Title Talk: Monthlies perform weakly in quarter

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Monthly magazines have seen the first quarter, and it's not pretty. In fact, it's hard to top one magazine executive's table-talk take on the early outlook for '02.

"Butt-ugly," said the executive, who saw fit to repeat himself for emphasis. "It's butt-ugly."

The assessment is of interest to the ad industry for reasons beyond the scatological. Monthly consumer magazines serve as an early warning system for other media sellers because of production deadlines that have them selling ads months in advance of publication dates.

Although many magazine executives hoped early results would be essentially flat with 2001, when ad pages fell sharply, some straight-faced publishers now express satisfaction with double-digit declines.

"A lot of publishers would view coming in at minus 10% to minus 15% versus the year prior as a real accomplishment," said David Carey, VP-publisher of The New Yorker. The Conde Nast Publications title-a weekly yet to close its first quarter-is "on track" to land somewhere within that range, he said. That's better than sibling Vogue, which was off more than 40% in ad pages for its January issue, according to a tally by Media Industry Newsletter. (Through a spokesman, Richard Beckman, Vogue publisher, promised a record-breaking March 2002 issue.)

In 2001, the 200-plus magazines audited by Publishers Information Bureau posted an overall 11.7% drop in ad pages.

"We will be happy to be flat in the first quarter," said Rob Gregory, publisher of Wenner Media flagship Rolling Stone. "We all live in a world of reduced expectations." Mr. Gregory cited category strength among "West Coast" advertisers-translation: technology and gaming companies. But he's worried about the impact that General Electric Co.-unit NBC's decision to accept liquor advertising on a restricted basis will have on magazines: "That can't be good."

Business titles remain under pressure, and ads from the travel, luxury and high-end retail categories remain elusive. Although there are some bright spots, virtually all titles with significant exposure to the preceding categories reported double-digit declines to Ad Age.

Even powerhouses are not immune. InStyle, the Time Inc. monthly whose bang-up business lasted well into '01, looks likely to post single-digit percentage ad page declines, said Publisher Lynette Harrison, with a flat March following a marginal decline in January and a 7% drop in February. O, The Oprah Magazine, the joint venture between Hearst Magazines and Harpo Productions, has its ad pages "holding" to last year's levels, said Hearst Exec VP-Chief Marketing Officer Michael Clinton.

Bright spots, Mr. Clinton said, include Good Housekeeping (up mid single digits) and Country Living and Popular Mechanics (up slightly). Hearst's more upscale titles-Harper's Bazaar, Esquire, Town & Country and SmartMoney-are down double-digits.

Meredith Corp. flagship Better Homes and Gardens will see pages drop about 5%, said Jerry Kaplan, president of Meredith's magazine group, with Ladies' Home Journal falling "a little bit more."

falling fortunes

Last year's top ad page leaders-Time Inc.'s Fortune and Conde Nast Publications' Bride's- are not bucking industry trends. Chris Poleway, president of the Fortune Group, expects Fortune to be down 15% to 20% this quarter, with a larger drop at Business 2.0. Nina Lawrence, publisher of Bride's, said pages in the first two issues of the year could be off 20%."Soft is a soft word to use," she said. "The first half is looking pretty bleak for travel."

A similar drop for American Express Publishing's Travel & Leisure may come as well, said Ed Kelly, CEO of American Express Co. adding Food & Wine would be up in the first quarter. He said marketers now wait "beyond the last minute" and past deadlines to decide where and when to place ads.

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