Cobi Ladner’s first inkling of the competition she was about to face came one night in the mid-1990s. Ladner, editor of Canadian House & Home, Canada’s preeminent decorating magazine, was attending the annualSaturday Night magazine Christmas party, where several hundred guests had gathered for an evening of schmoozing and free wine at the magazine’s Front Street offices in downtown Toronto.
While Ladner chatted with Mildred Istona, her boss during a three-year stint at Chatelaine in the mid-’80s, Telemedia publisher Maureen Cavan snaked her way through the crowd of guests until she came face-to-face with Ladner.
“Cobi,” Cavan said, “put on your running shoes.” Cavan-a well-respected publisher who has made a name for herself at magazines that include Canadian Living and Saturday Night-was slyly referring to the brand-new home and decorating magazine that Telemedia was launching the following spring. While many knew that a new title was on the horizon, details about the magazine remained top secret.
Cavan’s comment confirmed what Ladner had suspected: House & Home‘s position as Canada’s most successful decorating magazine would no longer be an uncontested given. Nonetheless, she hadn’t imagined that Cavan and Telemedia would have the gall to position Style at Home in direct competition with House & Home-after all, such a competitive move was virtually unheard of in the Canadian shelter magazine category. Up to that point, each title within the category had served very distinct readers: House & Home focused on decor, attracting a style-conscious, upper-middle-class audience, while Canadian Select Homes (Style at Home‘s predecessor) focused on a far less luxurious and stylish approach to home renovation and do-it-yourself projects, targeting a broader, less affluent readership. Newsstand competitors had run the gamut from the plush City and Country Home (like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous but Canadian, says Ladner) to the comparatively unstylish Century Home, with its emphasis on the hand-crafted.
The majority of decorating titles had carved out their own narrowly focused niches, from the British Columbia-based Western Living to the log homes of Canadian Homes and Cottages. Now, suddenly, Style at Homewould be covering the same beat as House & Home, meaning that the two titles would have to duke it out for readers, advertisers, and content-in a battle that continues to play out both within the magazines and on the newsstands. “Maureen set the tone and it just hasn’t gone away,” explains Ladner. “The comment made it clear to me that we were about to enter some serious competition.”
Indeed they were. For now, five years later, not only are the two titles attracting the same readers, but they are also competing for advertising dollars and original editorial content. House & Home‘s declining market share-also the result of newer magazines elbowing into the category-speaks of a playing field dramatically altered. But undoubtedly the biggest thing to change that field is Style at Home, which, to the uneducated eye, looks a lot like a cloned version of House & Home: produced with some of the same contributors, offering similar editorial content.
But is outright copying just business as usual? “Sure,” says Doug Bennet, publisher of Masthead magazine, with a laugh, “stealing is a time-honoured tradition among magazines.” Many agree, however, that it may not be the smartest way to ensure a magazine’s success. “I don’t understand why you would elect to copy someone else’s concept,” says Michael Rosset, president of Homes Publishing Group. “It’s just boring.” Evidently, Cavan chose to take Style at Home on the surefire route to success. “It was really just a move toward the norm. Why wouldn’t you follow a successful formula?” Ladner, however, is doubtful. “There are more than enough readers in Canada for us all to be quite different, and I think that we should be.”
While Cavan acknowledges that “Style at Home was intentionally conceived as a direct competitor toCanadian House & Home,” she contends that there were subtle differences between the two. “Our strategy was to be a little more price conscious and a little less urban, giving us a broader appeal.” Telemedia had known that Canadian Select Homes just wasn’t stylish or inspirational enough to compete against the entrepreneurial powerhouse of Canadian Home Publishers. By the fall of 1996, following a year of tinkering, plans for a repositioned and retitled Style at Home were in place.
Style at Home editor Gail Johnston Habs, a former staffer at both Canadian Living and Canadian Select Homes, admits that the resulting publication bears substantial similarities to House & Home. “It’s a lot like a Venn diagram, where two circles link and the overlapped space is what is in common. We happen to have a large area in common.”
The magazine’s production values, however, may not be one of those similarities. House & Home-National Magazine of the Year award-winner in 1995-is a fat, luxurious, oversized book that caters to the higher-income 30- or40-something urbanite. It has become a commanding presence on the newsstand and an attractive outlet for advertisers, in part because of its glossy, well-designed covers. At three-quarter inches larger than the standard 8×11-inch magazine, House & Home oozes class, confidence, and style. Contrarily, the thinner Style at Home takes a somewhat more cost-conscious approach to its service pieces and sourcing, and avoids looking too luxurious. With comparatively lower quality stock, cliched covers-the vase of spring-fresh flowers is a regular May issue cover-and an often muddled design, Style at Home still manages to appeal to a broad national readership, likely because of the magazine’s practical, untrendy and affordable approach.
The Canadian competition doesn’t end with these two titles. In the past year, a slew of niche and special interest publications have drawn arms, ready to do battle with the behemoths. Century Home, now helmed by Erin McLaughlin, a former House & Home staffer, was repositioned in February 2001 as a rurally oriented alternative to the more urban style of both House & Home and Style at Home. That year also saw the launch by Rogers Media of Flare & Co., a young and hip lifestyle book, and the rise of the bicoastal decor and shopping mag yoursource, published by designer and editor Kevin Fitzsimons. In addition, the art and architecture trade publication Azure has recently broadened its readership to include the general consumer reader.
Then there are the titles from other countries to contend with. “House & Home may be our main competitor in Canada,” explains Style at Home‘s Gail Johnston Habs, “but we’re on the stands next to all of those major American and European magazines with huge print runs and budgets.” A daunting reality for the Canadian titles-newsstands are awash in international offerings as Architectural Digest and Dwell; drop into almost any Chapters and you’ll find well over 100 domestic and imported magazines in the home decor section.
But it’s the newer, smaller titles that may prove to give the bigger names a run for their money, by slowly drawing away loyal readers. Century Home has more than doubled its circulation (to over 62,000) in the year since its February 2001 relaunch, despite its rather limited focus on older homes. The 18-year-old country living magazine was bought out in 2000 by the Markham-based special interest publisher Avid Media Inc., which was quick to revamp the title and appoint former House & Home features editor Erin McLaughlin as editor, in the hopes of turning it into a leading Canadian decor book.
McLaughlin’s appointment raised more than a few eyebrows in the industry, mostly because of her age: at 28, and with only a few years of experience, she was hired to create an entirely new identity for the saggingCentury Home. Once a magazine for the genteel 50-plus, rural Ontario woman, Century Home has morphed into a bona fide 21st-century shelter book, complete with clean modern lines and trendy decor. House & Home gone country, some might say.
Back in 1998, McLaughlin-whose only other publishing experience at the time was a couple of years at TV Guide and some freelance work-had impressed the higher-ups at House & Home enough for them to hire her as features editor. “I loved working at House & Home,” says McLaughlin. “I had a great relationship with [the people there] and I learned a lot from Cobi…everything I do, I learned from Cobi and Lynda.” By the time she left House & Home in the summer of 1999, McLaughlin had spent almost two years working closely with Ladner (“She was my mentor,” McLaughlin says), developing a friendship while she learned the ins and outs of magazines and management, developing story ideas, and working with contributors.
“I think Erin is very bright and talented,” Ladner explains. “She thinks the same way I do and I think that is why we got along so well and why she did so well here.” It’s no surprise that Century Home, in its newest incarnation, looks a lot like a mini-me of House & Home.
Just how is it that Century Home and so many other titles can thrive in a single category? The success of the genre is directly related to the trend of home decorating, spurred by the likes of Martha Stewart and Ikea. Most general interest, fashion, and women’s magazines now include decor sections, and the subject’s popularity is spreading. “It’s finally cool to decorate,” explained House Beautiful editor Marian McEvoy to The New York Times last year. “Even guys don’t think it’s sissy to think about what kind of sheets they sleep on.”
Decorating magazines thrive, much like fashion titles, because of their skill at evoking fantasy. “I can’t always afford what I see in magazines,” explains Mary Woodrooffe, an Ottawa resident who routinely reads shelter books, “but they can inspire other, alternative ideas. At the very least they let me dream. I may not be able to afford a couture dress, but I’ll still read Vogue.”
It is this armchair decorator element that enables shelter magazines to often weather the storm of economic hardship: during times of prosperity, they inspire people to buy; during recession, to dream.
But for many, the appeal of decorating magazines is more complex. “There is an almost illicit appeal in witnessing the most intimate details of people’s identities,” explains Kerry Mitchell, a former publisher of Style at Home. “It’s house porn. Shelter magazines are the ideal guilty pleasure of the boomer generation who have grown tired of the narcissism of fashion magazines.” As their waistlines and wallets thicken, the boomer generation is less inclined to relate to 19-year-old fashion models but still wants to express a maturing personal style. What better canvas than the home?
And Canadians seem to agree that home is where it’s at. Each issue of House & Home and Style at Homesells more copies in Canada than the top eight American shelter magazines combined. Most likely that’s because the homegrown titles feature products available in Canada-unlike their international counterparts. As Woodrooffe puts it, “There’s nothing more frustrating than reading an American magazine and finding a product you love but can’t find in Canada.” With “Canadian” in its title, Canadian House & Home offers instant assurance of relevant content, explains Masthead editor Bill Shields.
But the overall success of shelter titles in Canada really comes from the home-centred nature of Canadians, says Johnston Habs. We entertain at home more and go out less than our American neighbours, and with the memory of September 11 still fresh, the trend is growing exponentially. “We are re-entrenching,” says Johnston Habs. Lynda Reeves, publisher of House & Home, adds that while Canadians had been “cocooning,” we are now, post-September 11, “hiving. People want to stay at home-they’re worried about what is going on out there. So we bring the community into the home.” Which explains, at the high end, the rising trend toward home theatres, gyms, and pools; and at the lower end, the interest in modest redecoration, renovation, and detailing. “People will put money into these things so they can bring their children and friends home,” says Johnston Habs. Which is just what the advertisers are banking on.
The cocooning trend has resulted in a surge in advertisers keen on getting onto the pages of shelter magazines. And advertisers-who pay anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 per page in House & Home andStyle at Home-are any magazine’s lifeblood. “We had been looking to reposition Canadian Select Homes by making it more stylish,” explains Maureen Cavan. “We soon realized that the only way to make the new magazine more commercially attractive was to attract a new category of advertisers: style, fashion, cosmetics, and fragrance advertisers were it.” And so, even as many of these advertisers are being forced to cut advertising in the current economic climate, they are shying away from general interest publications in favour of targeted advertising in categories like shelter, explains Debbie King, executive vice president and managing director of the Toronto-based media planning firm Optimedia. As well, shelter books are noted among ad buyers for having multiple readers per copy-a key factor in attracting advertisers and determining rates. “It’s often cheaper and more efficient for many niche advertisers to appear in shelter magazines rather than a general interest or consumer magazine like Chatelaine or Canadian Living,” King explains.
Those shelter readers are precisely the audience Lynda Reeves is targeting with her daily HGTV program,House & Home Television. With her successful ventures and coiffed blond hair, Reeves is continually compared to domestic doyenne Martha Stewart. (“I’m flattered,” Reeves says simply. “Who wouldn’t be? She’s a huge success story.”) Since the show began in 1998, Reeves has been criticized, like Stewart, by viewers, critics, and even colleagues for her stilted on-screen delivery and her steely cold disposition. At the same time, her quasi-celebrity status has fuelled rumours of a less-than-stellar reputation. While her staffers, both past and present, refuse to comment on Reeves, some have quietly admitted off-the-record to fears of crossing the boss.
Criticism notwithstanding, her success is burgeoning. Following the Martha Stewart recipe for success, Reeves is mastering the art of convergence, simultaneously publishing two magazines (House & Home andGardening Life), producing and hosting the television show and distributing a line of home goods available at Eatons.
Reeves didn’t fall into publishing until she approached the publishers of Telemar’s House & Home magazine about writing an “Ask a Designer” column in 1984. One year later, her then-husband purchased the magazine and Reeves took it over as publisher, launching her first major entrepreneurial venture: a revamped, retitledCanadian House & Home in October of 1986. Strategically, the 90-page bimonthly was positioned between the over-the-top extravagance of Maclean Hunter’s City & Country Home and Southam Communications’ building and renovation book, Select Homes. House & Home was an immediate hit with its more than 100,000 readers, who, to this day, continue to lap up the magazine’s stylish and can-do emphasis on service. Still, success was hardly a fluke. It took, says Reeves, a lot of hard work, good timing, and luck for the magazine to succeed. It launched just as the shelter thing was first taking off, giving readers exactly what they had been looking for. While the folks at House & Home were busy positioning the magazine as Canada’s definitive decorating title, their success was bolstered by Select Homes‘ misfortunes as it scrambled to find its footing. Telemedia’s 1989 purchase of Select Homes resulted in a title change and editorial overhaul not once, but twice within five years: first to Select Homes and Food in 1989, and then to Canadian Select Homes in 1994-a mark of desperation, since each change was bound to result in a loss of newsstand recognition and reader and advertiser loyalty.
House & Home continued to grow through the recession of the early 1990s, a recession so deep that it caused City & Country Home, and many others, to throw in the towel. By the time Cobi Ladner became editor at House & Home in 1992, the interest in home decorating was escalating-an interest that met its match in the magazine. Impressively, the book’s subscriptions nearly doubled between 1991 and 1993, despite the recession. Canadians were curious to see how other people lived, and were inspired by the homes and products featured in magazines. It was a simple recipe, explains Ladner: “I don’t want to see my neighbour’s house. I can see that whenever I want. Take me somewhere that I’m not going to go every day.”
Publishers at Telemedia were following their own remarkably similar line of thought. Though Cavan left Telemedia (to take top post at Saturday Night) just weeks before the Style at Home launch, by April 1997 the 144-page, perfect-bound magazine hit the newsstands. The launch followed an aggressive marketing and distribution campaign marked by strategic partnerships with television shows (like Kimberly Seldon’s Design for Living) and a heavy presence at renovation and home shows across the country. It also didn’t hurt that the magazine was intensively marketed through Telemedia’s flagship publications, including Canadian Living andHomemaker’s, through promotional advertising and discounted subscriber rates. With an initial paid readership of 140,000-the same as House & Home at the time-Style at Home proved to be an immediate and credible threat to Reeves and Ladner. Despite this, Canadian Home Publishers continued to coast on the success of House & Home, cross-marketing the magazine ? la Martha Stewart through its other ventures.
It wasn’t until late in 1999, nearly two and a half years later, that House & Home heard its wake-up call about the power of its competitor. For the first time, following an aesthetic tweaking of Style at Home involving a new logo and reorganized editorial, SAH eclipsed House & Home on the stands, sending H&H firmly into battle mode.
Newsstand sales are vital to a magazine’s success, explains Scott Bullock, vice president of Coast to Coast Newsstand Services (House & Home‘s distributor), largely because of the free marketing, branding, and advertising that it generates, not to mention that it is a cheap and efficient way to sell magazines. Numbers from newsstand sales are paramount in determining advertising rates, which is why magazines court the newsstand buyer so vigorously.
As a consequence of Style at Home‘s success, House & Home moved aggressively to shift its marketing and newsstand strategy, hiring Coast to Coast to place and promote the book across Canada. In just over a year, by the end of 2001, House & Home had firmly overtaken Style at Home, increasing newsstand sales by more than 45 percent, selling a whopping average of 51,000 copies per issue on the newsstands alone, nearly 12,000 more copies than Style at Home.
And now, says Bullock, “momentum is just carrying them” on the stands. Despite House & Home‘s premium cover price of $4.95-nearly 50 cents more than Style at Home-single-copy sales continue to increase. “In Canada they are selling more newsstand copies than Martha Stewart Living, which is almost inconceivable.”
Because both Canadian Home Publishers and Transcontinental Publications (which acquired Telemedia in 2000) are private companies, it is nearly impossible to determine how the magazines are faring financially, though calculations provided each year by Masthead magazine tell an interesting story. With numbers gathered from Leading National Advertisers, it estimates that House & Home‘s advertising pages grew by almost 27 percent last year, increasing the magazine’s annual advertising revenues nearly 30 percent to more than $9 million. Style at Home saw a 17 percent page increase in 2001, raising revenue by almost 25 percent to an estimated $6 million. Since these numbers are calculations based on the published advertising rate multiplied by the number of advertisements, they may paint a rosier picture than Style at Home actually merits. That’s because the magazine is reputed to discount its published advertising rates in order to attract advertisers, something that the leader, House & Home, is in a far better position to avoid.
Unfortunately, no magazine is immune to the effects of the current recession. Publishers are cutting editorial pages as advertisers back off. Even though House & Home‘s newsstand sales continue to eclipse Martha Stewart Living, it too is feeling the squeeze. “We’re not planning for huge growth this year,” says Lynda Reeves. “We’ll be prudent and try to control costs.” At House & Home, the February 2002 issue is the smallest in over three years at a measly 112 pages (down eight pages from last year, and down 24 from 2000) and Style at Home isn’t faring any better. Its February/March 2002 issue?also at 112 pages-shrunk 16 pages from the previous year.
In recession or boom, the two titles vie for far more than numbers. What it boils down to is the content coming off the press each month. “Let’s face it,” says Ladner, “we show houses, they show houses. We have do-it-yourself projects, they have DIY projects. We print recipes, they print recipes. There really isn’t that much difference.” So the struggle is over editorial content. And originality.
“We do fight over houses to showcase,” says Ladner, laughing from her bright orange second floor office on Toronto’s trendy King Street West. “Can’t you just picture all of us elbowing each other to get to the front door?” After all, there is a finite number of houses in Canada worthy of appearing in the pages of a decor magazine. It doesn’t get any easier to find content when the market subdivides further among the various niche publications.
Keeping the magazines visually distinct is another, perhaps even bigger, challenge, since editors are forced to fish from a limited pool of designers, photographers, and stylists. And the difficulties with carving out distinct identities doesn’t stop there. The trend toward themed issues-both House & Home and Style at Homeproduce variations on the themes of getting organized, compact living, and family decorating-only adds to the formulaic sameness of the magazines. This past June, House & Home staff were irked to find they had published an issue that was nearly identical to Style at Home. Both titles released “family style”-themed issues with nearly identical covers featuring a young child on a sofa in a neutral room with brightly coloured, geometric accents. Meanwhile, a quick flip through McLaughlin’s relaunch issue of Century Home reveals a piece on mantel decoration, complete with shots of artfully arranged china and collectibles?visually a near duplicate to one that ran under McLaughlin’s byline in the June 1998 issue of House & Home.
Being inspired by-or ripping off-another magazine is hardly new to the industry, especially the shelter segment. Editors constantly mine one another’s products for ideas, and they borrow liberally. “I can’t own an idea,” says Ladner. “I just don’t see how a magazine can be servicing the reader if it is giving the same message as their competition. Why wouldn’t you want to offer something different? Why wouldn’t you want to be original?”
It’s a question that might well be applied to Ladner’s own book, since House & Home is without a doubt modelled after top American decor titles. To be fair, when House & Home came along, there was nothing like it for Canadian readers. Still, it’s worth noting that House & Home‘s regular back page, Trend Watch, is a concept based on-and nearly identical to-the back page of Metropolitan Home, also titled TrendWatch.Metropolitan Home has been carrying the department since 1993, while House & Home picked it up nearly two years later.
“It’s a fact of life that there is a lot of overlap on the newsstands,” says Home Publishing’s Michael Rosset. “It’s unfortunate that people take shortcuts, that there is this lack of originality, but people do what they have to do to get the advertising dollars.” And as Shields adds, if another magazine’s formula is working, what editor would ignore that? After all, there may be demand for the same material.
“There is a formula to them all-and it’s not unique to Canada,” says Masthead‘s Doug Bennet. “Shelter magazines are basically pretty pictures that create desire, some decorating advice, and sourcing information.” True, but even with a clear-cut formula, the execution leaves plenty of room for originality. Unfortunately, that’s where most decor books come up as empty as an unfurnished room.