If last year's magazine industry Davos summit — the annual panel at AMMC featuring the top brass at Condé Nast, Hearst, Meredith, Rodale, and Time Inc. — was about seizing magazine media's moment of disruption, this year's iteration took on an unapologetically celebratory tone, a showcase of all the ways the magazine industry's largest stakeholders are embracing its new realities with gusto.
"I’m not surprised that there could potentially be interest in our business," said Time Inc. president and CEO, Rich Battista, in response to weeks of rumors of a potential merger between his company and Meredith Corp. "I'd want to buy us."
Rarely do these state-of-the-industry panels produce much in the way of candid assessments of the many challenges faced by magazine publishers — they aren't designed to — but credit MPA president and CEO Linda Thomas Brooks with eliciting honest responses, making it easy to read between the lines for a glimpse of what's working, what isn't, and the direction forward in 2017.
"More and more decisions are being made around things that work," said Meredith chairman and CEO Steve Lacy. "Consumers have a relationship with our brands, not our companies."
Condé Nast CEO Bob Sauerberg agreed, asserting that brand identities still matter, and never more than at a time like this — perhaps a not-so-subtle reference to at least three of his company's brands, Vanity Fair, Teen Vogue, and The New Yorker, who have earned considerable subscriber growth by establishing themselves as members of the opposition to the new presidency.
New subscribers to Condé Nast titles, Sauerberg said, are up 150 percent since the election. But as strong and distinct brand identities maintain paramount importance from the consumer's perspective, there wasn't an executive on the stage who hasn't made moves in recent months to standardize internal operations, eliminate barriers between brands, and sell advertising across titles.
“We love having a collection of brands that reach almost every category," added Sauerberg, whose company recently reorganized its sales structure, placing Chief Brand Officers in charge of groups of magazines where individual publishers once existed.
That at-times paradoxical dynamic is emblematic of the thin line publishing execs walk when applying their strengths — powerful storytelling, deep audience trust — to market forces that make those strengths increasingly difficult to monetize.
After a morning of programming that rightfully set its sights on digital frontiers, the five executives were happy to give lip service to their print products.
“Almost without fail, we carry higher CPMs for digital brands that have print products. Advertisers see the value there," said Hearst Magazines president David Carey, before lauding the potential of his company's collaboration with AirBnB to produce a limited-frequency print magazine, as well as teasing some additional launches planned for 2017 and beyond.
Lacy observed that, regardless of what has happened in the advertising market, circulation revenues have remained "rock solid." Although that assessment is certainly more true for his company than for the industry at large, Lacy is not alone in the sentiment that consumers are willing to directly support print magazines that serve their tastes.
Co-panelist Maria Rodale, chairman and CEO of Rodale Inc., placed arguably the largest bet to that affect when she announced, at last year's conference, that flagship title Prevention would henceforth forego all advertising and rely entirely on subscriptions and newsstand sales.
“One year in, we are thrilled with the results," said Rodale, describing Prevention as healthy and profitable before adding, "The average reader of the magazine is 50-plus. She’s not a target of advertising.”
To Rodale's point, a recent GfK MRI readership study found that the average print magazine reader in the U.S. is a 47-year-old female. But the company's most profitable magazine, Men's Health, remains ad-driven and is almost certainly not targeted toward middle-aged women, and Rodale did add that there were no plans to apply the new Prevention model to other titles.
It's not much of a leap to presume that the road ahead for most mass-circulation magazines is not in mailboxes or on doorsteps, but on smartphones and tablets. The primary motivation for Prevention's makeover was eliminating the considerable cost of meeting advertisers' demands with sky-high circulation figures, often in exchange for comparatively little direct consumer revenue.
The theme of this year's conference was "Magazines Work," and they still do. Unlike several legacy titles produced by their larger counterparts, publishers as disparate as Atlantic Media, Bauer Media, the Council on Foreign Relations, and Playboy Enterprises are finding growth in consumer revenue by reinvesting in their print products, and they're far from the only ones.
So when Lacy ended the session by declaring Facebook and Google the real enemy and stating that it's no longer about "stepping on the throat of your competitive magazine," it's worth noting that a solid portion of the blame for the current state of the newsstand and subscription business rests with the five companies represented on stage.
Mother Jones editor-in-chief Clara Jeffery closed her Magazine of the Year acceptance speech at Tuesday's Ellie Awards gala by saying, “The media is under attack… I really hope we all stick together in the time to come.”
Given the fact that next year's executive panel could very well contain just four members, not five, here's hoping that actions speak louder than words in the months to come.