IBM’s Think and the Power of Great Owned Publishing

Sometimes we think we’re inventing the future and find someone’s already been there.

Doing some research on branded journalism, I pulled up issues of IBM’s old Think magazine. I read a number of issues of Think more than a decade ago when researching my book about Thomas Watson Sr., but wanted to look at them again through this owned-content lens. And what I found was startling.

Seventy years ago, IBM was doing what some smart companies ought to do now.

In short, Think was a real magazine. It started out in 1935 — the teeth of the Depression — as a pet project backed by Watson. He loved to associate himself and IBM with top cultural and political figures, and he wanted IBM to be seen as what we’d today call a thought leader — not just in technology, but in business and world affairs. So he funded Think, and instructed its editor, Edmund Hackett, to fill it with great writers writing about timely topics.

The July 1942 issue, on the brink of war, has German author Thomas Mann, who fled to Switzerland when Hitler came to power, writing “The Citizen’s Wartime Duty,” and the King of Greece writing “Every Greek Was Ready.” A 1963 issue featured Sargent Shriver on “What We’ve Learned in the Peace Corps.” In 1968, Peter Drucker wrote, “Education: The High Cost of Low Production” and economist Paul Samuelson wrote, “Lifting the Curse of the Poor.”

Do those stories sound like they’re explicitly pushing IBM’s agenda? No they do not.

think mag

The publication changed over the years, but it stayed true to the idea of gathering high quality work about a range of topics, including the arts, science, and management. The magazines were mostly sent free to employees, customers, and influential people. It fizzled as a public-facing publication in the 1970s and turned into a more internal-focused magazine. By the time IBM stopped publishing Think — in IBM’s crisis years of the 1990s — it was being sent to 360,000 employees in 65 countries.

Did the magazine directly generate business for IBM? Probably not. But certainly in the 1930s and 1940s, when IBM was not yet the powerhouse we know now, Think helped it build a high-minded reputation, which the company still enjoys today.

These days, more and more companies are hiring accomplished journalists to create credible content. But no company that I know of is doing anything as lofty as Think in its heyday.

Maybe they should.


One thought on “IBM’s Think and the Power of Great Owned Publishing

  1. Early TV shows, too, were completely sponsored by brands, so we are, indeed, relearning something we knew before.

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