The Life and Death of Lear’s
She shook up the magazine world.
In her editor’s letter of Issue No. 1, Lear wrote, “I arrived in New York with two suitcases of clothes, a few pieces of paper and the germ of an idea.”
The “germ of an idea” was to create a glossy, upmarket magazine exclusively for women aged 50 and over — Lear’s.
Among the “few pieces of paper” was a check for $47 million — the down payment of her settlement after 28 years of marriage to television producer Norman Lear. At that time, it was one of the most lucrative divorce awards in history.
With great fanfare, Lear summoned everyone who was anyone in the worlds of magazine circulation, advertising, printing and distribution for a series of meetings to pick their brains.
According to circulation consultant Paul Goldberg, Lear’s had a real shot at success.
For example, in 1981, Paul and I had Barbara V. Hertz as a client. She started Prime Time — a magazine for men and women ages 45 and over. Circulation got up to 150,000, but it died within a year after losing millions of dollars.
According to Goldberg, a service magazine for older men and older women could not work in terms of content, tone and advertising.
From Frances Lear’s 1996 Obituary
Almost immediately after the magazine's debut, Ms. Lear developed a reputation for being unpredictable and hot-tempered ... There ensued a revolving door of editors and writers, many of whom complained of Ms. Lear's inexperience and capricious decisions. Numerous articles were accepted and not published, and layouts were changed at the last minute ... a staff member recalled that when Ms. Lear had been told that she could not change a quotation, she had shouted, ''It is my magazine, and I will do what I want.''
The Dry Test
The logical way to start a monthly magazine is with a dry test — e.g., a mailing that offers the first issue free and 11 additional issues for a low, low introductory price.
With a dry test, the product does not yet exist — and never will exist if the dry test mailing bombs.
A 25,000-piece dry test mailing is a lot cheaper than a wet test: starting a company, hiring editors and designers, printing 50,000 copies of a new magazine and the figuring out how to sell them and get advertising.
Most start-up magazines have just enough money in the pot to finance a single dry test effort. Lear’s millions enabled her to sign up four top direct mail copywriters to create competing mailings.
(Check out an earlier column of mine, “The Art and Science of a Dry Test” for the nitty-gritty of this technique.)
The Lear’s four test mailings were all very different. Most entrepreneurs would be delighted. With diversity, one or two should be clear winners that would identify the Unique Selling Proposition (USP) and tell the incipient publisher in what direction she should head.
Instead, Lear announced none of the four efforts was precisely what she had in mind for her magazine. So this inexperienced control freak browbeat her marketing consultant to change the copy in all four mailings until they were all alike and she was comfortable.
The dry tests were mailed with virtually no difference in the results.
Nothing was learned.
Takeaways to Consider
- A dry test is a lot cheaper than a wet test.
- “The holy grail of direct marketing is the single variable test.” —Don Nicholas
- Multi-variable tests are doable. And cheaper. But don’t try them unless you know precisely what you’re doing.
- See page 52 of Bob Hacker’s brilliant Direct Marketing Doesn’t Have to Make Sense: IT JUST HAS TO MAKE MONEY for how to do “Power Testing.”
- The point of a test is not to tell the market anything.
- Rather, you are asking the market to tell you what to do.
- Lear’s magazine reached a circulation of 350,000.
- Lear summarily decided to change the business model of Lear’s so it would appeal to women age 35 and over.
- Whereupon she was in direct competition for readers and advertisers with every other woman’s service book — Ladies Home Journal, Redbook, etc.
- “In direct marketing there are two rules and two rules only. Rule No. 1: Test everything. Rule No. 2: See Rule No. 1.” —Malcolm Decker
- The magazine died in 1994, after an estimated loss of $30 million.
- Frances Lear assumed room temperature two years later. She was 73.
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