Mocked When It Launched, It Has Surprised the Naysayers

By Published on .

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- We are in the cluttered, modern office of Robin Domeniconi, publisher of Time Inc.'s uncluttered modern Real Simple, and she's
Mocked by Martha Stewart as 'Real Stupid' when it launched, Real Simple has had the last laugh. Its circulation is soaring and newsstand sales are skyrocketing.
talking about The List, which is something like the conceptual underpinning of the magazine.

The List is results from what they call a Problem Detection Study, consisting of focus groups and subscriber interviews conducted in four major markets, ranking the stresses of problems, based on how bothersome they are and how frequently they arise. "Our road map," she calls it.

No. 1 for '02: "I spend too much and I don't save enough." No. 2: "My home is not organized well enough." No. 3: "I am not prepared for unexpected financial events." No. 4: "I don't have enough storage space."

Further down, "I feel like I've forgotten how to relax" and "I have trouble finding pants that fit me." (The latter was turned into a promotional event with Levi Strauss & Co. where attendees were measured for custom-made jeans.)

Ah, life in post-millennial America. Fraught with financial stresses, generalized heightened fears and ... inadequate storage space.

Soaring circulation
Is this any way to run a magazine? Judging from the numbers, it is. In the first half of 2002, Real Simple's circulation shot up 33.6% to 1 million, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Real Simple's ad pages shot up 49.6% to 510.16 through September, according to Publishers Information Bureau.

It's hard to imagine any of the big-bang

Download the complete 10-page, full-color A-List Special Report as a .pdf file.

launches of yore that encompassed a grand philosophy as well as capital-A "Ambition" -- Time, Playboy, Rolling Stone -- reducing a world view to a to-do list. But the cultural landscape has changed, and so have magazines. And in 2002, Real Simple is Advertising Age's Magazine of the Year.

Real Simple is a very 21st-century magazine: a new, sophisticate's approach to a women's service magazine; a magazine launched with very specific aims that are grandiose in their modesty.

It's also very good at what it sets out to do, which is right there in the title -- and it does this minus the noise and frills once associated with the women's category: Sex tips! Celeb profiles! In a subtler way than O, the Oprah Magazine, it touches on aspects of spirituality as a sort of respite for its audience of oversubscribed 25- to 54-year-old women. And Real Simple's de-stressing message is underscored in its look, which, while clearly owing a debt to Martha Stewart Living-style minimalism, is gorgeous. Just in a very understated way.

Good salmon recipes
There are a few ways to appreciate the title's inherent understatement. As one reluctant admirer puts it, "Real Simple kind of sucks, but they have good salmon recipes."

Or, as Managing Editor Carrie Tuhy puts it, a goal of Real Simple is to resemble those who "dazzle gradually." In 2002, Real Simple -- arguably the most reviled launch of 2000 -- has come into its own, dazzling quickly, in retrospect.

It's become a magazine that can force the word "actionable," as in tips and ideas one can act on, from the mouths of people normally not prone to legalese.

"They did it without a celebrity. That, to me, is the key," says Charles Valan, vice president for strategic print services at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Universal McCann, New York. "They found an issue regarding people's lives. Everyone has less time. Keep life simple. Here are means and methods."

There was just one thing: "People laughed in the beginning," he adds.

Rocky launch
It was a terribly rocky launch. ("We'll never lose that. It will follow us forever," says a mock-exasperated Ms. Domeniconi.) In the summer of 2000, Ad Age pitted Real Simple against Us Weekly for new launch booby-prize: "The launch most likely to be dumped on." Then, Martha Stewart termed Real Simple "real stupid." (Ms. Stewart, who has bigger issues right now than a magazine that borrowed from hers, did not respond to calls seeking comment.)

The rap on the product, developed by then-top editor Susan Wyland, a Martha Stewart Living vet, was that it was too austere. And the cryptic, terse cover lines read in toto like unintentional lifestyle haiku. (On one early cover: "easy grilling/5-minute makeup/packing light/the simple table/wash and wear/summer salads."

Isolde Motley, Time Inc.'s corporate editor, was brought in just before the launch issue went to press. "There was a bit of a gap between concept and execution," she says. (Ms. Wyland could not be reached.)

'Messiness of life'
"The messiness of life had been pushed aside," says Ms. Tuhy, who comes off, appealingly, as one well-acquainted with such messiness. Photos of more people began appearing inside as well; ditto their accounts of dealing with specific situations, be they massive (losing a soul mate) or mundane (carving out personal time). Along with it came a new lexicon -- money-related pieces, for instance, now come under the heading "priorities."

"In the very beginning I was not a fan," says Melissa Pordy, senior vice president and director of print at Zenith Media, New York, owned jointly by Publicis Groupe and Cordiant Communications Group. Now she says: "It's very well-balanced, an enjoyable read and very aesthetically pleasing."

Ms. Pordy senses, too, in the title the potential for a mass/class crossover, of the sort Ms. Stewart attained (and minted millions from) with her magazine.

Newsstand sales skyrocket
One telling indicator was that even from Real Simple's start, consumer demand was solid. Early sell-through numbers, which measure the percentage of magazines delivered to newsstands that are actually sold, were around 60%, substantially better than the industry average of around 40%. Newsstand sales continue to skyrocket, going up 40.7% in the first half of the year to 320,665.

Ms. Tuhy likes to paint that consumer response as an example of a reordering of priorities. "In the era of drugs, rock 'n' roll and free sex," Ms. Tuhy jokes, recalling earlier ideals by way of explanation, "who knew a good night's sleep was great?"

Ms. Domeniconi likes to paint that Real Simple is a smart best pal who's been where you are, while Martha Stewart Living teaches and O, the Oprah Magazine preaches. But maybe Real Simple is best understood as a good night's sleep. It won't explain the world like Time or place a finger on a cultural changing-of-the-guard like Playboy or Rolling Stone.

But after sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, and after oversampling the bounties of a consumer culture, a good night's sleep sounds good.

Most Popular
In this article: