How Mamaroneck Resident and Readers' Digest President Dan Lagani Revived a Dying Brand

Mamaroneck resident Dan Lagani believes in second chances. He is, he admits, “a sucker for every sad Labrador Retriever rescue story,” and has the dogs to prove it. Two years ago, he joined Reader’s Digest just after the brand emerged from bankruptcy, when industry insiders were predicting a quick demise.

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Though August 3 marked his last day with the company, 48-year-old Lagani  had spent the prior 27 months bringing Reader’s Digest back to its roots as what he and the publishing world call a “content curator,” a magazine whose mission is to gather the best stories, jokes, and tips on the web and in everyday readers’ lives, from the “50 Secrets Your Vet Won’t Tell You” to the “5 Ways Your Microwave Can Help With the Housework.” He helped connect the company to the people who support it through “We Hear You America,” a yearly campaign to provide funding and promotion for small towns in need, and pushed his publication onto as many digital platforms as possible, including Kindle and iPad. Last June, he was named president of its North America branch.

“What he’s done at Reader’s Digest has been remarkable,” says Steve Cohn, editor-in-chief of Media Industry Newsletter. In 2011, Reader’s Digest was the most popular US magazine on Kindle, but, as Cohn remembers, “A lot of people were putting that magazine for dead two years ago.”

For Lagani, success in any business is in simplicity. Create an enjoyable product, hire smart people, focus the publication process on making customers happy, find passion for your work, and, he says, you’re set. As for bringing a magazine into the digital realm, that’s as easy as creating a drive-through for a restaurant. “McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts figured out that some people want to come in, sit down, and eat there; some people want to come in and get stuff to go; and some people don’t even want to get out of their car,” he says, noting that, similarly, some readers like to sit in a chair and flip pages, while others grab their news from an iPad app or on the Internet. “I think we did the same thing at Reader’s Digest, which is to understand you have to serve your customers in the way that they want to be served.”

But Rick Roth, CEO of the strategic advisory and brand communications agency Roth Partners LLC, knows simplicity isn’t always simple. He and his team have focused several brands, including Kraft Foods and Mattel, on the true value their products provide to consumers.  At Reader’s Digest, that value was in its content-curation angle and digital potential. But, for all the focus a company like Roth Partners can give, it still takes a receptive and intelligent company president to build those ideas into the full-scale transformation Lagani achieved. “One of the good things about Dan is, he knows what he doesn’t know,” Roth says. “He recognizes the need to partner with people who don’t think just like him but can add value and challenge him. He listens to them.”

Lagani also does what Roth terms “seeing behind the curtain”—understanding how brands can build value and what will lead to growing brand relevance. “I think that’s why we were able to work so well together and accomplish so much,” Roth says.

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Lagani grew up in Mamaroneck, flipping through his parents’ copies of Reader’s Digest, carrying his own tape recorder around the house, and drawing whenever he could. At first, recording and drawing won his interest: He majored in speech communications and art at SUNY Oneonta, working at the college radio station during the week. “Business wasn’t really what I was thinking about at the time,” he says.

But, even after switching from disc jockeying to media advertising and sales, he believes he has had no reason to regret the courses he took in college or his experiences in radio. “I think each of those steps along the way bring you something,” he says. “The ability to be comfortable expressing ideas out loud—that’s been a skill that’s been critical throughout the balance of my career.”

In Media Industry Newsletter, Cohn has covered Lagani through most of those years. He’s seen him as the final publisher of George, the political magazine started by John F. Kennedy, Jr. It was Lagani’s first opportunity to run a magazine, which Lagani describes as a “trial by fire,” that led him to be “better, smarter, and more focused” in his work. Cohn interviewed him at Ladies’ Home Journal in the early 2000s, and then at Better Homes and Gardens, which he moved ahead of Martha Stewart Living in terms of ad pages. Through all of them, Cohn says, “he’s adapted himself to his jobs very well. He sees the surroundings and he makes things work.”

But, to Lagani, working with brands has been more than a job—it’s been fun. “To be able to ensure that something that’s already made such a difference to so many people continues to have that kind of impact going forward,” he says, “that’s a really satisfying and enjoyable thing for me. I wouldn’t be able to be successful at doing what I do if I didn’t love it.”

To Lagani’s wife, Fiona, who works part-time selling equestrian products in Bedford Village, that love is the most important thing. Fiona met Dan at SUNY Oneonta, where she was also a speech communications  major. She fell for his sense of humor, like the way he laughed when a cabbie mistook him for a waiter the first time he went to the city in a tuxedo. They married in October 1989. They have two kids: a daughter who is a junior at NYU, and a son who is a senior at Rye Neck High School. This summer will be their 20th anniversary of living together in Westchester County, and the 14th since moving into a house with a backyard big enough to hold their three Labrador Retrievers: Samson, Java, and Bella. “You start with one, and then you say, ‘Oh well, you know, two.’ Then, ‘What’s the difference between two and three?’ And then, well, three to four…so they just seem to keep multiplying.”

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When he isn’t taking care of his dogs or developing iconic brands, Lagani spends his time at restaurants like Sal’s Pizzeria and Walter’s Hot Dog Stand in Mamaroneck, playing golf (with an 11 USGA handicap index), or taking his son to Yankees games. “He’s a regular guy,” Roth says.

When he was building his career, “I didn’t look at it as, ‘I want to be in a really high place,’” Lagani says. “I looked at it as, ‘I want to do stuff that continues to make me happy, that I’m equipped to do, and that I feel like I can contribute to in a way that maybe others can’t.’” In the end, he believes, “You only get one shot in life.”

Photo by Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images

A Mamaroneck native, Lagani continues to call Westchester home.

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