BUY GEORGE? NOT EVERYONE
Byline: Janet Ozzard and Rosemary Feitelberg
NEW YORK — Now that De Niro and Cindy have done their turn as founding father on the newsstand, the hype has begun to recede on George, and media types are wondering whether the magazine can make the long haul.
After two issues, George has managed to win over some ad execs who say they like the idea of a younger, hipper political magazine. But it hasn’t quite set the publishing world on fire.
Despite John F. Kennedy Jr. as editor-in-chief, and a backer that’s putting up $20 million over the next five years, observers caution that it’s certainly not the best time for a new magazine. Ad dollars are tighter than ever, they pointed out, and George’s theme — politics — has never been that compelling to its target audience of 30-somethings.
Many say they’re willing to wait.
“Look how long it took Vanity Fair to get it right,” said Roberta Garfinkle, senior vice president and media director at McCann Ericksen. “And Allure — when that came out, everyone said, ‘How can they make an ugly magazine about beauty?’ It takes at least six issues.”
“It took Vanity Fair at least 14 months to get up and running after Tina Brown left for The New Yorker,” said Peter Arnell, chairman of The Arnell Group.
But in today’s difficult economic climate, can the fledgling high-stakes, high-cost magazine last that long?
David Pecker, chief executive officer of Hachette Filipacchi magazines, which owns 50 percent of George, said his company is behind the endeavor for a full five years, and based on reaction to the first two issues, he’s expecting to get a good return on his money.
“We had three scenarios worked out for the launch: worst, most likely and optimistic,” said Pecker Thursday. “We exceeded everything I projected. They have over 90 pages of advertising for the third issue. I had planned 40. The first issue sold out on the newsstand, and it looks like the second one will, as well. We have something like 55,000 or 60,000 subscribers, just from insert cards. That’s triple what I expected.”
Executive publisher Michael Berman declined to give any revenue projections for the magazine, noting: “Some magazines lose money for years before they turn a profit.”
George had a deal with advertisers where they were required to buy space in the first two issues. However, according to Berman, who owns 25 percent of the venture, advertisers weren’t required to buy the same amount of space in both issues — but they did, turning in 175 pages of ads for both.
About a third of the advertisers in the first two issues are fashion-related, including Tommy Hilfiger, Versace, Nautica, Giorgio Armani and Valentino. The rest is a mix of automotive, beauty, entertainment and accessories.
Charter advertisers paid $15,000 a page, said Berman, and got first dibs on key positions. Those who came in afterward are paying $20,000 a page. And while Hachette is famous for the packaged ad sale, Berman insisted, “There are no packages with other magazines [and George].”
Some of fashion’s biggest names are gung-ho for George, including Tommy Hilfiger, who has committed to buying ad pages for all of its categories — sportswear, tailored clothing and fragrance — through 1996.
“We love the magazine, and we’re very supportive of it,” said Pat Durkin, vice president of advertising. “It’s exactly our customer: smart, savvy, interested in politics, sports, music.”
Trey Laird, senior vice president of advertising and creative services at Donna Karan, said the company has bought pages through the end of 1996 for its Collection line and is considering adding DKNY.
“It’s absolutely on our plan,” said Laird, who added that he likes the magazine “both as an art director and as a young person who never paid attention to politics.” But not all the advertisers are sticking around. One fashion company executive, who asked not to be named, said his company would not be back.
“It’s a disappointment personally and professionally,” said the executive. “It has not distinguished itself. I had hoped it really would try to bring politics to the forefront and make it understandable to people, but they’re using models and movie stars. And I can’t say I’m intrigued with listening to what those people have to say about politics. Some of the cover lines on this issue were Harvard Lampoon-ish.”
In fact, George’s relentless attempt to connect everything to politics, and vice versa, results in some stories more suited to “Entertainment Weekly” than to a political journal.
“The Body Electorate,” where regular citizens who have the same names as famous politicians are interviewed about the connection, is one such forced feature, as is “Pop Politics,” where TV shows, movies and rock groups are split along party lines, resulting in lines such as, “Annie Hall’s fans are your classic former yuppies.”
Until the magazine gets steadier on its feet, most ad planners are taking a wait-and-see attitude.
Charles DeCaro, a partner at Laspata/DeCaro, an advertising agency based here, said he is “absolutely” considering recommending George to clients such as Kenar and Lacoste. DeCaro, who liked the second issue more than the first, said he will hold off on any formal media plans until he sees the third issue.
David Lipman, a principal at Lipman, Richmond, Greene, here, said he liked the content and is considering a buy for several of his clients, which include Buffalo Jeans — but he hasn’t made any commitments yet.
The same holds true for John Amodeo, partner in Amodeo & Petti. While he said he “loves” the publication because it offers a “fresh, interesting and unique point of view,” he added: “Right now, with the economy being the way it is, my clients are not willing to take a risk on a new publication such as this.”
And while they might like the content, the art direction is a little hard to take — starting with the cover.
“I looked at the cover on the second issue, and I thought, well, this is the thing,” said Garfinkle. “They’re trying to play both sides against the middle to see what works. For my personal taste, it’s a little cutesy-poo. And will the average person outside of New York get it?”
Berman, when asked if George Washington impersonators were obligatory, replied: “We’re taking it one issue at a time. We’re still a very newsstand-driven magazine, and we needed something that would catch people’s eye. Plus, it’s accessible and whimsical.”
“I’m not crazy about the look of it,” replied Garfinkle. “It’s hard to read. I was in an airplane trying to read the article in the first issue about George Wallace, and it was done with reverse type – white on a black background. I was leaning out in the aisle and twisting the magazine around trying to get to a position so there wouldn’t be any glare. Finally I gave up, and I never finished reading that article.”
“The art direction needs to be refined,” said Lipman.
Still, despite the bumps, the staff of George is evidently settling in, with lots of interaction with Kennedy, who owns the remaining 25 percent of the magazine. Kennedy, who could not be reached for this article, is by most accounts an on-site editor who runs editorial meetings, oversees article development and chooses photographers for the cover shoots. In a sign of stability, several free-lancers will move over to staff posts on Jan. 1 “with a health plan and everything,” said Berman.
And Kennedy isn’t neglecting the business side. Pecker pointed out that as an equity owner, the editor has a very large stake in making the magazine profitable.
“He’s very involved, very interested in the distribution, in the ad mix and placement,” said Pecker.
He’s even willing to work a lunch meeting. Earlier this week, Kennedy met with Valentino, one of his mother’s favorite designers, trying to squeeze out a few more ad dollars.