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Jan-June 2007 ABCs: a media buyer’s view

With the most recent ABCs being littered with unwelcome minus signs, some commentators have been quick to add magazines to the internet’s long list of media victims. Yet a number of titles posted very positive results and, says Lucy Brunning, it is up to publishers to analyse the reasons for those successes and apply the lessons to their own brands.

By Lucy Brunning

We live in changing times and one of the biggest changes for magazines in recent years has been the emergence of the internet; a whole new world for people to enter into and embrace their interests, glean knowledge and get advice, formerly the exclusive domain of magazines.

Many have credited the net with being the downfall of magazines, and wholly responsible for the decline in circulation of several magazines in the latest ABC audit. I for one do not agree. Certainly the presence of the web has meant that magazines have to work harder to build a relationship with readers and justify their cover price week after week or month after month, but if this is the whole story we would not have seen the increases that we saw across various markets. So, are there lessons to be learnt from what exactly went on this time around? If we take a look at the success stories, there must be more to the numbers than a fickle audience lead astray by the lure of the internet.

In the Women’s Weekly market, it was Hello! magazine that stood out in the Celebrity sector; no doubt the nation’s voyeuristic streak was fulfilled, albeit briefly, by the glimpse we got into TomKat’s nuptials courtesy of the magazine. Trumped by its rival, the weddings of various WAGS did not prove as beneficial for OK! this time around. Perhaps the titles’ presence in the US will help them going forward, now their stalwart Posh has landed stateside?

For once, not all the plaudits were for the showbiz biased titles, and it has been fashion based titles that have stolen the show. The only other spectacular results amongst the weeklies came courtesy of the freshest titles out there. Grazia, one year down the line, posted a dramatic annual increase on its launch ABC from last August. Whilst the newest kid on the newsstand, Look, posted a fantastic debut figure.

Without the success of these three titles, the weekly marketplace would have been open to criticism and rightly so. Both Grazia and Look have provided a much needed refresher to the newsstand, which was in danger of being stuck between the rock and the hard place that was real life and celebrity. This new direction is symptomatic of what is so exciting about the world of magazines, a demonstration of how publishers can tap into the zeitgeist of the nation and how an interest can become a weekly addiction. Both titles haven’t been afraid to hone in on quite a specific editorial proposition and stick to it, be it designer or high street fashion. They have brandished their content and stuck with a focused product. In the past, I have cited a need for titles to understand that people want to know exactly what their magazines are delivering and yet again this concept appears to be paying dividends. It will be interesting to see what Grazia’s stablemates at Emap, First and More, will deliver in six months’ time. Both are being re-launched. The former into a more news focused product for thirty something women and the latter being reinvigorated as a weekly rather than a fortnightly product at the younger end of the weekly marketplace.

Women’s Monthlies

Turning to the Women’s Monthly arena, only three titles saw dramatic increases, including one of the youngest titles in terms of tenure on the shelves, Psychologies. The other two titles, Essentials and She, have been around a lot longer, but have both been refreshed of late.

Psychologies is never going to be the largest circulating title. However, with an increase in circulation of over 20% year on year, it is certainly doing something right and achieving growth in a market that had few other successes to shout about. Like its more established counterparts (that experienced increases) Psychologies was bolstered by investment. Hachette Filipacchi showed confidence in the editorial by investing in above the line activity. The campaign in the Daily Mail and thelondonpaper obviously did the job and they have been able to reap the rewards.

The tactic of ‘if it ain’t broke then don’t try to fix it’ appears to be the underlying trend across the monthlies, a somewhat short sighted and potentially dangerous tactic to employ. Just because a title is ticking along nicely thank you doesn’t mean that it doesn’t need constant TLC.

IPC and NatMags had to act to deal with Essentials and She, whose ABCs in recent periods appeared to predict terminal decline, but there appears to have been minimal investment in other titles in recent months, and this could well be why we saw very little movement across the board. Focusing on the product appears to have paid off for both practical titles, who have thought about what they can deliver to busy women who want advice and inspiration and expect to get it from their magazines.

NW, the new abbreviation for Emap’s New Woman, is going to have to act fast to recover from a loss of nearly half its sales in the last six months. They have announced a shake up and a new editor has come onboard, but there seems to be minimal plans at present to invest from a marketing perspective, which will surely be essential if they are to claw back readers once they feel the product is back on track. It is this type of knee jerk reaction to decline which is most concerning when there are so many other distractions out there luring our precious magazine readers. Surely something could and should have been done sooner to stem the flow for NW. Obviously, I appreciate that there is not a bottomless pit of money available to publishers to ensure that the product is perfected and the marketing machine well oiled month after month, but the money that is made available needs to be spent wisely. Is now finally the time for an amnesty on investment in cover mounts, for the benefit of the pages of the magazines themselves and the campaigns to motivate people to buy them?

Aside from cover mounts, the other trick that is becoming more and more predominant is the tactic employed to recruit subscriptions. Whilst they are a great way of demonstrating reader loyalty and a sturdy bedrock upon which to build newsstand sales, the value of subscriptions is in danger of being undermined by the offers that are being used to recruit.

When you can get a gift with purchase that is worth more than the cost of the issues themselves, the risk is that the loyal readers which magazines want to recruit will begin to wane. The aspirational women’s monthlies have been fairly consistent offenders, with the value of products seemingly increasing on a monthly basis. Be it beauty products, electrical or home ware, the temptation to invest in the goodies rather than the magazine itself is inviting trouble. These magazines need to be proud of their products and have the courage of their conviction to go it alone and not rely on fancy gimmicks.

Men’s Market

In the men’s market, the strength of consideration and investment follows a similar pattern.

GQ appears to be doing something right as it was amongst only three titles that posted an increase year on year. Readers know what they are getting when they purchase the magazine, and the strength of a brand that is proud to keep doing what it is doing well is clear to see. On the flipside, FHM, another huge brand, experienced a less fortuitous audit with a dramatic decline of over 25%. Along with its competitors Maxim and Loaded, which also posted huge decreases, the title has been seen as a victim of the internet, but Emap aren’t taking the hit lying down. They have brought in the big guns, in the shape of Anthony Noguera as editor-in-chief, to ensure that the down turn in their recent fortunes are dealt with swiftly and sharply. Whether Loaded and Maxim have similar ammunition or the inclination to use it remains to be seen.

So, what we have seen is that change can be a good thing, but not change for change’s sake. If the products are working, publishers need to be loud and proud and have the courage of their convictions to raise consumer awareness. More than ever before, we have to encourage readers to commit to magazines because they like what they are reading and want to read more, not because they need an umbrella in a downpour or a new range of shampoos. On the flipside, if things aren’t going well, then changes have to be made sooner, rather than later before it’s a case of too little, too late. In a world that is evolving so quickly, the immediacy of access to media means we have to keep an even closer eye on the long term implications of a short term strategy and be more ahead of the game than ever before.