The National Geographic Society in Washington DC distributed the first issue of its eponymous magazine to 165 members, back in 1888.
Today, the National Geographic brand touches around 250 million people worldwide. There are several versions of the magazine: the English-language editions and local-language editions produced as joint ventures with local publishing partners. Then there's the National Geographic Channel and the growing list of brand extension titles in the US such as National Geographic Kids, Adventure and National Geographic Traveler.
The travel title launched in Holland this year as a joint venture with Gruner & Jahr, and tests for the Adventure and Kids titles are underway in the UK and Australia.
The increasingly dynamic National Geographic empire is a far cry from the wildlife title in the dentist's waiting room.
"National Geographic started as a society, but evolved into a media company with a mission," Sean Flanagan, the worldwide publisher for the English-language edition, says.
This mission is funding projects such as expeditions or education outreach initiatives, including studies of shipwrecks such as The Titanic and educating women in Afghanistan. To date, the society has funded more than 7,500 scientific research projects.
Because it is owned by a society, National Geographic isn't a traditional media owner. A large portion of the magazine remains strictly advertising-free. In the June issue, this ad-free zone, borded in yellow, weighs in at a hefty 114 pages.
In an age in which it's common to have to play hunt the editorial in a telephone-directory-sized glossy, the approach is unusual: "Only 18 per cent of National Geographic is advertising. The industry standard in the US is nearer 50 per cent," Steve Giannetti, the vice-president and worldwide publisher, says.
Nor will the magazine bend on its ratecard. "We're a not-for-profit organisation," Michel Siegfried, the international advertising director, explains. "So flexibility on discounts is minimal. Compared with our competitors, we're pretty tough, although volume of business might incur some discount."
And certain advertisers spend a lot with National Geographic. Canon is the magazine's most loyal advertiser. Having spent $50 million with the title during the past 23 years, the magazine carries a bespoke page of advertising for Canon under the title "Wildlife as Canon sees it", with a photograph and information about an endangered species. Another advertiser is HSBC, which has a position next to a house ad highlighting the work of a National Geographic photographer or explorer.
Its array of media provides potential for cross-platform deals. Rebecca Hill, the international marketing director, says: "Not many brands can do what we do with books, events and media."
The media strategist Jonathan Darby is a huge fan, although with one caveat: " I have an enormous amount of respect for National Geographic but it is an odd organisation to deal with. I deal with completely different people from print to TV. It'd be nice if everything was hubbed around one organisation."
National Geographic is waking up to this, according to Declan Moore, the Washington DC-based director of marketing and business development.
"There is increasing demand from clients for cross-platform deals and we're able to accommodate them."
The National Geographic Channel launched internationally in 1998 and in the US in 2000. It has three primary shareholders - National Geographic, NBC and News Corporation - and it grew out of the feted National Geographic Specials. Deborah Armstrong, the senior vice-president, media sales and partnership, says: "TV complements everything else we have."
The TV channel has created bespoke packages for the likes of Toyota and Cathay Pacific. In fact, it's been performing so well that the National Geographic sales team in London also sells Sky News. Armstrong explains: "Both are strong brands with a lot of trust and loyalty, so partnerships are very attractive." Georgina Hickey, the international business director at Carat, approves of the link-up. "It's a nice complement as it combines news and leisure."
Hickey, who has used the channel for brands such as Adidas and Vodafone, lauds the National Geographic Channel sales team: "They have bent over backwards to do things differently, particularly if someone wants a funky idea that doesn't cost too much."
Armstrong's faith in National Geographic is typical of its staff: there is energy and passion within the organisation about the missions it funds.
Flanagan says 50 per cent of the US sales force has been there for 15 years; few media owners can boast that kind of loyalty. It all comes back to the society's activities, which enrich the media brands. As Siegfried says: "When you buy National Geographic, you are buying a BMW; you wouldn't go into a BMW showroom and ask for a discount. Quality is not cheap."
Total circulation (English and local language): 8.8 million
Circulation (English): 6.6m, US: 5.5 m
Circulation (local language): 2.2 million
Readership in Europe (EMS 2003): 4,523,000
Top advertising sectors globally: Consumer electronics, finance, travel,
Local language edition partners (a selection): Gruner & Jahr, France,
Germany, Poland, Netherlands; Editorial Televisa (Latin America);
Nikkei Business Publications (Asia)
Magazine brands: National Geographic Kids; National Geographic
Adventure; National Geographic Traveler
TV brand: National Geographic Channel, launched 1998
Top advertising sectors on TV: Cars, airlines, banks
Average daily viewing (EMS 2003): 853,000