Editor vs Brand: Who dominates?

Those who read Lauren Weisberger’s 2003 novel “The Devil Wears Prada” or watched the film, apparently based onUS Vogue‘s Anna Wintour, will have an idea of what is arguably every publisher’s nightmare – a situation where an editor has become such an intrinsic part of the magazine brand that getting rid of her or him can have adverse effects on the brand.

Regarded as one of the most influential voices in fashion, Wintour has been editor of Vogue (America) since 1988. Other than being responsible for the launch and demise of many designers’ careers, she is revered internationally for turning her magazine into the fashion industry’s “bible” – a status she is said to guard vehemently.

While South Africa does not have such an intense situation here, the explosion of women’s magazines in the past 10 years has taken competition in this sector to a new level.

Gone are the days when editors could afford to toil “quietly” behind their desks and rely on the editorial content they churn out to sell their publications. Now, the pressure is on for them to eat, breathe and live the brands they represent. This has been the case for some time now overseas, considering the high profiles of Cosmopolitan’s Helen Gurley-Brown and Vogue‘s Wintour, for example.

“I suppose there is an increasing pressure for an editor to ‘live the brand’ and in some instances, publishers might base their appointments on these principles,” says Clare O’Donoghue, editor of the newly-launched international title InStyle magazine.

In an article published in The Media’s December magazine collection titled ‘The Devil Wears Nada’, Associated Magazine founder and chairwoman Jane Raphaely pointed out how drastically the role of editors has changed, spurred on by the competitive magazine industry.

“Behind the lines editors are increasingly caught up in conference rooms with advertising clients and their agencies, presenting, presenting, and presenting in order to obtain a slightly larger slice of that measly advertising pie, or hosting the ever-increasing reader events which have become such a big part of a magazine’s life.”

SARIE’s editor Michelle van Breda agrees. “Editors are increasingly challenged to put a highly marketable product on the market whilst retaining high editorial values. We just have to think more commercially without compromising on integrity to survive in this relentless market.”

She says in South Africa specifically perceptions and values are adapting and changing overnight.

“What’s working today probably won’t work tomorrow. In the magazine world there is no such thing as a five-year plan anymore – at most probably a six or 12-month-plan. Editors have to be able to think on their feet, come up with solutions fast, and more importantly, be flexible enough to correct mistakes asap. We simply do not have time on our side. Time was more of a luxury years ago.”

O’Donoghue says it is important that an editor fits in with the brand and sometimes this requires some “reinvention”.

“I’ll never forget working with Glenda Bailey some years ago when she was then editor of Marie Claire, UK. She ghost edited Marie Claire, Australia where I was a junior for several months and I was quite surprised to discover that she was really rather unstylish, even a little frumpy in her dress—Years later, she was head-hunted by the US edition of Harpers’ Bazaar which she now edits. Harpers’ Bazaar is one of the world’s premier fashion magazines and when I ran into Glenda not long after her appointment, I was amazed to see that she’d undergone a complete make-over to look the part.”

A study by research group Millward Brown on “The Media DNA” released a few years ago showed that a magazine brand confirms a reader’s perception of him-or herself and that readers are emotionally attached to a publication.

Shape editor Toni Younghusband, says as an editor of a health and fitness title, she knows all too well about pressure to act the part.

“As brands that encourage and motivate readers to pursue particular lifestyle choices, your integrity is that much greater if you practice what you preach.

“I’ve noticed at Shape‘s Wellness Workshops, for example, that readers take a very close interest in what I put onto my plate at lunchtime, and readers taking part in the Shape 10km Challenge actually looked out for me on race day so they could run with me.”

Five years ago, editors spent 90 percent of their time crafting content while now it has become essential to be equally involved in brand development, says Younghusband.

The last few years have seen the appointment of editors who are not necessarily seasoned journalists. These are individuals who personify the qualities their titles stand for, be it fashion, décor or even gardening.

“There are lots of reasons why different people get the job,” says Vanessa Raphaely, Associated Magazine’s editorial director and editor of Cosmopolitan.

“When appointing an editor, you need to look at what the magazine needs at the time. For example, the editor of O, has to be a voice for the O phenomenon. While we wouldn’t necessarily hire someone with no media experience at all or someone who doesn’t understand the game, the playing field, when appointing editors, we look for someone who has an understanding of the market. We look for someone who can build the brand.”

In 2003, Caxton Publishers faced allegations of unfair dismissal after one of its former editors, Kuli Roberts of the now defunct Pace, claimed she was fired for refusing to be just “a face” for the black title. A well-known socialite and fashion guru, Roberts had been the fashion editor for Drum before joining Pace and currently works as assistant editor for lifestyle and trends at Sunday World where she is also the author of the column, “Bitches’ Brew”.

“When you hire a celebrity editor, you run the risk of that person competing with the brand,” says Raphaely. “It is very important for an editor to be respectful of the brand and the advertisers. She must know and understand where she fits in, and that the magazine is the star. That’s the realistic way of running a business.”

O’Donoghue says the danger in having an editor with too big an ego is that she might alienate her readers.

“I do think editors should have some profile, only because readers often want to attach a personality to their favourite magazine and it can help to develop the relationship the brand has with its audience.

“It can become dangerous, though, but only when an editor’s ego overtakes her. There is often the danger of an editor slipping into a profound self-indulgence and finding herself in a world of ridiculous snobbery and pretension. This does not elevate her but only alienates her from her readers.”

What kind of impact does the departure of an editor have on the magazine brand?

“It’s crucial for magazines to have a distinct personality and, of course, editors influence that and play some part in the title’s public image,” says Glamour editor Pnina Fenster.

“The images of some magazines are profoundly linked to the image of their editors – Anna Wintour at American Vogue and Carinne Roitfeld at French Vogue, for example. But that goes beyond how they look or what they wear, it’s about the quality and vision they bring to their work and the way they interact with their readers, editorial teams and advertisers.”

When well managed, there is indeed room for two egos – that of the magazine and its editor. But the brand should always be the star that shines brighter. After all, editors come and go while titles are (supposed to be) forever.

What other editors say

“The magazine must always be stronger. Editors are the most important part of a magazine’s success but if they believe that they are brands in their own right they will most often fall short – no editor or any person on a magazine team is stronger than the magazine. Celebrity titles like Oprah and Martha Stewart are unique as they are built around these people. I do think it’s important for editors to build their profiles in the media for the purpose of creating exposure and hype around his or her title, and to ultimately sell more magazines.” – Andrew Sneddon, publisher, Men’s Health, Runner’s World and Golf Digest.

“One of the reasons why Tribute closed down was that it had developed a schizophrenic personality. Each new editor gave the magazine a new personality. This is why now we don’t have one editor. We have a guest editor for each issue which works quite well because the readers get to form a relationship with the brand regardless of who is behind it.” – Tlhophe Modise, publisher, Tribute

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Matebello Motloung
Guest Author

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