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Jan-June 2009 ABCs: a media buyer’s view

I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but there’s a recession on. And recessions have a nasty habit of depressing sales. Recessions are like that. Throw in the ongoing media upheaval, and you have the recipe for, ... well ... err, a satisfactory set of figures! MediaCom’s Richard Isaac looks at the trends underlying the recent ABC release.

By Richard Isaac

The media landscape is more dynamic than ever before. The effect of the internet is still rippling through the socio-demographic categories with increased usage amongst the 35 plus audience, and free content is everywhere. Indeed, the democratisation of content is here and its production is no longer confined to the traditional publishers, news channels, TV production houses and the like. Technology is far more accessible than it has ever been, and barriers to content creation and distribution are far lower. Now I am not for one minute suggesting that every housewife and teenager is busy at home producing their own blog, video mash-up or pumping club track. I do however believe that people in today’s society do not automatically revere and respect traditional media as they once did.

Consumers have become and will continue to be less tolerant to mediocre content, particularly when they have to spend their hard earned cash for it. Different media channels are evolving the roles they can play in people’s lives, the boundaries between the platforms are becoming blurred, and consumers are re-evaluating which media are entitled to a share of their free time. Add to that the worst recession in recent years, and the result is a challenging set of conditions against which publishers must attract readers to their brands. It is against this backdrop that the ABC results have been released, and as usual performance varies by sector as do the issues facing them.

Men’s sector

Starting with the men’s sector, which has been the source of the most turmoil in recent years. The health titles have doubtless benefited from increasing body consciousness amongst young men. They offer strong editorial propositions that are not well represented online, and have been successful in both growing their circulations and knocking the sector’s previous market leader from its perch. Conversely, the lads mags are where we have continued to see dramatic circulation decline. It wasn’t too long ago that FHM and Loaded captured the zeitgeist and gave lads the social currency and status they wanted, along with a healthy dose of female flesh. They told young men what to listen to, how to wear their Ben Shermans, and they lapped it up. If Oasis was the soundtrack to a certain generation, then FHM and Loaded were their bibles.

These magazines became dazzled by the circulation boosts brought by scantily clad cover-girls, and with too great a focus on that strand of content they lost their credibility and authority. The quality of the girls moved quickly from A list to D list, and their cup sizes followed.

The launch of the men’s weeklies saw salaciousness reach a new lowest common denominator, and the monthlies got it badly wrong when they decided to compete head-on with them in this area rather than reposition their brands. Now both men’s monthlies and weeklies alike, are being severely outgunned by the internet in offering lads broad-based entertainment, pub humour and X-rated girls.

Social networking now provides the glue to bring men together, and the magazines are no longer the voice of authority they once were. Guys will question why they should read about a band in a magazine whose opinion they don’t necessarily respect when they can go on what iTunes Genius recommends them, or just discover and listen to new bands (for free) on Last FM or Spotify. Why gaze at a static picture of Hollyoaks’ latest darling when they can see so much more on an assortment of websites that would make their mum blush? Men’s titles need to give up on trying to beat online in a race they can’t possibly win, rather try to rediscover the social relevance that they once had. Failure to do this will surely see the sector continue its downward spiral, as the teen sector did before it.

Real life

Social relevance is an important factor to consider across the magazine world, and can manifest itself in a variety of ways. The real life weeklies have clearly felt the brunt of the recession, with the sector’s target audience most vulnerable to its effects. Money worries are on the increase and housewives will cut back on life’s little treats, such as magazines. Readers have reduced their repertoire of titles purchased, with the weaker brands suffering. When times aren’t as tough, maybe readers are more comfortable being entertained with a voyeuristic take on those with lives more unfortunate than theirs. With anxieties over family finances and unemployment prevalent, readers need editorial advising them on how to deal with the pitfalls of life and delivering a more positive spin on circumstances. The traditional weeklies are stronger in this area and as such have been more resistant to circulation decline in comparison.

Weekly magazines can strive to increase their relevance against the backdrop of issues that today’s families are facing on a daily basis. The role of ‘People’s Champion’ represents a golden opportunity for magazines to exploit via both editorial and marketing initiatives, in much the same way that certain tabloid newspapers have managed. The Sun, for instance, introduced a Captain Crunch editorial page a year ago, and more recently has launched an employment initiative with links to key employers. Magazines of course play a different role to the national press, but to replicate the spirit of these ideas with the right tone and execution would surely endear the magazine to the reader. That Full House has run a heavy strand of credit crunch editorial since earlier in the year may well have contributed to its circulation success (it was the only title to register an increase), though there can be no question that its 50p cover price will have played a significant part.

Women’s magazines

It is well worth noting that women’s magazines have been relatively insulated from the effects of the internet. Unlike the men’s sector, the women’s monthlies’ editorial propositions have not been as well replicated online. Furthermore, the magazine format itself is far more suited to the women’s day to day lifestyles and needs. Our consumer insight has shown that after a busy day, women relish a breather in an armchair with their feet up, a cup of tea or glass of wine in hand, and a favourite magazine to relax with. Logging on and searching for content just doesn’t provide the same experience. Equally, digital cannot match the tactile and indulgent environment that glossy magazines offer. Up to now, the fashion editor has remained king (or should that be queen?), though the success of quality blogs such as the Sartorialist suggest that magazines would be advised to protect and nurture their expertise with care. Women’s monthlies have clearly been successful in maintaining a well differentiated role in women’s lives, independent of the web. They offer a level of escapism that you just don’t get from time online. Only time will tell how such indulgence will be viewed in the current economic climate. Will austerity be the new bling?

Missing out on digital?

Whilst the sector may not have been particularly threatened by digital, it is questionable how well it has taken advantage of the opportunity the platform offers. Online shopping has been on the rise for some time, and the success of retailers such as Asos and Net a Porter prove that fashion conscious women are a major contributor to that. Some women’s magazine websites seem to try and cover too many bases, such as blogging, social networking, and simply replicating their magazine’s print offering. The growth of online shopping represents an opportunity for trusted magazine brands to act as a guide through, or aggregator of, the myriad of shopping websites out there. This could be both complimentary to and integrated with the magazine reading experience, rather than simply cannibalising it, and could open the door to additional revenue streams. The magazines making advances in this area remain the exception rather than the rule.

In an increasingly fragmented media landscape, the latest ABC results demonstrate that magazines are more than holding their own, with more than a billion magazines sold in the UK last year. Other media may have followed (or been distracted by) the opportunities that ever-improving technology provides. The magazine industry has certainly tipped its hat to new media, but wisely has kept its focus solidly on content and editorial innovation. The result has been the development and emergence of new sectors and sub-sectors, and magazines continue to be a mirror to the nation.

I believe that technology has yet to offer the same level of opportunity to magazines as it has the other media. Although magazine brands gain advantage from some of the inherent attributes of print, they are also handicapped by the limitations of the medium and its distribution. The ereader, Kindle, and the development of epaper hint at the possibilities ahead over the coming years, particularly in combination with increasing mobile download capability. There will come a point when the technology has improved sufficiently to allow the industry to free itself from the shackles of the medium, and we will see a new age of creativity and engagement for magazines and their brands. The question is; who is going to be willing to not just embrace that change, but lead it?