Publishers Fret Over September Issues

Brace for Tough Make-or-Break Month for Fashion Titles

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Fashion and beauty magazines are set to reveal this week how well, or how poorly, they sold ad pages into the upcoming make-or-break September issues. The titles' extended deadlines to sell ads, along with their general unease talking about the subject any earlier than necessary, suggest that the picture isn't going to be so pretty this year.

Vogue's September issue is now immortalized in a new documentary, 'The September Issue,' by R.J. Cutler.
Vogue's September issue is now immortalized in a new documentary, 'The September Issue,' by R.J. Cutler. Credit: Roadside Attractions
"Typically advertisers could book either years in advance or months in advance because positioning is everything, so getting in those issues specifically is critical," said Robin Steinberg, senior VP-director of print investment and activation at MediaVest Worldwide. "Today everything is wait and see until budgets get realized, so publishers are working harder than ever to drive that business."

September is a critical month for the titles as well. Vogue booked 673.89 ad pages in last year's September issue alone, for example, 23% of its haul for the full year, according to Media Industry Newsletter figures. For Elle, September represented 16% of the whole year's ad pages. If all issues were equal, a magazine publishing 12 times a year would expect each to contribute about 8%.

Some good news
On the semi-bright side, there's a heartening chance that September's ad page declines since last year won't be as awful as magazines' last big test for fashion: the March issues.

This year's March issues, of course, suffered from comparisons against the ad-heavy copies published in spring 2008 and sold even earlier in the year -- just the gentle dawn of the recession. This year's September issues only have to go up against the issues from last fall, which suffered because the recession was entering full force by then.

But we're accepting even small comforts. And there are other reasons September might not be down quite so sharply.

"The percentage declines in September will be much better than March, when advertisers didn't have as good a handle on the economy," said an executive at a major advertiser in women's magazines. "Things have settled down a bit, which is to say maybe things aren't getting better, but they're not getting any worse. So it's easier for advertisers to determine how much money they have to spend for the remainder of the year. A lot of first-half money that got put aside is going to come back into print."

Most important season
Ad pages at Hachette Filipacchi's Elle have fallen 21% from September 2008, to 326.7 pages from 413.5, according to Publisher Anne Welch. That's better than March, when Elle gave up 28%. "I'm not suggesting that it's over and it's all better at all," Ms. Welch said. "It's going to be a while before it all comes back. But marketers realize this is the most important season to brand."

March was a much more difficult issue to sell, especially so soon after the dismal holiday season, Ms. Welch added. Elle is now seeing some advertisers return to its pages after sitting out issues or resume bigger buys, marketers such as Blumarine, Jean Paul Gaultier and Hugo Boss.

Then again, Ms. Welch cautioned, some of these September pages may just be getting moved from other issues that would have been on advertisers' schedules in a better economy. "I don't know how much is coming from October," she said. "September's the issue everyone's got to be in."

Time Inc.'s Essence said it is estimating 105 ad pages in September, down 16.1% from last year. Its March issue was down 30%, according to Media Industry Newsletter. "We matched our expectations for this particular issue, given the current softness in the automotive category," said Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications. "Also the timing of certain beauty campaigns has shifted to October, which is a factor in the difference year to year."

Retail, fashion and accessories advertisers such as Target, Walmart, Tacori, Rocawear and House of Dereon helped boost Essence ad pages in that category by almost 50%, to 16 pages in September 2009 from 11 a year earlier.

The September Issue

Vogue, whose September issue is now immortalized in a new documentary ("The September Issue") by R.J. Cutler, might not be getting the same relief as some others. Vogue declined to comment for this report, but recently told the New York Post that its September issue would top 400 ad pages. Landing at 400 exactly would mean a 41% decline from last September. Getting to 450, one rumor going around, would mean a 33% drop. March, by comparison, fell 25%. September comparisons at all Conde books, however, are going to be hurt by the absence of what had been an annual Fashion Rocks supplement, which provided 66 extra pages for Vogue last year.

Harper's Bazaar, the big fashion title at Hearst, will also probably see a bigger drop in September than it did in March, when its ad pages arrived just 15% shy of their mark a year earlier. The September issue looks likely to run between 275 and 285 ad pages in the crucial September issue, the magazine said, which would represent a decline between 26% and 23%.

Cautious clients
"Even in this economy, we made a strategic decision to hold our rates," said Valerie Salembier, senior VP-publisher at Harper's Bazaar. "Like all marketers today, our clients are more cautious than they have been in years past, and we will feel the effect of that in our September issue, as will our competitors. But, that said, I have been through this before and there will be a recovery, so right now, we are doing everything we can to support our advertisers and address their needs."

Harper's Bazaar plans to publish its special 13th issue, Runway Report, again this year, timed to hit newsstands just as the fall clothes featured in it hit stores in mid-August. "Now more than ever our clients are looking to us to drive traffic into their stores, and we know women shop our pages at all price points," she said.

This year won't see September issues for shut-down titles such as Men's Vogue, Best Life and CosmoGirl. But there are already newcomers trying to get a piece of what remains a desirable time to advertise. The New York Post's Page Six Magazine hasn't appeared since Feb. 15, its last issue as a weekly, but will begin a new quarterly schedule starting with September, timed to coincide with Fashion Week.

People Style Watch, the People spinoff that only achieved 10-times-a-year frequency in 2007, is publishing its first perfect-bound issue for September. Coming from a relatively small base last September, when it ran 73 ad pages according to the Media Industry Newsletter, its September issue will probably run 10% more ad pages this time around. "It will be our biggest issue ever," said Michelle Myers, publisher. "We've been able to maintain our momentum and secured several new advertisers who will be running with us for the first time."

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