As Oprah Winfrey migrates to magazine publishing, she's borrowing a page from the TV sales handbook to devise an unusual print ad strategy.
The as-yet-unnamed glossy, a joint venture between Ms. Winfrey and Hearst Magazines, will attempt to mimic TV's advance selling season with what's being called the "Oprah upfront."
The goal of the program is to give advertisers that want premium positions--such as covers--a chance to bid on them as part of an overall dollar commitment encompassing all of next year's seven planned issues. Most magazines juggle positioning demands with a rotation schedule that allows top spenders by category to each have a chance to appear on a premium page.
'THE OPRAH WAY'
Alyce Alston, publisher of the Oprah magazine, said the upfront plan is a way to avoid playing favorites.
"I wondered how we could sell this the Oprah way. The Oprah brand is really all about equality," she said. "This is a way to fairly and equitably distribute the premium positions."
For two days in October, Oprah magazine sales staffers will call on the top 50 advertisers they would like to secure for next year. Advertisers will be presented with the magazine's mission statement, but no prototype. During those meetings, to be held on Oct. 18 and 19, advertisers will be asked to make "in good faith" page commitments.
After advertisers give their best offer, Ms. Alston and her staff will create packages that award premium pages to those that made the largest commitments in each category. Once presented with their package, advertisers can either accept or reject it.
Advertisers also have another chance to pull out when they are presented with the prototype in December. That is similar to the broadcast upfront model, where advertisers have the option of canceling up to 25% of inventory at the beginning of each quarter. This year, about 75% of the network TV advertising inventory was sold in the upfront market.
Ms. Alston hopes to sell a package to each of the 50 top target advertisers, a coup that would secure millions of dollars in ad commitments for the title before it has published a single issue.
But media buyers expressed reservations, and compared the model to one used for the launch of Talk that required advertisers to buy the first four issues as a package.
"Media companies are getting bolder and much more confident on these launches," said Priya Narang, senior VP-media director for DeWitt Media, New York. "But given that there are over 3,000 magazines out there that are measured and proven, buying into an unknown is risky. . . . We are spending our clients' dollars and you need to do that intelligently. You can't throw dollars against a promise."
Media buyers also noted the broadcast networks still are a relatively small group of media vehicles with a fixed inventory, which gives them more leverage in upfront negotiations.
"This is a different kind of marketplace Oprah's magazine is competing in," said Barry Lowenthal, group media director, Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, New York. "Are there other places with similar pricing with fewer restrictions I can go to? Yes. The idea of causing a frenetic selling season is that there is nothing you can substitute for the media property. You have to be there. I don't know if we know that about this magazine."
SEEN AS A SURE HIT
Several advertisers, Ms. Alston said, called early on to tell her they would like to be in the magazine next year. But until now, she's left the requests on hold as she figured out a fair way to balance competing offers. It is unusual for an unproven print vehicle to ask for these kind of upfront commitments, but Ms. Winfrey's title is seen as a sure hit, with circulation expected to quickly rise to several million.
"I'm telling advertisers, 'It sounds like a leap of faith, but it's really a step of faith,' " Ms. Alston said.
Target categories include automotive, food, package goods, technology, finance, beauty, fashion, travel and retail. The first issue will appear next spring.
Copyright September 1999, Crain Communications Inc.