After all, magazines are enjoying a particularly good year. As an industry, ad pages are up 5.2% to 165,856 pages through September, according to Publishers Information Bureau. The economy also is humming along, fattening titles in a year when paper prices are behaving and postal rate increases are still on the horizon.
SHOW SOME RESPECT
So why is this the year of public spats? Why did the Magazine Publishers of America choose last month to stand up with their brethren at the American Society of Magazine Editors to tell advertisers to play by the rules and show some respect?
One reason is the tension that always has existed between editors and advertisers is never really going to go away. Simply put, advertisers are from Mars, and editors are from Venus. Very often, they are trying to get to the same place, but someone refuses to stop and ask for directions and all kinds of misunderstandings occur, like the high profile case between Chrysler Corp. and Esquire in March.
The good news is that both sides want to mend the rift. The relationship-saving advice coming from the industry boils down to two self-help buzz words: communication and trust.
"It is like a couple. They both do really love each other and have a lot in common, but they also come at a magazine from different perspectives," says Mademoiselle Editor in Chief Elizabeth Crow. "As editors, we edit hoping our information will lead to a greater understanding of the world. And advertisers hope that the editorial will be supportive of the advertising. But most smart advertisers realize that smart editorial rubs off on their ads and they have to trust the editors' choices."
"There has always been a bit of a love/hate relationship between advertising and editorial," agrees Paula Brooks, managing partner-director of media services, Margeotes/Fertitta & Partners, New York. "I think editors would love a world where they didn't have to exist with publishers and advertisers."
Editors are adamant about being able to make the call about advertising that the reader may misinterpret as an editorial feature, or as somehow endorsed by the magazine's editorial staff.
"Editors who think they can pull off the balancing act of pleasing advertisers and satisfying readers are wrong. Readers have incredibly sensitive antennae about ads that try to masquerade as editorial, and they don't like it. It's hard to say no to an advertiser, but advertisers come and go. If you lose your readers, then the advertisers aren't going to want you either," says Michael LaFavore, editor in chief, Men's Health.
French-door covers are a perfect example of the two sides not seeing eye to eye. Editors have been known to shudder when the idea is broached. Advertisers and agency people see french-door covers as "premium ad space," in the words of Steve Klein, media director and managing partner, Kirshenbaum, Bond & Partners, New York . "I don't see that as crossing the line. A french-door cover clearly opens up to an ad, not editorial. The cover doesn't look any different until you pick it up and open it. I don't have a problem with that."
EDITORS MUST SAY NO
"Advertising agencies are paid to be creative and to come up with new ways of getting attention, but it's up to the editors to say no when it crosses the line," says Mr. LaFavore, who for the record says he "loathes" french-door covers. "Everyone wants more visibility for prime spots, but that's the cover, that's my prime selling tool on the newsstand. Don't meddle with it."
"Advertisers want to control where their ads appear. It's a case of giving them an inch, and they want a mile. I don't think it's anyone's fault, but editors do need to push back on this," says Ms. Crow. "That advertisers feel they can cherry pick editorial they want, that's dangerous."
That is not to say that advertisers are insensitive to the editors' concerns.
"This is all the pernicious side effect of magazines and advertisers, under the guise of cooperation and partnership, going down a slippery slope. I'm all for advertisers and magazines working together and coordinating efforts, but not if it leads to contamination," says David Verklin, managing director, Hal Riney & Partners, San Francisco.
Perhaps publishers only feel confident enough in robust times to stand up publicly to advertisers. Still, the significance of the publishers joining with the editors is not to be dismissed lightly. It may be a sign that accommodating ever increasing special requests from advertisers is starting to chafe, especially those for favorable editorial environment.
MAGAZINES' OWN FAULT
"It does seem that there is more sensitivity toward that. There is a lot more language on the insertion orders about placement, some more specific than others, about where ads can appear," acknowledges Outside Publisher Scott Parmalee.
"There is a lot of pressure for good or favorable environment. So more and more we see companies creating advertorial sections to give additional environment," agrees Diane Oshin, group publisher, Time Inc.'s Parenting Group.
Advertisers and agency media buyers note that magazines have brought this on themselves, by increasing the use of single-sponsor issues, special ad sections, and ever more creative units.
"It all started pretty innocently. . .with a policy from airlines to be allowed to pull from issues carrying news of a plane crash," says Mr. Verklin. "But now we're getting into some gray areas."
Mr. Klein would like to see more honesty from the publishing side.
"I like the approach that this is what the editorial mission of the book is and you either buy into it or you don't. The creative selling is what blurs the line," he says.
To editors, that is a refreshing point of view to hear from the agency side. Chrysler's sending letters this past February asking magazines sales staffs to warn them of potentially "offensive" or "provocative" editorial rankled editors because of its chilling effect, which was proven when Esquire killed a short story containing homoerotic scenes, apparently to avoid losing Chrysler business.
Under pressure earlier this month, Chrysler discontinued that practice.
"Advertisers have a right to not go where they don't want to," says Good Housekeeping Editor in Chief Ellen Levine. "But requests like that can cause editors to doubt their choices."
"It really puts pressure on to be sure that what you are doing has merit," says Tina Brown. The New Yorker editor in chief . "The criteria shouldn't be will the advertiser not like this, but is this appropriate for my reader?"
Blurring OF THE LINES
The pressures on magazines to increase revenues also contributes to the blurring of where church ends and state begins.
"There have always been periods when tensions build to a head, and then the top gets blown off. This is a pretty good year so it doesn't make sense for this to be the time for it to surface," says Ms. Levine. "But the emphasis on profitability has also been building. [A clash] was almost destined to happen."
In February, Hachette Filipacchi Magazines President-CEO David Pecker addressed an industry awards luncheon, giving a speech entitled "The Business of Editorial." Mr. Pecker said in that speech the editor/publisher relationship needs to be re-evaluated for today's business climate.
"Reduce this relationship to the most elemental terms and you're left with simple economic truth-the editor creates the product the publisher sells. If the editor creates a product that is less than it can be, the publisher's job becomes more difficult. Pages are sold at unrealistic rates to compensate for the magazine's weaknesses. . .Promises, intentional or not, are extended that jeopardize editorial integrity."
More and more editors feel the profitability dragon's breath on their necks. Another pressure source is the never-ending competition for readers' time, from other magazines, online sources, and broadcast.
"I think advertisers have too much power because it is such an incredible market," says Ms. Brown."It requires even greater vigilance and solidarity among the editors to decide what the ethics are."
Magazines that are losing readers make it harder on ones that are not.
"The compromises come from weak, old magazines. They are the ones who will lower rates and make promises to keep the business," says Ms. Levine. "As paper prices increase and margins decrease, the advertisers can smell the blood in the water. They'll push for more concessions, which makes the titles weaker."
Editors argue that their primary concern in contributing to the bottom line is capturing paying readers.
"Editors have to make their case heard. It is not enough to say that it is a matter of editorial independence. Advertisers don't live in our world of single copy sales and long term renewals. They have to understand why anything that appears to be a compromise is a bad idea," says Mr. LaFavore.
Others note editors being more business-minded does not lead to a weakening of editorial integrity.
"We all live in the real commercial world and need to be at least understanding of what the business side has to go through, particularly in a very competitive market. These guys walk in with standards, and it's very demoralizing to find out that someone they thought was a high-quality competitor has just given away the store," says Ms. Brown.
Both publishers, editors and advertisers would like to see more communication, and believe it would make for fewer misunderstandings in the future.
"If sales and marketing are the only liaisons, the editorial mission and what the magazine's editors are trying to achieve can get lost in the shuffle. Editors should be more involved with the process," says Mr. Parmalee.
"I think it is perfectly alright for an editor to address advertisers or any other audience about what their magazine is trying to accomplish. The danger is when advertisers think these talks can influence editorial copy," says Marshall Loeb, editor in chief, Columbia Journalism Review. "It isn't the case and shouldn't be the case."