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Day 1

I am not understanding what CPM means. For the third time, my professor and my classmate try to explain it to me. They are patient people. Yet there is a vague hint of annoyance in their slow enunciation and in how their bodies lean in toward me.

I nod. Sure, I get it, I get it. It’s the Cost Per Thousand. But no, I have no idea what that means, why an “m” instead of a “t” stands for thousand, or why the bloody thing should matter to me.

I know it should. With supreme cleverness, I proposed to sell advertisements for the magazine you are holding and to write an article about the experience, recounting the adventures of an advertising dunce trying to sell ads. The New York Review of Magazines is written and produced by students at the Columbia Journalism School. It has never had to bother selling ads, being handsomely financed by student loans and parents’ tuition money. Pretending to be magazine editors while ignoring this industry’s financial constraints is like playing fantasy baseball with unlimited funds.

Of course, I don’t have the faintest idea of where to start.

“Okay, I get it,” I say. The professor shrugs.

Day 2

Our magazine has 72 pages. Given the verbosity of people who want to work in magazines—a demographic well-represented among NYRM writers—that is not a lot of space. In fact, most of the features will need to undergo various degrees of amputation to make it into the magazine. Quite understandably, nobody here is too eager to give up a few pages to make room for the ads I’ll sell.

Since the only, trifling point of this exercise is to mimic the benefits that ad revenue gives to most magazines, I decide that ads will have to earn and pay for the square inches they take up in the publication. For a reason that escapes me—something having to do with printing presses—we can’t add one page, or two pages, or four to make room for the fruits of my sales work. We can only add eight at a time. The production cost of doing that will be about $1,200, and that’s what I will shoot for.

Day 6

The ad team is excited. All three of us. We have picked up magazines with similarly targeted media audiences—Columbia Journalism Review, Advertising Age, Folio—to get a sense of who buys their ad space. Now, we sit around a table in the student center and jot down on a notepad the biggest names we can think of. We can sell ads to Google, Getty Images and the National Magazine Awards. And how could Condé Nast be so stingy as not to throw in a paltry thousand?

The New York Review of Magazines prints only 2,000 copies. A few hundred go to journalism students and professors at Columbia. Another hundred or so go to the sources for our stories and people at the publications written about in the issue. The rest go to magazine editors, with an emphasis on those with the fanciest titles—managing editors, executive editors, editors in chief, editorial directors. From Men’s Health to Time, from Glamour to Berkshire Living to The New Yorker, hundreds and hundreds of them. Who wouldn’t want a chance to reach such a well-targeted, influential crowd at the down-market prices we will charge them. Hell, maybe I’ll buy some.

We have a list of 20 or 30 companies. They don’t know it yet, but they are all ready to shell out $1,200.

Day 11

A magazine’s media kit is a strange creature. It lurks in desk drawers of publications’ promotion departments, but it is full of unique and fascinating information about the readers: their quantity, average household income, age breakdown, voting and reading habits, even plans to buy home décor in the next three months. Major publications audit this data, which means that an independent firm certifies its accuracy to convince potential advertisers that they are making decisions based on truthful information.

Clearly, we have nothing of the kind for NYRM. No age data, no income data, no audit to back up the few claims I will be bold enough to make. Regardless, I need to speak their language to sell them stuff, so I’ll have to create a media kit.

As an underemployed journalist, I’ve had to learn a few self-promotion tricks—setting up a web page with all of my clips, getting business cards, writing up nice pitches to sell my article ideas to editors. But concocting reasons for advertisers to shell out hard cash for space on paper is not something that comes naturally to me.

I never believed in advertising, anyway. The first time I learned that ads contribute to print publications’ budgets much more than copies sold, I was shocked. The accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers studied and broke down [.pdf] the 2004 revenues of 86 consumer magazines: 55 percent of revenue came from advertising, 32 percent from subscription sales and only 13 percent from single-copy sales.

How do advertisers know their money is well spent? How can you possibly measure the effect of an expensive ad on how well your product sells? Yet as revenue from subscription and newsstand sales decline, the industry into whose hands I have thrust my future financial well-being is leaning more and more on advertising to support itself. My future salary, however small, will probably be paid for by advertising money.

So I slap the little information I have about our readership into a Word document. All in all, I spend three times as much time fidgeting with images, graphics and margins than I do writing the document. I price a quarter-page at $70, a half-page at $120 and a full page at $200. The sharpest among you will notice that I am trying to give buyers incentives to purchase more space, making a full page cheaper than its two halves. That’s my sophisticated ad-sales strategy. The back cover—prime real estate in any magazine—is going for $300.

Day 24

I think I remember the days when companies’ websites served as little more than repositories for employees’ contact info. Now, rare are phone numbers that don’t direct you into mazes of automated responses, and personal e-mail addresses are nowhere to be found. Thankfully, my e-mail-guessing skills are top-notch. I shoot out media-kitted queries hyping the new business I am bringing them and the news that we are selling ads “for the first time in the magazine’s history.”

Day 26

“If you sell one ad, my hat’s off to you,” says the professor.

Day 29

Much to my dismay, Getty Images is not scurrying to reach our “highly targeted audience.” In fact, the company doesn’t seem particularly interested in transferring my call to anybody. Neither are ad agencies, or the Poynter Institute, which I had hoped would—in a gush of journalistic solidarity—purchase an ad for some of its courses. It’s hard to blame Poynter. It’s a research-and-teaching institute for journalists whose website is visited by many more editors and journalists than we can offer.

The only person to actually acknowledge my existence is a kind lady from the New York City Office of Recycling Outreach and Education. After talking to four different receptionists working for the city, I finally get transferred to her. I say that I have seen the ads for ReMix, a campaign encouraging people to recycle their magazines. And how convenient that one of our feature pieces will deal with magazine recycling. But even there, all I extract from her is a lousy “We will get back to you.”

Day 33

“I am not here to buy food today” must be the single worst thing you can tell a restaurateur as you walk up to the counter. The welcome smile turns into a questioning gaze, asking you implicitly, “Then why are you here?”

Soon after realizing that our prime list of advertisers consists of people really good at ignoring me, I decided to take the less glamorous approach: going door to door. Today, I’m at the falafel place across the street from Columbia. As I recite my spiel on how great a tool the NYRM is for targeting my brethren—ravenous Columbia students—I hand the young man behind the counter a copy of the magazine and the media kit, wondering why he would need to advertise the Middle Eastern platter with pita to editors at The Harvard Business Review.

But I am in sales now, and you never doubt your product. “We have great rates,” I hear myself saying. “Only $70 for a quarter-page.” The man behind the counter nods, flipping briskly through the pages of last year’s magazine, grateful that I’ve given him something other than my awkward self to look at. Throughout my pitch, he does not utter one polysyllabic word.

Then, as I leave my phone number on the media kit, encouraging him to let me know as soon as possible whether he’s interested in buying an ad, his face brightens, and his mouth opens, to maybe finally say the few simple words telling me that yes, kid, we will buy one of your ads. What he actually says is, “Seven, Oh, Three! You’re from Virginia!”

They will get back to me, too.

Day 34

There comes a time when it’s best to give up. That time is when the people who have to graphically lay out the magazine need to know what you got, which, in this case, amounts to nothing. I am facing defeat, and I want to know why. I call up Wayne Eadie, senior vice president of research at the Magazine Publishers of America, and ask him how often companies purchase space directly from magazines. “Very, very rarely does that happen,” he tells me. “Almost all the customers that magazines work with are actually ad agencies on behalf of their clients.”

That explains a lot. Apparently, marketing teams at magazines talk to ad agencies, who talk to companies interested in purchasing ads: Even though it pays the salaries, advertising is removed and distant from a magazine writer’s concerns. Which might have something to do with why I haven’t come close to selling one ad. Still, I feel fine. As you say in these cases, “I have learned a lot.”


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