Weight Watchers Bulks Up

One of the hottest magazines in America is still not produced by a publisher.

It's Weight Watchers magazine, a bi-monthly published by the company of the same name. Time Warner's Southern Progress division ran the magazine in the late 1990s, but it was taken back in-house in May 2000. For the first two issues of 2003 it sold $5.563 million in ads, up 163% from the same period a year ago, according to the Publishers Information Bureau.

Publisher Wayne Perra, in fact, also runs the company's meeting rooms, where it sells its "Winning Points" weight loss program, which has turned the company around since its launch in 1997. Since taking back the book, Perra said, Weight Watchers has emphasized the service aspects of its mission, moving away from long, thoughtful "lifestyle" pieces to shorter, practical tips, like "Feel Full, Stay Slim," a cover line he said resonated with readers.

"Get to the point, deliver the information that's of interest to the target audience. Don't necessarily make it a nice read. People don't have a great deal of time," he said.

Circulation gains, especially newsstand sales, have driven the magazine's improvement, he added, against competitors like Cooking Light, Prevention, Fitness and Health.

"This magazine had never been especially strong at the newsstand," going all the way back to its beginning in 1968. "That was never more than 15% of the total. In the last year we've gotten that to 25-30%." That's 300,000 sales for each issue, with a cover price of $2.95, at stores like Wal-Mart and Target, as well as bookstores and other locations.

Perra credited editor Nancy Gagliardi and Curtis Circulation, the magazine's distributor, with many of those gains. "A year ago we were at 550,000. Once we got over 750,000 circulation and the fall Mediamark Research (MRI) numbers came out," the rep firms who handle ad sales "knew they had something they could sell."

The MRI figures released last November showed that Weight Watchers had 5.7 million readers, including pass-along readership, with a median household income of over $58,000 each. The big circulation figures helped salesmen close commitments from pharmaceutical companies like Merck and Bayer for the first time. These were added to established food advertisers such as Kraft and new food advertisers such as Kellogg's and ConAgra's Orville Redenbacher. Other big advertisers include Colgate Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson and Kimberly-Clark.

"At 1 million it makes a big difference," Perra said, especially for the pharmaceutical companies. The rate base just wasn't big enough before.

For 2003 the magazine executed a redesign under art director Ed Melniksky, formerly with Redbook, and brought back spokesperson Sarah Ferguson for the cover. Most covers don't feature celebrities, Perra said.

Perra's ability to execute on his main business plan, the "meeting room" or classroom business that represents more than half the company's revenues, also can't be discounted as a factor in the magazine's success. "In the mid-1990s there was a strong anti-diet sentiment. There were a lot of low-fat foods. We came out with the Points program in 1997 and it came along at the right time." Under the program dieters get a certain number of "points" per day, each food they eat costs a certain number of "points," and the classes help them live within that number.

"We are considered the authority. We've been around for 40 years. At least 60% of the people doing anything to lose weight work through self-help, with books and magazines and no intervention from a professional," said Perra.

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