Monetization models: why SI Swimsuit nurtures its bikini-clad talent as much as its brand

The 2018 edition addressed #MeToo head on

With a readership of millions, Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit edition has no problem attracting advertisers. But for the rest of the year, editor-in-chief MJ Day has found the magazine’s brand value is dependent on her team elevating the women featured in it.

SI Swimsuit, which is published just once a year, is as much a part of US folklore as Levi’s or McDonald’s. When SI editor Andre Laguerre realized he didn’t have any sport to write about in the winter of 1964 he devised a supplement filled with beautiful women to plug the gap for a predominantly heterosexual, male readership. He attached the models’ names to their bodies, and consequently has been hailed as one of the inventors of the term ‘supermodel’.

In 1997, this pull-out was granted a magazine of its own. MJ Day joined the publication in the same year, working her way up to editorship in 2014. The publication, she says, is “second only to the Super Bowl in terms of media impressions”. Combining the annual print sales with daily digital content, Day believes her publication ultimately reaches “billions of eyeballs”.

Consequently, the ad revenue it brings in is substantial: it had made a collective $1bn in sales by 2014.

Still, the platform has had to adapt like any publication in the digital age. The latest development in recent years has been Model Search, which Day dubs as an ongoing sub-franchise. It was developed as the media world cycled into an insistence on diversity; previously, modeling agencies would submit the talent on their books annually for casting, “and we were seeing a lot of the same types of women that weren't really representative of the diversity that we wanted to capture”.

Day's assistant suggested holding an open call, which has developed over the last couple years into a new digital and experiential platform for the brand. The editor recently held live castings – America’s Next Top Model style, but with less clothes – at Swim Week in Miami, Florida.

Now, Day has begun to consider monetizing this new platform. It has growth potential on two levels: firstly, it provides both SI Swimsuit and sponsors with content opportunities the 364 days of the year a magazine isn’t printed, and secondly, it bolsters the brand’s reputation as the oracle on new modeling talent. This, Day explains, is as important as getting a yearly magazine to print.

“Our hope is that advertisers will encounter these women and see what incredible spokespeople and brand ambassadors they can be,” she said. “So many of those women have logged job opportunities and are now working in a capacity as models that they never would have worked before because of the eyeballs the brand can bring them.

“I think this could be an incredible opportunity going forward because it's new and fresh and we're kind of learning as we go along. We are only as good as the people that represent our brand, so it's in our interest to get these women in front of as many people as we can. I want to keep making moguls.”

Alumni-turned-moguls include Tyra Banks, Chrissy Teigen, Kate Upton and Ashley Graham, who has landed deals with the likes of Lane Bryant, Adidas and VH1 while still appearing in the mag. By supporting them in their lives and careers Day has formed solid working relationships with these models, meaning they are more likely to return to future issues and hence sell more copies (Day has no problem declaring it is the women that fill the pages – and not the editorial content – that sells ad space).

Nurturing this database of top models also positions SI Swimsuit as bankable content marketing platform for brands to partner with. The brand supports ad and newsstand sales with partnerships throughout the year, previously inking deals with the likes of Mattel for Barbie and Air New Zealand.

“These are women that ... don't want to just show up for a photo shoot,” said Day. “They want to grow and succeed, and I truly believe that's why [advertisers] seek out this type of partnership with our brand because they know we support that. It opens up a realm of possibility of what we can do.”

SI Swimsuit has, so far, weathered the storm when it comes to feminist protest. Its models appear as semi-nude as they did the 80s, 90s and 00s (although the latter issues arguably pushed the concept of the bikini as a garment to its limit). But the 2018 issue chose to deal with the #MeToo issue head on with a shoot dubbed ‘In Her Own Words’. It featured models lying naked, covered in “positive” descriptors such as ‘mother’ and ‘creative’.

Placed somewhat incongruously between the usual double-page spreads of models tantalizingly covered in sand, the feature drew an amount of criticism (The New Yorker called it “spectacularly silly” and The Huffington Post accused it of “co-opting” the movement for profit).

Yet Day is positive these kinds of editorial decisions, coupled with her drive for diversity, mean readers and advertisers now not only respect the brand but appreciate it, too.

“Should it have happened earlier? Yes, 100%. But now everyone is running to embrace it and I'm so thrilled about that. The product lines it could lead to for women who feel like they can't find stuff in their size for instance ... it's allowing people to think in a different direction.”

It’s the 2019 issue that will prove whether advertisers and consumers approve of this direction, too.

Day was speaking to The Drum at Rauxa’s Head Heart Hustle event, which focused on female mentorship in the workplace. Day was a panelist alongside Heather Shemilt, partner at Goldman Sachs; Tara Comonte, chief financial officer of Shake Shack; Candy Harris chief marketing officer of Stance, Vanessa Dew, co-founder and chief sales officer at Health-Ade Kombucha and Julia Jensen, EVP publicity and communication at Warner Bros Consumer Products.

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