Taking a Page Out of the Past

How Magazines Have Changed Since 1989, and How They Haven't

By Published on .

Preparing to attend this year's American Magazine Conference, which starts this Sunday in Boca, I analyzed the agenda. Despite a ridiculous theme -- the MagaBrand? Really? -- it's a pretty good lineup, recognizing publishers' awareness of how much their world has changed. Speakers include LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, Google's Eileen Naughton (who just a few years ago chaired this conference from her perch atop Time magazine), Arianna Huffington, NBC digital chief Beth Comstock, and Jon Bulkeley from Scanbuy (a gee-whiz mobile technology).

It's not the first time the meeting has had digital elements, but it feels comfortable and right, the focus on mobile and social-networking genuinely fitting into an overall media-brand strategy. In past meetings, it has somehow felt like TV or online execs were brought in so publishers could scrutinize the enemy up close or ponder tacking on a "new media" wing to their print castles.

I've gone to the magazine conference nearly ever year since (gulp) 1989, which would make me feel even older than I am were it not for the fact that I was then just two months out of college. For some reason (They recognized my talent? Admired my ambition? Realized I was thrilled to work my ass off for $25,000 a year?), my editors trusted me with one of Ad Age's most coveted beats, covering print media.

After looking over this year's program, I decided to pull up our coverage of that conference, to remind myself what issues publishers were then grappling with and to find out how much things had changed (or stayed the same) since then. That week's cover was telling enough: the lead story was on a bold plan by a European media agency, Carat, to open in the U.S. (This was back when the idea of big media shops here was close to unthinkable.) Under that was an obit for Marion Harper, who in founding Interpublic, created "the industry's first globe-girdling marketing communications network."

Then there was our coverage of the magazine conference, which included an appearance by then-First Lady Barbara Bush. The hot topics included: a slow-down in the mergers-and-acquisition craze that had swept the business in the late '80s; the emergence of multiple-title and cross-media ad packages as a way to respond to advertisers' needs and tap into promotional budgets; the need to battle rampant rate discounting; and, yes, the idea of magazines as brands. "It goes back to basic franchises," said Chris Meigher, then a top dog at Time Inc. "Strong brands can create even stronger line extensions." There were alliances being formed with CNBC and the Financial News Network, and magazines were talking about audio and video editions. The president of Seagram and the chairman of Colgate-Palmolive called for better audience measures and the need to prove reader engagement (even if the word wasn't used).

There was no direct discussion of digital. But in a nice bit of irony, the other side of the same page on which we ran our conference coverage featured a full-page ad introducing a new "interactive personal service." It was called Prodigy, and it promised a new level of targeting, of audience involvement and of accountability. It promised to change the world.
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