Flexibility constantly tests Black

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Circulation is only half of it. Magazines continue to reel from a sustained ad downturn. All this makes it a fine time to hear the state of the industry from Hearst Magazines President Cathleen Black, whose publishing career spans both newspapers (including a stint as publisher of USA Today) and magazines. Advertising Age's Jon Fine discussed the challenges her company and magazines face. (For the full text of this interview go to AdAge.com at QwikFIND aap45c.)

Advertising Age: Magazines had a disappointing fourth quarter 2003 and first quarter 2004, advertising-wise. Why?

Cathleen Black: We've talked about this internally a million times. A lot of advertisers just haven't felt steady confidence about their own businesses. And advertising budgets are cash expenditures, and I think they have sat on it wherever they could. If they felt just a little bit unsteady, or if they're publicly held and have to go face Wall Street, it's an easy place to find tens of millions of dollars.

AA: At the same time, newspapers-your old stomping grounds-seem to be turning around a little quicker.

Ms. Black: Well, [newspapers are] very immediate. It's tomorrow. When [retailers] know they didn't do well on a weekend, they can turn something around in 48 hours. An automotive dealer can run an ad in a couple of days. Although at magazines we joke and say that "Now we never close." I mean we really do roll from one closing to another.

AA: What are the ramifications for this just-in-time media buying on magazines?

Ms. Black: Every magazine publisher would tell you that the amount of change going into what used to be thought of as an official closing date for a magazine is incredibly flexible. Our editors [are] shaking their heads. You know, 20 pages can come in, 20 pages can go out, and they're not all the same 20 pages. Everyone's got to do a lot of adjusting.

AA: Since you came to Hearst in 1996, how have magazines' place in the media culture changed?

Ms. Black: Magazines have to fight harder. But I was in the newspaper business for 12 or 13 years, when every headline was "Would anybody ever read a newspaper anymore?" When I was at magazines and cable first came out, [people] said, "Oh, my God, cable will put magazines out of business."

But there is no question that there's a lot of product out there. You need only to walk by some newsstands to realize that. It's one reason that we were very interested in launching a Lifetime magazine, because we figured we could have the halo of the Lifetime [cable] brand, it was going to be important today.

AA: So is there something you think that hasn't been communicated to marketers?

Ms. Black: We're always asked to prove the effectiveness of print, I think in a different way than if you look at the television numbers, I mean, it's amazing that advertisers are still willing to pay higher prices, you know, $2.5 million for commercials [on the Super Bowl], and half of them bombed. What did the $2.5 million get them?

AA: Well, we're still talking about them.

Ms. Black: But if you went out to the consumer, they may name one or two, and they forget all of the rest of them. We need to do a stronger and better job of continually showing why the combination of television and magazine advertising is the most effective buy. The data are there.

Am I going to tell you that that's an easy sell to an advertiser who's totally sold on television? No. But look at the fashion community. Look at the beauty business. They have by and large built their brands on the effectiveness and that continuity and consistency of their message [in print].

It's really compelling, the experience that one has in sitting down and reading a magazine in one sitting or multiple sittings. All you need to do is get 10 people and to have them talk about their TiVos. I suppose advertisers in television behind closed doors are trying to sit and think through what is the impact of TiVo going to be. Anybody I know that's got TiVo is like an evangelist: "I can't believe you don't have it yet. You've got to. You'll be able to look at any program in 22 minutes."

AA: One way the marketers are dealing with TiVo is product placement. Is there any comparable mechanism for magazines?

Ms. Black: Our response to that is being able to create event-type marketing; you know, working with the marketer to do something in-store, or something that's in the magazine that is a completely created product. The sales side of broadcasting, I don't believe by and large, has ever had to do most of this.

AA: We've seen the rise of one magazine-Conde Nast Publications' Lucky-that, in the eyes of some, blurs the line between ads and editorial in ways they find distressing. How significant are such concerns with regard to Hearst's upcoming shopping title, Shop Etc.?

Ms. Black: They are not significant. We are looking at Shop Etc. from a completely different point of view. We are saying, "This is not a magazine about readers. It is for shoppers." The more interactive we can make it, the more it's a useful tool for the shopper. What [the American Society of Magazine Editors] wants-and what their rules are-are irrelevant to Shop Etc.

AA: Don Logan, chairman of Time Warner's Media & Communications Group, told Ad Age late last year Time Inc. would launch, or at least test, several new magazines in 2004. How about you?

Ms. Black: We've got some stuff in the petri dish but nothing that we're going to be public about at this point. We want to make sure our shopping magazine is off on its right legs and looking good. But I'd love to be putting something out in 2005.

AA: You recently changed the top editor at Lifetime, and I get the sense from talking to advertisers that there was some confusion ...

Ms. Black: Right.

AA: Where should Lifetime magazine be?

Ms. Black: What we need to do, even more, in the pages of the magazine is we have to make that experience, that connectivity, that sort of "girl friend-liness" of the television network come real in the ways to the reader. We want it to be packaged and presented in an even prettier, more open, more contemporary-looking format. What we don't want to do is have another magazine in the traditional women's magazine. We wanted to break out of that category and be seen more in the newer lifestyle magazines.

AA: Like Time Inc.'s Real Simple?

Ms. Black: Right, that's the look. I don't think Lifetime was well-executed enough. We were a little women's service and a little lifestyle, and we want to go more toward the newer women's lifestyle. The taste level of women has really been raised. They expected to be treated in a certain fashion.

AA: Last year, a lot of big magazines all seemed to be taken by surprise by weak newsstand sales. Is this trend continuing?

Ms. Black: Trying to put it in a nutshell, whether people will return to the newsstand in the ways that have been bankable-I would suggest that it's unknown. On the other hand, [Hearst's] Oprah magazine is averaging 950,000 copies a month. It's over a 40% increase over the year before. [Hearst's] Cosmo has reached 1.9 million, 2 million copies [on the newsstand], so it's able to sell. You've got a lot of just different things going on, and a tough economy.

AA: Some of the more prestigious titles that took serious hits at the newsstand included Hearst's Good Housekeeping and Redbook.

Ms. Black: I don't think it's the product at all. There are times when the cover or the coverlines just miss. Sometimes a celebrity falls out at the last possible second or their movie gets moved. And you can't get the celebrity you want. This goes on all the time. The people responsible for getting cover celebrities, they'll be bald in three months because they are pulling their hair out.

AA: Can you stop using celebrities on the cover?

Ms. Black: We talk about this internally constantly. The answer is we don't know. We are in the world of celebrity-everything and one would like to imagine it will run its course. But your guess is probably as good as mine as to when the winds begin to shift.

AA: You tested last year a non-celebrity cover for Good Housekeeping, a pumpkin for the Halloween issue.

Ms. Black: It did very well. Country Living had never put a food picture on the cover, and around the same time they put this gorgeous layered cake on the cover. It was one of the best-selling issues of the year. Once in a while [you] can really strike the exact right note. [But] if you look back to what [Conde Nast's] Vogue started three, four years ago, with maybe one or two issues with a celebrity on the cover. And practically overnight, there's a celebrity on every cover. The models didn't sell.

AA: Are magazine brands transitioning to a time in which key titles, once established, are less annuities than more perishable products?

Ms. Black: There are magazines tied to celebrity personas. They're on the cover every month. I don't think we've moved off our belief that investing in a brand over a period of time will bring more resonance, and have a stronger ad and reader franchise over a period of time. Look at Cosmo. Now, it's an international franchise [and spawned CosmoGirl]. I don't think we've seen yet that the momentary hit has that kind of staying power.

AA: You've mentioned the level of details marketers want from magazine circulation, and you've likened what they wanted to being like Coca-Cola telling Pepsi about marketing strategies.

Ms. Black: You've got it exactly right. But it really is about the changes that marketers want on the [Audit Bureau of Circulations] statement, which we would suggest is far too demanding. It's like saying, "How do you do it and what do you do and what are your pricing strategies?" Circulation is a lot about pricing strategies, what we-or Coca-Cola or Pepsi-would call sampling. We need to put our copies into the hands of potential readers.

AA: Good Housekeeping Editor in Chief Ellen Levine says you have a motto in your company: "It's better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission."

Ms. Black: Only for me. They can't do it.

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