Shortly after Ms. Taylor moved from Harlem to Queens and started seventh grade at a Catholic school there, a nun pulled her hair when she was writing on the blackboard. "Susan turned around and said, `Don't you do that to me!' " recalls Kathleen Lane, a marketing consultant who's one of Ms. Taylor's oldest friends. "Everyone gasped. Her spunkiness and daring were incredible."
That's not exactly what one would expect from Ms. Taylor's serene countenance as she sits in her office above Times Square or from her inspirational "In the Spirit" columns in Essence-just as one wouldn't necessarily expect much grit beneath the glamor-babe covers of this monthly.
But as a 33-year veteran of Essence and its longtime editorial leader, Ms. Taylor has made sure that alongside lighter subjects like fashion and beauty, there's substance in the pages of this member of Advertising Age's 2003 magazine A-List.
"There's a large group of African-American women who want to see major changes take place in our community," Ms. Taylor says. "There's great cause for black people to feel angry, when you look at how we're demonized in the news."
Connecting with those people in ways that resonate positively is what Essence is about.
Sure, the September issue had a big cover teaser that read: "Why he won't marry you." But Earl Black, associate media director at WPP Group's UniWorld Group, New York, notes that "editorially, they seem to be doing less and less `How to catch a man.' That used to be their reason for being ... They look better than ever. Their covers are fabulous."
And for those improvements, Ms. Taylor is quick to give credit to her editor in chief, Diane Weathers.
Such impressions among the ad set may account for Essence's big growth during the first nine months of this year. The magazine's ad pages were up 29.7% over the same period in 2002, according to Publishers Information Bureau, and ad revenue increased by 32.6% -all in a somewhat shaky ad economy.
GROWING DESPITE DOWNTURN
"Even in periods of downturns or recessions, we continue to grow revenue, and we grow in circulation as well," says Edward Lewis, who has seen the 33-year-old publication through several such periods.
Mr. Lewis is a co-founder of Essence as well as chairman-CEO of Essence Communications Partners, which counts Time Warner as a 49% owner. One benefit of that linkage is Essence's inclusion in Time Inc.'s Women's Group joint buy.
While subscriptions were down slightly (0.6%) in the first half, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, renewal rates are currently 58%. And single-copy sales climbed 8.7%, according to the audit bureau, despite a newsstand price hike from $2.75 to $2.99 last October.
"This is the first time that we didn't take a dip in sales [when there's been a price hike], and in fact our sales increased," Mr. Lewis says.
Part of the sales retention may have to do with a larger proportion of editorial to advertising, moving from 56/44 ad-to-edit ratio to 53/47 more recently, he says.
The magazine is just one way Essence Communications makes money. There's also an investment in Latina, as well as the annual Essence Awards show and Essence Music Festival. A product line includes eyewear, hosiery and books. And coming up next: two new magazines earmarked for 2004 and 2005. There's also a TV channel in the works.
Still, Essence can certainly expect challenges from the magazine competition. Heart & Soul, for example, saw an ad-page increase of 39.4% through September, though the 368 total is less than half that of the more established Essence.
Karen Jacobs, exec VP-director of print investment at Publicis Groupe's Starcom Worldwide, Chicago, notes Essence may face challenges on another front as well: "I hear that the teenage pop segment in America is one that sees itself as multicultural. ... As teens grow up, will they still feel the same need and connection to magazines that speak more specifically to one cultural niche or another?"
In Ms. Taylor's view, mainstream women's magazines can only go so far. "We say we are a mirror," she says, "the only place where black women can read deeply about themselves."