it was an August day in 2003, and the heat was

it was an August day in 2003, and the heat was on. Ann Moore, chairman and CEO of Time Inc., had gathered the creative teams of five potential in-house magazine start-ups at her office in Manhattan’s Time and Life Building. Each team had exactly 30 minutes to make its pitch. Moore even borrowed an egg timer just for the occasion.

The drama was intense, particularly for Eleanor Griffin, a 20-year veteran editor from Southern Progress, the Birmingham, Ala.-based publisher of Southern Living and Cooking Light purchased by Time Inc. in 1985. Griffin had come a long way to make her presentation for a new shelter lifestyle book called Cottage Living—both in terms of distance and energy expended. For nearly three years, she had worked on a prototype for a shelter book that balanced home decorating and the laid-back lifestyle, how-to projects and recipes. Part of that planning included rigorous reader research and focus groups, as well as direct-marketing tests. But it was worth the effort.

Following the pitches, Moore greenlighted Cottage Living, along with the reborn Life and the discount-priced, Wal-Mart-distributed All You. (Also in 2004, the company launched Suede, now on hiatus, and Nuts.) In terms of ad sales and circulation, Cottage Living was the out-of-the-box winner, matching or beating nearly every preliminary expectation set for the first national shelter title Southern Progress has ever launched.

Moore claims the title’s initial pitch preordained its quick success. “They were so incredibly further along [than the other start-up projects],” she recalls. “They clearly had done their homework and had scientific, hard facts at their disposal.”

Its first issue was supposed to run 230 pages, but 40 additional ad pages showed up on closing day, bumping the total to 298. It sold 225,000 copies on the newsstand, at $3.99 an issue. After just four issues, Cottage Living raised its rate base to 650,000 from 500,000, leading some to label it an overnight success. (The magazine produced two issues last year and two so far this year. A total of nine issues are slated for this year.)

Griffin, now editor in chief, dismisses that notion. “The success of Cottage Living is like that of the movie star who, when they win their first Oscar, people say it was an overnight success,” she says. “Little did they know that actor washed dishes for five years to make it. We’re the same way.” Nonetheless, Cottage Living has performed well enough quickly enough to earn it the title of Adweek Magazines’ Startup of the Year.

Launched last fall with the September/October issue, Cottage Living set out to be an innovator in a category where change is anathema. By deemphasizing interior design and focusing on comfort—with dashes of Martha Stewart-style creativity and shopping-friendly nuggets, á la Lucky—the magazine cultivates something of a designer-free zone. It’s neat-looking and refreshing, but not too intimidating—contemporary and crisp, but with plenty of traditional touches. One recent feature paired pieces of furniture and the perfect drink to enjoy while using them. In an upcoming issue, a featured house is decorated completely with IKEA furnishings.

Griffin is unapologetic about the magazine’s low-pressure sense of style. “I just want people to have fun with their homes,” says Griffin. “It’s not rocket science. You’re not competing in the Winter Antiques Show.”

The magazine’s calculated nonchalance quickly became its calling card, much the same way staggeringly simple how-tos helped define another successful Time Inc. startup of recent years, Real Simple. Cottage Living may be the only magazine in America to go back and reshoot spreads because the photos looked too perfect.

That’s not to say there weren’t some initial hurdles. Number one was the issue of the magazine’s title. In 2000, the idea for the magazine sprouted from a single word: “cottage.” Executives at Southern Progress noticed how well issues of their magazines and those of their competitors performed at the newsstand when the word “cottage” appeared on the cover.

Extensive research and direct-mail tests showed that the word resonated with readers, so much so that the folks at Southern Progress stood by their decision—even when critics inside and outside the company expressed doubt. “We were always very committed to the word ‘cottage,'” says Southern Progress president and CEO Tom Angelilo.

But early on, Griffin, a native of Louisville, Ky., realized that “cottage” meant different things to different people, usually divided by region, making focusing the magazine a challenge. In the Midwest, a cottage might be a rustic, two-bedroom fishing shack by the lake. In the northeast, cottage may mean a cozy weekend home. In the South, a cottage has a wraparound porch and, more than likely, a big American flag waving out front. Then there are the classic cottages of Newport, R.I., huge summer homes built by 19th-century robber barons.

A decision was made to use the diverse definitions as a rallying point. “Everybody has a different take on it, and that’s what’s proven to be so successful,” says Griffin. But Moore was adamant that the magazine would need to redefine “cottage” for its readers. “It’s not about ducks and doilies,” she says.

Another issue was timing. When Moore was elevated to her current position in July 2002, one of the first things she did was put the brakes on the Cottage Living project. Southern Progress had planned to launch it in 2003, but Moore insisted on testing it alongside established women’s service titles. Women were approached in malls around the country to get their reactions, which were largely positive.

The magazine was perfectly aligned with the post-9/11 nesting trend. “People wanted to be at home with their families and surrounded by their own things,” says Griffin. But would they still be in that phase a year later?

The answer, it turned out, was yes. “The recession was still knee-deep,” says publisher Stephen Bohlinger. “The market wasn’t ready for us.” Indeed, by 2004, ad spending was a good bit stronger, and once the presidential election was over, the climate for selling a new product seemed more secure.

Bohlinger—who worked for nearly a decade at another Southern Progress startup, Cooking Light, launched in 1987—knew that a good idea is sometimes slightly ahead of its time. Cooking Light took a few years to hit its stride, and several more to reach its current rate base of 1.65 million.

From an advertising standpoint, the cottage concept proved a boon to attracting a wide variety of categories. “We said, ‘Look, it’s not about the size or the structure—it’s about the soul of the home,'” recalls Bohlinger. The magazine has attracted shelter book staples including Andersen Windows and Sears but also Nivea, Visa, General Motors and Ford. “For a launch,” says Bohlinger, “that’s special.”

Brenda White, director of print investment at Starcom USA, counted herself among the magazine’s early skeptics, but was sold once she delved into a few issues. “When you look through the pages, it’s a little more servicey than the other shelter books,” she says, adding, “The title hasn’t been a barrier. They’ve done a good job of conveying cottage style.”

Steven Lerch, vp/manager of print media at Campbell Mithun, points to the magazine’s use of pull quotes as headlines and the inviting illustrated source pages at the back of the book as elements that draw readers in. “Do I think they’re reinventing the category? No,” says Lerch. Still, he was sold from the first issue and has placed ads in Cottage Living from Andersen Windows and General Mills.

In 2006, Cottage Living plans to raise its rate base to 900,000, a precipitous climb that nonetheless seems well within this firecracker’s reach. Moore is already talking about the possibility of doing a spinoff, no doubt to further capitalize on the magazine’s irresistible charter offer to advertisers that buy ads in other Southern Progress titles year to year.

Through the Southern Progress group, Cottage Living offered up to $60,000 in space credits to loyal advertisers who agreed to up their yearly spending at the company to include the new magazine. Those credits, which are applicable in any Southern Progress magazine, says Campbell Mithun’s Lerch, made it very easy to convince advertisers that already bought pages in Southern Living and Cooking Light to sign up with a sister publication. Bohlinger estimates that 40 percent of advertisers in the first three issues took advantage of the charter deal, which was extended through 2005.

But looking ahead, the key for Cottage Living is to grow on its own strengths. “They need to ride the bus to school by themselves,” says Lerch. “They can’t simply sit next to their big sisters.” Alec Foege is a regular contributor to Mediaweek.