Media Headliner: How to pull off selling luxury in the credit crunch

Harper's Bazaar has survived two world wars and it will overcome this latest hurdle, Tess Macleod-Smith tells Anne Cassidy.

It was over coffee at Claridge's that Tess Macleod-Smith and Lucy Yeomans first plotted how they would bump off the Queen. To clarify, the pair in question weren't members of an uncommonly glamorous anti-monarchist group, but the publishing director and the editor of The National Magazine Company's once rather fusty Harpers & Queen.

The aim was to wrench the magazine away from the twin-set-and-pearls-clad county set, inherited from Harper's Bazaar's merger with the society magazine Queen in 1970, and catapult it into a cosmopolitan, fashion-focused and more meritocratic world.

Thanks to Macleod-Smith, Queen is long dead, and two years since its relaunch, Harper's Bazaar is looking healthy, recording its 11th consecutive ABC rise this year, up 3.1 per cent to 109,146.

Macleod-Smith, the publishing director of NatMags' luxury group, is sitting in her elegant white office sipping green tea (she spurns coffee these days), looking every inch the fashion-forward luxury market guru that she is. She is recovering from a lavish Bond-themed party thrown the night before by the other title in her luxury stable, Esquire. No evidence of the global financial meltdown here then.

"There is so much depressing news about the credit crunch, it felt like people had dressed up and gone out to party. I think it will be the same for our type of magazines next year as well. It felt like a bit of escapism," she says.

While Macleod-Smith accepts that 2009 presents "challenges", she maintains that the luxury sector is fairly recession-proof. And it's all down to choosing the right handbag, apparently. "In a crisis, people tend to trade up or trade down, which is why there are so many Primark bags around. Certainly, our readers become more intelligent shoppers. It becomes more about investment in purchases. Instead of buying lots of bags, they buy one very good quality bag," she says.

Harper's Bazaar and Esquire also have armoury that helps protect them from the vagaries of the economy: brand heritage. Bazaar launched in the US in 1867 and in the UK in 1929. It withstood the Great Depression and two world wars. In this context, Macleod-Smith laughs and says of the current climate: "I think we can cope."

Duncan Edwards, the chief executive of NatMags, credits Macleod-Smith's strong partnerships with Yeomans and the Esquire editor, Jeremy Langmead, as pivotal to the titles' success. That, and the fact that there are few operators like her in her sector. "She is one of the best sales people in the luxury market, if not the best," he says.

Claudine Collins, the MediaCom press director, also praises Macleod-Smith's credentials: "She has great contacts; she's really professional and very approachable."

The typical Harper's Bazaar reader has changed a lot since Macleod-Smith's arrival at NatMags seven years ago. For one thing, she's younger: the average age was late forties, but now it's late thirties/early forties, primarily because of the magazine's new fashion focus. Typically, readers are well-travelled working women and are at the "married with kids" life stage.

Macleod-Smith asserts that the magazine has long cast off comparisons with Tatler as it squares up to the Conde Nast title's big sister, Vogue. A one-time associate publisher at Vogue, she's keen to point out Bazaar's distinctiveness: "The big difference between us is that the Harper's Bazaar woman has always been the type who can afford to buy off the page because she's older, she's got her own income."

NatMags, Macleod-Smith feels, has a more entrepreneurial spirit than Conde Nast, so it is a perfect environment for someone who is fond of a challenge (she ditched her plum publishing job at Conde Nast to slum it with "three people in a room in Clerkenwell" in setting up in 2000). She was missing the magazine world, though, and when NatMags came calling, she got the chance to realise some long-held ambitions.

"When I joined here, Duncan said to me: 'How are you going to step-change Harpers & Queen?' I mean, my God, you just wouldn't be asked to do that at Conde Nast."

Macleod-Smith brought with her a big focus on the advertiser. Her approach has seen Bazaar's circulation rise 24 per cent in six years, subscriptions up 72 per cent in four years, ad revenue doubling, and new advertisers such as Topshop and Gaultier and sponsors such as Aquascutum and Swarovski come on board. Esquire, too, has had some success since its relaunch last year, with an 8.6 per cent rise in readers to 58,136, subscriptions up 78 per cent and ad pages up 2.8 per cent last year at a very tough time for the men's market.

"We've definitely seen the death of the lads' market," she says. "Our readers don't want women on the cover, they want men and they want great writers."

Looking forward, Macleod-Smith would like to see NatMags' Luxury Publishing Group make a greater impact. "I'd love to add a magazine to our portfolio and strengthen our position against Conde Nast," she says.

There will also be more focus on bumping up subscriptions for both Esquire and Bazaar, building on Bazaar's website and developing an online strategy for Esquire.

Importantly, Macleod-Smith will be making sure that her titles, both online and in print, stay fiercely close to the right brands. This is because she believes luxury boils down to just one thing. "It's about the company you keep," she says.

Age: 43
Lives: A house in London and in France
Family: Married
Most treasured possession: A 200-year-old farmhouse in Provence that we
renovated ourselves
Favourite gadget: BlackBerry for work, Apple MacBook at home
Interests outside work: Ashtanga yoga, studying French, photography,
walking, contemporary art, spending time with good friends
Alternative career: Arts sponsorship or running my own business in
fashion or media

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