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October 2008

Magazine publishers look for ways to win back advertising revenues

Geoffrey Precourt

This is one of a series of edited extracts from the American Magazine Conference 2008. Other articles cover:

For full coverage of the American Magazines Conference 2008, visit our conference blog.


Whatever the formal program says, the number one topic at this year's American Magazine Conference will be the economy.

The event, jointly sponsored by the Magazine Publishers' Association (MPA) and the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME), takes place as publishers struggle to slow the accelerating decline in US magazine advertising revenue.

You can't help it if a trade organization looks for a warm ray of sunshine in a long, cold storm: "Food, Retail and Travel Post First-Half Ad Gains," the press release from MPA read on July 10, 2008.

But you had to get into the text of the story to discover that categories in decline over the same period included Automotive (-21.3%); Toiletries & Cosmetics (-11.1%); Home Furnishings and Supplies (-14.1%); Apparel & Accessories (-4.1%); Direct Response Companies (-10.3%); Financial, Insurance & Real Estate (-5.1%); Drugs & Remedies (-13.2%); and Technology (-17.5%). And the amount of those gainers? Food: 6.9%; Retail; 2.3%; and Travel: 0.5%.

When all the revenue numbers from all the categories had been tallied, the Publishers Information Bureau reported that half-year industry decline – in comparison with 2007 performance – was 3.1% and that second-quarter revenues had dropped 4.7%.

At the time, Ellen Oppenheim, the MPA's evp/cmo, explained, "The magazine ad trend this year is similar to the last two drop-offs – in the early 1990s and earlier part of this decade – when PIB revenue and pages declined, but later rebounded as the ad market picked up."

But that was before economic chaos at the end of September saw the bottom fall out of American economic markets. And, as American publishers and editors began to assemble in San Francisco for this year's conference, the prospect of a rebound seemed distant at best.

In a welcoming letter to AMC attendees, Michela O'Connor Abrams, president/publisher of DWELL magazine and conference chair, wrote, "This AMC is perhaps more important than any in the past. A blinding glimpse of the obvious perhaps, but don't we need each other now more than ever? Our brands and the communities they serve are being challenged on many fronts – economically and technologically to name two.

"At the past four AMCs we have discussed the power of print and the brands that were born in print and translate across platforms. We are smart enough to know what we have at stake, and in the current economy these stakes are higher than ever…. During our working sessions, we'll be all business. No B.S. No "been there, done that" sessions."

If overall recovery remains the key to unlocking the revenue quandary, the Sunday evening schedule for the annual MPA assembly offered a mixture of hope, celebration, and resignation. Even while Congress was working around the clock to come up with a bi-partisan bailout, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was scheduled for a 15-minute Key Note Kickoff Sunday evening. And, whatever her news, a California wine-tasting dinner featuring some the state's finest vineyards promised to satisfy magazine people who found their glasses either half full (we've bottomed out) or half empty (we've not seen anything yet).

The real working sessions of the 2008 AMC seemed to be split between:

The AMC assembly also will use some of its senior ASME editorial voices to investigate the shape of the next generation of magazines. Right after Rep. Pelosi leaves the stage on Sunday evening, Fortune Managing Editor Andy Serwer and Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO and Director, DreamWorks Animation SKG, will discuss how mainstream media can survive in the digital age.

And, at a Monday luncheon seminar, BusinessWeek Editor-in-Chief Steve Adler is scheduled to ask Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, how the social network boosted its revenue, monetized its huge audience base, broadened the company's global footprint and – perhaps most importantly to the AMC audience – what magazines can learn from those various processes.

And, of course, California would be just another West Coast state were it not for its celebrities. The formal sessions will close on Tuesday morning as Time magazine Managing Editor Richard Stengel interviews Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. And, for those who stay for the afternoon, there's a guided tour of Google, the biggest celebrity of all.

About the author:

Geoffrey Precourt joined WARC Online as its US Editor in July 2008.

Prior to joining WARC Online, Geoffrey held senior editorial roles at titles including Strategy + Business, Point, Smart Business and Fortune, and edited the book CMO Thought Leaders: The Rise of the Strategic Marketer.

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