Not so long ago, fashion and beauty editors at glossy magazines were the arbiters of taste, the gatekeepers between brands and consumers.
With the rapid rise of influencers and social media platforms, where billions of one-time and would-be magazine readers have flocked in less than a decade, editors and the magazines where they work have seen their influence wane — and the trend continues.
Brands began looking in earnest at alternative advertising methods in the wake of the Great Recession and found that, not only were more people looking at Facebook and Google for recommendations on what to buy, but those platforms could offer them much more detail on who was looking at their ads and if they turned into sales, insights magazines have never been able to give. Then came Instagram in 2010, which Facebook bought for a cool $1 billion within two years of its launch, and which shined up the magazine equation of beautiful people and goods for sale by adding interactive capability.
Advertisers have hardly looked back and in 2017, overall digital ad spend in the U.S. hit a record $88 billion, according to research from the Interactive Advertising Bureau, with $22.2 billion going to social media and $40.6 billion going to search, the two biggest pieces of the total. During its second quarter, Google pulled in $28 billion for its advertising services alone and Facebook tallied about $13 billion, with about half estimated to come through Instagram — double-digit percentage increases for all of the platforms. Meanwhile, print ad spending by the 50 biggest advertisers fell to $6.1 billion, according to data from the MPA-Association for Magazine Media.
As a result, magazines have gone from picking and choosing what’s what in consumer culture to giving advertisers more control than ever over their pages and what is featured in them, not to mention celebrities featured on covers are more often than not pushing the brand(s) they have their own lucrative deals with. The chances of a non-Instagram famous model gracing the cover of American Vogue at all, in a cropped Christian Lacroix jacket and Guess jeans no less — as was the case with Anna Wintour’s first cover 30 years ago — are slim. It seems to be full designer looks or nothing these days, and of course, extreme fame is a requirement.
So, with magazines and their editors appearing to kowtow to advertisers more than ever that can easily go elsewhere and working out covers that are much more about multipronged promotion than presenting what’s new and advancing taste, what is the power and role of a typical editor these days?
It’s apparently not a subject too many current and former editors want to discuss, as more than a dozen contacted for this article declined to comment. Some, after initially expressing interest or agreeing to speak, even backed out.
One still working industry veteran, who requested anonymity, speculated that a lot of editors currently working are simply glad to have jobs and see no reward for rocking the boat. This person added most of her peers are very aware of the trend, particularly within Conde Nast, of full-time fashion and beauty editors being forced to go on contract, meaning no benefits and usually lower pay.
Anja Aronowsky Cronberg, a fellow at London College of Fashion and the founder of online fashion journal Vestoj, which prints annually, said the question of editors’ modern role is “complex,” but admitted their power is “partially eroded because brands can now reach consumers without them.”
“Partial” is the operative word with Cronberg. She sees individual editors, especially those at the top of fashion and lifestyle magazines, almost morphing into something closer to “opinion leaders” within the industry, as opposed to power brokers between brands and consumers.
“If you’re a designer, you need consumers, but you also want approval among those whom you consider equals, and fashion editors often fill that role today,” Cronberg said.
While she admitted that editors do not have the same reach and influence that they used to, Cronberg argued that brands and consumers, whether they know it or not, can still end up being influenced by an editor’s decisions, through something of a trickle down theory of taste.
“I know a lot of fashion critics, editors who feel like, ‘What difference does it make what I write? What role do I have now? Who listens to what I have to say?’…but even if an editor in her 60s doesn’t directly influence a consumer in her 20s, she still influences another fashion editor or photographer or a journalist, and all of those people together are still holding, even if it’s waning, the most power in the industry,” Cronberg said.
Looking forward, Cronberg speculated that the industry, as it grows increasingly fractured with niche brands, magazines and individuals flourishing online without need of the old guard, will follow. “Instead of a few names dictating everything…there will be more names who build more trust with smaller groups of people.”
Brian Phillips, founder of public relations firm Black Frame and creative director of the biannual Garage magazine, seems to agree that there is still a place for editors, but only a relatively few seem to be pushing boundaries as they once did, “not just following the commercial interests of the publication” they work for. And for him, a genuine investment in images that can be remembered for decades is the one aspect of magazines that looks to be outside the grip of social media and something editors should capitalize on.
“That doesn’t happen on social media really — it’s a quick instantaneous medium where you don’t have a lot of premeditation or construction around what am image can be,” Phillips said.
It seems that magazine editors should be moving on from being the arbiters of taste and telling people what they should want to buy, and becoming editors of pop culture at large and heightening its depiction. Phillips suggested that the new wave of editors should also exhibit a “quiet power” that manifests not in covers with influencers and ingenues, but in high-profile rarities and surprises that put relationships a the forefront of their titles.
“Maybe that’s what the new era of power in media looks like — someone that’s incredibly savvy about how they’re going to leverage the relationships they have access to for the benefit of the magazine…as opposed to reiterating something you’ve seen a million times.”
Maybe that’s the way it has to be, too, considering the new wave of magazine editors is unlikely to ever reach the level of cross pollinated influence in fashion, society, celebrity and politics once held by, say, an Anna Wintour, Tina Brown, John B. Fairchild or Graydon Carter. Although Phillips argued that generally, magazines and their editors by proxy still do “exert a lot of force” in consumer and celebrity culture, he couldn’t help but concede that it seems less all the time.
“Maybe the next magazine should be about remembering old magazines,” Phillips joked wryly. “There’s probably an Instagram already dedicated to it.”
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