Thursday, July 17, 2008

In these hard times, some titles are up in pages

When the going's tough, the tough sell
In these hard times, some titles are up in pages
By Diego Vasquez
This last quarter was the worst in recent memory for consumer magazines, and it doesn't look very promising going forward, contrary to some forecasts that see magazines rebounding in the second half of 2008.

How bad was the second quarter?

Ad pages were down 7.4 percent, according to Publishers Information Bureau figures, and of the 23 magazine categories tracked by Media Life, all but one saw pages fall.

Just a handful of magazines saw improved ad page counts, among them OK!, up 31.7 percent; The Economist, 3.7 percent; Harper's Bazaar, 9.4 percent; Conde Nast Traveler, 3.8 percent; National Geographic, 11 percent; Popular Mechanics, 8 percent; and Everyday with Rachael Ray, 15.4 percent.

To get a better sense of the state of the magazine industry, and why some magazines are up in pages, Media Life talked to their publishers, as well as longtime magazine consultant Martin Walker of Walker Communications.

These are anxious times, they agree.

"I've seen a lot of ups and downs, but this is scary," Anne Balaban, publisher of Everyday with Rachael Ray, tells Media Life. "We're hearing day after day about how many marketers just aren't advertising. It's across the board. It's every industry, not just ours. These are trying times."

Says Lisa Hughes, vice president and publisher of Conde Nast Traveler: "It's harder to find that customer out there who's still consuming. The economy is the economy, and there are a lot of unknowns right now. The election, will oil prices ever come down? It's a tough business climate for everybody."

William Congdon, publisher of Popular Mechanics, agrees. "We're in for a challenging second half. Right now we're up through the October issue at least, but I know it will be challenging. Through first quarter it will still be very challenging. A lot of it depends on when we get a new president and people figure out what direction we're heading."

Says Jason Webby, vice president of advertising sales at the Economist: "I would hope magazines rebound in the second half of this year. That's everybody's hope. But with what's happening in the financial markets, especially this week, you never know."

Walker doesn't see consumer magazines springing back anytime soon.

"The industry probably won't turn around until at least 2010," he says. "Most of the decisions about next year are being made in the next two or three months, so all of those will be based on what's happening now. If the economy all of a sudden gets good in 2009, that's not enough time to impact the second half of next year, given the print cycle."

A major hurt has been the drop in pharmaceutical ads, which had buoyed consumer titles for several years. For this first half of this year, ad pages for drugs and remedies fell 13.2 percent.

Always controversial, drug advertising has come under closer scrutiny by regulators following a rash of lawsuits over harmful side effects that were not detected or revealed before going to market. Marketers, anxious to avoid tougher regulation, are cutting ad spending, and they've entirely cut advertising for new drugs in their first six months.

Certainly, the falloff in drug advertising has hurt a lot of titles, and it's something publishers have no control over. That's true of all ad categories.

But a huge factor in how well a title is doing is in the hands of publishers, and that's in how hard and how well they sell. That especially matters during tough times, these publishers say.

Conde Nast Traveler's Hughes says it's about coming up with better ideas.

"You have to be really out there, you have to be aggressive as a sales team. Advertisers are demanding great programs, and they scrutinize every dollar they spend. The titles that are hungry for the business and coming up with good ideas are going to win the business."

Says Rachael Ray's Balaban: "This is when it really counts to have good product and smart programs--building a base of smart programs that are unique to our brand and compelling enough to advertisers that makes them feel they're getting so much value with their dollars. "

Says Tom Morrissy, OK!'s publisher: "Those who have strong programs in place and are strong brands will do fine. It just won't be one of those years where everyone is breaking open champagne bottles."

Popular Mechanics' Congdon observes that good programs have a way of rooting out ad dollars. "It's not so much that ad budgets are totally cut. Advertisers are just being cautious. But if you keep going in and keep bringing fresh ideas, they'll still have that money."

Valerie Salembier, publisher of Harper's Bazaar, says it's also about being where your competitors are not.

"Things are tough, but they've been tough before and all of these magazines continue to publish and last and endure," she says.

"In terms of selling advertising, it is back to basics 101. Get out there and make the calls. You don't get ads by sitting behind your desk on the phone, you get them sitting at your client's desk.

Claudia Malley, vice president and U.S. publisher of National Geographic, says it's also about being able to stand apart from your competitors, and a big part of that is reader engagement, which she says resonates with marketers.

"Integration will be a key. Those brands who can differentiate by being a brand leader and then have communication with consumers across all media will be the ones that succeed."