Conde Nast, described by one insider as a "very page-driven culture" where the marching orders are to "build pages at all costs," has found special ad sections are one way to do that. In some cases, the publishing giant is selling incremental advertorial pages for as much as 80% off the open rate.
"Conde Nast as a company is trying to combat what is going on in the marketplace without going off its rate card. Their answer is the special sections," said Mira Fein, associate media director at Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, New York.
While buyers confirm Conde Nast still refuses to negotiate published rates, they say the glossy-magazine publisher has developed aggressive packages to compete with rivals who negotiate rates as a normal part of doing business.
Still, some Conde Nast competitors, annoyed by what they see as an aloof public stance, say the publisher's programs amount to little more than discounts in disguise. And they question whether the proliferation of special ad sections threatens to cheapen the editorial products of a company that prides itself on quality.
BUY PAGE, BE IN SECTION
Among Conde Nast's recent ad programs was one under which advertisers that bought a page in Vanity Fair were listed in a special "Businesses to Watch" section distributed by sibling American City Business Journals.
But it is Conde Nast's special sections, many of which are tied to events or retail merchandising opportunities, that are among its most frequently used page-boosting weapons.
"It's a tool all the publishers have used to build pages and revenue," said Steven T. Florio, Conde Nast president-CEO.
Glamour Publisher Mary Berner and Vogue Publisher Ron Galotti credit special sections with bringing in nearly 200 incremental ad pages to each magazine last year.
"Often these pitches come up when I say I can't afford the rates, and then the special section is offered as an alternative," said Kirshenbaum's Ms. Fein. "I think they are probably sensitive to the fact that other publishers are giving significant discounts. This may be a way to allow them to pitch business that wouldn't normally run with them."
Mr. Florio said he believes in fighting "the war on all fronts." The exception, he insisted, is rate negotiation.
WAYS TO PROVIDE 'MORE'
"First we have to go out and sell the magazine on its editorial strength. Then we have to get all the standard advertising schedules. Then we have to find ways to provide more for advertisers to get them [to buy more than] that schedule," Mr. Florio said.
Corporately, greater emphasis is being put on the special sections for multiple titles. Catherine Viscardi Johnston, the exec VP overseeing corporate sales and database marketing, said Conde Nast ran 125 pages of multititle special sections this year out of her department. More emphasis is also being placed on finding ways for advertisers to use the company database, also under Ms. Viscardi Johnston's charge.
In addition, as many as five Conde Nast monthlies, including Vogue and Vanity Fair, are looking at adding a 13th issue next year. The strategy is appealing, said Mr. Florio, because it is a way to give subscribers extra value, a chance to sell more newsstand copies and an opportunity to sell more ad pages.
Another program being employed at titles such as GQ and Glamour is to offer advertorial adjacency pages, paid for with merchandising dollars but sold sometimes for as little as 20% to 30% of the standard rate card rate. The advertorial adjacency pages, created by Conde Nast's marketing departments, highlight an advertiser's product and always run opposite page ads bought at the advertiser's earned rate (based on published volume discounts).
"Conde Nast won't discount, but they are constantly coming up with new stuff, new packages, to make you comfortable with the rate card," said a media buyer who asked not to be identified.
Glamour has retailing partnerships with Dillard's Department Stores; Federated Department Stores, which owns Macy's and Bloomingdale's and mass retailers such as Target Stores and Eckerd Drug Co., and has carried special ad sections tied to in-store events.
Self's September issue features a 38-page special ad section tied to its five-city Workout in the Park event for sponsors including Volkswagen of America, Nike, Eastman Kodak Co., Club Med and Liz Claiborne Inc.'s Lizsport.
GQ ran a 24-page special ad section in its July issue featuring brands as diverse as Reebok, Skyy vodka, Bugle Boy, Fila, Budweiser and Ford. The September Mademoiselle has a 21-page special section tied to its Life-o-matic Campus tour featuring sponsors Chrysler Corp.'s Dodge division, Chanel, Sony Corp. and Liz Claiborne.
The danger of the proliferation of packages, insiders and observers say, is that the "race to build pages" will lead to Conde Nast titles stealing share from each another and lowering profit margins.
"It is semantics," said Hearst Magazines President Cathleen Black, referring to the difference between off-rate-card discounts and value-added packages. "One way or another, it has to have an impact on revenues."
Mr. Florio maintained publishers are closely monitored and limited in the number of special sections each title may run.
"It can lower profit per page if you let publishers just run them to build pages, but we're also running a business and we have to build revenues, too," said Mr. Florio. "It can get to the point where you're running so many special sections that it can drive down profit per page, but we monitor it closely and every special section has to be run by corporate for approval."
"I would advise [new launch] Conde Nast Sports For Women to not do too many," he said "But a mature title like Glamour . . . has got to come up with new opportunities to build pages. They have got to find a way to provide more