A Minute With: Gina Sanders

Gina Sanders is the founding Publisher of Teen Vogue magazine, launched in February 2003. In the same month of launching this new magazine, Ms. Sanders celebrated her fifteenth year with Conde Nast Publications, where she has also held the Publisher’s posts at mainstays Gourmet and Details magazines.

Ms. Sanders’ career on the sell-side of publishing was preceded by 6 years of advertising experience in Boston and New York. After her undergraduate work at Tufts, Ms. Sanders parlayed her interest in marathon running into a successful ad pitch for New Balance athletic shoes and a position at an advertising agency. From that first step into media and advertising, in her own words, she “never looked back”.

HARBUS: How did the idea for the new magazine venture develop and how did you become involved?

GS: As for the original idea, it came from Anna Wintour (Editor-in-Chief of Vogue) and Richard Beckman (then-Publisher of Vogue) who launched a series of test issues for Teen Vogue between 2000 and 2002. The greenlight for the title came in June of this year.

I came to Teen Vogue with about as diverse a publishing background as you can imagine, with no background whatsoever in the so-called ‘teen market’. What we saw in focus groups was there was a lot of activity in this market, there was a lot of great product, but there was a bit of parity between them. At the get go, when we were thinking of coming out with this we asked, ‘is there another need for another teen title?’.

The answer is of course if you have something with a very distinct point of view, which is meeting an unmet need for a consumer group-then absolutely. The idea of Teen Vogue is not necessarily to play in the 2 million plus arena, but to be a targeted product for a younger audience that is passionate about fashion.

HARBUS: The difficult advertising and subscription markets of recent years are well known. As Publisher, you are responsible for the financial performance of the magazine. What strategies did you use to develop Teen Vogue for a successful launch and growth in a difficult market?

GS: One of the things about launching in this environment is that we did use test issues, we have taken our time. The benefit is, we’ve really looked it this, and it really focused us to not try and be all things to all people, to have a very clear vision of what this magazine was going to be, to have a mission we could deliver on.

Also, in terms of running a business we focus on two core questions: is this going to build my readership, or, is this going to drive revenue? Case in point, we opted not to do a big launch party-we will do something later in the year, after about our fourth issue-but, you don’t spend money just to do it unless its really driving the business. We’ve invested very heavily into the product, into the website, into marketing research, but in terms of other expenditures, we really looked very hard at them.

One could say, why now when its such a tough time? Well, we had phenomenal response from the test issues in terms of sell-through on the newsstand. Actually the retail community-meaning retailers and wholesalers-stepped forward and said ‘we want this to happen’, which is very unusual.

HARBUS: And after the tests and into your first regular issues, how has the reaction been from advertisers?

GS: I’ve been in this business for 20 years, I’ve never seen anything like it. Just from the get go, they’re thrilled. They immediately saw the point of difference and that we delivered on our promise: that it would be very much in the spirit of Vogue for a younger customer.

What’s really exciting is that we’ve attracted brands who make their business on marketing to teens-but you’ll also see marketers like Burberry, who have never really talked to this market before, but understand that they [teens] are spending, that they are the future. They [brands] also understand that in Teen Vogue, they’re going to be protected in a very upscale and sophisticated total environment. Many of them have developed specific ads that don’t feel ‘teenager-like’ but definitely have a young sensibility.

Competitively, the launch of Teen Vogue significantly surpassed the launches in ad pages of Teen People, Elle Girl and Cosmo Girl. We’re also very excited that our second issues are larger than the second issues of our competitors, especially considering those titles launched pre-9/11.

HARBUS: Looking ahead, how do you see the magazine evolving?

GS: Certainly the main point of difference is our point of view. We heard from our focus groups, they know that the people putting out the magazine were not teenagers. Their expectation from the Vogue brand was not to be talked down to, they didn’t want to see the cutesy teeny-bopper graphics. They wanted a product that gave them trend information. A key difference between us and Vogue, is a price point mix that reflects our readers’ buying power-along with an aspirational elements that reflect a segment of teenagers who are very actively buying designer accessories. But you’ll see a real mix of price points.

That sophistication is a key point of difference. What you will also if you look at the other teen books, they tend to be very broad in their approach-heavy on lifestyle issues, relationship issues-we felt that’s not really where we needed to be, not only because its being done, but its not part of the Vogue franchise. Boys may be there, if there’s a current play or movie or something cultural like this–they may be present in the fashion shoots, but its not calendar pin-ups. That’s just not part of our brand.

This really draws from shifts in our culture, where teenagers are so much more sophisticated and knowledgeable.

HARBUS: With all the media options available to younger consumers who, for instance, spend an increasing amount of time online, what is your longer-term vision for the glossy magazine format?

GS: In terms of different forms of media, I actually say they work in great concert together. This audience is not only media-savvy but media saturated, and each form of media reinforces the other. For example, you can see an awards show on television, and you can pick it up and read about it in a magazine, you can go online. Every month, on teenvogue.com, you will see many fashions that we didn’t have room for in the magazine. So rather than see it in conflict, I see it in confluence, really.

From day one we decided to go forward with the magazine, the vision was to build a comprehensive online presence. When I say comprehensive, it’s not just stuff dumped out there, but its original material, replenished frequently. It was part of the business plan from the get go: understanding this audience and the need to talk to them in a 360-degree way.

HARBUS: What advice might you offer for MBA’s are interested in pursuing careers in publishing and media?

GS: What I would say, truly, is to be as well-rounded a human being, on all subjects, as possible. I’m the kind of person, my staff jokes ‘oh no, she came back from vacation’, or I will call up saying ‘here’s an idea’.

The best ideas happen when you are out of the office, and really
observing culture. I think the people who are most successful in any field are those who are able to make the connections beyond what is right in front of them.

I think if you know how to think, you know how to market. I don’t mean to make it that simple, but I think the best experience is not necessarily found in theory. While theory is valuable, I like to take things out of the office. I think being the most curious person you can be is what is going to make you most successful. You need to get ideas from other sources, otherwise you’re just rehashing the same old thing.

I think reading, from Joyce to the Economist, and doing everything possible as an individual-you will bring that to what you do, and you will stand out to your clients because your ideas will come from a much broader point of view.