Fat September issues fuel magazines' optimism

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Suddenly, magazine executives are sounding some notes of optimism.

For monthlies, September's ad page numbers mark the industry's biggest year-over-year ad page gain-7.3%, according to figures supplied by Media Industry Newsletter. And should top executives' reckoning come true, consumer magazines will post aggregate ad page gains in 2004-which would mark the industry's first year since 2000 in positive territory.

Hardly a day goes by without an eager magazine company releasing news of a "record-setting" ad-fat September issue, among them: Hearst Magazines' Town & Country; Fairchild Publications' W; and Meredith Corp.'s Country Home.

broader rebound

Part of this is September's status as a particularly fashion- and luxury-heavy month, to which the groan-inducing heft of W, Conde Nast Publications' Vogue and Time Inc.'s In Style certainly testify. (Those titles' respective ad-page counts, per MIN: 435.8, 649, and 378.) But comments from executives and media buyers strongly suggest that while the back-breaking September issues may be a fluke, a broader-based bounce back is nonetheless under way-even if they couch comments in cautionary tones.

"Everyone has the view that things are definitely not bad," said Charles Valan, VP-strategic print services, Interpublic Group of Cos.' Universal McCann, New York. "No [marketer] is leading with the attitude `we are going to be ultra-conservative."'

"For the first time in about two years," said Tom Beusse, president-Rodale's Men's Health and Sports Group, marketers are talking about increasing budgets.

still `tentative'

Still, while executives expect a stronger second half than first-in which most top magazine companies saw ad pages slip slightly-they're remarkably reluctant to trumpet "Happy Days Are Here Again." Overall, ad response remains "uneven," said Jack Griffin, president, Meredith Corp.'s Publishing Group, which was the sole company among the industry's five largest players to post an ad-page gain for the first half of '04. (Meredith's pages rose 2.2%.)

"It's still a tentative environment," Mr. Griffin said.

One reason, Mr. Griffin said, was slow results in direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising, which has hit the traditional women's service category hard. In September issues, according to MIN, all of the six traditional women's service titles-Hearst's Good Housekeeping and Redbook; Meredith's Better Homes & Gardens and Ladies' Home Journal; Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S.'s Woman's Day; and Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing's Family Circle-all posted declines. And the falloffs at the G&J and Hearst titles were well into the double-digits. Through July, according to Publishers Information Bureau, the pharmaceutical category-the industry's second-largest revenue generator after automotive-saw pages drop 1.2%.

Aside from luxury and fashion, said executives, strong results came from cosmetics, food and package goods, and automotive. A sore spot, still: technology. "A big category for us," said Time Inc. Exec VP Jack Haire, "and it's one that has not really rebounded." He nonetheless expects pages at Time Inc. to be up "double-digits" in the third quarter. Mr. Haire expects to end the year in positive-ad-page territory-an assessment echoed by executives from Hearst, Hachette, Rodale and Meredith, with most forecasting a stronger second half.

Still, executives take care to stud their comments with caveats, and admit that bookings do not necessarily guarantee pages. "It's a very volatile market," said Michael Clinton, Hearst's chief marketing officer. "Every month is its own business cycle."

"This is the time of year that companies look to all their budgets for what's discretionary" spending, said Meredith's Mr. Griffin, should they need to cut costs to make profit demands. Which, he said, means "the art and science of forecasting has been redefined."

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