Monday, June 02, 2008

It's not all grim news in magazine land

It's not all grim news in magazine land
Some titles are showing strong gains in ad pagesBy Diego Vasquez

It surely seems the worst of times for consumer magazines, suffering as they are from the ad recession and increasing competition from other media. Indeed, over the first quarter of 2008, consumer titles experienced their worst tumble in years, with ad pages down more than 6 percent. Still, a number of magazines are showing strong gains, in some cases double-digit increases in ad pages over the prior-year period.

They include The Economist, OK!, Every Day with Rachael Ray, Women's Health, Wondertime, Men's Journal, Guideposts and Parents, among others. One might write off some of those gains to good fortune, a title being in a category of magazines that's somewhat insulated from the spending cuts that have swept through media and magazines in particular. But that's only a small part of it, if at all. In fact in many cases the gaining titles are in some of the worst-hit categories. By far the bigger factor is what the magazines are doing for themselves. They're investing dollars, they're repositioning, they're creating new voices that reach readers in new ways, they're building staff, they're adding features to their web sites, they're selling aggressively, they're taking chances.

They're heeding an age-old maxim of magazine publishing: Invest during downturns, as others cut back, and you'll win market share. In some ways, the Economist best exemplifies this aggressiveness. The title competes in two of the roughest ad categories, newsweeklies and business titles, which were each down nearly 14 percent over the quarter, yet its ad pages were up more than 5 percent. For that, North American publisher Paul Rossi credits the magazine's ongoing push to build circulation in the U.S. market, which rose 13 percent in second-half 2007, to 720,882, over the year-earlier period, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. "Circulation helps push up our rate base, which is good, but what it really does is grow the readership numbers," he says.
That in turn had made the magazine more attractive to more advertisers. "It allows us to go into other categories. Historically we would get luxury import cars, but now we have more Detroit cars. We can now go deeper into personal finance." "People want to know why we're up in pages," says Rossi. "At the end of the day we have a product that's never been more relevant, and more and more people are finding it."

*** In the case of Women's Health, whose ad pages were up 51 percent over the first quarter, its growth comes from a different way of talking to its readers. If the old mantra of women's titles was to prey on their insecurities, the new mantra, exemplified by the Rodale title, is that it's just fine to be who you are, and we're here to help you be even more. "We're all about it's good to be you. We encourage women and give them all the information we can," says publisher Mary Murcko. "We empower them to challenge themselves a little bit and have the confidence to do what they want and not to be afraid." It seems to be the language women relate to. A sister publication to Men's Health, the title launched in October 2005 with a rate base of 400,000, and that was quickly bumped to 850,000 and then in January to 1.1 million. "We've found our voice and our perspective pretty early in the plot," says editor Tina Johnson. "We've been speaking in the same voice women use to speak to themselves."

***At Every Day with Rachael Ray, where ad pages were up 38 percent in the first quarter, there were several factors at work. Certainly one is that Ray is all over television, and yet viewers never seem to tire of her bouncy good humor. But also the title launched in late 2005 with a very practical approach to cooking: putting interesting meals together in little time, and that set it apart from the traditional culinary titles, where growth had slowed for the most part. But publisher Anne Balaban says it goes beyond that. "Rachael brought a different point of view to the marketplace. She's about 'have fun and if there's something you want to do, it doesn't have to be perfect, just go ahead and do it.'" Thus the magazine's tagline, "Take a Bite Out of Life" "In this economic environment, marketers want to align their brands with something that puts a smile on customers' faces, and that's what we do," Balaban says.

*** At Guideposts, ad pages were up nearly 37 percent in the first three months of the year. Publisher Amy Molinero says sales have slowed for second quarter but are still ahead of a year ago, and that's for several reasons. The magazine has pushed deeper into food, with editorial support, and it's added to its sales staff. "Also, we've done well in the travel category, which is also new," says Molinero. Though the magazine has published for more than 60 years, it only began taking advertising in 2001. It has a rate base of 2.345 million. Says Molinero: "People had never heard of us, and they couldn't believe how long we've been publishing. While everyone else was coming down we were going up. We only had up to go."

*** In the crowded celebrity category, conventional wisdom had OK!, the British import, failing without much ado. The feeling was that it had come too late to the market. Nearly three years later, OK! is still here, and it's showing strong growth, with ad pages up 38 percent in first quarter at a time when the category grew just 2.7 percent in pages. Publisher Tom Morrissy credits that growth to the staff-building that went on in 2007. "We hired 20 sales and marketing people, and we were building programs and planting the seeds. And now they're just starting to sprout. So a lot of the work you're seeing now was accomplished a year ago." He says newsstand sales are up 22 percent so far this year, and the title has now been measured by MRI for the first time. The title has also been adding special issues. That's created a momentum for the sales team. Says Morrissy: "Presenting growth is fun for both the seller and the buyer. It really resonates with buyers who are looking for rays of light in the market."

*** At Men's Journal, which was up 21 percent in pages in the first quarter, publisher Will Schenck credits several factors: "We made a decision last year to try to capitalize on all aspects of the lifestyle of the reader. We've done a good job of developing some new categories, financial services and pharmaceuticals in particular. We've also done well in Detroit." But also helping, says Schenck, is a new corporate department at Wenner Media. "We now have the power of Rolling Stone and the power of Us Weekly to benefit us." It's given the magazine momentum with marketers, he says. "Our magazine is for a guy who's confident, and that breeds sales. Marketers seem to appreciate that. You go into meetings and you talk about it from the perspective of momentum. At the end of the day they don't give a hoot if you're up in ad pages. You're defined by the company you keep."

*** For Diane Newman, publisher at Parents, which is up 19 percent for the quarter, it's all about staying current and in touch with the new moms as they come along. "If the brand doesn't stay current, people can go other places. So we really acknowledge the new mom. We literally target Gen-Y moms. She's very different from the Gen X moms who preceded her," says Newman. "We walked away from what might be traditional sentimental editorial and photography and made it much more relevant for this generation," she says. "Keep it fresh for readers and advertisers, and they totally get it."

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