Frank Magazine Execs: We Can Do Better

On native ads, video opportunities and tablets' promise

Top magazine execs think they need to have fewer meetings, launch new products faster and better adapt their content to mobile devices to set themselves up for the future.

"Let's do a deck on that, let's have a meeting on how to have a meeting," said Joe Ripp, CEO of Time Inc. on the industry's tendency to navel gaze. "We need to move faster."

Speaking on a panel at the MPA—The Association of Magazine Media's annual conference Tuesday, the industry's bigwigs sounded a mostly optimistic and unified note on the state of the business. But they admitted that while tablets held out promise for magazines, they were in the early stages of building a significant business on the devices.

Tom Harty, president of Meredith's National Media Group, publisher of mass women's brands like Parents and Family Circle, said tablet editions make up just 2 to 3 percent of its business (slightly below the industry average). "Maybe it's our genre," he offered.

In the printed form, magazines are attractive for their covers and physical presence and as an impulse buy, but those qualities are lost on mobile devices, Condé Nast president Bob Sauerberg admitted. "We all need to work to bring that home in the digital media."

Panelists said that their subscription business is healthy, even if the newsstand slide continues. But they also recognized the need to ramp up the consumer side of the ledger. Meredith's Harty said his company is testing various models to "get the consumer to give us more money" in view of the fact that "advertising is not growing."

Moving on to the buzzword of the day, native advertising, the executives said they were set up well to offer advertisers premium ads that are valued by readers as a complement to the online tonnage available via automated buys. Harty called magazines the "original native ad" format, pointing out that for some readers, the ads are the best part of the magazine.

At a time when other purveyors are playing fast and loose with the format, blurring the lines to make it mimic editorial, the magazine execs said it was important not to fool readers. And although the industry's own American Society of Magazine Editors recently put out guidelines addressing how native ads should be labeled, Hearst Magazines president David Carey warned that the industry shouldn't over regulate, either.

Overall, a theme of the panel was that magazines aren't living up to their revenue potential. Everyone's creating video based on their brands, but its contribution is still tiny. A growing portion of their online audience is coming through mobile devices, but, as Sauerberg put it, "We all have to get better at the smaller format."

TV is an opportunity in the magazine business, as evidenced by the recent launch of Esquire Network. But Hearst president Carey admitted that many consumers thought the new cable net existed before it even launched, suggesting the eponymous magazine's brand is bigger than its actual footprint.

Meanwhile, being removed from a TV company might be better for Time Inc. Ripp said the company had a big untapped opportunity to ramp up its video once out from under the thumb of Time Warner, flicking at the failed synergies there.

"Synergy at Time Warner was an elusive word," he said. "It's often more easy to work with someone else than it is to work with a sister company." 

Recommended articles