There's a little more optimism in the offices of magazine publishers this spring.
After struggling their way through 2012, many titles are enjoying ad page increases in the early months of 2013, and not just the fashion magazines that typically turn out thick March editions. And ad pages across all monthly magazines from January through April declined, but only by 0.9%, according to the Media Industry Newsletter -- an improvement from the 5.6% decline seemed in the period last year.
"It's been a hard few years for print, but our research shows consumers love their content," said Brenda White, senior VP-publishing activation director at Starcom USA. "We know consumers still like the experience of going through the pages of a magazine and not only looking at the content, but also looking at the ads."
There were, to be sure, plenty of ads to look at this March. Conde Nast, the fashion-centric publisher of titles such as Glamour and GQ, reported a cumulative increase in March ad pages of 3% compared with last year. Vogue magazine, the company flagship, led all fashion magazines with 457 ad pages. Hearst, the publisher of titles such as Cosmopolitan and Elle, saw March ad pages increase 6.7%, the company said. Ad pages at monthly magazines published by Time Inc. also gained.
But April issues also brought ad-page gains for a range of titles, including double-digit percentage growth at magazines including Allure, Cosmo, Details, Esquire, Family Fun, GQ, Guideposts, Latina, Men's Fitness, Men's Health, National Geographic Traveler, Playboy, Real Simple, Shape, Town & Country and Women's Health.
Global luxury and beauty brands are shifting their resources to an improving U.S. economy as Europe remains gripped in uncertainty and Asia faces a possible slowdown, some publishers said. "There's always an eye on growth markets," said Michael Clinton, president for marketing and publishing director at Hearst Magazines. "What we're seeing is a bit of reinvestment in the U.S. market."
Magazines will also see a boost in the months ahead thanks to auto spending, Mr. Clinton predicted. "Automotive will be a bright spot," he said. "Look for it in the second quarter and beyond, across all titles."
Still, the uptick in spending might be confined to only a handful of industries. "There seems to be optimism among marketers this spring, but it varies by sectors," Ms. White said.
Consumer-packaged goods, over-the-counter drugs, and quick service restaurants are not spending in the same way as beauty and luxury brands, according to Fraser Elliott, senior VP and media director at Cramer-Krasselt.
"They're spending," he said, "but it's tight -- there's a lot of caution out there."
Such wariness comes naturally after the industry lost more than a quarter of its ad pages in 2009 amid widespread recession. Although magazines have regained some of the lost ground since then, monthlies have endured seven straight quarters of declines, according to the Media Industry Newsletter. The good news: The first quarter of this year was the smallest of those declines, posting a vanishing 0.1% slip.
At Conde Nast, 14 of its 17 titles (excluding Brides, which dropped issues) saw increases in ad pages for the first quarter, making it the company's strongest opening quarter in five years, according to Lou Cona, chief marketing officer at Conde Nast. That was partly the benefit of strong fashion advertising, but there was also a bigger spend this March in men's grooming and luxury, Mr. Cona said.
Beauty, too, is performing well. "The beauty space has been spending fairly aggressively," Mr. Cona said. "Overall, luxury brands see the U.S. market as stable and growing market."
Mr. Clinton echoed that assessment. "Global beauty and luxury brands are putting more resources in the U.S. marketplace, where there's growth and action," he said. "We've seen that play out for a lot of our beauty books."
Hearst's Marie Claire, for instance, put out its biggest March issue to date, with 208 total ad pages, aided by an-eight page L'Oreal booklet and a pullout poster from Dior Beauty. New beauty business from See by Chloe Fragrance, Clarins, and Giorgio Armani Beauty, meanwhile, helped deliver the biggest March issue ever for Harper's Bazaar.
Two Time Inc. titles with a higher concentration of beauty and fashion clients were also up in March. InStyle saw 361 total ad pages in its March edition, a 4% boost, while People StyleWatch ran 173 ad pages, a 28% gain.
Marketers for the home seem to be making an uneven return to magazines even as home sales and home starts improve in various parts of the nation. Ad pages through April declined at Architectural Digest and Elle Decor but improved for House Beautiful and Coastal Living.
Another title in the home category, Hearst's fledgling HGTV Magazine, is a "huge bright spot this year," according to Starcom's Ms. White.
But publishers are more hopeful about car advertising -- with some cause. "The car companies are spending like crazy," said Mr. Elliott, the Cramer-Krasselt media director. "It's absolutely driving growth."
The U.S. economy still faces a number of hurdles that could hinder growth for magazines as well as other media. It's unclear how the federal budget cuts known as sequestration will affect businesses. The housing recovery is fragile and the auto industry remains bruised from several difficult years.
"You can't control the economy," Mr. Cona said. "But if things remains the same we should be in for a good year."