It may have been the most unusual editorial retreat in the history of Canadian publishing. Back in September 2001, fresh from buying Explore magazine, 60-year-old Al Zikovitz was climbing Mount Athabasca, near the Columbia Icefields in Alberta. Did it bother him that a strong wind was blowing snow off the glacier and that he lacked a familiarity with certain safety and rescue techniques? Not really. “I’d never been ice climbing,” he recalls, “and I thought this would be a fantastic opportunity. I love pushing myself. Not to the point of hurting myself, but pushing myself to prove, at least to myself, that I can do it.”
But James Little, Explore‘s new editor, who accompanied Zikovitz on the trip, which was designed to help them flesh out ideas and a vision for the adventure magazine, was a little less enthusiastic: “I was thinking, ?Gee, there’s somewhere else I’d rather be,’ but Al was really determined to do it and we just carried on up the mountain.” Though they were eventually forced to stop short of the 3,491-metre summit due to the risk of an avalanche, Little was impressed: “Al was just going to plow right to the top no matter how exhausting the conditions.”
Little could just as well have been describing his boss’s drive to the top of the Canadian magazine world, an adventure of a different type. In fact, it was several adventures. Like the time he sold ads for L’actualit?, though he didn’t speak a word of French. Or the time he did promotion work for the Canadian Helldrivers stunt car team when it toured Germany and South Africa. Or the time he landed a sales job in Bangkok to replace a guy who had been shot. Or?in perhaps the lowest moment of his career?when he was accused of stealing ideas from the Banff Publishing Workshop (a charge he denies). Or the time when Masthead magazine called him a “legend” because of Cottage Life, the publication he founded, which has become one of the most successful consumer magazines in Canadian history.
And now here was Zikovitz?at an age when many would be contemplating retirement and no more exertion than a round of golf?scaling an icy mountain as part of his planning for a new publication. It was, all told, yet another excellent adventure for a man who owes much of his high standing to luck, midlife professional anxiety, and an inner resourcefulness that helped him realize that ordinary municipal voting lists could be used to create what has turned out to be an extraordinary business venture in the avalanche-filled world of magazine publishing.
A pair of yellowing Apple SEs squats on a bookshelf in his Toronto office, keeping in line binders of files and magazines. They were top of the line 15 years ago when Zikovitz lugged one up to his cottage on Gull Lake, two hours northeast of the city. There, surrounded by stacks of voters lists?the secret weapon he would deploy for a direct-mail campaign?he wrote a business plan for Cottage Life. He keeps the computers and an old dot-matrix printer close at hand, mementos of that time, and you can imagine he looks at them often.
Cottage Life wouldn’t exist if Zikovitz and his wife, Wendela Roberts, had not, purely on a whim, bought a cottage in 1985. They already owned a house in the toney Toronto neighbourhood of Hoggs Hollow, when friends they were visiting in cottage country took them to see an unfinished cottage. Zikovitz was hooked. “It was gorgeous,” he says. “We stood at the edge of the rock and loved the privacy and the view.” In fact, Zikovitz loved it so much that he offered the owner 10 percent over the asking price: “Let’s just say it was a little over $100,000.”
Zikovitz quickly discovered there was a lack of reliable information for cottagers. Sure he could handle some of the carpentry jobs?he’d worked as a carpenter in the late ’50s?but when it came to septic tanks, outboard motors, and the like, Zikovitz was out of his depth. It was then, as he wrote in the premier issue of Cottage Life, that he “began to see a need for a service-oriented publication directed expressly at the cottage environment unique to Ontario.”
At the time, Zikovitz was vice-president of sales at Harrowsmith and Equinox. It had been a good job. He ran the Toronto office, while the magazines were published out of a farmhouse near Kingston, Ontario. But a 1986 buyout of the magazines by media giant Telemedia and his own sense of restlessness left Zikovitz looking for new horizons. In 1987, he quit.
“We had the cottage, we had all sorts of bills to pay, we had three kids at home. ?What do I do with my life?'” Zikovitz recalls. “To this day, I remember my wife saying, ?If you try and you give it everything you’ve got and you fail, there’s nothing to be ashamed of.’ I never want to go through life thinking ?I wish I had done that.'” The couple spent the summer at the cottage writing story ideas, fleshing out the magazine’s business plan, and?aided by local women he’d hired?hunting through those voters lists, which yielded the home addresses of nearly 250,000 cottagers. “I got the voters lists from pretty well every municipality in cottage country. You ask for it?you beg, borrow, buy, or steal the book, and that’s where we got it,” he explains. Next he called on people he knew?circulation experts, art directors, and even some editors at Harrowsmith?asking them all advice on how to run a magazine. “I pumped them for information: How do you pay these guys? What do you pay? When do you pay?” He put everything he learned into a five-year plan: “I spent the whole summer doing this business plan, and I had my business plan finished, and then along came Banff.”
The Banff Publishing Workshop offered an annual intensive two-week course on magazine publishing. Zikovitz was a member of the faculty in 1987, lecturing on ad sales. Faculty were also responsible for proposing magazine concepts that could be used by participants to create prototype publications. One of the ideas Zikovitz pitched that year was a magazine about cottaging. CottageLife‘s future editor, Ann Vanderhoof, was the magazine program director that year. Steve Manley, its future art director, was also teaching. “It kind of came back and bit me in the ass,” says Zikovitz, “because everyone said I stole this idea from Banff and Banff did the whole thing and Banff, da da, da da.” The incident certainly prompted discussion among the Banff faculty. “In hindsight, yes, I made a mistake, and in hindsight I think we all learned something from it.”
After the CottageLife controversy, faculty developed a new rule that any material produced at the workshop belonged to the workshop. But Zikovitz insists he did not steal any of the students’ suggestions. “I already had the story ideas, I had everything. There was nothing that I took from there.” For years, he adds, the experience at Banff was like a “bad smell that follows you around everywhere.” But these days he’s not too bothered by it: “I don’t give a damn anymore. Screw it.”
After Banff, Zikovitz began to pull an editorial team together. Vanderhoof was so impressed with his ideas that she left a comfortable job as the editor of Quill & Quire magazine, while Manley created dummy covers and layouts to add to the ones Zikovitz had already conceived. They worked on an office table made of boards that had been nailed together to make a dock for a photo shoot. Almost a year after the Banff controversy, the premier issue of Cottage Life hit newsstands. It wasn’t an instant success.
CottageLife was not launched in the best of times. For one thing, the cottage real estate market was soft, and the boom was a decade away. In 1989, home and cottage sales reported to the Canadian Real Estate Association by the Bancroft and District Real Estate Board?which covers the area just east of Zikovitz’s cottage?were $10 million, representing 109 listings. By contrast, in 1998, 329 cottages and homes in the same area sold for $26 million (these numbers represent a fraction of the total cottage sales in the area, since many sales were exclusive listings, which aren’t reported).
If the slumping real estate market wasn’t problem enough, the Canadian magazine industry was hit hard by the recession of the late ’80s. “In 1990 we went out to try to find a buyer because my partner was going broke,” says Zikovitz. “We couldn’t find a buyer so we ran it on our own, strictly through cash flow.” He called his suppliers and asked them to take 15 to 20 percent off what they were charging him so he could keep the magazine running. “I went to everyone and said, ?Guys, it’s not a permanent thing. It may last a year, it may last two years, but I need your help.’ Basically, I was saying, ?You don’t have to take a loss, just cut your profits out.’ Not one said no.”
What also helped Zikovitz buck the economic trends was an unconventional direct-mail campaign in which he staggered the promotional circulation to ensure that no address received a free magazine twice in a row. From a controlled circulation of over 70,000 copies in 1989, CottageLife reached the benchmark 50 percent paid circulation in November 1990, selling 41,599 copies. By 1991, the magazine was making a profit. “What I was able to do was spend almost nothing to get to my readers in terms of promotion,” says Zikovitz. “And I was able to give my advertisers 70,000 guaranteed circulation to cottagers.”
There’s also some luck in the success of CottageLife. The fact that Zikovitz misjudged the sour economics of the time is a major reason why the magazine exists at all. “Had I seen the real numbers beforehand,” he says, “I’m not sure I would have launched it. I hate to lose?whether it’s my money or whoever’s money. It’s a business decision. I felt the numbers were there, and I went ahead and did it. And in spite of the fact that my original projections weren’t quite right, we made it.”
Few magazines do. Figures compiled by Masthead show that between 1990 and 2001, a total of 1,131 publications were launched in Canada, while 694 folded. The numbers also show an increase in magazine closures due to the recession of the early- to mid-1990s, years in which CottageLife showed steady growth. The difference in economic climates can be seen clearly in the magazine’s advertising base. The premier issue of CottageLife featured ads for retail businesses selling outboard motors, bug spray, and composting toilets. By contrast, the Winter 2002/2003 issue boasted six major automobile ads, a four-color full-page ad for a high-end American clothing label, and an ad for one of Australia’s most famous wineries.
But good luck, creativity, and some fast financial paddling aren’t the only reasons Cottage Life succeeded. Zikovitz’s passion also played a key role. “I think so much of it is that we just work on passion,” he says. “Not numbers, but passion?a firm belief in what we do, and goddammit, no one’s going to stop us, no one’s going to say no to us. And if anyone says you can’t do it, all the more reason why you want to prove them wrong.” More than anything else, Zikovitz is a masterful salesman. In his early days, he peddled ad space for L’actualit? and Montreal Matin, publications he couldn’t even read. At CottageLife, before the magazine had any real circulation figures to show prospective advertisers, Zikovitz sold the magazine as much by his personality as by its content. “Al is now, and was then, extraordinarily enthusiastic about the magazine, about the readers, and about how well the magazine reaches the readers,” says Manley. “In the absence of numbers he delivered his enthusiasm.”
In Grade 10 English Zikovitz was anything but enthusiastic. He flunked the course, and barely graduated from high school. He did, however, do well in his collegiate carpentry course, and one of his first jobs was helping to build such Toronto landmarks as The Colonnade. Other early jobs: delivering transport trucks from the GM plant in Ontario to British Columbia, though he’d never driven one in his life (“I think I was in Sudbury before I could really figure the damn thing out”); and working as a mechanic in a bowling alley. After taking a course in electronics at DeVry Institute, he took the advice of people who said his calling might be in sales, which brought him to L’actualit? for a short stint. After that, he says, “I went out on the highway and hitchhiked and came back four years later.” At the beginning he took a job washing cars in Frankfurt, Germany, but when the Canadian Helldrivers stunt car team passed through, Zikovitz signed on as the troupe’s advance man, arranging advertising and promotions. The Helldrivers were impressed enough with his work to fly him down to South Africa for their next tour six months later. In 1971, near the end of his journey, Zikovitz found himself in Bangkok, broke. He approached a local English magazine for a job, but was told the company didn’t need another sales guy. A few days later Zikovitz got a call from the publisher. The ad salesman had been robbed and shot while out on the town with his fianc?e. Was Zikovitz still available? (“He survived, and came back six months later, and I was best man at his wedding,” says Zikovitz.)
Returning to Toronto in 1972, he went back to his job at L’actualit?, which he found increasingly unsatisfying: “There was another boss and the two of us didn’t see eye to eye.” He was fired, and says of the experience: “It took me a long time to realize I like to be the boss.” He was looking for a challenge. “It’s not about money,” he adds. “Sure, you could make more money selling cars than selling ads in magazines, but I just wouldn’t find the same satisfaction in it.” His wife, Wendela, notes the irony of Zikovitz’s success as a publisher given that he couldn’t pass Grade 10 English?particularly, she says, as a “publisher of a magazine that’s got a reputation for its writing, not necessarily its ability to make money, but just for its sheer excellence. Maybe it’s perverse.”
Yet to hear Zikovitz talk of magazines it’s clear he has a reverence for the medium. “I think a magazine has a body and soul and emotion to it. I think I was also very, very fortunate,” he says. “I worked for what I felt were three fantastic magazines, TorontoLife, Harrowsmith, and Equinox. All three were run by publishers who had a passion for the editorial product.” Those publishers, Michael de Pencier and James Lawrence, became mentors.
“Toronto Life got me excited about magazines,” Zikovitz says. It was 1973 and de Pencier had just bought the then-struggling publication. “He taught me the old theory that if you produce great editorial that’s written specifically for that market, people will read it and pay for it,” says Zikovitz. “His philosophy rubbed off on me. We didn’t go out and sell against editorial. We sold the type of magazine it is and the passion that the readers had for the magazine.” He stayed for eight years, working his way up to national sales manager and publisher of the magazine’s travel guide.
After a brief run in advertising promotion at the industry association Magazines Canada, Zikovitz was lured by James Lawrence with the promise of working on Equinox, the discovery magazine he was planning to launch. Lawrence’s first title, Harrowsmith, had little in the way of national advertising. Zikovitz was hired to find some and to help with Equinox. Around that time, Lawrence and his wife separated. “We were just coming out with the first issue of Equinox, and she took over Harrowsmith and threw Equinox out of the offices,” Zikovitz remembers with a chuckle. It was from Lawrence that he learned a valuable lesson in magazine publishing. According to Zikovitz, Lawrence made a mistake by launching Equinox whenHarrowsmith wasn’t making a profit. “You can’t lose money on a magazine and then launch another,” he says. “They’ll choke each other and they’ll die.”
In the end Equinox survived for almost 19 years, despite Zikovitz’s assessment, but the lesson he drew about making sound business decisions must have been in his mind when he acquired Explore. Instead of launching an entirely new venture, he bought a “tired” magazine he thought had promise. “CottageLife was quite profitable and we had the money to put into Explore,” he says. “I think we need a magazine to serve all the people who love that lifestyle, whether they live it vicariously or actually live it.”
Strangely, for someone who has built an empire on people’s desire to explore and enjoy the countryside, Zikovitz keeps his business in the heart of the city. The Cottage Life/Explore office in Toronto is in a renovated Victorian house on a quiet street, west of University Avenue, just south of Hospital Row. Except for the green awning with the CottageLife logo, it’s an unassuming building surrounded by nondescript offices and parking lots. Inside, the office is open and inviting. Partitions are minimal and office cubicles are decorated with cottage paraphernalia. As Zikovitz takes me through the place, everyone is cheerful and talkative. One of his favourite maxims is that since life is made up of sleep, work, and relaxation, if you don’t enjoy your work you’ve wasted half your conscious life.
On a wall in the CottageLife trade show department there’s a map of the International Centre in Mississauga, showing the floor plan for last year’s show. The map is massive, over five feet long. Zikovitz points out the modest space originally booked for the first show in 1994, a quarter of what it takes up now, and even then it ended up needing more room. He hired veteran organizer Ian Forsyth to plan the event, but while most trade show exhibitors retain the same booths year after year, Zikovitz wanted to use a rotation system that would ensure no exhibitor got the same booth two years in a row. “I told him it would never work,” says Forsyth. “We discussed it for a couple days and decided that we’d try it Al’s way that year and if it didn’t work, we’d try it my way for the future. We’re still doing it Al’s way.”
To Zikovitz, booking the show is like booking ads in a magazine, placing everything where it fits best, where it’s the most accessible and interesting for the consumer. And while he sets the tone for the show, he also sets the structure, literally. Each year there’s a fa?ade of a cottage porch to act as an entry point to the show, and Zikovitz has helped build it every year since the beginning. “Here’s a guy who owns the company and he’s right in there with the tools and a tool belt,” says Forsyth. “It’s not the small company it was 11 or 12 years ago, but he’s still the guy who will get in there and get dirty.”
A common anecdote among those close to him is that Zikovitz insists on personally changing light bulbs in the office. When I ask him about this, he laughs, showing me a collection of long, suction-cupped poles he uses for the task. He’s also known for unloading fresh copies of the magazine off the delivery van and tidying up the storage space in the basement. “I want to be part of the gang,” says Zikovitz. “I want to keep changing light bulbs, picking up garbage, filling the fridge with beer, and just do what everybody does. When you become part of your team, you understand your team much better.”
In the small world of Canadian magazines, Zikovitz has become a big player. He has an impressive list of extracurricular activities?chair of the Canadian Magazine Publishers Association, board member of the Ontario Media Development Corporation and the Canadian Circulations Audit Board, and former president of both the International Regional Magazine Association and the National Magazine Awards Foundation (NMA)?to add to his reputation as a successful magazine publisher.
He is praised by just about everyone in the business, though some do so grudgingly. For example: Greg MacNeil, president and CEO of Multi-Vision Publishing. In selling the value of advertising in his magazine, Zikovitz is always touting the superiority of his paid-circulation model. Until last year’s purchase of Key Media by St. Joseph Media, which owns a big chunk of Multi-Vision, MacNeil had nothing but controlled-circulation publications in his stable. The difference between the two prompted Zikovitz to tell Report on Business magazine last July, “There’s the reader- driven magazine and then there’s the advertiser-driven magazine, and [MacNeil] would tend to lean more toward the advertiser-driven magazine.” When asked about Zikovitz’s comment, MacNeil says of his competitor, “For Al to say that he doesn’t rely on advertising is pure bullshit.” When asked to comment on Masthead calling Zikovitz a legend, MacNeil laughs: “Well, I’ve met very few legends in this business. Let Masthead call him whatever they want.” Finally, when I tell him that I’ve found very little, if anything, even remotely bad about Zikovitz and ask him if the CottageLifepublisher is perfect, MacNeil’s reply drips with sarcasm: “Well, lucky to find someone that wonderful isn’t it? Hard to believe.” To be fair, MacNeil also says that Zikovitz has “done an excellent job on the magazine.”
But at 62, how long will Zikovitz be doing so? “The ideal for my life is to carry on but bring more people in to help run the business so that I have the time for longer holidays and more strategic thinking,” he says. “I think this company still has a big, long-term future.” In a lower voice, he adds, “One day the right offer will come and I will sell. I have to. I don’t think I’ll be in this business when I’m 82 years old, hanging on to the bitter end.”
In the conference room of the Cottage Life/Explore office, dozens of awards line the walls. They’re stacked on the floor and piled on bookshelves. When I ask him how many there are, Zikovitz says he doesn’t know, but promises to find out. In his home office is the NMA lifetime achievement award he received last year. “It was probably the biggest emotional recognition I have ever had and that could ever be paid to me,” he says. And yet, like most of the awards Zikovitz and his magazines have won, it’s not hanging on any wall. “One day I’ll get around to putting it up.”