LONDON, United Kingdom — Twenty years ago, when I was first editing the Sunday Times Style magazine, I got summoned to the editor-in-chief’s office. He grumpily showed me a letter from a member of Giorgio Armani’s press team complaining that they hadn’t been included in the magazine’s fashion show coverage. He asked me to write back and tell them firmly to get lost. We couldn’t believe that a designer — whether they advertised or not — had the audacity to try and interfere with the newspaper’s editorial. After all, it was up to us, not them, whether they got mentioned in our pages.
How times changed. A decade later, I was editing magazines whose revenues were almost entirely ad-based; and keeping the advertisers happy was considered as important a part of the job as commissioning features to entertain and enlighten the readers. And, despite the sniping from the ‘church and state’ brigade (who argue the commercial arm of a publishing venture should have no influence, or even relationship, with the editorial one), I never really saw a problem with that. After all, magazines are a business, not an art form, and if the adverts enable the staff to be paid and the magazine to be filled with enticing content, what’s the problem?
Often overlooked by those who complain about the number of ads in magazines is the fact that the more ads there are, the more editorial pages exist, too: the ‘ad-ed’ ratio always remains the same. So, in fact, those ad-laden issues each September and March were much better value to the reader than the skimpier, relatively ad-free ones that appeared in January or August.
With print magazines, the division between church and state has been almost imperceptible for years. But most editors — good ones at least — will manage that wispy line with skill and integrity. Admittedly, sometimes there is a lapse of judgment that might cause you to raise an eyebrow — a multi-paged ode to the design skills of some dodgy Italian shoe label might be cause for suspicion, for example — but on the whole advertising clients at big, glossy magazines are large, successful brands, and they are large and successful because they produce nice things that people want to buy. So why wouldn’t you want to feature them, where appropriate, in your publication?
The ‘church and state’ debate has become even more contentious, however, with the advent of shopable magazines, first pioneered in 2000 by Net-a-Porter (where I am editor-in-chief of menswear site Mr Porter) and its mix of content and commerce. Now, an increasing number of e-commerce ventures are launching their own shopable magazines, as are traditional publishing companies such as Hearst. And since I’ve made the journey from newspapers to magazines to e-commerce publishing, I frequently get asked if I am compromised, editorially, by the fact that we sell all the clothes we feature, as if I have somehow betrayed my journalistic integrity.
In fact, it’s the opposite. Everything we sell at Net-a-Porter and Mr Porter we have bought ourselves; and we’ve bought these items to sell because we like them and we think our customers will like them, too; none of the merchandise has been bought by us because an advertiser has asked us to do so.
What should also be a comfort for those who worry about ‘church and state’ — and I don’t dismiss their concerns entirely, particularly with rise of sponsored blog content — is that an online retail magazine makes it clear what the deal is. There is no pulling the wool, or cashmere, over the readers’ eyes. We are selling the clothes that we’ve bought. In fact, the set-up is lot more transparent than it is with our traditional counterparts. Not only that, but we enable the reader to have a seamless experience from page to purchase.
I believe, in the luxury fashion sector at least, this is the publishing model of the future: a blend of content and commerce talking in realtime to a highly-engaged audience with a finger primed to purchase. Advertisers certainly seem to get this: currently 50 percent of Net-a-Porter’s, and 80 percent of Mr Porter’s, ad revenue is from brands we don’t even stock. These companies are attracted by the scale of our global, high-net worth audience; one they’re able to quickly evaluate by click-throughs and conversion rates. Instead of a passive conduit, this new publishing model acts as a global, hi-speed, multi-platform marketing partner for luxury brands.
And, thankfully, this is a sector that will employ more and more content creators. I recently went to talk to a number of fashion journalism students at Central Saint Martins. Some were concerned that they were training to join an industry in turmoil, citing the circulation declines faced by most newspapers and many magazines. I told them to cheer up. In fact, it’s the opposite: theirs is an industry of growth; more and more retail ventures are going to be launching magazines — print or digital, or both. All that’s changed is the platforms and the proprietors.
This hybrid business model — with revenues from retail, advertising and newsstand sales (Net-a-Porter is launching its own print magazine in September; its brother site publishes The Mr Porter Paperback each year) — needs a new name, as it’s neither church nor state. It’s a comfortable combination of both, much like the current British monarch, who is both head of State and head of the Church of England; white-gloved hands gracefully poised in both.
Jeremy Langmead is editor-in-chief of Mr Porter.
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