Some titles see big ad-page gains

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After two-plus years of steadily downbeat news, magazine executives, looking back at the first few months of `03, see a business landscape dotted with some surprisingly strong gains.

But even executives at titles posting increased ad pages shy from claiming a turnaround. "I do not want to jump on any wagon prematurely," said Dan Rubin, exec VP, Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing, which has seen a 15.8% bounceback through April at its new-economy title Fast Company. "One month, maybe two months, is not a trend."

This is especially true given that monthlies are measuring themselves against a post-Sept. 11 economy in early `02, in which advertising spending cratered. Among magazines posting double-digit increases through April that still fall below their '01, and pre-Sept. 11, performances: Conde Nast Publications' Bon Appetit, Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S.'s Elle, Hearst Magazines' Esquire and Fairchild Publications' W. Add to those Fast Company, whose Publisher Linda Sepp quietly left last week, and Conde Nast Publications' Wired, even though the latter posted a 42.6% jump.

Hard and fast patterns are hard to discern, although there's general category strength among automotive magazines (four monthlies-Primedia's Automobile and Motor Trend, and Hachette Filipacchi's Car and Driver and Road & Track-all posted ad page increases of at least 16%) and health-related titles. Overall, magazines posted a 3.1% increase through April.

"First-quarter strength is overstated," said one publisher whose pages are up, adding that market dynamics remained "incredibly soft." And the limitations of using ad pages as a metric can be glimpsed by the performance of one title that's showing a 30.6% paging increase through April. That would be Travel Holiday, which Hachette Filipacchi shuttered in late April.

familiar litany

Add to the mix the now-familiar litany of continued economic uncertainties-the latest version of which has executives expressing concern over how the weakening dollar may affect import businesses. Throw in the theory-studiously disputed or downplayed by magazine executives-that the TV upfront's billion-dollar increase comes at the expense of magazines (See AdAge.com QwikFIND aao72h), and there's clearly no shortage of caveats.

Still, the early '03 performance suggests that dynamics underpinning magazines' doldrums are shifting somewhat, even if they've yet to abate. "There is a resurgence, but it's happening in a spitter-spatter way," said Steve Greenberger, senior VP-director of print at Zenith Media, New York.

some bulls

A more bullish view is held by Steven T. Florio, president-CEO of Conde Nast, which saw its pages drop 8.2% in 2002 but saw them increase 20.3% through March.

"What we have now is a highly segmented recovery," Mr. Florio said. "It's not only segmented by category, it's segmented within category," he added, contrasting the performances this year of carmakers and major advertisers Toyota Motor Sales USA and General Motors Corp. According to Automotive News, sales of Toyota and Lexus vehicles rose 0.7% through April, while GM's sales slid 8.6%.

Which is why enthusiasm over '03, and what it may yet hold, remains somewhat muted. "Is there a growing confidence among consumers and business people?" asked Michael Clinton, chief marketing officer at Hearst. "I am not sure we can say that yet."

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