The magazine industry, mindful of the song lyric that the days grow short when you reach September, is striving to build upon some improved advertising results this month with hopes of producing some momentum for next year.
But as the industry seeks to better the $16.7 billion in advertising revenue that it recorded last year, magazine publishers confront a daunting challenge even as they produce ad-fat September issues that could double as doorstops.
Many of the factors that have made 2003 a difficult year to sell ad space - from the uncertain economy to the unstable Middle East to the unsettling surge in demand for a competing medium, television - continue to loom large and are capable of interrupting any songs in celebration of September or coming months.
"I still see a lot of confusion, a lot of questions, a lot of uncertainty in publishers' eyes and faces when I'm talking to them," said Karen Jacobs, executive vice president and director for print investment at a big media buying agency, Starcom Worldwide in Chicago, part of the Starcom MediaVest Group division of the Publicis Groupe.
"The trend is very slowly, very gradually upward," Ms. Jacobs said, "but with continued stops and starts."
Though a tally of September ad pages from the industry clearinghouse, the Publishers Information Bureau, is not expected until next month, many companies have compiled their own counts. Among the magazines declaring that they set ad-page records for September are: Details, from the Fairchild Publications division of Advance Publications; Parenting, People en Español and Real Simple, from the Time Inc. division of AOL Time Warner; and Vanity Fair, from the Condé Nast Publications division of Advance. The increases were fueled by gains in categories like apparel, automobiles, packaged goods, prescription drugs and retail.
Other magazines reported their best September in years. For instance, the current issue of Vogue, from Condé Nast, was the most ad-rich September issue of the magazine since 1989 and the fourth-largest ever.
"It's 4 pounds 8 ounces," Thomas A. Florio, vice president and publisher at Vogue in New York, said, laughing. "We do it by the pound now; we don't do it by the page."
Better Homes and Gardens, owned by the Meredith Corporation, published its second-biggest September issue ever, behind only 1999, on track to break the 2,000 ad-page level for the year, which would set a record.
"September doesn't appear to be hurt as much as had been expected, and October and November seem relatively buoyant," said Brett Stewart, senior vice president and director for print services at another media-buying agency, Universal McCann in New York, part of the McCann-Erickson World Group division of the Interpublic Group of Companies.
"But when I ask what's happening for December, I'm not getting any straight answers," Mr. Stewart said, "and it could go either way next year."
As if to underscore that fragility, as many magazines are crowing about September, dozens of others endured a September to forget, according to data gathered by the trade publications Media Industry Newsletter and Mediaweek.
Among the magazines suffering double-digit declines in ad pages compared with September 2002 are: Condé Nast Traveler, down 19.6 percent; Fast Company, from the Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing division of Bertelsmann, down 29.6 percent; Harper's Bazaar, published by the Hearst Magazines division of the Hearst Corporation, down 20.3 percent; Kiplinger's Personal Finance, from Kiplinger's Washington Editors, down 13.3 percent; Maxim, from Dennis Publishing, down 31.3 percent; and Men's Journal, published by Wenner Media, down 21.2 percent. The magazines were hurt by cutbacks in categories like financial services, imported luxury goods, technology and travel.
"The reality is, we're going to remain in an uncertain environment," said Ellen Oppenheim, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at the Magazine Publishers of America, the industry trade association in New York.
"What we're seeing this year is month-to-month fluctuations, partly based on events like SARS, the sputtering economic recovery and the war, and partly based on comparisons with results last year," Ms. Oppenheim said. "I would expect to see that continue."
One association member - Jack Griffin, president at the Meredith Magazine Group of Meredith, which is based in New York - will testify to the accuracy of that forecast.
"Our September was quite strong," Mr. Griffin said, at magazines like Ladies' Home Journal, More and Traditional Home in addition to Better Homes and Gardens. "For October, we didn't quite see the same vigor, but November is very strong. And we feel good about December."
His counterpart at the Time Inc. Women's Group in New York, Nora McAniff, who oversees magazines like InStyle, Parenting, People en Español and Real Simple, said: "I wish I could predict the future. People are already focused on next year, saying, `It can't get worse.' It's hard to tell."
A primary reason for those doubts is the penchant for advertisers, as Ms. Oppenheim put it, "to keep making decisions closer and closer to the last minute."
That trend is known as just-in-time media buying, after the process used by manufacturers like automakers to have parts delivered to plants only as assembly nears.
"Two weeks before the close of the September Money, we still had not booked 50 percent" of the ad pages that ultimately came in for the issue, said Chris Poleway, president of the Fortune Money Group at Time Inc., which finished down 10.4 percent from the same issue a year ago.
"I've asked our salespeople to be diligent about estimates and really talk to clients about what's going to run and not run," he said. "I do think we'll see growth in 2004, but I'm very hesitant to make any predictions."
At Hearst Magazines, Michael Clinton, executive vice president, chief marketing officer and publishing director in New York, said, "We're hoping to see some last-minute flurry of activity for the November and December issues we still have open."
"We can have an issue that within 48 hours of closing, 20 pages will come in and 10 go out," he said, "or 10 come in and 5 go out."
And in categories "with a lot of volatility," Mr. Clinton said, like beauty, fashion and travel, "the advertisers are there - just not there to the extent they once were there."
"Instead of running four pages, they run two pages," he added. "Instead of running a spread, they run a page."
Among the magazines doing well, Mr. Clinton listed Esquire, up 8 percent in September ad pages; Good Housekeeping, up 21.5 percent; the new Lifetime, with 64.6 ad pages in its first September issue; and Popular Mechanics, up 39.4 percent. They helped offset the declines at magazines like Cosmopolitan, down 8.9 percent; Harper's Bazaar; Marie Claire, down 10.2 percent; and Seventeen, which Hearst recently acquired, down 27.4 percent.
Through September, Hearst Magazines is "running about 5 percent ahead in pages," Mr. Clinton said, "and if we sustain that for the rest of the year, we'd be very happy."
"We're probably not going to get much better than that," he added.
Posted on aef.com: September 5, 2003
Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. September 2, 2003
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