Cyrus Curtis was the founder of the modern magazine, making great contributions to advertising as he shaped the world of publishing.
In 1872 and 1879 respectively, he started the People’s Ledger and the Tribune & Farmer. While neither enjoyed large-scale success, the popularity of the women’s features within these magazines led him publish one of America’s first women’s publications, the Ladies Home Journal. Curtis soon realized that while the contents of a magazine were important, high quality could only be provided at a low-cost with a strong base of advertising revenue. Recognition of this relationship served as the cornerstone of his success. By investing over half a million dollars in advertising over a five-year period, Curtis was able increase the circulation of the Ladies Home Journal to over one million by 1900.
In 1897 Curtis purchased The Saturday Evening Post, then a 16-page, un-illustrated weekly with virtually no following or paid advertising. Applying the same principles that he used with the Ladies Home Journal, he invested $1,250,000 in the magazine, hiring top writers and illustrators. By 1907 The Post’s advertising revenues topped one million dollars and in 1909 circulation also reached this benchmark. The Saturday Evening Post soon became America’s largest and most powerful magazine as well as one the best places to advertise products.
With power and influence in hand, Curtis led his publishing empire into battle, fighting for truth and reliability in advertising. He personally oversaw all advertising in his publications. Stating, "It is our purpose to protect both our advertisers and our readers from all copy that is fraudulent or deceptive," he issued The Curtis Advertising Code. In addition to prohibiting medical, alcoholic liquors and cigarette copy; speculative real-estate advertising and advertising of an immoral or suggestive nature, he also sought to censor ads aimed at children and those that made false claims about "free" products. Most importantly, however, Curtis laid down three rules that defined his belief in the need for honesty in business. In his Advertising Code, he prohibited any advertisements that intended to deceive his readers, were extravagantly worded or that fell under the category of "knocking" copy, meaning those ads which attacked the quality of a competitor’s product. Not only did Curtis’ Code allow him to gain the confidence of both his readers and advertisers, it set the standard for all advertisers, media and advertising agencies today.
The effects of his policies regarding advertising agencies helped to lead the industry down a more reputable path. Perhaps his greatest contribution was the push for the adoption of the commission system. Fierce competition among advertising agencies to sell the large amounts of space they purchased in magazines often led to questionable advertising. It also hurt the reputation of the industry as well as the financial position of magazine publishers. In 1901, Curtis Publishing Company signed a contract with an agency that paid a 10 percent commission on all space sold. It also required that the agency charge their clients the full rate. This prevented them from competing in terms of the amount they charged for space. Instead they began to rely on their ability to provide good copy, illustrative and marketing services. In 1936, Bruce Barton was quoted as saying that Curtis’ efforts "lifted the advertising agency out of the gutter of price cutting in which it had been struggling.... On that day the advertising agency became a business to which a man could give his life with full self-respect."