Scott Bullock: I understand you have formulated some strong opinions about the principle of Church and State, particularly as it pertains to circulation professionals?
In 30+ years in publishing, I’ve never encountered a term more misunderstood than “Church and State”. It started out as a necessary and proper distinction between the respective interests of journalists and ad sales people. In some minds it has morphed into an extreme orthodoxy that journalists have no accountability except to their faith/craft.
Try telling that to the Bishop, who definitely wants bums in the pews!
So if we have to fit circulators into the simplistic Church/State model, it seems to me they’re doing the Bishop’s bidding and thus are on the side of the Church. Still, I’m sure I’m not the only publisher who’s been accused by a journalist of breaching the Church/State divide by insisting on the importance of newsstand sales.
SB: The Summer issue of Cottage Life features a “Peel and Reveal” cover, that when lifted up showcases an advertisement for Corona beer. Do you Love it or Loathe it?
Corona, I love it.
As to the cover, I think it’s a business decision, with one important caveat.
The only ethical imperative I’ve ever understood in ad/edit positioning and identification is that a reader of moderate intelligence and attentiveness should be able to discern with a minimum of effort whether the material being viewed has been created by editors or advertisers. Provided this rule is observed in the “Peel and Reveal” cover, I don’t have an ethical issue with it.
The business calculation is more complex. Some readers will love it; some will hate it. It may depress newsstand sales. It may up the bar in terms of selling future ads to this or other advertisers. It definitely puts thousands into the bank account today. Al Zikovitz is a smart and experienced publisher and I assume he’s made these calculations in the context of his own publication and its market.
Love it, no. Loathe it, no. Leave it to Al to decide, yes.
SB: What are your 3 favourite covers of Canadian Business while you were publisher from 1990 to 1999, and why?
Number one favorite: In the midst of the early 1990s recession, which was far more vicious for the Canadian economy generally than anything since, we did a feel-good cover, “The Good News about Canada”. We invested in metallic gold as the background colour surmounted by a bright red maple leaf. Not only did it sell gangbusters, but for the only time in my career I had fellow publishers thanking me for something we’d done. And the story was remarkably accurate. It correctly foretold Canada’s long-term fiscal robustness, something hard to imagine in those gloomy, deficit-ridden days. It’s also a salutary reminder that a contrarian cover doesn’t have to deliver a negative message in order to sell.
Second choice: “McKapitalism”, an insightful and hilarious story by the brilliant Peter Foster on the early years of the Big Mac in Moscow. Prior to publication we’d received legal letters from McDonald’s and had vetted the story carefully. While the magazine was on press, I realized that there was a clearly actionable sentence on the contents page. After speaking with the editor and legal counsel, we stopped the press, changed the sentence and started over. Bottom line: strong sales, top awards, thanks from the Board for having reprinted, and the knowledge that, to this day, the issues discussed in the article are still relevant to McDonald’s in Russia, notwithstanding the company’s admirable tenacity there.
Third choice: “Eaton’s on the Brink”, by Ian McGugan, later the founding editor of MoneySense. Another story for which we took a lot of unjustified flak until the penny dropped a few months later. This story came during the editorial tenure of Art Johnson, who argued forcibly that a business magazine worth paying for has to deliver prescient content.
SB: What are your 3 favourite covers of Maclean’s while you were publisher from 1999-2004 and why?
First choice: An illustration by Joseph Salina of a sassy beaver leaning over a backyard fence with the cover line, “The Know-It-All Neighbour” The article countered the popular view that Canada is the politer partner in the relationship with the US. Not only was the cover successful aesthetically and financially, but it was an object lesson to the editors of the day that you achieve more if covers are discussed and planned, rather than thrown together during the last 72 hours. A different illustration of the same wise-guy beaver had appeared on a very strong-selling cover of the Maclean’s Poll issue a couple of years earlier.
Second choice: The millennium issue, “Voices of the Past, Faces of the Future”. I stand to be corrected, but I believe this issue established and still holds the all-time Maclean’s records for editorial pages, ad pages and total size—at a time of the year when there’s normally bupkus by way of advertising. A great read and wonderful images. Only problem: it created a high-water mark that was hard to regain. For several years afterward, competitors were pointing out to the credulous our subsequent “decline” in ad pages.
Third choice: I’m going to cheat a little here by picking a spin-off. We did a special, newsstand-only edition commemorating the life of Pierre Trudeau. The price was an aggressive $9.95—and we eventually sold every single copy. It was recognized by the Hill Times and others as being streets ahead of any other Trudeau memorial. I especially loved the OBC—a photo of Trudeau’s back as he walked down the street away from the camera. Not a single facial feature was visible, yet the figure was still instantly identifiable. Iconic. I believe that at the time it was the all-time highest-grossing single issue of a Canadian magazine on newsstands.
SB: What are your top 5 rules for effective covers (assuming they have to compete on newsstands or to generate paid subscriptions and renewals?
I have a presentation on the top 12 rules. Any publication that consistently improves on the prior year cover in 8 or more out of 12 will see a significant increase in average newsstand sales, all things being equal.
But I will comment on the top three factors, as opposed to rules, that determine sales.
In the short term, the number one factor is your magazine’s identity. An obscure literary journal may put the celebrity du jour on its cover, but its sales are strictly limited by its tiny retail network, which in turn is a function of past sales history.
Contrariwise, People could print a blank cover with logo and still sell more copies than 99% of the magazines on the market. Wholesalers, retailers, consumers, all have expectations about a magazine simply based on its identity. The least and most popular magazines on the newsstand vary by a factor of 1,000 in their average single-copy sales.
The number two factor for most magazines is the content featured on the cover in the main image and the primary and secondary cover lines.
My experience is that the most appealing story badly presented will outsell the dullest story displayed dynamically. In this respect, content is indeed king. I’m not sure if these ratios hold for service magazines, but for business or news magazines, the best cover subject will outsell your worst by a factor of 4-5—even more if you have the flexibility to increase draw when you know for sure you have a once-in-a-decade winner. Variations of two to one are not uncommon in a typical year. In this regard, the biggest mistake editors make is putting the most important, rather than the most appealing, stories on their covers.
Treatment comes a distant third in this hierarchy, though it’s not to be sneezed at. The same content may sell twice as well if the cover lines sing and are well integrated with the image—though variations of 25-40% are more typical.
(A fourth variable is promotion. Returns from this vary from nil to humongous based on many, many factors.)
SB: Many magazines in Canada have undergone design makeovers recently. Why do you think that is? How important is it, in your opinion, to refresh a magazine’s look and feel, given how quickly things change in the wired world we live in today?
Surely no one can seriously doubt that there are too many magazine makeovers. Every new editor and/or art director seems to feel it’s essential to redesign within the first year. OK, if the magazine has a fundamentally new direction or if one’s predecessors were truly incompetent. But most of the time, that’s not the case. Design is fundamental and therefore change in design should be strategic, not personal.
There’s also the matter of reader comfort. Most of us don’t like change. As Peter C. Newman once pointed out, if you evolve 1% a week, you have a completely different magazine in two years without having put the reader through a wrenching change.
You mention that things change quickly in the wired world. Is that true in terms of design? How is the Google home page different today from five years ago? New features to explore, yes. But the look is unchanged—and for good reason. Visual continuity has been and will remain an important feature of the public face any of product or service, online or otherwise.
SB: Lately, there have been a lot of Publishers, with impeccable track records, who have been dismissed from their posts? As a former publisher, how do you interpret the signal this sends to a) advertisers, b) the staff and c) the readers?
These are brutal times. I doubt that readers notice or care when a publisher goes. Advertisers have the attention span of gnats with ADD—they’ve got their own problems. No doubt it can be hard on staff who lose a publisher, but what are their options other than soldiering on?
Is it a sign of the decline of the magazine industry? Yes. Has the industry as a whole needed to trim costs across the board, including executive compensation? For sure. Have the right people been let go? Here, you could argue that there’s been too much carnage among publication management and not enough at the various corporate “head offices”. But in any company head office gets to make these calls, so why are we surprised?
What worries me is that publications will be too light in management to make decisive and timely moves on the web and in response to any ad uptick. On many publications today, the only fully dedicated staff are editors, a group not traditionally known, or called upon, for entrepreneurial thinking.