Economist Plays Its Strengths

When Olly Comyn arrived in the U.S. near the end of the dot-com boom, he used to look enviously at publications like Red Herring and Business 2.0. "You'd see all the ads and think 'wow,'" says Comyn, The Economist's senior vice president and advertising director, Americas. "We weren't struggling by any means, but given the type of business news that was top-of-mind back then, a lot of my job was jumping and waving and telling [advertisers] 'look at me.'"

What a different a few years makes. As the title approaches its 160th birthday - in magazine terms, that makes it a woolly mammoth in a forest of squirrels - The Economist's long-time focus on the global economy and political climate is very much in vogue.

"I'm not trying to gloat, but the business mags had their time and now we're having ours," Comyn says. To wit, a few years ago the magazine ranked 45th in sales at Barnes & Noble; it has surged to number three, behind only Time and Newsweek. "Being relevant editorially and having strong newsstand sales - that's proof of your vitality," Comyn notes.

From a marketing perspective, The Economist does things quite differently. The publication derives much of its revenue from subscriptions - readers pay an average of $102.51 per year - meaning that it is nowhere near as reliant on ad dollars as comparable publications. "The American model is to give the magazine away and let advertisers pay for everything," Comyn explains. "That doesn't make a lot of sense to me. We haven't compromised our rate card or our editorial."

While this uncompromising outlook may occasionally frustrate media buyers, Comyn says they have gotten accustomed to the magazine's way of doing business. "Lots of [agencies and advertisers] have said things like 'if only you'd make the logo green, we'd pay you lots of money,' but that's not something we'll ever be willing to do," Comyn stresses.

Things aren't entirely rosy at The Economist, of course. The Publishers Information Bureau numbers through May 2003 suggest that the magazine's fortunes have sagged somewhat over the last year: ad pages are down 16.5% (to 890 from 1,066) and ad revenue is down 10.6% (to $23.7 million from $26.6 million). But given the magazine's subscription-first business model, Comyn largely shrugs off such results. Besides, he believes that publishers place too much emphasis on the number of ad pages: "You hear a lot of 'I sold more pages than he did.' But what really matters is how much you sold those pages for, and we don't discount."

Comyn also laments what he calls the "short-termism" currently afflicting would-be advertisers. With high-up execs struggling to hit their numbers every quarter, advertising has become almost a last-minute decision for many companies. "They can't even look beyond a month," he says. The categories he cites as particularly frustrating are travel and banking ("banks stopped spending when Mr. Eliot Spitzer started investigating").

Looking forward, Comyn is considerably more optimistic than most of his peers: "I think we'll see reasonable results for the first half." In terms of expanding the publication's slate of advertisers, Comyn has set his sights on Detroit, which has never fully embraced the publication. "Ten years ago, people there would say 'it's a nice product, but you're not quite big enough,'" he says "It would be a dream to have big campaigns from GM and Ford, I suppose."

Another category where Comyn sees potential for growth is personal finance - seemingly a natural fit given the magazine's affluent, well-educated readership. He's not holding his breath, however. "For a lot of companies [in that sector], the issue is cost-per-thousand," he sighs. "We're not willing to cut rates to get that business."

The Economist's U.S. rate base is currently 355,000; Comyn says it will rise above 400,000 in 2004.

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