If a high fashion editorial runs in a magazine but no one sees it, did it even happen?

In a world where influencers have become the new trendsetters, the question of where fashion publications stand in terms of relevancy and potential for commerce is more important than ever to marketers and publishers alike. While glossy magazines are undoubtedly fun airport fodder, is there lasting power behind the business model?

As beauty brand and fashion ad dollars continue moving en masse from traditional publishers and into the hands of newly minted “style icons," thanks - sometimes soley - to robust social accounts, the magazine industry is being drained of its biggest revenue maker, advertisements. According to Forbes, a recent survey revealed 84 percent of marketers plan on executing at least one influencer marketing campaign during the next 12 months, and eConsultancy reports that almost 60 percent of fashion and beauty brands have an influencer marketing strategy in place, while a further 21 percent plan to invest in it over the next year.

To stay afloat, publishing houses are cutting back on resources, sharing services, slashing staff, and blurring lines between content and advertising in ways that veteran editors and publishers say are unprecedented.

“The longer I cover magazines, the less I think their existence really is about readers, but more about advertising and revenue from that," says one media editor. "As long as advertisers are willing to pay, print magazines still have a role, [even if it's not exactly for consumers]."

The loss of printed page life has been sizeable. In the past few years we've lost storied titles like Self,More, Fitness, Details and Lucky. There have been plentiful staff cuts and murmurings of disarray at the world's top publishing houses. Additionally, magazines have also reduced frequency or gone completely online, creating further separation from the "must-have" status glossies once held.

While classic magazines in 3-dimensional form may be less relevant to readers, they are more important than ever to publishing ad sales teams, mostly due to the higher costs of printed ads vs. digital. To that end, one veteran publisher reports that editors are stooping to new lows in terms of advertising, including generating overwhelming amounts of branded content, offering cover wraps [an advertisement placed over the entire front and back of the magazine] and allowing egregious product placement, even on covers; a taboo for any respectable publication.

It's not a stretch to say that publishers are truly fighting for their lives, and thus pushing harder - and promoting heavier - in their pages, wherever possible. In her biting account of her recent termination, former British Vogue editor, Lucinda Chambers shared her perspective on today's audacious levels of advertiser pandering and how it contributes to decreasing levels of magazine relevancy.

“The June cover with Alexa Chung in a stupid Michael Kors T-shirt is crap," wrote Chambers. “He's a big advertiser so I knew why I had to do it. I knew it was cheesy when I was doing it, and I did it anyway." Chambers went on to call British Vogue, and other fashion publications out of touch, questioning the message they send and whether in a social media world where content is vastly democratized, they are even necessary.

Alexa Chung on the cover of British Vogue

“Truth be told, I haven't read Vogue in years," wrote Chambers. “Maybe I was too close to it after working there for so long, but I never felt I led a Vogue-y kind of life. The clothes are just irrelevant for most people – so ridiculously expensive."

Chambers continued: “They've stopped being useful. In fashion we are always trying to make people buy something they don't need. We don't need any more bags, shirts or shoes. So we cajole, bully or encourage people into continue buying. I know glossy magazines are meant to be aspirational, but why not be both useful and aspirational? That's the kind of fashion magazine I'd like to see."

Although the letter, which was taken down then mysteriously reappeared with edits sanctioned by Chambers' former employer, surprised many readers, one publisher, who asked to remain anonymous, says it isn't new news for those in the industry.

“The thing we read from Lucinda is that she didn't say anything people in the magazine industry hasn't heard already," says the publishing veteran who has worked with some of the top magazines in the business. “I am constantly hearing from my sales colleagues the importance of pushing boundaries, and so, so much of what we [in editorial] hold sacred are being pushed and pushed, liking [cover wraps] or selling it. We used to have clear delineations in terms of ads."

Clearly, advertisers are still relying on the printed product for big ad dollars, and looking to squeeze whatever they can out of what's still around. In fact, according to Market Watch, Time Inc.'s print business still makes up 70 percent of the company's revenue, despite the fact that print ad revenue declined 21 percent in its first quarter of 2017. And there's more bad news, as Manga Global is forecasting that magazine advertising will continue to drop as much as 25 percent year-over-year by 2021.

Describing print publications as “vehicles" for big advertising money, one media editor says "as long as advertisers are willing to pay, then magazines still have a role. It's like fashion week in a way. Does that really have a purpose anymore? It still happens though."

“The problem is that publishing companies are set up on old business models and that's why they are panicking to hold onto their last advertisers," says a digital and online publishing veteran.

The circulation numbers are bleak, with reports across the board revealing drops, month to month, and year to year. In fact, according to Magnetdata, in Q3 of 2016 the industry may have experienced "the lowest sell through efficiency in recent history." Despite some small silver linings, notably small upticks in sales thanks to targeted moves like upped magazine prices, "the industry continues to slide in a direction that no one is pleased with."

One editor calls fashion magazine-cum-websites like vogue.com “irrelevant" but says print versions still have clout. “There is still a place for them, but they aren't as relevant because advertisers and readers have pulled back," she says, adding that the foreign vogues are disappearing, due to increased competition in the digital space.

Another factor negatively affecting the publishing industry is its almost unilateral decision to streamline resources, meaning for some the “specialness" that magazines once held is being compromised. “Publishing companies, especially the big houses, keep trimming and trimming their staffs, sharing resources across titles and eventually that means the titles will have a less unique quality," says the publisher. “They are eating away at this thing that makes them unique. The Buzzfeeds and Refineries of the word are much more focused on one brand umbrella."

Although more and more content is shifting to the digital space, the publishing veteran believes there will always be a place for the glossies, however they must learn to adapt to a digital world.

“I think women still appreciate magazines, Buzzfeed is never going to take the place of a Vogue or a Vanity Fair," she says. “It just isn't. These online digital publications wouldn't have any source for their content without them. Things that trend often come from exclusive shoots from big print brand. If they went away, the world would feel a huge vacuum. The digital space is not set up to cover things as deeply. Just a quick Google search shows you that the most valuable information is from older, established publications."

According to this publisher, the solution for print is to raise prices, enter new partnerships, and form new channels of distribution. She also sees value in creating offline components to their business like events, educational and digital conferences, as well as offering books, essays and other services. “It's about providing people access information, how-to tips when they need it, and how your brand fits into a consumer's life" she says, adding that she believes niche titles will come out on top. “Magazines are really good at thinking about what their consumers need and want."

Another editor believes magazines will continue to become more specialized to the point of limited edition, like the new crop of biannual fashion magazines hitting the market.

“I think that's more the future of fashion magazines in print," she says. “They will be more like books."

Ultimately, both agree having a print component is valuable, but it must be handled in a more specific, strategic way. “Brands are learning there's a value to having a print version, look at Goop [website that will launch a print magazine]," says the publisher. “Maybe it's time to retire some titles and start new ones. Magazines have to be creative to survive, and I think that's better."


Belisa Silva