'Profile' hunts Wal-Mart suppliers

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Weekly newspaper supplement American Profile has hired a veteran package-goods sales executive to lead a strategy that appears unprecedented among publishers-getting Wal-Mart suppliers to buy ads specifically to boost sales at the giant retailer.

Franklin, Tenn.-based Publishing Group of America, American Profile's publisher, is in part targeting the trade-marketing funds of the growing horde of vendors clustered around Wal-Mart Stores' Bentonville, Ark., headquarters. Very few national media players have gone after that pool of money.

PGA last month hired Chuck Priest, a 13-year veteran of Wal-Mart marketing teams for Pactiv Corp., marketer of the Hefty brand, and Colgate-Palmolive Co., to lead sales efforts for American Profile in Bentonville.

"It's either the smartest thing I've ever done or the dumbest," said Dick Porter, who became CEO of Publishing Group of America in February. The former publisher of TV Guide, Reader's Digest and Rodale's Prevention came to PGA in 2002 after a brief stint as exec-VP interactive marketing sales of the company then called AOL Time Warner.

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Unlike other industries, few publishers have people stationed in Bentonville, and to Mr. Porter's knowledge, none have ad sales reps. One exception is Time Inc.'s Time Distribution Services, which has a staffer in Bentonville for newsstand issues. Time Inc. also is developing a lower-priced mass-market women's title and has had discussions with Wal-Mart over distribution.

Mr. Priest sees American Profile as a new alternative for marketers who need to drive sales during the four to eight weeks between when Wal-Mart gets new products on shelf and most of its competitors do. "If you're not driving volume during those first four weeks," he said, the retailer "wants to know why."

Currently, the most direct alternative for reaching Wal-Mart shoppers is the in-store Wal-Mart Television Network, whose ad sales are handled by Premier Retail Networks. Wal-Mart suppliers report pressure from buyers to start ad campaigns sooner than they traditionally have or else buy time on Wal-Mart TV.

The Wal-Mart initiative is a key piece of Mr. Porter's strategy to serve as media and marketing conduit to "hometown America," the C and D counties he said are underserved by most other media and over-represented both in American Profile's circulation base and Wal-Mart's shopper base. One in six of Wal-Mart's weekly Supercenter shoppers read the magazine, he said.

Mr. Priest expects some American Profile sales to come from Bentonville-based sales teams, even Wal-Mart vendors who currently do no media advertising at all. But he also wants to turn Wal-Mart sales managers into advocates who encourage corporate marketing executives to buy into the magazine.

He hasn't landed an advertiser yet, he said, but has had "serious discussions." And while he hasn't had formal talks with Wal-Mart about supporting American Profile, he said some buyers have told him informally it "sounds like a sensible idea."

Wal-Mart did not return calls for comment by press time.

American Profile expects to hit a circulation of 6.2 million in 2004, up 12% from this year. American Profile is still only a fraction of the size of its biggest direct competitors, Advance Publications' Parade with 35 million and Gannett Co.'s USA Weekend at 23 million.

But it's also seeing rapid growth. Mr. Porter expects 2003 ad revenue to come in at least 40% ahead of last year, or more than $83 million, following an 80% increase in 2002.

contributing: jon fine

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