NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Magazine publishers are reporting slightly improved ad sales in the second quarter, welcome news after closing January, February and March issues that were starved for ad pages. But it's going to be a very long year, they said, with effects that persist long after.
"The second quarter does have some bright spots, a few, and the first quarter had none," one publisher said.
"I think the first quarter gave us rock bottom," a media buyer ventured. "We will not see that again."
Let's hope not. Monthly magazines' ad pages plunged almost 21% in the first quarter, compared with the first quarter of 2008, according to the Media Industry Newsletter. That included drops of 41% at Teen Vogue, 42% at Vibe and Gourmet, 44% at Saltwater Sportsman, 45% at Everyday Food, 47% at Inc. and Architectural Digest, 57% at Wired, 61% at Blender, and 63% atPower & Motoryacht.
Conde Nast leads the big publishers in first-quarter declines at monthly magazines, according to calculations based on monthlies' ad pages as reported by Media Industry Newsletter. Monthlies' first-quarter ad pages sank an average of 34% at Conde (hurt by one fewer issue of Portfolio), 22% at Hachette and Rodale, 20% at Hearst and Bonnier (hurt by one fewer issue of Skiing), 19% at Time Inc., and at 5% at Meredith (helped by an extra issue at Fitness).
The near total freeze in activity that followed September and October's financial meltdown finally let up around mid-January, meaning monthlies could actually sell some ad pages into their second-quarter issues.
"A good amount of credit-card companies and financial-services companies have started repositioning themselves," said MaryAnn Bekkedahl, exec VP-group publisher at Rodale, for example, where Men's Health is seeing growth in business and finance advertising from marketers such as Bank of America and Capital One.
"We have some campaigns starting in April and May that have been waiting to start for some time," an executive at another big publisher said. "Some travel, some financial, some spirits."
Andy Sareyan, exec VP at Meredith Corp., compared conditions to driving in an ice storm. "I feel like we've hit a dry patch of pavement," he said. Meredith's Family Circle actually expanded ad pages 5% in the first quarter, publishing its biggest January issue ever. "We've got traction. I'm very excited about that. But the economy is such that I feel like I could hit an icy patch at any minute."
Food and beverage marketers are relatively active too, said Vicci Lasdon Rose, publisher of Us Weekly. "Sports drinks, fortified waters -- I hate to say that they're strong, but in the context of this environment they're strong," she said.
Just don't expect much momentum. "Even if advertisers do help the marketplace by spending in March, April and May, there's going to be another dip come summer," said David L. Smith, CEO of Mediasmith, the agency and consultancy based in San Francisco. "There's going to be a lot of dependence on the fourth quarter."
By the time 2009 is out, moreover, it will have deeply altered the magazine business. "It's scary," said a monthly publisher. "It's not like a correction. When it comes back, it will not be what came before. It's not just 'What if I'm off another month?' but 'How much am going to have to cut before this is over? How many people do I have to lay off?'"