The recovery of magazine ad spending, like that of the overall economy, has been a gradual and uncertain process. Chastened by all the fits and starts, publishers continue to caution against expecting a return to the free-spending days of the late Nineties. But the indicators are good. Through September, ad pages for the industry as a whole were up 8.5 percent, according to the Publishers Information Bureau, while reported revenues were up 17.1 percent (although that figure doesn’t reflect discounts). Heading into 2005, the consensus view is the outlook is brighter than it has been at any point since the downturn began in 2001.

“There seems to be an optimism in general that we haven’t seen in three years,” said In Style publisher Lynette Harrison. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen more RFPs [requests for proposals] come in at a faster, more furious pace.”

“Everything that I hear from my colleagues and from the ad community is that things feel stronger,” added Eva Dillon, publisher of Jane.

Well, not everything. Some categories are likely to be soft next year. Automotive spending, which was up 8.1 percent to $190.9 million through September, according to PIB, will probably be flat or down, mainly because there are fewer new model launches planned. Publishers also expect to see a migration of liquor dollars from print to television as more cable stations begin to accept them. “Cable is the new girl in class,” sighed GQ publisher Pete Hunsinger.

But spending is projected to rise across a range of categories, including apparel and accessories, which is the largest PIB category, with $286.8 million spent through September (up 8.6 percent versus 2003). Within fashion, the main area of concern remains the Italian houses, which have been gravitating toward emerging markets at the expense of U.S. media outlets. “The Italians are putting a lot of money against Russia, China and Korea,” said Men’s Journal publisher Carlos Lamadrid. “As their business becomes more global, you may see investments being shifted away from the U.S.,” added Vanity Fair publisher Lou Cona.

Beauty also looks primed for another solid year in 2005; spending by toiletries and cosmetics advertisers through September totaled $209.6 million, according to PIB. A growing slice of that spending will come from men’s grooming products, an increasingly key category for men’s fashion titles and even for Allure, according to publisher Nancy Berger.

This story first appeared in the October 15, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Several publishers also cited cell phones as an area where increased competition among manufacturers will result in higher ad spending.

One thing a healthier ad climate will not change is the tendency for advertisers to commit later and to shorter schedules. Although this way of doing business frustrates publishers and makes forecasting difficult, most now realize that it’s the new norm. “We’re seeing a trend of month-to-month or quarter-to-quarter planning,” said Self publisher Kimberly Kelleher. “The close date is history,” agreed Cona.

(Jane, GQ, Vanity Fair, Self and Allure, like WWD, are owned by Advance Publications Inc.)

Nor will the upturn do anything to alter the central role that so-called “added value” programs have taken on in the relationship between advertiser and publisher. As such offerings (which include everything from postcard mailings to co-branded parties to television specials) have become commonplace over the past few years, many publishers have come to see them as less a useful tool than an unwelcome burden. “It devalues the core proposition of the partnership, which is the ad page,” said Mary Ann Bekkedahl, publisher of Men’s Health. “There are marketers who tell you they pick their magazines based on who comes up with the best marketing program. It’s like, ‘You know what? Go find a marketing agency.’”

“A lot of publishers would like to put that genie back in the bottle,” agreed Maxim publisher Rob Gregory, “but it’s not gonna happen.” — J.B.