The Architect’s Newspaper: Diana Darling on Thinking Creatively and Growing a Business
By Julia Gamolina
Diana Darling is the President and Chief Revenue Officer of AN Media Group. Founded over 15 years ago with The Architect’s Newspaper as its first publication, Diana has since expanded the company beyond a print-only business, developing AN’s Facades+ and Tech+ conferences, AN’s digital properties, and the brand’s first luxury interiors publication, AN Interior magazine. On a day-to-day basis, Diana oversees finance, sales, marketing, production, and the general media operations of the business.
Diana is incredibly engaged in the architectural community of New York. In 2006, Diana organized and helped develop the New Practices round tables, lectures, competition, and exhibition with the AIA New York chapter. Currently, Diana sits on the board of Culture Now. Prior to founding AN Media, Diana had over twenty years of graphic arts experience for companies such as Bloomingdales, The Limited, and Neiman Marcus, Gap and Banana Republic. Diana established the European marketing office for the Gap, based in London. In her interview with Julia Gamolina, Diana talks about starting The Architect’s Newspaper and the experience she has built on to do so, advising young architects to try different things and see where they lead.
JG: There are two phases to your career: pre-architecture and architecture. Take me back to the beginning - what did you study in college?
DD: I grew up in Grand Prairie, Texas and was the first person in my whole extended family to go to college. I knew I wanted to go to UT Austin; I was awarded an accounting degree in high school so I thought I would get a degree in accounting there.
However, I didn’t know anything about marketing or economics and I wasn’t doing very well in these classes, so after two semesters I thought, “Well, my other love is fashion, let me try this.” I switched to the School of Life Sciences and graduated with a BS in Textiles and Clothing! I think in the end a more creative profession was more aligned with me as a person.
What was your first job out of college?
I knew I wanted to leave Texas, but didn’t yet have the confidence or the right connections to do so. I was really on my own in figuring out what to do after college. My first job was at a catalog company called Sport Pages. Dallas is basically where catalogs started, with Neiman Marcus and Horchow. My job was to call showrooms in New York City to ask if they could send potential clothing samples for consideration in the next catalog.
About three months into working at Sports Pages, I was hired by Neiman Marcus to work in their catalog division. Around the age of 24, I was traveling and supporting fashion shoots in NYC for NM, finally ending up New York City in 1987 and continuing to work in direct mail. I worked for Victoria’s Secret, Gap, Bloomingdales, Banana Republic and other retail companies.
How did you finally begin to work in architecture?
After working on the creative and photo production side of direct mail, I moved into print publication production, learning a lot about paper, printing, circulation, budgets - all the things that put a publication together. After 20 years of doing that, my partner Bill Menking and I got introduced to the idea of starting a publication in the United States that was similar to Building Design in London.
Bill Menking was my husband at the time and I always wanted to have my own business, but did not know what that was going to be. At that time, I didn’t know anything about architecture except for what I absorbed being fully immersed in Bill’s profession. My world was just destined to be around architects somehow [laughs]. I started dating architects at UT not understanding what they did…except always working on projects for many hours.
The combination of Bill’s architecture knowledge and my direct mail and P & L knowledge, on top of advertising experience was a perfect storm for supporting a publication concept. Bill and I had just returned from living in London for two years where I was working to set up marketing production and delivery for The Gap International division. When we returned to NYC, I did not have a job and had a tiny bit of severance. We decided this was the time to test the idea of an architectural publication and we went out on a limb to make it happen.
We started The Architect’s Newspaper out of our loft in Tribeca with people stationed all over the space. A perk of the job was to do your laundry in our laundry room. Looking back it was a really fun and exciting time. We started the regional print publication on the East Coast in 2003, launched on the West Coast 2006, the Midwest in 2010, then in the Southeast, and went from there!
What was and is unique about The Architect’s Newspaper?
Nothing quite like this was being done in the United States - the idea was really about architectural news, a news source, and stemmed from Paul Finch, who runs the World Architecture Festival. Paul said that if you do something in the United States, it needs to be a regional publication - you couldn’t cover news on a national level. This was all when the internet was new and not a major focus for us.
I don’t think The Architect’s Newspaper is sexy. It is serious and sometimes dense, but it also has a snarky side that makes it unique in its editorial design coverage. I think the influence of Bill’s views, and all of our editors along the way helped to formulate AN and kept the publication fresh and current. That was a big realization for me - that this publication will take on a life of its own. People have a relationship with different parts of the content - the newsletter or the web or print only. The readers get the content how and when they want it. They do not always a relationship with us who produce it - we’re behind the scenes.
Jill Abramson recently wrote an article for New York Magazine on her time with the New York Times, and the relationship of the business with the content. How do the two coexist? How do you make sure to have great editorial and also be successful financially?
It’s tricky - she’s interesting because she was an editor who had to figure out how to make the Times work financially, and that’s not an easy task. You don’t often find editors who understand the business side – you essentially have to come up with editorial ideas that will also make money. It’s a very blurred line between editorial and business, whether you’re at Condé Nast or at a small publication like ours.
Product manufacturers are the ones providing ad dollars, and more and more, they don’t always want to buy print pages. Our clients want a unique message and different way to approach the design profession. We’re there to create great content and spread our editorial in unique ways to keep the readers interested, so marketing wise, we are constantly trying new things. Being a small company, you can thankfully pivot very quickly, and we have a great team that is dedicated to AN to support creative ideas.
Where are you in your career today?
I’m always excited about things that we’re working on and how we can change them - you can’t just be a print publication anymore. Years ago I read something that a founder at Politico wrote, and they said, “When you’re in a media company, you have to stack dimes to make it work,” meaning that you get a little bit of money from a lot of different ideas, products, and sources. That’s exactly what we do. We have two print publications -The Architect’s Newspaper and AN Interior - seven newsletters, five websites - archpaper.com, facadesplus.com, CEStrong.com, techplusexpo.com and aninteriormag.com, and multiple social media platforms for all of the different brands. We produce two conference series -Facades+ and Tech+, have a continuing education platform CE Strong, and run two design competitions annually. All of these ideas come together cohesively to form AN Media Group.
My focus right now is to build strong processes internally so we are able to manage all of our brands, and to get the most revenue out of all the different products that we produce. At this time, I’m really not looking to start anything new. I want to make sure we are doing our best to support what we have already created. I’m also trying to set up strong teams that operate seamlessly so I don’t have to be involved in so much detail. I’m focused on developing and supporting my employees, and working to become a better leader.
What have you learned about architects through all this?
I only know what I know from my 15 years of AN experience layered on my 20 years of direct mail experience - I didn’t come from architecture school or another media publication. My perspective on our audience is that I don’t think architects always see how products make and affect the design of their buildings.
In my message I always encourage exploring new products, and which products to specify. I often try to marry the two sides - I try to have manufacturers understand what architects want, what their language is, what kind of things influence them, and what the design trends are. Then on the flip side, I try to encourage the architects and designers to pay attention to products, as showcasing products and new technology is what keeps their industry fresh and moving forward. There is a lot of knowledge sharing that happens on both sides, and AN is a conduit for that.
What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced?
I think things have gotten really watered down lately in terms of architectural criticism. Many top newspapers have dropped this section of coverage. That was a top priority for AN in the beginning years, and we had a lot of really strong critics write for us. They still do sometimes, but we don’t have a full-time columnist. I'm always challenging our editors to continue this tradition. I know that this is not the business side, but I look at how we cover editorial and put my two cents in.
Another challenge is, the speed of producing editorial - we put up seven to eight new stories a day on our website, a mixture of what has occurred in print and new stories coming in on a daily basis. Our motto has always been that we are a United States publication but representing architects that are working elsewhere in the world, so we’re always trying to balance how broad we want to go and what we want to cover.
What have been the biggest highlights and what are you most proud of?
I’m most proud that we’ve made it through the recession years and that we’ve been able to become profitable. It took us a long time to become profitable - I remember fretting over every single payroll period for many years. At this point, we’ve made it and we’re beyond that. We also started the magazine AN Interior which I’m really proud of. I’m proud that the The Architect’s Newspaper is still so loved after 15 years, and that we always have people that want to work for us. Editorially, the magazine has such a great reputation. Finally, I’m most proud of the biggest love and most successful creation of my life - my daughter Halle.
What has been your general approach to your career?
I truly rely on my instincts. I physically feel ideas and they stay with me until I pay attention. I pay attention to the ones that do not go away and make something out of them. I believe that the universe delivers messages to us all the time, and if you pay attention to what is being presented to you, it creates a path for life. That being said, I really like creating spreadsheets and throwing together numbers to see if an idea is worthy financially too.
What advice do you have for those wanting to start their own companies?
I’ve never believed in venture-backed companies. We started a company and bootstrapped it, and grew a business based on how much revenue we had coming in. Now, it is popular to get seed funding, which means that people have to build a business to match the amount of money that they have been given through investors, which is hard to do and a little disingenuous because you’re making decisions that are clouded by having too much money to spend at a time when you are trying to figure out if a business idea even works. I think it would be really hard to figure out if something is viable based on the pressure of having too much start up money and answering to investors – versus the path of, “I have to get money in the door every week to make payroll - what is really going to work and sell well?”
My recommendation is to do focus-grouping. Figure out what it is that people want and try to create a product inexpensively to see how people respond to it. Persevere - you have to try a lot of different things, but also to follow through and keep trying and keep trying. You have to give things time before you decide whether they will work or not. Sometimes people pull something out of a hat and decide that it’s going to be a business, and that doesn’t always work to generate a successful one.
Finally, what advice do you have for those just starting their careers?
Sometimes you just have to put a stick in the sand, even if it doesn’t feel 100% right and you’re not totally sure that it’s what you want to do. I believe that every job you work at and that every experience that you have, opens up a window for learning that shows you something you haven’t seen before, or had exposure to, and that can influence what you do next. When I started out in direct mail for example, I had no idea what the jobs were, or what I could do with my experience and what my opportunities could be, but I stuck with it and followed a path that lead me to AN. I became an expert in one thing, and I was able to use it to segue to a different but similar profession, utilizing the same skills. Sometimes I think just going for something makes all the difference - you might find out something about yourself that you didn’t know before.