Magazine Report: Startup of the Year - Teenage Tasteland

While other titles on the crowded teen scene go boy-crazy, Teen Vogue sets itself apart with a fashion-forward formula

Just nine days before Amy Astley’s second child was born, in June 2002, Condé Nast chairman S.I. Newhouse Jr. pulled the Vogue beauty director into his office. Newhouse was green-lighting the launch of Teen Vogue and was naming Astley, who edited four test issues of the sibling book, its editor in chief.

She did have a few things to take care of first. But soon after her daughter, Ingrid, was born, Astley set about giving birth to a magazine as well. From her home, she began hiring the magazine’s editorial staff, while continuing in her 10-year role at Vogue. “I had already had a baby and a nanny, so I was used to multitasking,” she says.

By the time she returned to the office after Labor Day that year, the magazine was in full launch mode. The first issue, for February/March 2003, closed with 80.5 ad pages—more than any other recent teen magazine launch, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR. For the year, it garnered 467 total ad pages, earning the title Adweek Magazines’ Startup of the Year.

Despite the sprint to put out the first issue, the development of Teen Vogue proceeded at a walk, not a run.

Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour first approached Newhouse with the idea of a sibling magazine in fall 1999. “It was an idea I’d been cultivating for some time,” says Wintour. “I became aware through my daughter [Bee Shaffer, now 16 and a contributing editor to the magazine] and her friends that kids today are so much more interested [in] and sophisticated about fashion, more knowledgeable about designer fashion, bridge fashion, celebrities.”

Astley was handpicked by Wintour to edit the magazine and worked closely with her from the beginning to fashion the edit. “She’s so sympathetic to this reader, and with her years at Vogue, she understands the Vogue brand and what it stands for,” says Wintour.

Even with Wintour’s stamp of approval, Astley knew she had to be careful creating something that would bear the Vogue name. “The company was very cautious to make sure there was a reason to put out a line extension of a very powerful brand,” says Astley, explaining the nearly two-year span of test issues. But “it didn’t take a brain surgeon to see that this group has long been underserved with this quality. I knew we could do style with great authority and bring a more cultural experience [to the category].”

Carol Pais, print buying director at Fallon, Minneapolis, describes the niche the magazine has created. “Teen Vogue has successfully differentiated itself editorially from the rest of the teen titles, reaching out to a more sophisticated, discerning, multicultural teen girl,” she says.

“The first four developmental issues of Teen Vogue were received enthusiastically in the retail marketplace and in the advertising community,” says Chuck Townsend, new president and CEO of Condé Nast and, at the time of the launch, executive vp/COO. “That certainly encouraged us.”

Teen Vogue’s architecture closely follows that of its big sister, mirroring sections such as Upfront, People are Talking About, View, and the back of the book’s Index Checklist and Last Look. The book’s relationship with a renowned fashion brand has garnered world-class photographers and stylists happy to dabble in the younger, more relaxed environs. Raymond Meier and Mario Testino have shot unconventional beauty and fashion spreads, and the prominent Vogue sittings editor at large Camilla Nickerson has served as a fashion editor.

But there is a primary difference between Vogue and Teen Vogue. “There are real girls everywhere in the magazine,” says Astley, who grew up surrounded by real girls in East Lansing, Mich., and graduated from Michigan State. Indeed, the Last Look department showcases a real girl wearing her own clothes.

The first test issue, at Vogue’s trim size, was published in fall 2000. Of 1.2 million copies printed, 700,000 were polybagged with Vogue subscriber copies, 500,000 were mailed to teens in the Condé Nast database and 70,000 were distributed on New York newsstands. The 90 ad pages included campaigns from Ralph Lauren, Anna Sui, Guess and DKNY. Over the next 18 months, a time in which magazine executives were facing some of their biggest economic challenges in a decade, the magazine put out three more test issues.

When Teen Vogue got the green light, vp/publisher Gina Sanders was recruited from Gourmet to direct advertising. In her 16 years at Condé Nast, she has worked at five magazines, though never on a startup.

With one sales assistant, Sanders began working the phones, creating presentations and hiring business staff—all from a Wired conference room on the 19th floor. “What a bonding experience, ” she recalls with a smile during an interview in her now-plush digs on the 10th floor. “It was very entrepreneurial. We shared the enthusiasm of each sales call.”

Sanders got early support from advertisers such as David Yurman and Burberry, which, she says, “understood that this was going to be a sophisticated concept, a unique positioning.”

The teen category has seen a bevy of little-sister launches in recent years—Time Inc.’s Teen People in January 1998, Hearst Magazines’ CosmoGirl! in August 1999 and Hachette Filipacchi Media’s Elle Girl in August 2001—joining veterans YM from G+J USA Publishing and Hearst Magazines’ Seventeen. But Sanders was able to differentiate the magazine from the rest of the pack. “We’re not replicating [those publications] in editorial or in advertising,” she says. “Teen Vogue tapped into a girl for whom there hasn’t been a serious fashion magazine.”

Close to 30 percent of Teen Vogue’s advertisers are new to the teen market—among them, Neiman Marcus, Dior, Giorgio Armani A/X and Dooney & Bourke. Liz Kane, media director at Dooney & Bourke, bought a page in nearly every issue last year. “We knew Teen Vogue would be extremely successful,” she says. “It’s totally focused on fashion/beauty, not getting into boy problems and talking down to them. We knew they would put a sophisticated spin on a teen magazine that would meld well with our product.”

When the magazine launched, it had a 450,000 rate base, and 332,000 of those copies were sold at newsstand, according to publisher’s estimates. The April/May and June/July issues sold more than 400,000 copies on newsstands, at cover price of $1.50. The price was hiked to $1.99 with the August/September issue.

One thing did change as the magazine evolved from test to startup: its size. The current Euro size (6 3/4 inches by 9 inches) is another point of differentiation, says Wintour. “The backpack size really separates us from the other teen magazines,” she says. “I love the way it feels and looks at that size.”

While some advertisers might grumble about the size—”For inserts, it isn’t cost-efficient to resize and reprint the creative,” says one—others have embraced it. “No one had seen their ad in that size before, but they saw that [the size] fit into the teen lifestyle,” says Sanders. Teen Vogue published 68 insert pages and scent strips last year, which were custom fit for the book.

Other buyers complain that the upscale edit is a downside for advertisers marketing to teens. “Initially, the edit seemed obnoxiously high-end for a teen,” says one who did not want to be identified. “Yes, the edit should be aspirational, but an Anna Sui silk dress for $436? What teen can buy a dress for that?”

“They understand that we’re giving them an extreme,” counters Astley. “These girls are very fashion-involved. They have discretionary income, but also they’ll find a way to get something—shop at a thrift store, borrow from mom’s closet.” More recent issues have displayed J. Crew, Gap and Tommy products in fashion spreads. A young edit staff of 24, mostly in their 20s, also keeps the title’s sensibilities in tune with those of readers.

Mass-market brands and retailers such as JC Penney, Target, H&M and Johnson & Johnson have also embraced the brand. Beauty ads account for 42 percent of the title’s ad business. Fashion delivers 39 percent of ads, giving Teen Vogue the biggest share of fashion ad pages in the teen category last year.

Along with offering aspirational style and a fashion- forward sensibility, Astley has made it her mission, through the feature well, to inspire girls to be more civic-minded. The magazine contains two or three features per issue, at least one reserved for a health topic. Recent stories have focused on depression, Ritalin, curvy celebrities and breast reduction. “I want the magazine to feel journalistic and timely, not lightweight,” says Astley. “High school can collapse in on you. We try to broaden their minds, remind them there’s a bigger world out there.” And in staying true to the Vogue brand, “We don’t do stories on how to kiss.”

Wintour serves as editorial director. “I talk to her every day, and I value her input enormously,” says Astley. “She gives guidance but lets you find your own way. It’s a true collaboration.”

Apparently there are enough readers hungering for just what Astley is giving them—Condé Nast has bumped the rate base up to 500,000 and increased frequency to 10 times per year with the February 2004 issue. The book will take its rate base to 550,000 with the August issue; around that time, the first Audit Bureau of Circulations audit of the magazine will be released, tracking the title from its third issue.

Sanders and Astley sound like proud parents when talking about what Teen Vogue has achieved. Says Astley, “We’ve set a new standard for what a teen book can be. Girls were ready to be more Vogue and less ‘teen.'” Adds Sanders, “We’ve delivered on the Vogue premise—Vogue is really the driver. And we’ll stay true to our roots.”