By  on September 16, 2005

NEW YORK — What is it about selling ad pages that just brings out the worst in people?

Earlier this year, when a catty sell sheet pitting sibling Advance Publications titles GQ and Details against each other surfaced, veterans of the publishing business were split on its significance. Some thought it smacked of the so-called gladiator days of publishing, the bloody battles of the late Nineties and early Naughts when publishers routinely slugged below their competitors' belts.

Others in the industry felt that, on the contrary, today's climate is as brutal as ever — although several in this camp did concede the new sell sheet was hardly as "creative" as the tactics used by a previous generation of publishers.

Creative? No. Efficient? Yes. "GQ resonates with more readers, and speaks with relevance, authority and youthfulness," the sheet reads, while stats highlight GQ's median cover age: as of April, 26.5,which is five-and-a-half years younger than the median for Details' cover subjects. A few glowing quotes about GQ positioned next to this comment from Peter Carlson in the Washington Post's "Magazine Reader" column: "The dumbest magazine story of the year appeared in the always moronic Details." (For the curious, Carlson was referring to Details' missive "The Nightmare of the Office Bowel Movement.")

The sheet certainly makes its point, namely that GQ is a bigger and better vehicle for certain advertisers to reach a certain type of guy — so who cares if a sister title is bruised in the process? Still, stacked against the legendary derring-dos of Ron Galotti, Richard Beckman and the Florio brothers, the sell sheet seems, well, downright cordial.

No one embodies that earlier generation of publishers better than Galotti, the former publisher of Vogue, Vanity Fair, Talk and GQ, who, depending on the year, was alternately the most feared, revered or reviled publisher in the business. When Galotti was running the ill-fated Talk, in order to sell more ad pages, he had Louis Vuitton trash cans made and filled them with copies of competitors' magazines — mostly The New Yorker and Vanity Fair — before sending them to advertisers.

"I literally said, ‘I've taken the liberty of helping you with your buying plans,'" Galotti recollected. "In the old days, we played it more like gladiators. It was a blood sport."And occasionally, the wounds were even visible. Speaking about Galotti, one magazine executive, who asked not to be named, said, "He did what we all wanted to do. He actually reached across the table and punched somebody." In fact, there are many equally notorious stories about other publishers' bad behavior, involving broken noses, seven-figure company settlements and town car drivers brutally kicked and beaten on curbs.

"The characteristics that make someone successful in business or government can render them unpleasant personally," clinical psychologist Belinda Board, based at the University of Surrey in the U.K., said in an editorial in The New York Times this spring. "What's more astonishing is that those characteristics when exaggerated are the same ones that are often found in criminals." Board was referring to United Nations ambassador John Bolton, but she could have just as easily been dissecting the mind of some magazine publishers.

"Make no mistake," said Mitch Fox, chief executive officer of Advance's Golf Digest Group, "the ad sales business is a competitive, rough, ruthless, sometimes mean-spirited business. And it demands occasionally that we beat each other up in order to preserve our own survival."

The negative sell, the practice of bashing competitors to promote a title, is as old as Time itself — quite literally. Shortly after Time magazine launched in the early Twenties, a fledgling competitor, The New Yorker, declared in a prepublication announcement that, unlike Time, the new title would not be "edited for the old lady in Dubuque." In response, a Time reporter assumed the persona of "an old lady in Dubuque" and slammed The New Yorker's first issue in a negative review, claiming the magazine was pretentious and would never last.

Hey, no one ever claimed the strategy always works.

In 1995, when Hearst cut its rate bases for all of its titles save two and simultaneously raised its ad rates, Condé Nast responded by sending key advertisers breakfast foods on consecutive days — doughnuts, bagels or muffins, depending on who's narrating the story. On the first day, they were sent fewer than a dozen; on the second day, they got a baker's dozen, hammering home the message that clients were getting less than they paid for with Hearst, and what amounted to a bonus from Condé Nast."You might say that's negative selling," said Galotti, who was publisher of Vogue at the time. "But if publishers had their way, they would slip everything that's bad under the rug. You have to, at some point, call them on it."

While certain clarifications might be warranted at times, often it seems there is no limit to how low some publishers will go to bang up a competitor. In the late Nineties, when Liz Tilberis, the late editor in chief of Harper's Bazaar, became too ill with ovarian cancer to run the magazine, it is said that competing publishers used that as leverage to convince advertisers to pull out of the title. When Martha Stewart was on trial for obstruction of justice following the shady sale of her ImClone stock, the vultures descended again, picking off a good portion of Omnimedia's ad pages.

Perhaps the biggest factor in how dirty the pool gets is the category in which the magazines are operating.

"It starts with the product, it starts with the environment they compete in," said Scott Kruse, executive vice president director of print buying at MediaCom, a leading media buying agency. "If you're in a share with a limited number of competitors, [disparaging other titles] becomes a much more important element of your sell."

And where, exactly, are the hotbeds of competition these days? The business books, the celebrity weeklies and yes, the men's magazines, according to the majority of executives WWD polled.

Given the spats that have been going on in the men's sector for decades, this year's GQ sheet is hardly unusual. The most egregious story, according to a number of sources, dates back to a couple of years ago when an anonymous letter was sent out to advertisers trashing GQ. Steve Florio, then-head of Condé Nast, and his brother, Tom Florio, then-publisher of GQ, hired a private detective to track down the source, and traced the letter back to Details' then-publisher Bill Wackermann through a bulk rate stamp from the Fairchild mail room.

While such a flagrant offense might seem like grounds for a publisher's dismissal at most companies, it evidently wasn't actionable within the Advance empire. Wackermann was subsequently promoted to be publisher of Glamour. Why? He wasn't entirely to blame, but was simply reacting to a similar jab from GQ, said several executives at Fairchild and Condé Nast."Bill Wackermann is not selling Glamour for playing softball," said Galotti. "When I got up in the morning and went to work for Si [S.I. Newhouse Jr.], he wasn't paying me to be nice to other people. It's business. It's hardball."

Certainly, Condé Nast has an interesting way of keeping it in the family — however dysfunctional that family might seem to the outside world.

"They're much worse than other companies about bashing other magazines, even their own," said one longtime advertising client, who asked not to be named because he continues to work with Condé Nast brands. He said such internal bickering is impossible to avoid at a company that, unlike competitors Time Inc., Wenner Media and even Hearst, continues to launch new titles into sectors already crowded with its own brands.

That's not how president of Condé Nast's media group Richard Beckman sees it, though. "Our magazines have real connectivity between the consumer and the medium," says Beckman, who stresses that each title is necessary to reach one slice of a spectrum of readers. "I don't think there is a formulaic way of arriving at that connection. Every year, a few magazines in the marketplace lose their relevancy, and those magazines go by the wayside. But you have to keep striving to create something that's distinct. The challenge in marketing is to make sure you're presenting differences in that connectivity."

All fine and good, but while Vogue, W, Lucky, Allure and Glamour do arguably reach very different women, they're all still competing for the same ad dollars at the end of the day. In that sort of corporate culture, isn't a little squabbling among publishers guaranteed?

"There was a time when a lot of the sales efforts within the company were moving business from the right hand to the left," said Beckman. "But I can tell you over the last decade, particularly over the last three or four years, that's changed," — thanks to efforts started by former chief executive officer Steve Florio and continued under current ceo Chuck Townsend.

Note the publishing groups created around the bridal and shelter magazines, and the $3 million plus "Point of Passion" ad campaign that Advance rolled out for advertisers earlier this year. The first portion of the presentation promotes the power of print over all other forms of media. The second half demonstrates why the Condé Nast group offers advertisers more value than any other company.It's the bagels, doughnuts and muffins again, only this time they're in Powerpoint.

"The idea is now to shoot the guns outside of the building," said a Condé Nast executive, speaking on background.

Unfortunately, it doesn't mean, though, that shrapnel from friendly fire won't still occasionally be felt inside 4 Times Square.

Wackermann, for instance, continues to thrive within the company, even after four of his fellow Condé Nast publishers banded together this year and went to Townsend with a list of his Glamour infractions.

"Chuck should've slapped the hell out of those four publishers and sent them back to their desks," said Galotti, who stressed that he was only lending his perspective as "farmer Ron, from a distance."

Condé Nast publishers are by no means the only ones that get aggressive with clients. But the negative sell seems to manifest itself in different ways at other companies. For instance, when Blender launched, executives at Dennis dismissed Rolling Stone's Mediamark Research Inc.'s advertising data profiling the types of men who read music magazines, then turned around and used the very same stats in their own prototype. Of Hearst, one longtime advertising client, who asked not to be named, said, "Donna Lagani [publisher of Hearst's Cosmopolitan], might talk about other magazines, but not in a malicious way."

"Ruthless selling is a personality thing," said MediaCom's Kruse.

"You tend to see the same faces doing that kind of selling," said Alan Katz, who was recently promoted from his job as publisher of Cargo to publisher of Vanity Fair. "Desperate measures by desperate people."

"Some people have good manners, some don't," said Chris Payne, director of marketing at Giorgio Armani fragrances. However, bad manners may not work as well as they used to. "I would never make a media decision based on what a publisher said about another book," said Payne.

"If you're working on a title you're proud of, that's what your sales call should focus on," said Lucky publisher Sandy Golinkin. By disparaging competitors today, she said, "you run the risk of looking stupid because it may be a magazine they're already using."Hearst's executive vice president and chief marketing officer, Michael Clinton, said, "I love it when a competitor feels like it has to spend time in a sales call on us. We often end up getting the business."

Nevertheless, the pot shots are still occasionally too tempting to resist. And sometimes they're just necessary to survive.

This year's GQ sell sheet wasn't intended as a crippling blow to the kneecaps. The sheet wasn't even widely distributed to advertisers. According to a Condé Nast spokeswoman, it was prepared in response to a direct request from a single client, who asked for a breakdown of the two titles.

"I'm sure a lot of magazines have had sell sheets come out of their departments that they're not proud of," Details' soon-to-be ex-publisher, Chris Mitchell, said. "Pete [Hunsinger, current publisher of GQ] is a fair and worthy competitor and I know he probably regrets that this exists as much as I do."

That the sheet was a defensive, rather than an offensive, move raises an interesting point. Many of the people consulted for this story said such isolated instances of the hard negative sell are a dirty but necessary secret of the publishing business.

"Very often, we are forced by the community to put everything into a neat little box," said Gourmet publisher Giulio Capua.

"It's hard to avoid making a distinction when the buyer is inviting the comparison," said Beckman.

Galotti put it more plainly: "Traditionally, it's a media buyer, some lonely kid in an office with a directive to bother people, making those requests to get a better price. No account executive or president of a company is going to bother with pitting titles against each other. Their objective is moving product."

"I can't tell you how many times media buyers play back negative things other magazines have said," said Rolling Stone publisher Steve DeLuca. "It puts us in a place where we have to correct misinformation."

Translation: When a publisher is alone in a room on a sales call, virtually anything can happen.

"Think about it: The MPA [Magazine Publishers of America] hasn't done anything through the years to curb the bad behavior," said one magazine executive who asked not to be named. "In that respect, they've really done a disservice to the industry."Now it seems, though, it's a new era over at the MPA. In January, the organization launched its own multimillion-dollar advertising campaign promoting the power of print.

"As part of the coalition effort, we are encouraging people to put forward their strengths, and the strengths of the medium in the selling process," said Ellen Oppenheim, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of the MPA, which has been reeducating individual publishers and salespeople about the advantages of the print medium.

However, even Oppenheim seems resigned to certain inevitabilities in the magazine business. "It's always in the buyers' advantage to pit publications against each other," she said. "Sellers have to be prepared to position themselves effectively so that an advertiser wants to consider them as part of the plan to fulfill a strategic objective. At the same time, they have to be prepared to answer the question, ‘Why should I spend money on you as opposed to someone else?'"

"The fact that Ronnie is gone, that's all it means," said Wenner Media vice chairman Kent Brownridge. "It doesn't mean that this isn't still a hard business. When a number of people are competing for a fixed amount of money, and in some cases a company's ad budget is losing money, it's a zero-sum game. Give him less, and give me more."

Brownridge continued, "Their budget is broken down into television, Internet, maybe there's some money allocated for newspapers and there's money allocated for magazines. There is nothing you can do to change that allocation."

"If that were true, how could the Internet have pried away money from existing cable budgets?" asked Mitch Fox.

Still, DeLuca said, "ad budgets aren't growing. There are more magazines. Advertisers want more for their dollars."

Ah, those dreaded words that have become a more powerful weapon in today's page wars than any measly little sell sheet: added value.

Back to the bagels, doughnuts and muffins again, only this time they're repackaged as advertorial supplements, in-store events, Web shopping click-throughs and extravagant television specials.

So with executives at the MPA conceding that the negative sell is still an inescapable part of the business, and Brownridge claiming magazine ad sales is still a zero-sum game, is real reform even possible? Or will the machinations of publishers simply become either more costly or covert over time?"This is well within our ability," said Fox. "The question really is, is a behavioral change for the success we're discussing within our ability, as well? Effectively, can we sell like a new media?"

And can the new media version of print retain its all-important color once it stops spilling the blood?

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