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'Life' not living up to expectations

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When Time Inc. relaunched Life this fall, the publisher promised that the latest version of the storied title would be something new-a newspaper supplement that was also a quality magazine. Adding to the fanfare, Life shot out of the gate with a weekly circulation of 12 million copies, a near miracle for a magazine launch.

But even with the power of its celebrated brand and all the marketing muscle of Time Inc., the new Life is proving a tougher sell than many in the industry had expected.

"I'm having difficulty understanding what the product is supposed to be," said Brett Stewart, director-print services at media buyer Interpublic Group of Cos.' Universal McCann, which has taken a wait-and-see approach to advertising in the magazine.

tough sell

Despite a successful distribution strategy that has put the publication inside 72 newspapers in the top 25 markets, including New York and Los Angeles, Life has yet to win over the advertising community.

The title is padding issues with house ads for Time Warner products and will close the year with just 90 pages of paid advertising in its first 13 issues. That modest number reflects the launch's risky positioning as a different kind of newspaper supplement: It appears on Friday, rather than Sunday, and it's printed on magazine-quality paper, not newsprint.

"It's never easy to create something new," said Life Publisher Peter Bauer. "If you look at [sibling magazines] In Style or Real Simple, they did not start off doing as well as they're doing now."

Life plans to expand its weekend service component next year, the better to exploit what its executives see as a key advantage: The magazine comes out ahead of newspaper-supplement rivals Parade and USA Weekend, both of which appear on Sunday.

"One of the most compelling aspects to advertisers is you're reaching people on a Friday, when they're open to being influenced," said Life President Andrew Blau. "By Sunday, you've missed out on a good 36 hours of the weekend."

That ahead-of-the-weekend strategy is beginning to bear some fruit. Recent issues have shown an increase in entertainment advertising from the likes of Walt Disney Co.'s ABC and Viacom's CBS.

But Life still faces an uphill slog in a notoriously competitive business. Newspaper supplements are known for single-digit profit margins and slow growth. In addition, Life isn't cheap. It's asking advertisers for $310,000 per page. Even though its rivals' prices are higher, Life is getting a premium, given its much smaller circulation. "At the end of the day, this is a tough category in which to succeed," warned Randy Siegel, publisher of Parade, a division of Advance Publications. "A number of people over the years have greatly underestimated it."

As tough as it is, the rewards are worth fighting for. Last year, Parade, with a circulation of 36 million, posted advertising revenues of $617 million from 695 ad pages, according to Publishers Information Bureau. Gannett Co.'s USA Weekend, with a circulation of 23 million, had $380 million in revenues off of 635 ad pages.

Life expects to carry 500 ad pages in 2005, which would require a roughly 40% increase over its weekly average of seven pages. Advertisers will be shown extensive research on its readership, which will be completed in June. Life also plans to stay clear of low-end direct-response ads that its rivals run.

Matthew Flamm is a reporter for Crain's New York Business

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