Each spring and fall, publishers look to fashion magazine sales to gauge the health of the industry and for the last six years, it’s been a grim affair. Not this March, though.

Vogue, InStyle, Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire and Elle are all reporting growth, and for some, March 2014 marks their biggest print issues since the economic downturn of 2008. A closer look at the numbers, however, reveals that overall growth in print advertising sales is still slow at best.

Print, as it turns out, is surviving, but traditional revenue streams like subscription and ad sales are beginning to mean less for the bottom line as publishers turn to branded and multiplatform content to fill the gap. And the strategy might just be working.

Turning the page on print

Condé Nast (Vogue, Vanity Fair, Lucky) and other publishing giants like Hearst (Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire and Elle) and Time Inc. (InStyle) have spent the last decade trying to reinvent their brands online.

The results were often poor imitations of their print counterparts that left audiences seeking content elsewhere, in the form of digital-first platforms that instinctively adapt to the way people consume content online.

The start of 2014 marks a decidedly different outlook, however – one that is uncharacteristically more optimistic, thanks in part to a new integrated approach in which print, digital, video, e-commerce and television all play an important role in generating revenue.

Younger publishing houses like Vice, Dazed Group and Bullett Media are also creating full-service agency arms that work with brands to produce multiplatform custom content.

Dazed White Label is the agency arm of Dazed Group.

Dazed White Label is the agency arm of Dazed Group.

Condé Nast’s media makeover

In reference to Condé Nast’s efforts to overhaul its digital divisions and become a fully integrated media company, CEO Charles Townsend recently told the Financial Times, “It took us better than 16 years to get there… We did it the hard way. We learnt with black eyes and bloody noses.”

Joe Labracio. Image via deadline.com.

Joe Labracio. Image via deadline.com.

Townsend is first to admit that Condé Nast missed the boat during the first wave of print-to-digital experimentation, citing the publishing house’s apprehensive stance on bringing its iconic brands online.

At the start of 2014, change has arrived. Adding to its ventures in e-commerce, the company is expanding its entertainment arm through Condé Nast Entertainment (CNE), overseen by newly hired Joe LaBracio, which produces and distributes original television programming and video content inspired by its storied titles.

Almost all of Condé Nast’s titles have been redesigned online, each with a dedicated video platform. In addition, CNE has already received more than 560 million views and has more than 30 film projects in development across Glamour, GQ, Wired and Teen Vogue.

Hearst’s digital overhaul

Much like Condé Nast, Hearst also spent much of last year finding ways to reboot its web presence. The publishing house hired Troy Young to head up its digital division.

Young had previously worked at Say Media, publisher of popular websites XO Jane and ReadWrite. He started at Say Media when the company had yet to make a dollar in revenue and left six years later when the company closed in on $100 million in earnings.

Within the first few months at Hearst, Young fired two of its top web editors at Cosmopolitan and Elle, installing BuzzFeed’s Amy Odell and Fashionista’s Leah Chernikoff, respectively.

By the end of last year, Cosmopolitan.com had doubled its traffic and reached a high of 17 million unique visits in November 2013.

Young is planning to move the digital staff to a “content studio” in a building adjacent to the Hearst Tower so that content can be produced 24 hours a day, seven days a week by staff around the world.

Going backwards at Time?

As Condé Nast and Hearst begin their journeys from publishing houses to full-fledged media companies, Time Inc. ponders its next move.

This year it spins off from media giant Time Warner, though Time Warner has already delayed the departure, citing poor financial results in the fourth quarter of 2013.

With the spinoff, Time Inc. will be the only publicly traded company consisting entirely of magazines – which has left many to wonder if this is a backwards move, given today’s digital and mobile landscape.

Michael Learmonth, digital editor of Advertising Age, thinks so. For him, Time Inc.’s strategy must include renovation of all online properties, native advertising initiatives and a foray into video and television.

From media company to creative agency

Condé Nast and Hearst’s effort to transform their magazines into media brands is only part of the story. A more holistic revenue model is emerging in 2014, in which companies’ multiplatform content offerings are as important as their legacy publications.

As Paul Rossi, managing director at The Economist, notes, the strategy involves helping brands that once were only interested in buying advertising space, create their own content.

Thanks to an established history of working with the world’s pre-eminent creative visionaries and top global brands, fashion publications are well suited to the endeavour. Condé Nast, for example, has been producing content collaboratively with brands since 2010.

This year it’s Hearst’s turn. The company is looking to create a strong branded content division, using its digital team to create sponsored posts and native advertising. Meanwhile for Time Inc., some theorize the addition of an agency arm may offer another solution to its financial woes.

Ultimately, however, it is the newer, youth-centric publishing companies that are wholeheartedly embracing the agency model, and with spectacular results.

Youthful enterprise

Counterculture media outlet Vice is a noteworthy example of a publication reaping the rewards of branded content.
“Fashion brands are crying out to tell their stories in a way that’s relevant to young people, so we’re going to offer that expertise and a place where they can do it,” says Andrew Creighton, president of Vice Media.

Vice's Advice network connects brands to audiences via a network of publishers.

Vice’s Advice network connects brands to audiences via a network of publishers.

Through its full-service agency Virtue and its website network, Advice, the company helps brands create and disseminate content to target audiences across the web.

The company’s success caught the attention of WPP (Full disclosure: WPP is the parent company of Sparksheet’s publisher, Spafax), which in 2011 made an investment in order to develop its content capabilities. At the end of 2013, with a recent 5 percent stake bought by 21st Century Fox, Vice Media was valued at $1.4 billion.

Vice shows no signs of slowing down. In 2012, the company acquired Dazed Group, independent publishers of i-D, Dazed & Confused, AnOther Magazine and AnOther Man.

This year Dazed Group launched an agency of its own, White Label, that creates branded video. Diesel, Converse and Selfridges have already come on board as clients.

For music, art and culture bible Bullett, which recently overhauled Bullettmedia.com and launched an interactive iPad edition, 2014 also marks its first year with Bullett Creative Agency, which creates branded content across print, digital, design and events.

Solving the publishing puzzle

Perhaps what’s most surprising about this multiplatform approach is its promise. After years of struggle, the publishing industry is finally finding a way to thoughtfully and intelligently adapt to today’s cultural, digital and mobile landscape.

It’s taken more than 10 years for the industry to recognize that the once-disparate media of print, music, and video are continually merging online, creating a stream of avenues ripe for exploration, creation and commerce. Now that it has, the future looks bright.

As Vice CEO Shane Smith aptly remarked: “With digital, it’s the scale, the numbers – that’s where it gets exciting.”