Publishers finally unite to rally behind 'engagement'

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[Boca Raton, Fla.] Publishing executives presented a newfound feistiness and a united front at the American Magazine Conference here, with a coordinated message woven political-campaign style through various speakers' comments.

Whether that aggressive stance can be maintained in the face of competition, or will ultimately result in the medium stemming share losses among advertisers and readers, remains the big question.

The challenges are daunting: continuing circulation woes; looming postal rate hikes (15% by 2006, said the postmaster general); and the specter of losing more ad dollars to the twin hot media segments of cable TV and a resurgent Web.

staying on-message

Nevertheless, if only for the conference, publishing executives stayed on-message. (Marketers will likely hear a lot about magazine readers' "engagement" with the medium in the months to come.) And if publishers might have described past ills by singing a variation on a line first made famous by the Ramones-"It's TV's fault I am this way"-this year they sounded ready to strike back.

"Watch TV," said Thomas O. Ryder, chairman-CEO of Reader's Digest Association and chairman of the Magazine Publishers of America, which co-sponsors the AMC with the American Society of Magazine Editors. "The time is right for us to go on the offensive," he said, in the manner of a shark sensing something in the water, referring to what he told attendees was "a weakness" in the medium.

This, of course, is what TiVo and channel surfing have done to the medium traditionally most cherished by advertisers. Publishers repeatedly stressed this point, as well as their contention that readers appreciate ads in the environment of a magazine. What was somewhat surprising was that confirmation of publishers' claims about TV came from key agency-side executives who spoke at the conference.

stick it out

"You guys should have your chest stuck out" over issues of reader appreciation of ads in magazines, said Donny Deutsch, chairman-CEO of Interpublic Group of Cos.' Deutsch.

Were Mr. Deutsch selling magazine ads, he said, "I would, right now, be so arrogant" about representing a media in which, he said, ads were "bulletproof" from technology. Andrew Swinand, a senior VP for Starcom Worldwide, cited research showing that 70% of TiVo users skip all ads. "That's pretty damning," he said.

None of this is to imply that executives were particularly rosy about the immediate future. "I wish I could tell you it's going to get better fast," said Eileen Naughton, president of Time Inc.'s Time, and the conference's chair, in her opening remarks to attendees. Another top industry executive, openly concerned about upcoming paper and postal rate increases, urged a reporter to pen editorials supporting magazines' efforts to pry rate increases from advertisers-a sign that automatic yearly ad rate hikes are no longer accepted by marketers.

But executives appeared to have their eye on a bigger game-how media spending is allocated.

"Our problem," said Jack Kliger, president-CEO of Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S., is that "magazines as a media are not seated at the main table" when such decisions are made.

To this end, the MPA presented a $40 million ad campaign, courtesy of Publicis Groupe's Fallon, New York, that will promote the industry with a campaign built on futuristic visuals and the tagline, "Read on." The ads are an outgrowth of the Magazine Marketing Coalition, an aggregation of top industry executives, led in large part by Mr. Kliger, which was formed earlier this year to broadly promote the medium. "Magazines deserve to be considered cool," said Anne Bologna, Fallon president, who presented the campaign to attendees. (For more on the ad campaign, see AdAge.com QwikFIND aaq0v.)

still tweakable

Not every executive at the conference was wholly charmed with the tagline, judging from a host of private comments. One executive involved in the process said the creative executions shown to attendees were still subject to tweaks.

Conflicts that surfaced earlier this year concerning marketers increasingly seeking product-placement in magazines' editorial content (AA, April 12) made their way onto the dais, as Rick Sirvaitis, president of General Motors Mediaworks, said he found this way of embedding ads in magazines intriguing (see story, below).

bring us back

In another presentation, Newsweek Editor and ASME President Mark Whitaker took on such "church vs. state" issues, saying "the greatest asset of magazines, old and new, is the unique credibility we have with readers"-a credibility he contended would be greatly undermined by embedding ads into editorial content. Mr. Whitaker said ASME hoped by next summer to issue new guidelines for magazines and Web off-shoots concerning these issues. "Hopefully, when we're done you'll still welcome us back next year," he said.

One bright spot on the circulation front: the remarks of Amazon.com founder-CEO Jeff Bezos, in which he said the online retailing giant would begin ramping up its role in selling magazine subscriptions. On the event's opening night, Mr. Bezos dined privately with top industry executives, who broadly hinted this was a topic of dinnertime discussion.

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