Lessons from Elm Street

When a previously successful magazine aimed at a desirable demo kills the lights and calls it a day, it's bound to raise some questions in the industry.

When a previously successful magazine aimed at a desirable demo kills the lights and calls it a day, it’s bound to raise some questions in the industry.

But while the demise of St. Joseph Media’s Elm Street came as a shock to many, buyers peg its downfall on bad luck, bad numbers and unmet expectations. And, they say, it stands as a cautionary tale to other Canadian titles.

St. Jo president Greg MacNeil blames his mag’s demise on changes to the Print Measurement Bureau’s readership metrics, and claims the switch from through-the-book to recent reading in 2000 began what became a 40% drop in the magazine’s revenues. And, to a certain extent, buyers agree with him.

While PMB president Stephen Ferley says the change was a must to keep up with the number of titles his outfit is measuring and to bring Canada into line with international standards, buyers note that the switch affected books differently, with some titles growing readership slightly while others skyrocketed.

‘The issue isn’t so much what the absolute increase was,’ notes Genesis Media CEO Bruce Claassen. ‘It was the relative increase.’ Claassen, who tested recent reading when he was the chair of the PMB in the early ’90s, says that while the new methodology changed the water level for the entire industry, some mags responded better than others.

Claassen suggests books with established brand recognition and those with quickly understandable generic titles (such as Canadian Business) might have the advantage now. ‘With Elm St., probably by virtue of its name and the fact that it didn’t have a history anywhere near as long as some of its competitors, it probably fell victim to [the metrics of the switch]. And as a consequence, it became less of a must-buy or maybe didn’t get as many pages within an advertiser’s schedule as it had gotten before.’

While Starcom VP and media director Mariam Hoosen says the PMB switch was simply a change in currency, she admits the title might have suffered in the conversion. Hoosen notes that even when she did searches in the $65,000-plus range or in markets with a population of more than 500,000, the urban, affluent and educated-targeted Elm St. had still dropped from the top of her lists, making it a hard sell to clients.

But Hoosen doesn’t just blame the numbers. ‘I think it was a niche publication and it needed to be promoted more,’ she says. ‘Maybe they should have been pushing it further into the minds of Torontonians, because if you make it in Toronto or Ontario then you can make it across the country… They might have done more free subscriptions to clients so that their name was in front of the advertisers.

‘Elm St. had something really good and I think they should have showed it to people – pushed it in their faces. I know they had billboard advertising and all that, which was nice, but just have copies [out there]. Do some direct mail to clients so that they can see the publication – they can actually feel it. That gives you an edge… If you get clients to notice, it will be easier for us to sell.’

Claassen also thinks Elm St. should have paid more attention to its place in the market: ‘Over the last five years, Chatelaine has changed quite dramatically. It went from a fluff, celebrity-fashion-type of publication to something with increased sophistication in terms of subject matter and coverage. Chatelaine has become much more of a formidable competitor than it was when Elm St. launched. At the same time, I’m not sure that Elm St. paid off on all their ambitions and all of their desired positioning in terms of being more of a cutting-edge, hipper sort of women’s-oriented service publication.’

Although he has no immediate plans to do so, St. Joseph’s MacNeil says an Elm St. relaunch is certainly not out of the question – although the publisher is busy for the time being with a new Leafs pub called Leaf’s Nation. Should the return come to pass, Claassen advises the title to get back to basics: ‘I think I would revisit what their original objective was – what their original vision was – and see whether there is, in fact, a niche for them to reside in. It could very well be that vision has been usurped by Chatelaine.’