"It's the kind of year that people dream about," said Jim Berrien, who, as president of Forbes oversaw a record year for the entire Forbes Inc. group, "but the question a lot of people have to be asking is `what do you do for an encore?' "
That story, Mr. Berrien said, is not as dreamy. "We felt, in the fourth quarter of last year, the momentum started to build," he said. But today "there is not the same kind of euphoria." Indeed, upcoming are tough comparisons, hints of a cooling economy and continued uncertainty from domestic auto manufacturers and cigarette advertisers.
Still, the results thus far this year all but warrant a toast. The 43 groups tracked by Competitive Media Reporting posted ad page gains of 10% through September compared to the same period last year. The top gainers among the 15 largest companies were Time Warner (pages up 19.9%); Hearst Magazines (up 18.7%); McGraw-Hill Publications (consisting exclusively of Business Week, up 32.1%) and Forbes Inc. (up 26.3%).
Forbes' titles and Business Week rode readers' ravenous appetites for business and financial information to their positions, and Time Inc. and Hearst had their results bulked up by the debuts of some thick new titles, among them Real Simple and O, the Oprah Magazine, respectively.
`UP ACROSS THE BOARD'
"With the exception of domestic auto, we are just up across the board," said Dave Long, president of media sales and marketing for Time Inc. Bright spots, Mr. Long said, were the computers/technology category, as well as financial, and a nearly 100% gain in media and movies.
The weakest company measured was Ziff Davis Media. The four consumer titles measured by Publishers Information Bureau -- Yahoo! Internet Life, PC Magazine, Smart Business for the New Economy and FamilyPC -- posted a page drop of 19.1%. Tom McGrady, chief operating officer of Ziff Davis, said those numbers reflect an ad transition from multipage computer manufacturer deals to smaller, more profitable pages from tech advertisers.
While Mr. McGrady said ad revenues were still down among Ziff Davis' consumer portfolio, he said ad pages at Interactive Week through October were up 57%.
Another weak performer was Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing, with a 2.7% ad page drop. Through a spokeswoman, Senior VP-Corporate Sales and Marketing Ken Wallace said Gruner & Jahr was "in transition," and that first quarter of 2001 looks better.
One surprise in the numbers is the strong page performance from Time Inc.'s latest acquisition, Times Mirror Magazines. Widely considered among potential bidders and industry executives to be mature titles with limited growth prospects, the group posted a 13.8% ad page gain.
One atypical driver there was domestic automotive, said CEO Jason Klein, which showed an ad revenue gain of about 14% through October, with pages up 7%. Mr. Klein attributed that to truck and SUV advertising. "You can't launch a large vehicle without going through our titles," he said. While Mr. Klein said that endemic sporting goods categories will "continue to be strong" in the future, he said that non-endemic categories account for about 70% of his group's ad revenues.
It's also worth noting that the figures thus far this year do not yet reflect the loss of Philip Morris USA cigarette advertising in 48 key titles, which will be felt keenly at Times Mirror and elsewhere.
Right now, the numbers also don't reflect the anticipated dot-com falloff. Though the significance of dot-coms is often overstated, their absence will be felt. Ed Kelly, CEO of American Express Publishing Corp., said that dot-coms represented 7% of AmEx's ad business in 2000, though travel and luxury categories drove its 13.2% overall increase, with monthly or historical record issues in 28 of the company's 37 issues.
"The $20 million media expenditures from little dot-coms, that's gone forever," said Mr. Berrien.