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An agency wish list

When it comes to circulation reporting, traditionally agencies have wanted as much information as possible and newspapers have wanted to reveal ... ahem, slightly less. And, there has been a degree of suspicion on both sides as to the other’s motives. Here, MediaCom’s Lucy Brunning suggests that greater transparency would actually be in publishers’ interests.

By Lucy Brunning

Once a month, we press buyers get an insight into the state of the newspaper market, and in recent years, many have bemoaned the fact that all too often the year on year circulation figures tend to be preceded by a minus symbol. Yes, the numbers have decreased over the years, but this is only to be expected given the fragmentation of the media landscape that now incorporates so many new channels and formats. However, I am not alone in believing that the market is still in rude health, if we consider that every day over twelve million national newspapers are sold in the UK.

Newspapers give advertisers the chance to reach huge numbers of people on a daily basis and, like any other channel, the value we attribute to the medium is based on access to our target audience. Whilst we know that we are reaching the masses day to day, we are only able to access the data on exactly how massive these masses are on a monthly basis.


The two currencies we rely on, the ABC for circulation and NRS for readership, present us with solid data which provides agencies and publishers alike with a common ground upon which to base their arguments. It is essential that both parties are equal contributors to any debate regarding the data which is made available. Both bodies make this possible, regularly consulting with the industry to understand the needs and wants of both sides. That’s not to say that agencies are completely satisfied. Not everything we want to know is delivered on the ABC certificate month after month, neither is all the data we would like to see reported included in the readership surveys that take place. Likewise, I’m sure that newspaper publishers have issues with procedures and process that they feel have not been addressed, but with all these things it is a tricky balancing act which the ABC and NRS find themselves managing.

Day to day reporting

The fundamental issue is one of transparency. In an ideal word, we would know exactly who is buying and reading each and every newspaper, so we could use this data to target exactly who we wanted. But we will hopefully never live in a world where media choice is so predictable that we can pre-empt everyone’s choices - where’s the fun in that! Nor do we exist in a technology fuelled bubble that tracks the minute detail of purchase and consumption. However, we do have a very accountable system, strengthened with the rigours of auditing, which enables the circulation departments of newspaper publishers to have a pretty accurate idea of how many copies are distributed via numerous different channels day by day. This therefore begs the question, why can’t we have access to this data?

The TV audience data model gives us an idea of who was watching what, on a day to day basis. Everyone is party to the same data and yet the TV sales model does not grind to a halt on the basis that each channel knows what the other is delivering. Indeed some might say that this is what drives competition and enhances quality in the market.

The need to keep one’s cards close to one’s chest is cited by many publishers as a primary objection to more frequent publication of ABC data. Another is the fact that agency requirements will immediately shift to take advantage of days with a higher circulation at the expense of the days with fewer readers to boast. This simply wouldn’t happen. The basic premise of supply and demand would regulate the model. When true value can be placed on varying days, we as buyers would feel more confident in the assumptions commonly held and would be able to manage our planning accordingly. Not everyone wants to target the consumer on a Friday or Saturday, days traditionally cluttered by retail. The opportunity to pay the right price for the right reader, in the right mindset, could in fact increase commercial opportunities for publishers, rather than compromise them.

Regional variations

Not only is it a question of how regularly we receive the data, what is also essential is just how robust the information is. Currently we are presented with numbers that relate to how many copies are circulated within the UK, ROI and Overseas as three distinct regions. This breakdown enables us to appreciate the general trends across the nation. What we are unable to ascertain, unless we dig further into either NRS readership data, or print run figures defined by the titles themselves is exactly where across the country sales come from.

Whilst we certainly don’t just want data for data’s sake, this issue becomes more pertinent when we consider that a newspaper’s marketing activity may vary from one region to another. Television, outdoor and radio amongst numerous other mediums are employed by all the national newspaper publishers to drive circulation. All of these channels offer the publishers the opportunity to target regionally and, as such, we often see campaigns isolated to specific areas - a different cover price promotion in one area or a specific marketing push in another.

When we explore the headline numbers we get every month on the ABC certificate, we do not get to appreciate these variances, seeing only the trend for the collective regions as a whole. If we can see for ourselves the positive or negative impact of promotions, we can understand the peaks and troughs in circulations. Appreciating the dynamics of our marketplaces is crucial for winning the confidence of clients and working with publishers to present a united case for the deployment of press.

Overseas sales

The clarity of the data is also called into question by some when it comes to the details regarding copies sold overseas. Simple geography leads to concerns about just how well regulated the supply and demand of copies sold further afield really can be. The ABC obviously have strict audits in place, but perhaps if the results of such audits could be presented in a more detailed way, this greyer of areas would become less subject for query. The fact remains that for many UK advertisers, these copy sales are redundant, and as such are discounted outright, but with better detail we as media buyers could make that distinction for ourselves.


Advertising and price promotions are not the only ways to market the brands; sampling also has a hugely important role to play. The part of the certificate that relates to this is the ‘analysis of multiple copy sales’, or ‘bulks’ as they are commonly referred to. Obviously sampling is not the only advantage of the bulks. By having what can be very significant numbers of copies included in ones’ figures, the more cynical amongst us could suggest that they also offer titles the opportunity to inflate figures on an ad hoc basis.

The breakdowns we currently receive enable us to understand where people are paying full price or discounted prices, be that on the newsstand or via subscriptions. Bulks make up the final part of the jigsaw, detailing where copies are distributed via third parties, be it airlines, hotels or gyms for example. There are nine distinct categories into which bulks can fall. More clarity on what these multiple sales entail, more specifically information on where they are distributed would be very telling. That doesn’t mean to say that none of these copies are of value, but the fact remains that bulks are the greyest part of the schedule, and as such are all too often dismissed by buyers when examining a title’s performance in the market.

By discounting multiple copy sales, buyers can be dismissing a potentially captive audience. However, some would say the only option is to discount these readers unless we have greater clarity on exactly who they are.

There may be a worry that releasing this information could have a negative effect, as the relative value of the different channels of distribution can only be measured on a subjective basis. However in many instances, these bulks could have a very positive impact on readers’ perceptions of the titles; the association of a brand with a particular airline or hotel chain could prove beneficial to a discerning audience. At the present time, the only way we can fully understand where these copies are going is by making individual enquiries of the titles themselves.

A recent analysis of the market saw that some titles have very minimal numbers of bulks throughout the year and steadily maintain these levels month on month. The assumption must be that they use other methods to recruit readers and attempt to maintain or increase circulations, but that can only be an assumption based on analysis of the certificate alone. Meanwhile, other titles can be seen to actively employ bulks on a regular basis to increase their total circulation figures. Yes, whilst the headline information is in the public arena, to a less discriminating eye, it becomes easy to just take numbers on face value and not dig as deeply as one should. As such, it’s imperative that these numbers are as transparent as possible to ensure that negative perceptions are rebutted and we can feel confident about what is available to us.

I appreciate that this may be a very idealistic view, and one which is certainly not held by all print buyers. However, in an increasingly accountable age where detail can really make a difference, I believe it is crucial to be as transparent as possible to encourage investment into a marketplace that offers so much to advertisers. A wish list such as this is potentially more than we can ever demand of the audit, however it’s important to challenge the industry to ensure that we as press buyers can feel fully confident in data we deal with everyday.