PROFILE: Lalli brings mass-market insight to custom pubs

Howard Lalli has bounced between the big national glossies and local outlets, but now he's between the marketing and editorial worlds in his custom-publishing role at Edelman.

Howard Lalli has bounced between the big national glossies and local outlets, but now he's between the marketing and editorial worlds in his custom-publishing role at Edelman.

Four summers ago, Howard Lalli was a supporting character in one of the biggest media dramas of the last century: the unveiling of Talk magazine. A magazine veteran with, as he describes it, "a weird specialty in launches and relaunches," Lalli was the first in a succession of managing editors at the ill-fated title. Though he was high up on the masthead, the attention was locked on the name at the very top - Tina Brown. Talk, of course, was the fruit of her high-profile union with Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein. The mild-mannered Lalli didn't warrant much ink until news of his departure just a few months after the launch reached reporters, who interpreted him as a casualty of Brown's reputed impossible management style. But the truth was far from the gossip pages' rendition. Lalli's move was not just from Talk, but from New York, and it was long in the making. And, despite appearances, the only thing it symbolized was his desire to change his life. In the intervening years, Lalli has gone from a mainstay of Manhattan's glossy magazine galaxy to a PR man living in suburban Atlanta with his wife and two children. He is still in publishing, but the long nights and 4am calls are in the past, as are the unique creative and businesses challenges that face a national-magazine start-up. Now the challenge is different: Lalli is trying to find a way to make magazines work for clients of one of the largest PR agencies, using publishing, not pitches. As SVP of Edelman's relatively new custom-publishing unit, he's heading up one of the few efforts within PR agencies to adapt for American businesses a medium that's long been successful in the UK. Though the operation's initial wave of projects is still in discussion, Lalli is well aware of his position in a growing part of the marketing industry. "This is a very interesting moment to be pursuing custom publishing," he says, "because, for better or worse, what you think of as consumer media and what's practiced in advertising and PR and other forms of marketing are all blurring together in lots of ways." As opposed to traditional consumer publications, custom magazines have corporate or institutional messages embedded - with varying degrees of subtlety - in the articles. What's being blurred is the difference between editorial and marketing, which like that between church and state, is often imagined as a line, or, as magazine consultant Michael Caruso puts it, "a fence that really isn't that high these days." Caruso, who worked with Lalli at Talk and Vanity Fair, says his former colleague is perfect to be perched on the fence. "He has a big-time sensibility and a common touch," Caruso says. "He understands the mass market." This understanding, Caruso says, stems from a life and career that's oscillated between glamourous large-circulation general-interest titles and small publications based in flyover country. "One of the best things about Howard is that he's not from New York," says Caruso. "People in New York are editing for their buddies at [media hangout] Michael's, and forget who the real customers are." Lalli grew up in Pittsburgh, where as he became a self-described "media hound." His idols were larger-than-life media figures like Howard Cosell and hard-boiled newspaperman Mike Royko. By college, his career choice had come down to either magazines or newspapers, a decision that was made when, fresh out of Dickinson College, he was hired as a temp at Conde Nast. A full-time editorial assistant spot at Vanity Fair came shortly after. That was in 1990, during the magazine's Tina Brown era, when it was producing media sensations like the cover featuring a naked and pregnant Demi Moore. Within two years, he moved over to The New Yorker, where he eventually became assistant managing editor. Brown had just moved there, and it wouldn't be long before she livened the staid literary sensibility with an appreciation for pop culture. Says Lalli, "To say that it was a relaunch is overstating it, but it was certainly a revolutionary time at The New Yorker." He saw firsthand how a magazine could change course. "One of Howard's strengths is coming up with the big idea," says Kenna Simmons, managing editor of Georgia Trend magazine. "He knows how to package the big idea, and how to get publicity for it." Emerging from Conde Nast in 1995, Lalli spent the next six years applying what he'd learned at titles that were either brand new or in need of a dramatic overhaul. These included two Jewish publishing projects (a newspaper chain in Florida and a community magazine in Atlanta), as well as a regional magazine in central Pennsylvania, and, of course, Talk. He entered PR in 2001, when he began to work with The Headline Group, an Atlanta agency that was bought last year by Edelman. Even for a longtime journalist, the shift to PR wasn't drastic. Working firsthand with clients on media relations and corporate issues led him to think differently about the profession, which, he admits, he once thought was only about faxing press releases. He's found that his magazine background has leant itself well to his present career. "You're essentially using a lot of the same critical-thinking skills - communications skills that you use on the media side," he says. "You're just doing it on behalf of a business of some sort. Media for me was never a holy endeavor. From early in my career, I was part of the business of publishing." ----- Howard Lalli 2002-present Edelman 2000-2002 Launched Jewish community magazine "Chai"; Started custom publishing and worked with The Headline Group 1999-2000 Atlanta Magazine, executive editor 1998-1999 Talk magazine, managing editor 1996-1998 Central PA Magazine, editor and publisher; WITF-TV and -FM (parent company), VP 1995-1996 Palm Beach/Boca Delray Jewish Times, editor 1992-1995 The New Yorker, assistant managing editor 1990-1992 Vanity Fair, editorial staff

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