How Martha Stewart Built Her Media Empire From Scratch and Kept It Relevant for 30 Years

From print to TV and merchandising, Adweek's Media Visionary is synonymous with domestic arts

Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia has published 89 books on entertainment and cooking. Photo: Jennifer Livingston/Trunk Archive
Headshot of Lauren Johnson

On a recent fall morning, Martha Stewart’s New York offices look quintessentially like, well, Martha Stewart. Ensconced in Manhattan’s historic Starrett-Lehigh Building, a former freight terminal with soaring ceilings and eight miles of towering glass windows, the sun-drenched headquarters of the doyenne of domestic arts are as attractive and meticulous as one would expect. Rows of magazines fan out neatly on a coffee table, cookbooks stand like sentries in a nearby cabinet and staffers shuttle professional cooking equipment into the on-site test kitchen.

It’s not just a clean, well-lighted space; it’s an incomparably busy one. This is, after all, headquarters to Stewart’s sprawling media empire. Everything that will bear the Martha Stewart name gets a careful vetting first, and it gets it here. For more than 30 years, Stewart’s name has been synonymous with good taste in living and entertaining. Indeed, the wonder of Stewart’s empire isn’t so much its size but its diversity. A bona fide living brand, Stewart has put her imprimatur on everything from toothbrush holders to recipes for the perfect soufflé, and on every platform you can name—print, books, television, the web—somehow, the whole time, without making the brand itself seem overextended.

“It just proves that the omnimedia model, which we pioneered way back in 1989, really did work,” Stewart says. “The consolidation of the magazine world, the print world, the books, the television, the merchandising and the internet—all of those things actually did go together despite a lot of naysayers who didn’t think that they would.”

Stewart has earned the right to be a little smug. When she began building her dominion—starting with the inaugural issue of Martha Stewart Living, published by Time Inc. Ventures in the winter of 1990—the homemaker handicrafts that she championed felt like throwbacks to a forgotten era. But Stewart’s aim wasn’t just to resurrect the domestic arts, but to make them fresh: chic but also accessible. That first magazine cover featured a sweater-draped Stewart with the cutline: “Let’s create new holiday traditions.”

Photo: Jennifer Livingston/Trunk Archive

Time Inc. execs used the issue as an experiment to see if audiences were interested in Stewart’s how-to approach to cooking, gardening, entertaining, crafting and home-keeping. They were: the magazine quickly grew into a monthly famed for its beautiful photography and ambitious projects, all filtered through the confident and encouraging voice of Stewart herself.

“Martha approached it from the point of view of what’s real and it was important to photograph something as it was happening and how it really came out,” says Gael Towey, who helped launch the first issue and worked for 22 years at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSLO) in creative and executive roles. “Martha brought an incredible sense of the importance of teaching, sharing and being correct.”

In fact, Stewart had been doing those things long before she became a household name. Born Martha Kostyra and raised in working-class Nutley, N.J., Stewart earned a history degree at Barnard and worked as a Wall Street stockbroker before moving with then-husband Andy Stewart to tony Westport, Conn., where she taught herself to cook and started a highly successful catering company.

A series of best-selling entertaining books opened the door for more ambitious projects, including a TV show created with Group W Productions starting in 1993. The airwaves had never seen anything quite like it: a home-ec virtuoso proficient in everything from arranging flowers to baking tarts, filmed inside her Federal-period farmhouse in Connecticut. She demonstrated how to properly make a bed and cook gravy from scratch. Before decorating a room for Thanksgiving, “I’ve scoured the yard picking crab apples, and quinces from the quince trees,” she chirped (as though everyone had quince trees). Stewart baked pies, gathered eggs, restored furniture and created an inexhaustible supply of household helpers—sewing kits, felt rounds for plates—of which she proclaimed, “It’s a good thing.” Stewart powered through the initial skepticism to create a show that ran for 13 years and won 13 Emmys (and since then, 18 in all).

But Stewart’s most lasting success is her ability to cross-promote. The TV presence publicized the magazines and cookbooks and, later, sold the merchandise. It still does. To date, MSLO has published an astonishing 89 books on entertainment and cooking, and Stewart’s name still appears in print, on TV, on merchandise, and on a host of web and mobile platforms. Yet despite the expansion, Stewart’s ethos has never really changed: good taste always matters, and everyone is capable of achieving it.

“We have had a very powerful message in our magazines that home and good living are important in this day and age,” Stewart says. “I think that [people] want that message; they continue to follow what we discuss in our publications, products and in our television shows.”

That’s not to say there haven’t been stumbles along the way. On the heels of a 1999 IPO, MSLO was a megalith of print, cranking out seven magazines, including offshoots like Whole Living, Everyday Food and Martha Stewart Baby. But once the web bled off readers and gutted print-ad revenues, all titles folded except for Martha Stewart Living and Martha Stewart Weddings. “Whole Living was a fantastic magazine and I hated to see that stop and I tried very hard to keep it,” Stewart admits, but she is philosophical. “You have to just go with the times,” she says.

The times were not always kind to Stewart. In 2004, Stewart’s legal troubles, compounded by more digital disruption impacting all media, led to some challenging years.

Though MSLO was valued at $1.9 billion at its peak, the company was sold to Sequential Brands Group in 2015 in a cash-and-stock deal valued at $353 million. The surviving titles are now published by Meredith Corp. Stewart herself still meets weekly with her team to go over the content and, considering how the web has eviscerated so much of the magazine business, her titles still turn in respectable numbers. According to the Alliance for Audited Media, Martha Stewart Weddings has a circulation of nearly 219,000, while the flagship Martha Stewart Living has 2.1 million readers. Meanwhile, its cross-platform audience, according to MPA – The Association of Magazine Media, reached 15.5 million in August.

“Martha Stewart Living has survived despite the ravages of competition and the ravages of even paper, printing and mailing expenses,” Stewart says. “You have to continually reinvent, redo, change.”

Perhaps nowhere is change more evident for the Martha Stewart brand than in technology and digital media, a world that Stewart seems to have understood earlier than many. She faults the publishing industry itself for some of its current woes because it “didn’t embrace the internet in the right way.” Stewart recounts how, around 1995, she wanted to make the digital version of her magazines available solely to subscribers. But “Time [Inc.] did not think that was a good idea,” she says.

Which is too bad. In hindsight, she says, “if all of us [publishers] had gotten together early and charged for our information, it wouldn’t have all just been put up [online for free.]”

Pay-wall matters aside, Stewart has done well on social media. Across all social platforms, her brands and personal accounts boast 13.46 million followers. On Instagram, Martha Stewart counts 1.5 million followers, and 2.3 million on Facebook. Facebook Live in particular has been a boon. In July 2015, Stewart was one of the first to test the livestreaming feature and she has since presented more than 60 broadcasts.

Even so, as more publishers have followed suit, it’s getting harder to cut through the clutter. “In less than a year, the competition for eyeballs on Facebook Live has maybe gone up 10 times,” Stewart says. “[If] we do a Facebook Live at 12:30 in the afternoon, who’s going to be watching when there’s about a million other Facebook Lives going on at that time?”

Dozens of brands like BuzzFeed’s Tasty, Real Simple and Bon Appétit are also vying to capitalize on digital lifestyle content. When asked what she thinks about the popular overhead cooking videos that dominate social feeds, Stewart says, “We’ve been doing that kind of video for many, many years already,” though she recognizes that the competition helps in getting new audiences interested in cooking.

Stewart is also particularly interested in Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ goal to flip the retail and food industries on their heads. For example, she’s working with the ecommerce giant and meal cooking-kit company Marley Spoon so that customers in New York, Dallas, San Francisco and Philadelphia can buy pre-packaged meals through AmazonFresh.

“Jeff Bezos can actually save us a tremendous amount of food and provide food for the rest of the world by learning how to sell food in the right way,” she says. “He’s going to figure out how to get food at the right price to the people of this country in the best possible way.”

Meanwhile, Stewart’s branded merchandise retains a widespread presence across the retail sector, selling everywhere from Macy’s to Home Depot, Kmart to QVC. In 1997, when Stewart introduced her Everyday line of sheets and towels in Kmart (a deal that grew from a consulting pact inked a full decade earlier), naysayers predicted that she’d cheapen the upscale brand she’d worked so hard to build. Instead, Stewart proved that luxury can actually work in a mass-retail setting—a move that high-end fashion designers have since copied with their capsule collections. For Stewart, there was never any contradiction apparent. She instructs good taste, and sells the accessories to achieve it. Explains Towey, “It was always that what we were selling was authentically connected to how to use it.”

That mission hasn’t slowed. Most recently, Stewart signed a multiyear contract with QVC to create and sell apparel, food and beverages and—for the first time—skin-care products. According to QVC’s Ken O’Brien, svp of global brands management and U.S. buying, Stewart will likely go on QVC six or seven times in the fourth quarter to promote the line. She is also involved in product development meetings.

For example, one of her QVC products is a hori hori knife that Stewart actually uses while gardening at home. “Martha knows exactly the weight, exactly where you’d want it to be pointed—it’s that level of detail that Martha brings to the product,” O’Brien says. “Nobody tells the story of Martha’s product like Martha does.”

Indeed, one surprising aspect of Stewart’s empire is that she remains so involved in it, and is still pushing its limits. Last year she whipped up a cooking show for VH1 with, of all people, Snoop Dogg. It’s called Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party, and the first episode of its second season netted 1.8 million viewers. “He’s teaching me about music and about a culture that I would never be privy to otherwise,” says Stewart, who just so happens to be sporting the $56.50 faux pearl ankle jeans from her QVC collection. “This is an odd pairing but also very fun—my cool factor has really soared because of this program.”

The idea for the show came together after both celebs hit it off while taping Comedy Central’s Roast of Justin Bieber, where Chris McCarthy, president of MTV, VH1 and Logo, realized that they were just what he was looking for in creating a new cooking show for VH1. “They embody a culture clash—she’s pop-culture royalty,” says Nina Diaz, head of unscripted for VH1 and MTV. “I don’t think there’s anybody bigger, more successful and had a longer career in the food space and always keeping herself relevant.”

Going forward, Stewart says that her media chops will remain relevant because “we all need inspiration and we will continue to do that.”

Regardless, Stewart is undoubtedly more open to new platforms and opportunities than one might think. “I’ve been able to change my focus and my approach, which is very important in business,” she says. “Change is good.”

Or, as an earlier Martha might have said, “It’s a good thing.”

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This story first appeared in the Oct. 30, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@laurenjohnson Lauren Johnson is a senior technology editor for Adweek, where she specializes in covering mobile, social platforms and emerging tech.
Publish date: October 29, 2017 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT