ELLE MAGAZINE: A SECOND ACT
Byline: Lisa Lockwood
NEW YORK — “I’m very happy to be a strong number two to Vogue.”
So says David Pecker, president and chief executive officer of Hachette Filipacchi, referring to its flagship title, Elle.
Some may question Pecker’s accommodating tone, however, given the consensus in the magazine world that Hachette is obsessed with catching up to Vogue.
In fact, Pecker admits his goal is to take Elle’s circulation, now at 875,000, to 1 million by the first quarter of 1999. Vogue’s rate base — at least for now — is at 1.1 million.
Elle, which has had remarkable growth the last few years, is also in hot pursuit of more ad pages. Carl Portale, who left Harper’s Bazaar to join Elle 2 1/2 years ago as senior vice president and group publisher, is credited with securing the magazine’s second place position. Since 1994, the magazine’s ad pages have increased more than 10 percent per year, according to Publishers Information Bureau.
“In 1996, we had a 45 percent gain in fashion, retail and apparel,” boasted Portale. Through May, he estimated Elle was up 30.3 percent in total ad pages.
Nonetheless, Elle’s ad pages are still considerably behind Vogue’s — 1,841 in 1996 versus Vogue’s 2,546.
And in advertising revenue, the race is even farther apart.
According to Pecker, Elle chalked up net advertising revenues of $50,778,000 in 1996, from $44,145,000 in 1995. Vogue’s revenues are reportedly more than $100 million.
Moreover, there are those who charge that some of Elle’s gains have come at a high price: Rumors persist about sales reps liberally guaranteeing advertisers stories, as well as specific numbers of editorial credits, and Portale has taken his lumps, especially from his Vogue nemesis, Ron Galotti, for an overly generous rate card.
Pecker adamantly denies the rubber rate rumors.
“If Elle were to give 30 to 40 percent off the rate card, I would have a problem with all the other [international] editions of Elle,” said Pecker. “The only discounts Elle gives are the corporate discounts, for advertisers that do $10 million worth of advertising with the company.”
Despite rumors to the contrary, Pecker also insisted that unlike some other Hachette publications, Elle doesn’t give away bonus pages. He said Elle is “more profitable today than it’s ever been,” and profits are close to 15 percent of revenues.
As for the church and state issue, Jean Fornasieri, senior vice president and managing director of Hachette Filipacchi Magazines’ Fashion Group, said Elle advertisers are given no guarantees that their fashion will be featured in the magazine.
“Certainly, if the salespeople [are guaranteeing credits], they wouldn’t be working here,” said Fornasieri.
“I have strong relationships with the editors,” she explained. “I discuss with them our marketing partners, so they’re top of mind, and tell them these are the people who really like the magazine and are really supporting the book. I do tell them they should go down and see these people. But it’s up to them, if they use them. None of the salespeople has access to Marin [Hopper, fashion director],” said Fornasieri.
But former staffers tell a different story. One said market editors are given a list of advertisers each month and are responsible for calling in clothes from those in their particular market. “They try to put advertisers into every story. It’s pretty obvious,” the former editor said. “All the major advertisers get a story.”
Elle frequently does major company profiles on key advertisers, including Gap and Ellen Tracy, as well as a major fashion showcase of only one company, such as Tse and Donna Karan last year. Often, these companies are either key advertisers or are being courted by the magazine’s sales staff.
“When you see a brand editorialized every month, it’s believable that the editors really believe in your product, but when five pages randomly show up, it’s hard not to believe that advertising doesn’t play into this,” said Rebecca Shafer, consulting creative director and advertising agent for Tse, which has been a sporadic advertiser in Elle.
Shafer said editorial credits, although she appreciates them, don’t influence whether she’ll run an ad in a magazine. Her judgment is based on whether that magazine helps move the product at retail. But, she noted, “Major designers will pull from a book if they’re not editorialized.”
Advertising executives said that although Elle states it doesn’t go off the rate card, it’s “more flexible” than some of the competition, offering different contract levels; frequency rates (even if it’s sporadic); discounts in Mirabella, Elle’s sister publication, and aggressive merchandising programs.
The magazine also has the reputation of being notoriously cost-conscious. And for good reason: The compensation of the senior staff is directly tied to the magazine’s profitability.
In fact, creative director Gilles Bensimon said that when he goes to the European shows, he feels “naked” compared with the folks at Hearst and Conde Nast, who travel with an entourage of editors and photographers.
“Everybody’s compensated based on the profits of the magazine,” Pecker said. “Regis [Pagniez, publication director], Gilles, Elaina [Richardson, editor] and Carl are part of it. Marin Hopper has an overall bonus based on the bottom line, as well.” Pecker instituted this profit-sharing plan a year ago.
“If we profit from the magazine, if it’s a great product, as it grows, so should these people’s participation in it. Because of that, people are paying much more attention to the expenses and doing things differently,” said Pecker. “We haven’t taken anything out of the quality of the magazine. We’ve reinvested the money in the editorial product.”
In the past year, the magazine has been shaking things up — naming a new editor, Richardson; promoting Hopper to fashion director and adding new photographers to the magazine, which has been dominated by Bensimon, who has done fashion shoots and covers since 1985, and every cover since 1992.
Observers have criticized Elle’s fashion photography for being too safe and predictable each month. While they praise Elle’s Eighties innovations — mixing up fashion, using bold colors and showing all types of models — its look got tiresome, and some say the time is right for an overhaul.
“We’ve had a lot of critics,” admitted Bensimon. “The real truth is our big competitors, Conde Nast and Hearst, spend a lot of money to put a photographer under contract. It’s so expensive. The strength of having unlimited budgets at Conde Nast makes them a major competitor for all of us in the industry. “The photographer is just there for reflecting the fashion. The artistic part is another idea…I don’t use Elle magazine as a place for experiments. We don’t like to reshoot,” said Bensimon.
“But,” he conceded, “I plan to have more photographers. It will make my life easier.”
Richardson’s her first full issue was February and she’s looking to use her news background — the British Broadcasting Corp., The New York Post — to give the magazine a more topical edge.
“My main driving force is journalism,” she said. “Women’s magazines, and in general, fashion magazines, can often seem timeless, with book exhibitions, etc., and there’s a feeling of being unconnected to current events. The challenge is finding where current events intersect with our readership, who are well educated, smart and curious.”