NEW YORK — Over the past three years, magazine publishers have frequently resorted to that hoariest of business clichés — “cautious optimism” — when asked to prognosticate about the advertising economy. It seems they may finally have learned their lesson. Heading into yet another uncertain fourth quarter, publishers of the major women’s fashion and beauty titles are expressing a bit less optimism and a bit more caution.

That’s not to say that the ad climate is any worse than it has been since the economy first began to sour in 2001. While beauty and retail spending have been down for most titles this year, those declines have been offset by gains in apparel, jewelry and watches, and secondary categories such as technology and liquor. Through the first nine months of 2004, four of 11 titles in the category were down in overall pages versus the same period last year, five were up and two were flat, according to publishers’ estimates. Fat September issues will bring a slight lift to the numbers: All 11 titles logged more pages this September than last, with Vogue and W publishing their heftiest issues ever. (Vogue, W, Glamour and Allure are all owned by Advance Publications, parent of WWD.)

But it would be unwise to read too much into those pumped-up page totals, said Alyce Alston, vice president and publisher of W. “That’s part of what’s happening with advertisers — they’re allocating more to March and September,” she said. “What really matters is the bigger picture. I wouldn’t say it’s any kind of bonanza out there. The market is more depressed than it looks.”

An even more significant development is the way marketers in all categories are increasingly viewing their magazine buys as a means of moving product, not just building a brand. This shift in thinking is closely tied to the rising population of shopping magazines such as Lucky and Hearst’s new Shop Etc., which pitch themselves to advertisers as the ultimate tool for converting readers into buyers. Internet advertising has also played a part in encouraging marketers to demand a more immediate, measurable return-on-investment — not something historically associated with print ads. “I’m noticing that sell-through is more important this year than ever before,” said Bill Wackermann, Glamour’s vice president and publisher. “When people had a lot of dollars, they were spending more on image.”

This story first appeared in the July 16, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“Basically, there’s a new formula out there — a new model,” agreed Valerie Salembier, senior vice president and publisher of Harper’s Bazaar. “And that is if your pages sell product, the advertisers will keep coming back.”

This heightened emphasis on bang-buck ratio has everything to do with the pressures marketers themselves are feeling to show immediate results, given the unpredictability of the current economy. “People used to assess the bottom line a couple times a year,” said Sandy Golinkin, vice president and publisher of Lucky. “Now it’s assessed daily, monthly, constantly.”

As ad buys become ever more closely linked to the fluctuations in merchandise sales, publishers find their lead times collapsing. “We’re closing issues a week after close,” said Katherine Rizzuto, Marie Claire’s vice president and publisher. That, in turn, makes it harder for publishers to get any firm sense of what the future holds. “It used to be you could forecast your business in a much clearer way,” said Salembier. “Now it’s a challenge to forecast even issue by issue.”

All that said, early indications are that the fourth quarter will bring a slight improvement in publishers’ fortunes. Beauty spending, which was down sharply for most books in the first half, is expected to rebound somewhat thanks to a number of foundation and treatment launches. Through September, Allure is down 2.5 percent in ad pages, but Nancy Landsman Berger, the title’s vice president and publisher, said she expects to finish the year 2 to 3 percent up thanks to strong fourth-quarter beauty spending.

Retail, which has been spotty in 2004, is also showing signs of improvement. “People are shopping, and it’s not just main-floor business,” said Salembier. “When you go up to the third or fourth floors, there are now people there.”

W’s Alston sums up the overall mood best: “We keep saying it’s a challenging market. But when has it not been a challenging market?”

— Jeff Bercovici

The September Scorecard
 
September 2004 ad pages
% up/down vs. Sept. 03
YTD pages through September
% up/down vs. 2003
ALLURE
137
4
890
-2.5
COSMOPOLITAN
200
4
1,336
1
ELLE
342
16
1,228
6
GLAMOUR
184
3
1,125
-2.3
HARPER’S BAZAAR
252
17
1,004
15
IN STYLE
378
15
2,325
7.2
JANE
113
2
573
-9.9
LUCKY
258
31
1,177
12.5
MARIE CLAIRE
192
6.6
1,020
-6.3
VOGUE
647
12.7
2,125
-0.3
W
413
11
1,372
3.5
Numbers reflect publishers’ best estimates.