Blame fall of 'Life' and 'Details' on failure to make bold changes

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Does it strike anyone as peculiar that in this time of earth-shifting economic growth, venerable magazine brands are breaking apart and disappearing like so much Depression glass?

The past 10 days have seen the demise of both Life and Details. The former was a once-grand American institution, the latter a hapless remnant of the downtown '80s. The first was published by Time Inc., which in recent years seemed incapable of missteps, while the second was put out by Conde Nast, a place so seething with intrigue and odd aptitudes that it makes MTV's "Real World" look like the real world. The two titles have no apparent relationship--beyond their protracted failures, and what those collapses say about branding in the periodicals industry.

Life is the magazine my wife, an accomplished editor, wanted me to wax upon. Something about the picture weekly's cultural influence, the Beatles coming to America, Vietnam photos, blah, blah, blah. I'm sure you know that publication, because it's sold on street corners in Manhattan--only not on newsstands. And therein lay Life's problem: Like Volkswagen, it was so deeply associated with the vestigial memory of its former existence that it could never establish an independent identity, either in the marketplace or inside Time Inc.

Brands can change. Usually, that happens gradually. But with will, intuitive editorial creativity, a research-based understanding of the market and the prospect of a hangman's noose, a company can occasionally force a rapid transformation. VW did it, although it took some 25 years of failures plus the deaths and abdications of the company's old consumer base and brand stewards for that reconstruction to occur. In the magazine world, Cosmo remains the signal example of a publication successfully converted overnight.

Because of its flexible production structure and the real value of good will in gaining distribution, the magazine industry is a decent place to attempt such deathbed (or post-death) conversions: It's usually cheaper than starting a new brand from scratch. But in reviving Life as a monthly in 1978, six years after it had killed the weekly, Time Inc. seemed determined not to take the bold route. Instead, it continually messed with Mr. In-Between. Despite some of the business' best editors (Judith Daniels and Dan Okrent among them), Time Inc. kept trying to put out a general interest monthly in a marketplace moving ever more forthrightly into special interest obsessions. Worse, the new Life bore just enough of a resemblance to the original Life that it couldn't seem anything but a pale and--dare I say it?--lifeless imitation.

If there's a rule from the Life debacle, it's that mechanics and tinkerers can't save a dying brand. To revive a flailing magazine takes the bold vision that a Helen Gurley Brown used to resurrect Cosmo. Needless to say, it also takes corporate owners who will back that vision.

At first glance, that seems to be what Conde Nast attempted with Details. And attempted. And attempted again. In reality, the company subjected Details to the same tinkering that doomed Life.

Conde Nast's original inspiration seemed purely demographic and far from visionary: a style magazine for young men, built atop the brand invented by Annie Flanders and a cadre of post-punk compatriots.

In its subsequent James Truman incarnation, Details boasted little of the downtown knowingness which, under Flanders, gave it cachet among the cognoscenti. Worse, as a succession of editors, all obliged to Truman, fiddled, they missed the momentous development in the men's marketplace: the rise of the lusty lad books. By the time Conde Nast grabbed for that ring (and then only halfheartedly) it was too late. It's hard to look at Details as anything but James Truman's Vietnam--although unlike LBJ, he's managed to stay popular with the only voter who counts.

Lessons? Certainly that magazine revivals, like new brands, require vision. Then, too, if you don't understand the market, you have no cause to be in it, probably not the first time and certainly not the second. But above all, don't trifle with the gears when what you really need to do is build a whole new machine.

Copyright March 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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