The Anatomy of ‘The 40’


For months, we’ve been talking in code at my office.

“Where’s the 40 folder?” “Are we doing open bar at the 40?” “Those are for The 40.”

We’ve been so wrapped up in this lingo that it’s been hard to decode for outsiders. But now that we’ve put our magazine’s biggest event of the year behind us, let the translation begin.

For those of you who don’t know, ‘Forty Under 40’ is sort of a brand in the business journal world. There’s no single entity that controls these contests, but many journals across the country hold annual Forty Under 40 competitions within their readership area, to cull 40 of the most promising young professionals in the region and give them their comeuppance. Journals and magazines take on the project in varying degrees of grandiosity, but there’s usually a print component – a list of The 40 with a photo, for instance, and an event such as a dinner or awards ceremony.

That’s about all we knew at my office two years ago, when we decided to launch our first Forty Under 40. Eighty recipients later, I’d like to think that we’re just hitting our stride, but with wisdom infinitely more far-reaching than when we bought into this crazy idea.

To give you an inside look at the planning, here’s the low-down on the hoe-down:

Meetings (yay, meetings!) begin about six months ahead of time. There’s a venue to secure, marketing materials to design, nomination forms to draft, judges to pick … we’re a one-stop shop, you see. Event planners? Nevah! From there, we start hyping the nomination process, as well as the issue and party that announce and celebrate the winners. We schmooze at after-fives here and there, mention it at our appointments … grass-roots efforts at their best. Then, when we get closer to nomination time, we write and record our own radio spots. Fellow writer Joe and I usually take on this part…we have fun running the lines with each other and playing with the background music tracks with the producer.

The nomination forms are posted on our Web site and placed in print issues, and since we’re only two years into this process, we still watch the mail and the fax machine to see them trickle in. Then we fight over who gets to look at it first like ducks over a breadcrumb, before they’re placed, carefully, into a manila envelope with the others.

The real whirring begins when the deadline for nominations is reached and we start collecting the forms to send to the judges. We don’t have any say in who’s picked – last year, it was three outside judges from the business community, and this year, there were five. Five bulging FedEx boxes went out … five thin envelopes with scores came back. The top 40 are skimmed off the top, and we get very acquainted with that group over the next few months. The creepy thing for them, though, is most don’t ever see any of us until the big party.

Joe, our editor, me, and a freelancer split up The 40 in groups of ten and start calling them, to have informal chats about the information on their nomination forms, their goals, hobbies… basically everything that makes them stellar. These are compiled into a pull-out section in a special issue, and paired with photos – one of my favorite aspects of the whole process. For the last two years, this studio has taken the photos of our winners, who are asked to bring props to illustrate their jobs, past-times, or something else they’re passionate about, like their families and pets.

Here’s my favorite from this year:


Once the issue drops, there’s mayhem in the streets! Extra! Extra! Readalluhboutit! The Forty Under 40 are here!

Well, there is a buzz, I can say that much. That’s what sustains the office as we pause only to take a breath and leap right into event planning 101. We decided as a team last year to keep our event as hip and low-stress as possible, to be a good fit with the winners and their colleagues and friends. Instead of a sit-down dinner, for example, we have station-service, and we ask the venue (we’ve had two different locations so far) to work with us to create a trendy-but-cohesive menu. I’m pretty sure that at some point, someone from our office has actually said trendy-but-cohesive in conversation. Last year, the big hits were the risotto bar and the fresh mojitos. This year, Go Green salad and the paella table were popular. I was a fan, however, of the beignets. Fancy name for doughnut in a cup. Doooouughhhhnuuuut.

The party itself is a fun event, as illustrated here by Forty Under 40 winner Brendan Ciecko and the ice sculpture:


…but many people don’t realize that we are at the venue about six hours before it ever begins. At that point, we’ve already ordered trophies, secured sponsors for the event, and received gifts from them to give to each winner. The menu is set, the guest list is finalized, the tickets are sold, and a framed reprint of every winner’s blurb from the Forty Under 40 issue has been created – and framed – by the graphics department (all two of them). Oh, and the band! Cidade, they are fantastic:

On my end, I’ve drafted my script (I’m the emcee) and Tweeted photos of potential outfits to my Tweets – they chose outfit #3, and so did I.
We all get to the venue in sweats, though, because stuffing schwag bags is serious work. Seriously. It’s time consuming.

We set up the stage, the sponsor tables, the schwag, the awards, and the welcome table, and finished this time around with just enough time for food. The quick-change from set-up crew to professional magazine staff in semi-formal attire is not an easy feat, though. Two years running, we’ve been able to, thankfully, make use of the venues’ bridal suites to look more presentable, and two years running a bunch of 30-plus-year-olds have turned into a gaggle of prom goers on Red Bull. It’s amazing any of us escaped without curling iron burns on our foreheads.

But as the guests arrive feeling the excitement of an event about to begin, we’re feeling the denouement of a process that’s nearing its close. I think this collision created a great energy for the gala this year; the crowd was into it, we were relaxed – or relaxing – and there were no major issues. The next day, rolling into the office in varying degrees of acceptably tardy, we reflected on The 40 gala and decided it had been a smash, while tempering our relief and pride by talking about how we’ll do even better next year. We’ll start marketing earlier, for instance, and maybe hold a press conference to announce next year’s venue and get the buzz going sooner.

40 under 40

We’ll also work on branding our Forty Under 40 materials with those of our company, making a bridge that automatically connects the notion of a Forty Under 40 with our magazine. This is to strengthen both the company and the competition, and to combat confusion with our regional ABC affiliate, which happens to be channel 40. And which, apparently, covered the event and had footage of me emceeing on the nightly news. I didn’t find out until the next day and I’m really, very glad; ugh! Being on TV is the worst!

There’s not much time to dwell at any rate – it won’t be long until the whole process starts again. If that’s what I have to do to get a doughnut in a cup, so be it.

Published: Wednesday, 28 May 2008 Tags: under 40


A visitor‘ left this comment on 29 May 08
Man, I have a face for radio, huh?

George the Editor still picks on me for saying that the day the 40 winners come back from the judges, when we divvy up who writes what profile, is like “Christmas morning.” Hey, they’re 400 words long, they’re more interesting than writing about banking or insurance, and you don’t have to leave your desk to do the interview. Happy holidays, I say.

I liked the crab cakes best. Spot-on, as Gordon would say. And I totally smuggled out four chocolate-covered strawberries to bring home to Jenn.

A visitor‘ left this comment on 28 May 08
I couldn’t help it. I had to laugh out loud at: Doooouughhhhnuuuut.

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