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So What Do You Do, Brides Publisher Alison Adler-Matz?

This bridal mag publisher perseveres in today's advertising climate and sustains an "iconic brand"

- April 22, 2009
Alison Adler Matz has been around the magazine block: With two separate stints at Condé Nast -- first as an ad salesperson at Self, most recently as publisher of Brides -- she's eked her way up the food chain in multiple magazine categories, at a variety of companies, and over the course of hundreds of sales calls. At Brides for a year this May, she now works in concert with a 15-year veteran of the magazine (editor-in-chief Millie Bratten) at the company where she began more than 23 years ago, strategizing partnerships, positioning the title, and ensuring the waning economy doesn't take as big a bite out of the advertising market in the bridal category that many in the industry bill as "recession-proof." While that may not be the case (see: the spate of scaled-down nuptials this year), Matz remains bullish about the spending power of the newly-engaged, and their affinity for Brides' "iconic" brand. She recently spoke with mediabistro.com about what it took to climb the ladder on the ad sales side, her greatest professional coups and gaffes, and how previously "small wins" are today's smashing successes for any magazine salesperson seeking to secure an ad spend.


Name: Alison Adler Matz
Position: Publisher, Brides magazine
Resume: Started career at McCann Erickson as an assistant media planner and then worked as a media planner. "I was assigned to the L'Oreal account, where I had a lot of exposure to the print media, particularly beauty/fashion magazines." After two years working on the agency side, jumped over to first ad sales position at Working Woman magazine. Then held various sales and sales management positions at Self, Mirabella, Country Home, US Weekly, House and Garden, Teen Vogue, and Glamour.
Birthdate: February 9, 1961
Hometown: Spring Valley, NY
Education: BS, Public Communications, advertising major, S.I. Newhouse School of Communications, Syracuse University
Marital status: Married
First section of Sunday Times: "Style section (including the wedding announcements, of course!)"
Favorite TV show: Weeds
Last book read: Breaking Dawn (the last of the Twilight series) by Stephenie Meyer
Guilty pleasure: Getting into bed before 9 p.m.

Describe how you got started working in magazines.
I always loved magazines growing up. As a teenager, [I had] incredible passion for magazines in general, and I knew that I wanted to do something to do with them, but I didn't know in what capacity. I majored in advertising, and found my first job in the media planning department of McCann-Erickson. And I worked on a heavy print account -- L'Oreal, which actually bought a lot of women's magazines. That was the first interaction, and after doing that for about two years, I totally knew what I wanted to do, which was to jump over to the other side of the desk and sell for a magazine. I used all the contacts I made from being on the agency side and got my first job selling magazines for Working Woman magazine in 1985.

You started at Condé Nast in 1988 at Self. Then you left the company in '93, you worked at other magazines, becoming associate publisher at Us, until you returned to Condé in that capacity. Why did you initially leave Condé?
There was an opportunity for a bigger job outside the company, so I took that bait, did it, and then ended up kind of jumping around to a few other places. Then, the opportunity came to come back at Condé Nast, in 2000. Once I was back I thought, 'Why did I ever leave?' because if you love magazine publishing, this is the place.

Did the company feel different when you returned versus when you left?
It had changed over the years, yes. It had grown dramatically, which changed the culture. But there's an inherent culture here of quality and passion for magazines. Always working with really incredibly smart, passionate people [is something at Condé] that has stayed true for 20 years.

Do you find a different vibe at Condé's offices on Third Avenue [home of Brides], versus the company headquarters at Four Times Square?
It's smaller [on Third Avenue]. In the other building, [nearly] the whole elevator bank is Condé. It's a little different vibe [on Third]. It's a little less glitzy.

When you started working in sales, what did you learn on the ground in entry-level positions that still informs your day-to-day work now that you're a publisher?
Time management: My first publisher at Working Woman used to say (because this was the mid-'80s), "always have a pocket full of dimes," because when you're between sales calls and there's no time to come back to the office, you want to hit a pay phone and start making calls to schedule your next appointments. Now, with technology, you can be extremely time-efficient. Always being out on the street in front of clients as much as possible was a very basic lesson. Thinking about client's businesses strategically was another invaluable lesson, and building lifelong relationships with clients.

"In the 20-plus years I've been doing this, I've never seen a tougher [ad] climate. But, I'm very much of a glass-half-full person, and I see it as an opportunity -- there are magazine brands that will always be here, and there will always be advertisers who love and believe in and need print to drive their business."

Do you still work with clients whom you worked with in your early years in magazines?
Yes. Sometimes the assistant media planner from 20 years ago is running an agency now, or a media department, or is a high-level client. And some of the people who were in mid- or even high-level positions back then are still in important roles.

What was it like working on a weekly schedule at Us, versus the monthly schedule of most magazines where you've worked?
Weeklies are actually easier in a way, because you're just always closing. [At] a monthly, there's that buildup to closing, and then intensity of the close. And with a monthly -- and Brides is bimonthly, so one-sixth of our year is riding on each close -- a monthly's close represents one-twelfth of a year. [At] a weekly, if your current issue isn't that great, there's always next week to improve, so it's actually simpler.

The professional trajectory on the sales side: You start out selling ads, you move on to a director role, and you move on to associate publisher. How do the responsibilities deepen?
Generally, if you start out as an advertising salesperson, you're given an account list, a territory, a category -- whatever it might be -- and it's your job to manage that account list, increase the business and so on. Then, oftentimes the next progression is a director capacity, where it's really more of a senior-level position -- you're given the plum accounts and the category, and sometimes you're given other responsibilities on a project manager basis. Then, one of the biggest challenges is jumping from sales into management, where you're then managing others who are managing an account list -- you're no longer managing a list yourself -- which is a whole different skill set. Then there's kind of entry-level manager roles -- an ad manager, an ad director kind of role -- then the move to associate publisher, which is where you're really directing overall strategic direction for the ad sales initiative. [That's] obviously led by a publisher but, in my roles as associate publisher, it was really manning the day-to-day and keeping the machine moving so that the publisher could be working on the marketing, the brand positioning -- all of the other elements of running the business side of the magazine.

What's your take on the advertising climate out there for magazines?
It's really challenging. In the 20-plus years I've been doing this, I've never seen a tougher climate, and it is affecting every sector of business. Not only are budgets really tight, but people are personally challenged, so their own personal finances or their whole mindset makes people tentative about their positions and their jobs. But, I'm very much of a glass-half-full person, and I see it as an opportunity -- there are magazine brands that will always be here, and there will always be advertisers who love and believe in and need print to drive their business and to drive their communication goals.

How do to the challenges you mention play out within the bridal market? Is it more or less challenging than the market for general-interest consumer titles?
What we hear from many of our advertisers is that their bridal portion of their business is the bright spot. The jewelers tell us thank goodness they have bridal jewelry to sell. The travel destinations tell us thank goodness for honeymooners, because that is the bright spot. Retailers tell us thank goodness for their registry portion of their business, because that's again what's driving some volume right now. Where it affects us is if the jewelers'… fashion jewelry business is soft overall, it affects their budgets in a negative way, so there's just less money to spend [on advertising]. Same thing with travel, same thing with retail. So, it affects us differently, and again, where it becomes an opportunity for us at Brides is that by investing with us now, they can continue to drive some sales immediately. But there's just less money to spend.

Would you say that for retailers, advertising in the bridal market gives them a way to remain in front of customers, because people get married regardless of the economy?
Absolutely. People get married regardless, and if you are a jeweler or a retailer or whomever, and you're selling a bride-to-be something today, not only are you ringing your cash register right now, but you're also building a future customer. The woman who's walking into a store to register is potentially going to be coming back in a few years to furnish her house, and buy furniture and bigger-ticket items. Or, the person who's buying your jewelry today may be back for other items in the future from your brand.

That's a counterpoint to the fact that as readers of bridal magazines, you've got people only for however long they're in the planning phase of getting married, then you're courting new readers all over again. How do you position the magazine to handle such frequent reader churn?
In terms of readership, the number of people getting married every year is projected to stay constant, so we have a constant, a natural churn of new prospective people coming into our market as well as going out, so it's just a matter of finding that girl on the newsstand. She gets her ring, she gets her manicure, she buys Brides magazine. [We're also] soliciting subscribers through places where we know we can find her, through partnerships, through online outreach, et cetera.

Condé Nast has multiple bridal books: Brides, Elegant Bride, Modern Bride. How do you ensure that brides-to-be buy them all?
There are some alternating schedules, just from a real estate perspective, so sometimes we are alternating on sale/off sale with our sister publication, Modern Bride. But basically, it's up to the editors-in-chief to have the right cover looks and the right cover lines to grab that reader. I'm thrilled to say Brides is the one that seems to be grabbing the most readers. We are hands-down leading the charge when it comes to newsstand performance. More brides-to-be are buying Brides when they're going out there to that sea of magazines and making their choices.

To what do you attribute that?
The power of Brides -- that sort of trusted, tried and true brand, the authority that we have, that [readers] know they're going to get the most of what they need from Brides -- seems to be showing up in terms of that behavior at the newsstand.

How do you sustain your own interest over time in all things bridal?
I mean I've been at the magazine since May [2008], and I've been married for over 20 years, so I don't have friends that are getting married and it hasn't really been a part of my life. But it's a really happy subject, and it's really been fun to see the evolution of how things have changed from back from the day when my friends and I were getting married and what goes on now -- how weddings have changed.

Also, being out, talking to advertisers, talking to agencies, people who are getting married, and just the excitement that people who are in the market have -- it's really contagious. No matter where you go, you meet people who want to talk about it. I was in a taxi in another city [with] a female driver. She asked me what I did, I told her and she [asked], "I bought my dress at Priscilla of Boston 35 years ago -- are they still in business?" I'm like, "Yes, they are." People love to talk about it.

You mentioned things have changed in weddings of 20 years ago versus right now. How?
The biggest change is the personalization and individualization. Twenty years ago, I was a relatively young bride. A lot of my friends were getting married at the same time, and our weddings were kind of cookie-cutter. The only thing different was the date, the place and the dress. The invitations all looked the same -- very traditional. [Now], people are really using this moment [of getting married] to make it their special day and customize, and use it as another way to express who they are to their family and friends.

"A couple of years ago, you could be raking in new business on a constant basis. Now, you look for measures of success in terms of long-term account building, as well."

What about the advent of the Internet and online media, and the speed with which people can get lots of specialized information?
The way that you can gather information -- you can get ideas from magazines or online -- all of that has changed everything in terms of [wedding planning]. I started working at Condé Nast five weeks before my wedding, and pretty much everything was done, but at that point I had four weeks to get the job started, then I was taking off for a couple of weeks. I remember saying to my mother, "Whatever is not done yet, I can't care. I can't go meet you to look at flowers. I've got to focus on this job, and then I'll show up [at my wedding]." But if I had access to technology, she could have sent me pictures. But I kind of had to cut off the planning.

Now that we're talking about the Internet, what's the thinking on that here at Brides? What are you striving to offer readers online? What's the strategy?
Brides is such a strong, iconic brand, the communication with the bride-to-be really starts with the [newsstand] title. That's the trusted authority and the place she's going to first. There's an experience that she's going to get with the magazine that is irreplaceable. Particularly when it comes to fashion and beauty, there's nothing that replaces the printed page in terms of that experience of luxuriating, fantasizing -- you know, the glossy images. We know [our reader] is reliant on the Internet for a lot of her planning. In fact in the current issue we have a cover line, "75 Web Sites We Swear By." What Millie [Bratten], our editor-in-chief, says is that it is the world wide Web -- it is vast, and people need it edited for them.

With Brides.com, it's there to provide another interface for the bride-to-be, and the experience she gets there is very different than what she gets in the magazine. We might do an article on great hairstyles, but we'll [say], go to Brides.com to get even more great looks, more dress looks, interactive planning tools -- things that can't work in print. So it is really a very strong inter-relationship between how the two media work together.

Given Brides' status in the marketplace, do you find yourself having to say no thank you a lot to prospective partners? And what's the ratio of those who come to Brides and say, "We want to do something with you," and those to whom you and your team go out to, saying, "We have an idea …"?
I can't really speak to a specific ratio of yeas or nays. It's all about whether we feel that it's going to be something that's going to be on brand, that the alliance is right, that Brides the brand will be represented properly. If that's the case, we're pretty much open to anything. We have to make sure it doesn't cannibalize other businesses.

What would be your advice to those starting out in sales within magazines?
Persevere. For someone young starting out in the ad sales business, right now is really challenging. Those of us who have been successful in this business are competitive by nature and like to win. And the measures of winning and of success are a little bit different than they were a couple of years ago. The smallest win is the biggest right now. [My team and I are] celebrating those successes, and having both a short view and a long view -- you may not break a new piece of business every day. A couple of years ago, you could be raking in new business on a constant basis. Now, you look for measures of success in terms of long-term account building, as well. It takes a lot of inner strength to muddle through [in sales] right now. At the end of the day, it's still a really fun business.

What makes it so fun?
You work with creative people. You get to represent a product that is fun and brings joy to people. You are aligning marketers with consumers that can help grow their business. You get to get inside the strategy of so many different kinds of companies and understand their businesses, which is fascinating. If you love to learn, you can learn something every day when you're selling ad space, because if you're inquisitive -- which I think is a requirement for being a good salesperson -- you get to know so much about the inner workings of so many different companies and brands. And it's a social business, too, which is great.

To what do you attribute your own professional success?
Part of it is having incredible passion. For every magazine I've ever worked for, even if they weren't [my] personal reads, I developed a great passion and respect for the editorial product and truly believed that its readers had a strong relationship [to it], and that could make a difference for marketers. You have to have passion -- you have to believe, or else it shows. Aligning myself with really smart people -- I would attribute a lot of my success to that, just being a sponge, learning as much as I can [from them] every day.

Specifically, who really had an impact?
I worked very closely with Gina Sanders, who was an amazing mentor. Bill Wackerman, who I currently work with, is another terrific mentor. Larry Burstein is someone who I worked closely with twice in my career, another great person who I learned enormous amounts from.

[Bratten] has this lengthy tenure at Brides of 15 years as editor-in-chief. What was it like for you to come in just last year and work with someone who has such a longstanding relationship with this magazine?
While I was new to Brides -- and [Bratten's] certainly the expert on Brides -- I certainly have great knowledge of how Condé Nast works, having been here for so long, and working at Glamour, working at Teen Vogue, House and Garden. I had really an understanding and respect for those iconic brands and the role that the editor-in-chief plays. That gave me insight.

[Bratten's] the expert -- she knows this market better than anybody, and I respect that. I think she respects my abilities as a marketer to figure out how to best navigate this brand to the advertising community, while always staying true to who we are and being respectful of her role as the editor.

Many who work in magazines say editors are increasingly taking on some of the thinking and tasks that traditionally fell to publishers, particularly as times get tougher. Do you ever find that as a publisher you're called upon to put on more of an editor's hat?
Not necessarily, but I do think that sometimes a great editorial idea could come from someone from the business side and sometimes a great marketing idea can come from someone on the editorial side. But no, I'm not editing the magazine. Trust me.

What's the professional accomplishment of which you're proudest?
Being a part of the launch team of Teen Vogue. That was an unbelievable experience that is up there on the list of history-making accomplishments: What we did in the teen magazine category, taking over a 60-year category leader in three years of existence -- it was pretty awesome.

What about your biggest mistake on the job?
Recently I was leaving a message, and I had the phone on speaker, and then we [thought we had] hung up the phone and there were pieces of the conversation that were not meant to be recorded on voicemail. There were two of us in the room, and we were having minor coronaries when that happened.

So how'd you defuse the situation?
We got the voicemail erased.


Rebecca L. Fox is mediabistro.com's managing editor.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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