Spring Magazines: Executive Team of the Year - Real Simple's Real Success

On a recent Friday morning, Jackie Ekholm of Greenwich, Conn., sent her investment-banker husband off to work before getting their three children, all recovering from nasty colds, to school. Carpenters doing a dusty, invasive renovation of the family’s center-hall colonial were setting up shop for the day. Just as she caught her breath, the family dog—who had to get stitches the week before, following an accident in the nearby woods—chewed off her bandages and had to be whisked to the vet. The two returned home just in time to receive an out-of-town friend arriving for a visit—and expecting lunch.

Talk about somebody who could simplify her life.

Ekholm is the woman creators of Time Inc.’s Real Simple had in mind when they started the magazine three years ago—high-achieving, over-committed, and desperate to make her fulfilling yet impossibly hectic life a bit more manageable.

In fact, Ekholm has been a subscriber since the magazine’s earliest days and, like millions of other overtaxed American women, considers Real Simple nothing short of a godsend.

“The magazine came out at a time when a lot of people’s lives had become too complicated—when all we wanted to do was get back to the basics,” says Ekholm, a former brand manager in Europe for Procter & Gamble and Estée Lauder, who, as a longtime marketer, recognized the title’s potential from day one. “I thought, it’s coming out at the right place at the right time—the perfect name, the perfect cover. It’s just the perfect concept for a magazine.”

Since its launch in April 2000, Real Simple has steadily gained a cult following among women who had tired of magazines telling them how to get the perfect body, or how to please their mate, or how to whip up the most perfect Thanksgiving feast ever. (Time Inc. chairman Ann Moore says Real Simple’s early direct-mail appeals got the biggest response rate in the history of the company.) Even though advertisers, famously, hated the magazine when it first hit newsstands, a new editor, a quick revamp and many meetings to convince ad execs and media buyers turned the 10-times-a-year title from a potential major bomb into one of the biggest successes around. It’s a miracle that has left the publishing world and media critics impressed.

Much of the credit for that success goes to the magazine’s current top management lineup, which was selected as the first-ever Adweek Magazines Executive Team of the Year—publisher Robin Domeniconi, managing editor Carrie Tuhy and former Real Simple associate publisher/consumer marketing and development Steven Sachs, who was promoted last month to vp/consumer marketing of Time Inc.’s Women’s Lifestyle unit, encompassing Real Simple, InStyle and Parenting.

All successful magazine launches require vision and a creative, committed team. Adweek chose to single out Real Simple because the success of this particular magazine—which could hardly have been predicted in its first days—seems so closely connected to the battle-tested group that steered the upstart through its initial choppy waters. They are the true believers, who have been with the magazine from its very beginnings—save for Tuhy, who came in after just three issues, replacing founding editor Susan Wyland, a Martha Stewart Living alum. Tuhy had been an assistant managing editor of InStyle and a key member of its launch team. (Domeniconi started as associate publisher but was elevated to publisher in May 2001, after founding publisher Andy Sareyan was promoted to president of the company’s Parenting Group. Sareyan is now president of Time Inc.’s Entertainment Weekly.)

Time Inc. chairman Moore believed not just in the Real Simple concept, but in those running the show—even as dissatisfied advertisers and nasty press threatened to sink this boat and everyone in it. “It was not easy the first couple of years,” Moore admits, but she claims never to have wavered in her support of Real Simple’s management. The success of Real Simple, as with any magazine, Moore says, “takes a team—no single individual can pull this off. Magazines are complicated businesses and it takes a group with complementary skills.”

It’s a tight-knit group, by all accounts. As Tuhy wrote in a recent editor’s letter, she once returned from visiting her mother, who had undergone surgery, to find a truckload of fancy chocolates on her desk. “We are family—we finish each other’s sentences,” Domeniconi says. Sachs got the ultimate imprimatur during one meeting. In front of the entire staff, editor Tuhy informed Sachs that his colleagues, most of whom are female, all thought of him as “a woman in a man’s body.” He took it as a compliment. (“That’s when I knew I was doing my job right,” he says.)

The office atmosphere is unlike any other within the buttoned-up environs of Time Inc. Even the upper ranks of Time Inc. management have embraced the magazine and the make-it-simple lifestyle it markets. Chairman Moore says she and Ann Jackson, group president of Real Simple, InStyle and Parenting, have set up a virtual test kitchen for trying out Real Simple recipes. Domeniconi says the business-side staff of around 70 has remained virtually unchanged since the launch, losing just one ad salesperson.

The numbers tell the story of the title’s not-so-overnight success. According to the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations figures, Real Simple sold 1,140,500 copies during the six months ending Dec. 31, 2002, up a whopping 31.9 percent over the year previous. (With pass-along, the magazine claims 4.3 million readers.) While other magazines continue to struggle at the newsstand, Real Simple’s single-copy sales grew 20.3 percent to 335,354—even though last June the cover price was raised to $3.95 from $3.50, and even though, in this celebrity-obsessed age, we’re talking about a magazine that features bowls of fruit and fresh-cut flowers on its cover. The magazine reports that its average newsstand sale in 2002 was 327,683, up 29 percent from the year previous. Subscription sales during the last half of 2002 advanced by a staggering 37.4 percent to 805,146 copies.

Editor Tuhy says, as popular as Real Simple might be, many have yet to be brought into the sorority. The magazine has an awareness rate of only about 20 percent, compared to the 40 percent rate InStyle had when she left that publication, she points out. “We’re doing fine, but there are a whole lot of other people who could still come to the magazine,” Tuhy says.

Real Simple consistently delivers more than the number of copies it promises advertisers. Having started out with a guarantee of 400,000, Real Simple now moves three times that many copies. During the first quarter of this year, the magazine raised its rate base to 1.2 million from 900,000, the third time in three years it has done so. The title boasts a young, affluent following—the median age of its readership is 39, with an average household income of more than $79,000, according to a Heller Research/MRI subscriber study.

Advertisers, who once shunned the magazine, are now flooding in. Real Simple carried a healthy 122 ad pages in its December/January issue, the most recent edition for which figures were available, up from an anemic 58 pages just one year earlier, according to the Publishers Information Bureau. (At a low point, in August 2001, 16 months into its launch, Real Simple ran just 39 ad pages.) Total ad revenue last year reached $53.1 million, up an impressive 119 percent year-over-year, according to the magazine. And the good news keeps coming: First-quarter 2003 ad pages year-over-year were up 70 percent, thanks to new accounts such as Volkswagen, Maybelline, Ralph Lauren Fragrances, Banana Republic and Sherwin-Williams.

The magazine claims growth across all major ad categories. According to Time Inc.’s research, Real Simple’s ad base is spread fairly evenly across a range of segments, including home, which accounts for 17 percent of ads; food, 17 percent; beauty, 13 percent; fashion, 12 percent; retail, 11 percent; and automotive, 9 percent.

It’s a diverse mix, with ads for Ralph Lauren and Coach running alongside those for Andersen windows and Philadelphia cream cheese. The magazine’s energetic publisher Domeniconi—herself a fair example of the Real Simple target audience, living the busy life with her husband and 3-year-old in their new Manhattan home—says that advertising spread makes the title somewhat recession-proof. “We have Mercedes and we have Hyundai. We have Chanel [cosmetics] and we have Revlon. We have Ann Taylor and we have the Gap. In every category we have either end—we’re not dependent on only the high or the low,” she explains.

Real Simple’s phenomenal advertising and circulation results mean the magazine will, for the first time, turn a profit in this, its third year, Domeniconi reports.

Profitability has been top-of-mind throughout Time Inc. since Moore set out to slash $100 million companywide this year. One has to wonder whether Real Simple’s rapid growth and profitability shield it from the knife. The answer: of course it does. “I haven’t seen [Ann Moore] in a while. Does that answer your question?” Domeniconi says, with a wink.

Even through its troubled beginnings, Moore knew the company had a winner in Real Simple. “I fell in love with the concept the moment I saw it. I may be the chairman of Time Inc. by day, but at night I’m just another frazzled, working woman, like anybody else. You can’t keep a good idea down.”

Chip Block, vice chairman of USAPubs Inc. and former publishing strategist with Ziff Davis Media, who worked at Time Inc. in the early ’70s, says Time Inc. was smart to stand behind a magazine that clearly had such solid reader support from the beginning, even if advertisers were slow to follow. That kind of perseverance is rare in publishing nowadays, the exec says. “Real Simple stumbled out of the gate, but Time Inc. gave it time to get its footing,” Block says. Group president Jackson remembers that InStyle also was not “warmly received” by the advertising community when it launched. As for Real Simple’s rocky start, the publisher shrugs, “You have to be prepared to listen to the marketplace and be able to totally blow up your plans, and that’s what we did at Real Simple.”

As Domeniconi remembers from those less cheery early days, Don Logan, former chairman of Time Inc.’s magazine group and, since last fall, head of AOL Time Warner’s newly created media and communications group, was another big believer in Real Simple, and a source of encouragement to her personally. “Don Logan sat me down and said, ‘Robin, this concept is so strong, the consumer is there. I don’t care about advertising right now, I just want the magazine to get the edit right, and the ads will follow,'” says the publisher, sitting in her tidy, sun-drenched corner office in midtown Manhattan’s Time & Life Building. “And that is exactly what’s happened.”

Still, the truly dismal outlook for the magazine early on can’t be overstated. Madison Avenue’s complaint with Real Simple, essentially, was that its pared-down layout, with its beautiful photos and white space and matte-finish cover, was actually too austere. “When it was first launched, it had tremendous growing pains. I was not a big fan,” remembers Melissa Pordy, former senior vp/director of media services at Zenith Media in New York. Some editorial choices brought the magazine a well-deserved skewering. “‘Ten Ways to Clean Your Toilet Bowl’ doesn’t make a magazine,” adds Pordy, recalling a much-derided early article. “I think it was taking bits and pieces of other magazines and putting them together without finding its own true voice.”

Many, including Pordy, saw the early incarnation of Real Simple as somewhat of a Martha Stewart Living wannabe. (As for the domestic diva herself, the now publicity-hobbled Stewart famously called her upstart rival—with its quick-and-easy recipes, product reviews and tips for folding sweaters—”Real Stupid.”)

While admitting the original editorial execution of Real Simple was “soft, which was disappointing,” Andrea Luhtanen, president of Haworth Marketing and Media in Minneapolis, says she was confident there was a market for the magazine. Luhtanen believed that if anybody could perfect the formula, it was Time Inc., despite the company’s slim experience publishing women’s magazines. “I was a champion of Real Simple from the early days. I wanted them to succeed.”

Real Simple may have been a lovely departure from other women’s service titles, with its modern, uncluttered approach, but it was also, to many, utterly lacking in soul. As publisher Domeniconi herself points out, “We’d have that perfect white bed with the perfect white sheets and the perfect white sofa—but there weren’t any people in our first issues.”

Domeniconi credits Tuhy with infusing the magazine with the humanity that today is one of its defining features. In the editor’s note leading off each issue, Tuhy—whether writing about her mother’s illness or wrestling with matters of spirituality—is known to give readers little pieces of herself, sometimes quoting Joni Mitchell along the way. The tone of the column is one of true commiseration with the reader.

“I’m not even sure the execution was that off,” says Tuhy of the first issues of the magazine.”It was just a little austere. There were no people. I like people. I wanted to populate the pages. I wanted fun, so that’s what I tried to bring to it.”

Nobody could say Real Simple is soulless today. In the March issue, alongside articles with titles such as “Working Wardrobes That Really Work” and reviews of the best house slippers and toaster ovens, is a profile of Wendy Leeds of Ripton, Vt., who, following her husband’s death six years ago, slowly worked to overcome her grief and create a new life for herself and her young daughter.

A Tipper Gore look-alike (save for the fishnet stockings) who is raising two teenage daughters in Manhattan, Tuhy spells out her vision for a magazine that has connected with so many women just like her: “Real life is not simple. That’s why the magazine is first predicated on solving problems for the reader. And the other part, the ‘simple,’ really keeps alive the promise of a better life. To me, if someone believes in the best in you, you try to get there, and I really edit the magazine to that idea, the potential of the audience, because I firmly believe it’s a wonderful moment to be an American woman. If it’s complicated, it’s because of the wealth of options [we have], so I’m always trying to edit for them and help them edit their lives.”

Real Simple has always been a magazine that listens to both readers and advertisers. Early on, when management realized the magazine wasn’t working, it was quick to seek out advertiser input, media buyers concur. “From the beginning, they listened [to advertisers],” relates Luhtanen, who remembers then-publisher Sareyan calling her after each issue came out, seeking her opinions. “It was really tremendous,” the ad exec says.

Domeniconi says that while management valued everyone’s opinion of the magazine, “We did not launch this magazine for Madison Avenue. When Madison Avenue didn’t like it, the readers were always there. Even though there was negative press when we started out—and no doubt about it, we were off execution—we were able to fix it knowing we had the consumers.”

Time Inc. is known for its extensive consumer database and heavy focus on research, so, not surprisingly, Real Simple made reader involvement a major part of the recipe from the beginning. In 2001, the magazine initiated its first “Problem Detection Study,” asking more than 1,200 women across the country about the biggest concerns in their lives—problems that, it turned out, included finding storage space in the house, eating well and saving money. Those concerns were then ranked, helping editors craft their columns according to the most pressing problems for readers. The magazine also passed research findings to major accounts, including Coca-Cola, the Ford Motor Co. and Tommy Hilfiger. The information proved so valuable that the magazine repeated the study in 2002 and is doing it again this year.

Moore singles out such reader research, headed by Sachs, as a major reason for Real Simple’s success. Meanwhile, she calls Sachs’ innovative cross-marketing moves, both inside and out of Time Inc., “brilliant.” Among them: a People magazine cover-wrap offering free sample issues of Real Simple, and a partnership with advertiser J. Jill that put Real Simple blow-in cards inside the retailer’s catalog.

Inside Time Inc., “there is a cooperation and synergy we hadn’t really seen before,” Moore says. Why did other camps throw their support behind the fledgling Real Simple? “Everybody loved this concept,” she says, quickly adding, “Sometimes it’s just about showing up and asking for the order. [Sachs] is a noodge. He called in all his favors and asked me to follow up. He was unmerciful in what he asked me to do for him.” (The fact that Moore was a known early champion of Real Simple was not lost on those at other Time Inc. properties.)

USAPubs’ Block is also impressed by Sachs’ innovative advertiser partnerships—including a swap with Pottery Barn, which inserted a mini-catalog into the December/January holiday issue in exchange for an e-mail the retailer sent to its customers offering two free issues of Real Simple, along with a free gift. Says Block: “Creating interesting partnerships with advertisers who have their own customers, their own databases, is the way of the future. [Sachs] has done those more successfully than anybody I know of.”

Sachs has a history of getting inside the head of his target customer. Years before Tuhy praised his affinity with the fairer sex, Sachs launched mail-order compact discs aimed at women and, later, Christian-rock fans for the Time-Life Music unit—despite being a self-described “Jewish guy from Baltimore.” He says, “I like to understand different markets and figure out how we can help, how a product is relevant to that market.”

Still, opting to join forces with Real Simple six months before its launch was hardly a no-brainer, even for the admittedly adventurous, risk-taking Sachs. Sitting among unpacked boxes in his new digs on a recent, particularly frozen New York morning, Sachs admits he had a good thing as marketing director in charge of the Professional Marketing Group and Family Marketing Group at the company’s flagship Time magazine, where he helped launch Time for Kids. Leaving that security for the women’s service upstart was a heavy decision—one that could only be made over a couple of mochas at the nearby Starbucks. He never looked back.

“There is a reason why all of us are drawn here, and why we’re all still here,” he says. “We believe in the mission of the magazine, and personally relate to it.” (Like his higher-ups, the two Anns, Sachs takes a stab at Real Simple’s recipes.)

What is next for Real Simple? Domeniconi says everything from books to special issues to retail ventures have been tossed around. “We always knew this magazine was going to be a large brand,” she says. Moore has always seen Real Simple as a “natural” for Internet partnerships. (Real Simple content is carried exclusively on AOL Time Warner’s America Online.)

As for the core product, the publisher admits the stratospheric ad growth the magazine has enjoyed can’t continue forever. “Will we continue to grow at 70 or 100 percent? No. Of course it will level out at a certain point, but we’re not there yet.” On the circ side, a confident Sachs predicts Real Simple will hit 2 million “in the next couple of years.”

Meanwhile, Tuhy and her troops continue to lure new converts—not merely through word of mouth, but with aggressive promotion that includes editor appearances on NBC’s Today show, cable’s The Food Channel and ABC’s The View.

The Real Simple team may reject comparisons to Martha and Oprah, but like those personality-driven enterprises, Real Simple has very shrewdly created a mini-religion for American women striving for a more fulfilling life, and who clearly hungered for a magazine like this.

If Real Simple is a religion, then Tuhy is most definitely the spiritual leader.

“As I tell my staff all the time, it’s not enough to get the magazine out every month, but to get the word out every day,” says Tuhy, sounding more than a little like a televangelist in high heels.

And Real Simple keeps packing the pews.

Tony Case is a contributing writer for Mediaweek.