NEW YORK — As news reverberated Thursday of Martha Stewart’s nine-count indictment, competitors of her eponymous media empire were pondering what titles would gain from the domestic doyenne’s fall.
Of course, Martha Stewart Living has been suffering for some time since its heady days of a circulation of 2.5 million. “This magazine was hurting before the indictment was an issue,” said Martha Inc. author and New York Post columnist Christopher Byron. “It’s in trouble on several fronts, one of which is ad dollars, and another is newsstand and renewals. I think their pages were down a little bit, and revenue was down a lot more.”
This story first appeared in the June 6, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
A number of fashion advertisers have disappeared completely from the magazine in 2003. Ann Taylor, Talbots, Liz Claiborne and Elizabeth Arden — all of which had advertised regularly in 2001 and 2002 — have yet to appear in the magazine this year.
Meanwhile, Time Inc.’s Real Simple is still streaking — ad pages are up 62 percent through June, according to Media Industry Newsletter — and Hearst’s living brand title O, The Oprah Magazine is flat but profitable. Two of the former Seven Sisters — Ladies Home Journal and Woman’s Day — have had Martha-influenced retoolings and are up 34.6 percent and 28.9 percent, respectively, in ad pages. In case you haven’t heard, Martha Stewart Living is down 28.6 percent so far this year.
A post-indictment conventional wisdom has yet to form among advertising industry executives about the effect of Stewart’s indictment — some insist that nothing has changed, while others say that it will end the “wait and see” approach — there’s evidence the magazine’s rivals are already gaining the upper hand.
Brand Keys, a strategic brand planning consultancy, has been polling women about Stewart in her magazine’s demographic since the end of 2001. Back then, Living had an approval rating of 146 on the agency’s 0-150 scale. O magazine clocked in at 131, and Real Simple trailed behind at 110. As of this week, Living had fallen to just 105, while Real Simple surged to 126, O to 139, and all three had been passed by Meredith’s revamped Ladies Home Journal, at 143.
“There’s not that much difference between them,” said Brand Keys president Robert Passikoff, who counts Heineken, Unilever, and American Express among his clients. “The difficulty for most advertisers isn’t finding a medium that delivers the basics for them, it’s the honing down of a list.” When it comes to Living’s place on that list, Passikoff said, “It’s still well-written and well-photographed. All of the basic benefits and attributes of a successful magazine are still there, but there was something more to it than just a set of pages that had been glued together. It was something that people had come to count on, and now the question is, can you count on this brand?”
“I think people are already looking at those books,” said Neil Ascher, executive vice president, director of communication services at Zenith Media. “If you’re considering Martha Stewart Living you probably are considering a variety of other titles and more modern service books. Might it be something that tips the balance? I guess, for some people. It’s hard to remove subjectivity.”
Even if Martha’s confinement to “chief creative officer” of her company dampens her fairy dust, there are still plenty of believers who think her magazine will show up its rivals without a living brand on point.
“Some of the fairy dust has worn off over the last year already,” said Shoshana Berger, editor of Readymade, a post-Martha magazine for twentysomething hipsters. The problem for her competitors though, “is that no one does it as well as Martha. She has mastered this very pristine, very buffered, very do-it-yourself home art genre. Any other magazine in that category owes a great debt to her, and doesn’t do it as well as her, ourselves included.”