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Tales from the sales trenches: Memoirs of a magazine guy

By Published on .

Tom Shepard, with his brushed back white hair, jutted jaw and debonair manner, looked the part of an adman as much as anybody I've known. As the publisher of Look magazine, he was polite and graceful, yet always a forceful and commanding presence.

Tom, who chronicled his career in his memoirs, "A Drummer's Tale," started in the sales training program at Vick Chemical Co., where he plied his wares throughout the rural South; served as an naval officer on a destroyer escort during World War II; rose through the sales ranks at Look; and founded the Outdoor Advertising Institute and became its first chairman.

Look was a phenomenal success until the recession of the early `70s knocked the ad slats out from under it. Tom recounts that Cowles Communications was charging 75ยข a copy for the magazine on the newsstand at a time when the actual cost of producing an issue was almost $4. When ad sales declined, Cowles couldn't cover the deficit from subscriptions and single-copy sales, so it was forced to shut Look down "to prevent the entire company from going into bankruptcy."

Cowles ended up with $50 million in subscription liability for Look, which Time Inc. assumed for Life and its other titles. But the next year, in 1972, Life also succumbed to the same economic pressures.

Look had a great run, and in fact did some things magazines today have forgotten about-such as getting together to sell against a common enemy. When the impact of TV began to erode ad dollars, three of the biggest magazines-Look, Life and Reader's Digest-got together to do a study on the comparison of TV and print advertising. General Foods, the marketer of Post cereals, Jell-O and Bird's Eye frozen foods, agreed to co-sponsor. Tom wrote that Archa Knowlton, GF's longtime head ad guy, was willing to put up $10,000.

The three magazines, Tom said, spent almost $1 million on the research, which showed that "dollar for dollar, in reaching and impacting consumers, the three magazines were equal to the impact of an equal number of dollars invested in television." And for a while, at least, business began to pick up again at the three magazines.

Can you imagine this scene today? "The three publishers got on podiums in New York, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles to speak on the subject. It became an ecumenical affair-three heavy competitors after each other's business ... out there jointly talking about this study and the fact that print was the equal to television in impact."

Thomas Rockwell Shepard Jr. started his business career in the sales training program at Vick Chemical Co., the maker of Vick's VapoRub, Vick's Va-tro-nol for nasal congestion and Vick's cough drops. One of the challenges was that the druggists who the Vick sales people called on didn't want them selling to grocery stores, so Tom would drive from town to town in Kentucky, where he got started, in a black panel truck with no Vick's sign on it.

"We kept all our weapons for the sales war in that truck"-including 10-foot ad posters for the sides of barns. Getting the ads up was as important as making the sale, Tom said.

I talked to Tom at his home in Greenwich (he spends half the year in Sarasota, Fla.). He's still full of beans at 85 and he's still a magazine guy. But he believes nowadays "the editorial quality is a less important than the deal you make."

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