Ask fashion magazine publishers about the outlook for the rest of the year and they all use exactly the same two anodyne words to disguise their fear: “cautiously optimistic.”
With the stock market all over the place and even the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Ben Bernanke, warning the economic recovery isn’t all that great, their concern is understandable — especially after a 2009 that saw magazines hemorrhaging ad pages faster than BP’s gusher in the Gulf. And even though year-to-date and September ad-page numbers generally show healthy increases, the figures remain well below 2008 levels (let’s not even talk about those halcyon days of 2007; it’s like discussing the California Gold Rush).
“People are feeling better, some more than others,” said Vogue’s vice president and publisher Susan Plagemann, who was one of those using the “cautiously optimistic” cliché. For the September issue, she’s not in the ballpark of the biggest one ever (727 pages, in 2007) but the title easily posted the most total ad pages in the category for the month, with 532 (it continues to trail InStyle in total pages so far this year). Plagemann said American fashion brands came back strong, and noted increases from European fashion firms, as well.
At Time Inc. rival InStyle, publisher Connie Anne Phillips said the luxury category is back in a big way. “We have a momentum here that is carrying into the [September] issue,” she said, noting that Saks Fifth Avenue, Bulgari, Ferragamo and Marc Jacobs are new for the month. They helped propel the title to more than 400 ad pages for the issue for the first time in a decade. Meanwhile, even as there continues to be speculation that Lagardère might unload Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S. (publisher of Elle) in some form of joint venture with Hearst Magazines, new chief brand officer Robin Domeniconi is busy bringing in ad pages at Elle, and she said the October issue will be up around 30 percent.
Publishers, being perennial salesman, are paid to be optimistic. They aren’t the only ones, though. ZenithOptimedia this week upgraded its forecast for global ad expenditures this year, to growth of 3.5 percent from a previous forecast of 2.2 percent. This is the third upgrade in a row, following six consecutive downgrades. Zenith reports that magazines will account for 9.8 percent of the total ad spend this year and decrease to 8.8 percent by 2012, while online advertising continues its strong upward spiral, from 13.9 percent of total spending this year to 17.1 percent in two years. Given that’s the new mother lode, publishers are rushing to tap into it.
Condé Nast senior vice president and publishing director Bill Wackermann said Glamour’s significant uptick in advertising in September (up 88 pages) was aided by the launch of its iPad digital strategy. “We sold nine spots and we were only supposed to sell eight,” he said of the iPad, adding that advertising from nonendemic categories, such as financial and technology, also helped the overall cause. Wackermann also noted that incremental growth in the magazine’s bread-and-butter categories was crucial and, looking ahead, he said October looks “solid,” and early indicators are good for November and December.
Lou Cona, executive vice president of the Condé Nast Media Group, said the company is up 30 percent in digital for the first half and up 7.2 percent in print, excluding The New Yorker and Golf World. “We are breaking six campaigns in September issues that we did ourselves [in-house],” said Cona, declining to name the brands.
Just like at retail, though, it’s hard to wean consumers (here, advertisers) off the discount mania seen in late 2008 and last year. While titles like Elle and Harper’s Bazaar have long been rumored to offer significant rate-card cuts to drive ad pages, there are rumblings this time around among competitors and advertisers that Vogue and Glamour offered sizeable discounts this season as well, upward of 30 percent in some cases, and cut deals when it came to the digital side of the business. But Wackermann — who now oversees Glamour, W, Details and Brides — denied these claims, noting it’s not the case and has never been the case at parent Condé Nast.
While most titles reported ad gains for the month, a few — Lucky, Shape and Details — weren’t so fortunate, making the last quarter all that more important. Lucky’s vice president and publisher, Michelle Myers, told WWD that some advertisers moved their business to August and October, which accounted for the 11 percent decline in paging. “We have 13 new advertisers for September,” she said, adding August was up 8 percent, October is looking strong and the December issue will mark the magazine’s 10th anniversary (a sign that advertising for that month will probably be stronger than usual). Details is down 23 percent, and Wackermann acknowledged that while the title didn’t “rock” the month, October is up 20 pages and the magazine is positioned to have a strong finish for the year.
Then there are W and Town & Country, which have new editors in Stefano Tonchi and Stephen Drucker, respectively. The hires have aroused curiosity and driven positive ad gains. W, perhaps hit the hardest by the downturn in luxury, is up 31 percent for the month, and Hearst’s T&C is reporting an increase of almost 28 percent. Jim Taylor, vice president and publisher at Town & Country, said the September issue has more returning advertisers than new ones. He didn’t provide any names but, like virtually every other title, said fashion paging is up.
“The first advertisers to increase their ad budgets and return to their regular list of magazines were the bigger brands,” said Taylor, noting that September is the first month that fashion, accessories, jewelry and watches introduce their fall collections. He said the luxury business has improved and conspicuous luxury spending is no longer seen as somewhat insensitive. “The wealthy gained a lot of wealth back from when the Dow shrank to 6,500,” Taylor noted. “It is now regularly above 10,000, which really helps luxury sales, because the top 10 percent of the wealthiest Americans own 85 percent of all stock-market wealth.”