Magazine A-List 2010

People StyleWatch Is Ad Age's Magazine of the Year

Shopping Title's Sharp Editing Brings Web Sensibility to Print

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EYES OPEN: Publisher Karin Tracy (l.) and Editor Susan Kaufman are happy that People StyleWatch doesn't look like other fashion magazines, and advertisers seem pleased as well.
EYES OPEN: Publisher Karin Tracy (l.) and Editor Susan Kaufman are happy that People StyleWatch doesn't look like other fashion magazines, and advertisers seem pleased as well. Credit: Katja Heinemann

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Lots of fashion magazines cover high and low, but few are as relentlessly real about fashion as the sunny People StyleWatch, a magazine that makes cover stars out of boots, tops, bracelets and bags under $100. And none are adding readers and advertisers as rapidly.

Look at its newsstand sales, where many advertisers gauge a title's vitality. It increased 15% in the first half of this year, compared with the first half of last year, according to its report with the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Single-copy sales across the magazines reporting to the bureau fell 5.6% by comparison.

Subscriptions are flying as well, surging 36.1% in the first half. Total paid circulation climbed 17.7% to 882,683, giving its advertisers a big overdelivery on the guaranteed 725,000. The magazine, which has increased its circulation guarantee every year since 2006, is planning another bump for February 2011, when its rate base will go to 775,000. Oh yeah, and an 11th issue is joining the schedule in July.

Advertisers are coming along almost as quickly as readers. As a young magazine that hadn't yet reached cruising altitude, People StyleWatch was able to keep climbing even in the brutal business climate of 2009. Magazines as a whole lost more than a quarter of their ad pages last year, but People StyleWatch added 24.4%, according to the Publishers Information Bureau.

There's either something special going on here or it's still a young brand climbing toward arguably high potential.

"There was always some fashion in there, but we're becoming more and more core," said Karin Tracy, the publisher since February, when founding publisher Michelle Myers defected to Lucky, the original shopping title from Condé Nast. "There was some education that had to be done there because we look different from a traditional fashion magazine. But that's what works."

Under a deal with JCPenney that brought the magazine increased ad pages, People StyleWatch's "Must-Haves" editorial feature is appearing now in 1,100 JCPenney stores around the country. Starting next February, shoppers at the stores will get special subscription offers, too, to the magazine and its siblings at Time Inc. "They are a very talented and creative team who give instant credibility to our style authority," said Myron Ullman, chairman-CEO of JCPenney.

Much of the advertising growth this year has come from fashion and retail marketers, with new buys from brands including Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, Levi's, DKNY, Lord & Taylor, Piperlime and Express.

"They've all realized that times have changed, and in order to get this consumer you have to think differently," Ms. Tracy said. "And I think a lot of it also came from them getting comfortable with the web. We are almost a print vehicle that takes the best practices from the web."

That means the magazine has a singular function and a tight focus, much like a website that appeals because it gets something done. Susan Kaufman, the editor since its official 10-times-a-year launch in 2006, keeps her treatments of boots and bags fast and succinct. And she keeps a very close eye on reader reactions.

At first the magazine was doing shoots with celebrities like Rachel McAdams and Jessica Alba. "I came from Glamour and Mademoiselle, pretty traditional fashion magazines," Ms. Kaufman recalled. "In fashion magazines you do shoots.

"Over time when we were getting back the reader reports, it was becoming very clear that those were the lowest-rated pages in the magazine," she said. "After about four or five issues, I said to myself, 'Why are we doing this? They don't even like it. Why not use paparazzi photos of celebrities in real clothes, not the clothes we put them in?' There's no payback to the reader, so we don't need to be traditional, we don't need to be like other magazines."

She once explored slightly longer packages -- "if you can call a page-and-a-half of trying out a stiletto a 'longer article,'" Ms. Kaufman said -- but reversed course when readers started skimming. "Even that was too much for the reader," she said. "They really want that quick snap."

It may attract consumers like a website, but People StyleWatch holds them like a magazine. Readers spend an average of 109 minutes with an issue, according to the title's internal research.

And while they enjoy the celebrity photos, the magazine's real benefit is that it's actionable.

"As editors we are curating and editing a lot of fashion noise ... narrowing down to the things you need to know, the best things you need to buy at the best price points," Ms. Kaufman said. "We're sort of doing the best of the web and the best of magazines, and that's probably another reason it has resonated with readers."

It's not obvious to readers, or probably much of the industry, how much editorial work goes into executing on the mission, looking for ways People StyleWatch can evolve, exercising discipline when an experiment proves to be a digression, and getting questions of taste and style right issue after issue. This is not a magazine that's getting nominations for National Magazine Awards. But all those elements are required and supplied in good measure by Ms. Kaufman and her staff.

And there are tricks to getting a shopping magazine right -- as former shopping magazines from Cargo to Vitals to Shop Etc. could attest from their graves. Respect is key. "If we're doing an 'Under $100' story, we're not going to show a T-shirt for $99," Ms. Kaufman said. "That's insulting to readers."

She added: "I ask around the office, ask the assistants, because I want the reality, when a lot of fashion magazines are pretty insulated."

For its obvious and still-growing pull on readers and advertisers, not to mention how easy Ms. Kaufman makes it all look on the page, People StyleWatch is the Advertising Age Magazine of the Year, and Ms. Kaufman is our Editor of the Year.

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