Men's Health Looks Fit, Weighs Bigger Market

Men's Health, by most accounts, is enjoying a solid 2003. The Rodale title notched 972 ad pages in its ten issues during the year (that figure is awaiting Publisher's Information Bureau affirmation), which represents an 11% jump over 2002 levels, as well as a single-year record for the publication. But when asked about the overall state of the magazine, vice president and publisher MaryAnn Bekkedahl isn't too eager to crow. Rather, she thoughtfully surveys the magazine business, and specifically the pressures that even successful publishers contend with on a day-by-day basis.

"I think the publisher of every magazine, whether Men's Health or Marie Claire or Family Circle or whatever, has to do a better job of bringing his or her publication to life for media directors," she says. "All of them have a stack of magazines two-, three-feet tall on their desks, and they're only reading two or three of them. We have to get more out of our sales calls and get [the directors] to look beyond the numbers."

It's interesting that Bekkedahl would suggest that media folks "look beyond" the demographics of her magazine. After all, Men's Health has grown its circulation to 1.7 million. Its readers are affluent, with a median individual income of $37,427 and an average household income of $66,450 (when asked, Bekkedahl freely concedes that MH ranks below FHM in this metric, but only because "most [FHM readers] are living at home or have roommates - either they're married to extremely wealthy women, or they're combining their income with others").

Nonetheless, she seems concerned about the reception her magazine, as well as others, has been receiving by would-be advertisers. "It's a cliché, but we have to tell them not to judge a book by its cover," she says. "So many magazines have more to them than the cover illustrates."

In other words, Men's Health isn't just about flat tummies. In its 15th year, the title has evolved its editorial content considerably - after all, it more or less invented the "service journalism" category for men. As opposed to the concentration on physical fitness that its cover images might suggest, the mag's editorial now reflects a "perform better" mantra, whether at the office or within the confines of a relationship.

"It's about constantly striving to improve," Bekkedahl explains. "Obviously there's a lot about physical [improvement], but it's also about how you find new friends if you've just moved to a new city at 35. If there's one thing that the magazine will always speak to, it's giving information to that performance-driven guy."

This, Bekkedahl believes, is what has always distinguished Men's Health from its competition. From an editorial perspective, she breaks down the field as the three laddie mags ("Maxim, FHM and Stuff - all an extremely fun read") and the "other guys" (Esquire, Men's Journal, Men's Fitness, Details and GQ). "Everybody has a very clear editorial mission, I think," she says. It's in the advertising arena, not surprisingly, where Bekkedahl believes the real jousting takes place: "If someone's got a male target, I want it. Fortune's a competitor. So is Sports Illustrated."

Among the trends with which Men's Health has to be pleased is its surge in business from pharma companies, which now rank as the magazine's second-biggest ad category behind automotive (fashion/fragrance/grooming ranks third). The mag added an impressive 56 advertisers this year, including Banana Republic, Mini Cooper, Canon and Adidas. New client Comedy Central may have been the most gratifying, as MH has long been trying to attract entertainment companies. As for the 11% page gain, it came without the 60 to 80 pages of alcohol and tobacco ads accepted by many of the mag's competitors.

Having spent most of 2002 and 2003 focusing on adding new clients - "we needed to pull ourselves up a little bit and revitalize the magazine," she says - Bekkedahl plans to focus on growing business from existing advertisers in the months ahead. "As far as retention goes, we're obviously going to focus on making sure everybody's tucked in," she continues. "Once you hit a certain level, it's less about new business and more about growing what you have."

Potential growth areas include European cars (BMW, Saab, Audi) and watches (former client Movado, Tag Heuer). And while Bekkedahl doesn't come across as especially cocky or fierce over the course of a conversation, she has her battle plan carefully sketched out: "The growth will come at the expense of two or three [magazines] within our competitive set. That's the way it usually works."

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