policy is a magazine that people not only brag about reading but actually read—it’s a hybrid that appeals to specialists and generalists. We occupy a niche, offering a combination of analysis with an attitude and readability that distinguishes us from other publications. We have a unique audience, including a fellow Columbia graduate and Washingtonian—President Obama. His top adviser described the president’s diverse reading habits as “Foreign Policy, a treatise on economics, and Sports Illustrated.”

Right now, our biggest challenge is how to monetize our content on the Web. Though some magazines are experimenting with subscription walls, the business model still needs to be worked out. It’s liberating as well as frightening, because no one really has found the answer yet.

Exposure and Access

At the School, I had the opportunity to study with excellent professors in the marketing department and to learn from executives at the top of their field. As a columnist for the Bottom Line, I met and questioned many professionals, like David Stern, the NBA commissioner, and Paul Allaire, then CEO of Xerox. I couldn’t have gotten that kind of exposure and access at a smaller school or outside New York City.

Executing Ideas

One of my jobs as a publisher is to come up with business models for new products that make money. It’s easy to come up with amazing ideas on paper, but difficult to actually execute them. At Columbia, through a product-development class, I learned that I had to be able to generate ideas with applicable real-world value. I have continually applied that lesson to my various jobs at the Post. It has helped me to come up with many ideas that have driven lots of new revenue streams. This is a distinguishing characteristic of my career, and I connect my success in this area to that particular class.

Most MBA students are blinded by their newest finance or marketing class, and they don’t see that the soft stuff is extremely applicable. I heard this when I was a student, but I ignored it too. Now, 17 years out of the School, the productdevelopment class, a public-speaking class and an interpersonal-dynamics class have the most day-to-day applicability in my life. The public-speaking class, for example, was absolutely instrumental in teaching me to hone a crucial skill. And in the interpersonal-dynamics class I learned that the biggest challenge in management is rarely just business, it’s people—how to motivate them and how to collaborate with them.

Value over Time

I realize that the further away I am from the Columbia Business School experience, the more applicable the knowledge I attained there becomes. Business schools give students case studies and lectures focused on the challenges of running companies as high-level executives. Recently graduated MBAs don’t immediately take on such advanced responsibilities. My experience has been that the value of my MBA increases over time as my responsibilities grow.


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