Maven’s Tech Leaders Will ‘Champion the Journalism’ at Sports Illustrated
When Derek Liddell played at Garfield High School, a storied basketball school in Seattle, he got to work with Frank Ahern, an urban legend considered one of the greatest coaches and sports educators in the city’s history.
Ahern, who died in 2013, was a master at getting young players to buy into solid fundamentals as a foundation that holds up under duress and over time. In sports, talent scouts place high value on repeatable skills, which often trump massive athleticism.
“It didn’t matter if I made five straight jump shots,” said Liddell, the Senior Vice-President of Program Management at Maven, “Ahern would say if your form was off when you needed to make the next one, you wouldn’t have what it takes. So that really focused me on the importance of good fundamentals such that when I made it into my software career, I still keep those teachings with me.”
Liddell talks about the integration of the venerable Sports Illustrated brand into the Maven model and leadership in ways that echo that critical lesson he learned in sports: Creating a foundation for SI’s vaunted content built for the long haul, digitally and financially.
This is a mission similarly described by Richard McDade, Maven’s Creative Director, and Sarah Stringfellow, Maven’s Vice President for Publisher Services. Along with Liddell, they are the three leads of the massive product and design project to migrate Sports Illustrated to Maven’s technology platform. Maven acquired the license to publish SI in June, 2019. Led by senior management with experience at the likes of CBS, Fox, Yahoo, Microsoft and Google, Maven has built a publishing and business platform with 100 million unique users.
Liddell, McDade and Stringfellow also bring world-class product and programming experience from a litany of heavyweight companies and agencies, including Microsoft, Starbucks and Google, and have led the buildout of a 300-site coalition of brands and experts. They also share a passion for print and digital content that peaks to a reverence for the Sports Illustrated brand.
“We want to champion the journalism,” said McDade, who joined Maven from Microsoft, where he was Creative Director for Microsoft 365 Studio. “It’s very much like the Nike philosophy. Nike champions the athletes, and everything they do is about the athlete. It's about LeBron (James), it's about KD (Kevin Durant). It's about Kyrie (Irving). Shoes are the secondary part. It’s really about the athlete and that's what we want to welcome to Sports Illustrated. It's about the journalism, about the photography. From a design perspective, anything that takes away from the journalism, that takes away from the photography, is secondary or tertiary.”
Before Microsoft, McDade was Associate Creative Director at Starbucks and Design Lead at Google. Between those companies, and a string of smaller, leading-edge firms, McDade figures he’s done work for every Fortune 500 company. He says he enjoys working with household names, in part, because, “it helps my mom know what I’m doing for a living.”
During his career, McDade has worked on product, brand and marketing individually. The challenge of bringing all three to one creative house – as he calls it, “global consumer experience” – was what lured him to Maven.
McDade is a passionate sports fan and, at 6 feet 3, is pretty intimidating at the net when playing beach volleyball with his wife. He envisions reintroducing a boldness to Sports Illustrated that leans on premium elements, such as its deep-dive journalism and world-class photography, that makes it what he describes as “a smart person’s guide to sports.”
“I pick up a magazine because it inspires me,” McDade said. “That’s what I want to do for SI. I want it to be something my fellow creatives pick up and they’re inspired by it again. And I know we’re going to achieve that because we’re going to focus on what makes that brand special.”
Stringfellow came to Maven when the company acquired Say Media in spring of 2018. She has extensive experience providing next-level publishing and business platforms for a coalition of leading media brands.
"Sarah has worked with major media companies like A+E, Sports Illustrated, and Maxim to empower their digital businesses,” said Ben Trott, Maven’s Chief Product Officer. “She works as both a tactical and a strategic partner: communicating product capabilities, organizing content migrations, and working with ad operators to implement monetization, on the one hand; influencing editorial strategy, communicating industry trends, and driving roadmaps, on the other."
Stringfellow led the migration of History in 2018; it had 4.6 million page views the day after it went live, Sept. 11, representing its biggest day of traffic to date. This year, it topped that daily mark by 1.1 million, for 5.7 million total. She also led the integration of Active Interest Media, which includes titles such as Backpacker Magazine, Ski Magazine and Yoga Journal. That project was completed at lightning speed, launching 50 websites in 32 weeks. More recently, in a matter of weeks, Stringfellow led an effort to replace Sports Illustrated’s content-management system which produced a 75% improvement in its website’s download time, as well as immediate increases in consumer page views per session.
“We know how to do this,” Stringfellow said of the Sports Illustrated project. “We've done hundreds of sites, we have a process that works, we have a tool set that works. We know what we're doing.”
Magazines are where Stringfellow wanted to be since she was a child. She still has a closet full of Sunset Magazines she has collected over the years; her grandfather has a room full of National Geographics. Stringfellow earned a literature degree at University of California, Santa Cruz, not to teach or write, but to work at magazines. When she couldn’t find an internship to help launch such a career, she went to the graduate program in literature at San Francisco State, which helped her earned the internship she wanted.
“I feel like I’ve come full circle,” Stringfellow said.
Liddell, the hooper turned product developer, also believes Maven and the Sports Illustrated project has brought him full circle in his career. He earned his degree in electrical engineering at the University of Washington in his hometown. At the time, the internet was just emerging and he worked in handheld computing, much of it serving as a precursor to the software used in smartphones today. Liddell then spent 14 years at Microsoft, where he says, “I was refining my process.”
At Microsoft, Liddell spent time as a program manager and development lead. He worked on the process of writing software, regardless of application, so it would be done correctly and retain a timeliness that leveraged market conditions. He spent the bulk of his career there, he says, straddling the line between engineering, development and business management. The opportunity to combine all those elements is what attracted him to Maven and has him excited about Sports Illustrated.
“I had that magazine coming to my house since I was like 11 years old,” Liddell said of SI. “So this is a huge opportunity to work on a brand I have history with.”
Liddell has focused from the start on Maven’s unique style of community engagement, “marrying your great writing on whatever topic you're the expert on with a community of people who are passionate about what you're writing about,” as he puts it. The topic Liddell oversaw was team sports; the sites developed have been used to add team-specific coverage to Sports Illustrated, adding four million new users to the SI brand by the end of October.
“It wasn't like we came into it thinking, this is about Sports Illustrated,” Liddell said. “When you're prepared, and you're positioned, some things just happen. So the hard work that was in front of us at the time, didn't seem so hard because we were already passionate about sports. You know how important the brand is, and you already have a vision that you're operating on, so it's just going to go together.”