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Jan-June 2012 ABCs: a media buyer’s view

With a few notable exceptions, the recent ABC results made pretty gloomy reading. Yet, writes Jamie Higginson, there are reasons to be cheerful.

By Jamie Higginson

If there is one theme that has defined the public mood over the last 18 months, it is the resurgence of a sense of ‘Britishness’. Our appetites were whetted last year with the Royal Wedding, where Union Jack flags and face-masks of the happy couple seemed to become essential household items. Not to be outdone, this year’s Jubilee Celebrations saw the Queen take centre stage in inspiring the nation to be proud bearers of British flags …… napkins, plastic cups, party hats, face paints and anything else emblazoned with our national colours.

If the public’s appetite for all things British was already on a high, then it went positively stratospheric with the arrival of our first home Olympics for 64 years. We all became collective members of Team GB, suddenly becoming fans of shooting and judo while embracing the ‘Mobot’. The pinnacle of this patriotic festivity was surely Danny Boyle’s fantastic opening ceremony – a journey through everything that makes us British. So, did this patriotic positivity spread to magazine sales and were magazine brands able to leverage this passion to drive copy sales?

The answer, at first glance, is ‘no’. There is no value in ignoring the facts or convincing ourselves they are not true. As Winston Churchill put it, “the British nation is unique in this respect. They are the only people who like to be told how bad things are, who like to be told the worst.”

Well, here it is: magazine circulations are in significant decline and the vast majority of magazine brands are losing large numbers of readers from their printed editions.

Women’s magazines

The women’s monthly sector suffered an overall circulation drop of -4.4%. This included every publication posting a year-on-year decrease with the exception of Easy Living, the decline coming from both the 30+ publications (-5.0%) and the younger monthlies (-3.7%). It is important to note though, these magazines still sell in total over 3 million copies per month. Slightly more resilient, the monthlies on the luxury side experienced a more respectable -1.3% decline year-on-year, perhaps showing that some are feeling the economic downturn more than others.

Within the weekly arena, women’s magazines also struggled. The traditional weeklies decreased by -6.2% YoY, losing copy sales at both the classic (-4.6%) and real life (-7.4%) ends of the market. In this sector, no titles posted year-on-year increases; Love It and Pick Me Up led the fall with declines of nearly -19%. This market saw heavy multi-packing yet, with these results, this form of trial does not appear to be a very successful route for publishers. The remaining weeklies, including the celebrity titles and fashion weeklies (Look and Grazia), were arguably the worst hit with an overall decrease of -16.5% YoY. This sector saw 10 from 12 publications experience a double digit decrease and More magazine fall off a large British hill, with a -36.2% drop. Have vacuous British celebs finally lost their appeal?

The economic problems and associated decline in the housing market across Britain has led to a poor performance across the home interest market. Here, the vast majority of titles experienced significant circulation declines, led by House Beautiful with a -11.1% decline. In a sector that has stood up comparably well in recent ABC releases, this period has seen disappointing declines despite extensive use of cover-mounting, discounted subscriptions and multi-packing.

Motoring and Sport

Motoring is another sector which stalled. You would have hoped to see a better performance, given that recent SMMT figures show a fourth successive monthly increase in new car registrations in Britain. Unfortunately, here too, the overall sector is in significant decline, down -9.2%. Despite a television brand as strong as ever (if not arguably a little over played), market leader Top Gear magazine saw a second double digit year-on-year decrease in a row as its circulation edges closer towards the 100,000 mark.

Even the sport sector could only maintain a flat circulation result (-0.2%) despite an exciting 6 months in this arena across Britain. With one of the closest football seasons yet in the premier league, a thrilling Six Nations, England’s continued domination in cricket and an important, if rather lucky, Champions League victory for a British side (sorry – I’m an Arsenal fan), you would have hoped that magazines in this area could have attracted readers. Alas, with the inevitability of an England football team’s tournament exit on penalties, readers have stayed away. Surely the positive public buzz following the Olympics will be reflected in the next ABC results in this sector?

Most sectors down

The year-on-year negative circulation trend continues across the vast majority of sectors and titles: despite a British population now comprising 43% of adults aged over 50 who hold a collective pot of £175 billion, the older ‘grey’ market has seen readers dwindle by -4.5%. In the men’s magazine market, a similar downward trend emerges (-3.8%), even with the inclusion of free distribution publications such as ShortList. Strong traditional print brands such as FHM, Nuts and Zoo all saw double digit decreases year-on-year. TV listings saw a drop in copy sales of -5.4% as consumers watch their favourite shows via PVRs or VOD limiting the relevance of this sector. The health sector received a poor diagnosis with a -4.9% decrease and the film market flopped with a -3.7% decrease.

If you take the circulations at face value, then magazine ABC performance in Britain was far from Great over this period.

Yet, we should pause. You see, when something seems jolly rotten (as these results do), then there is often something we will have forgotten or, as Eric Idle so succinctly put it at the Olympic opening ceremony, there are reasons to “look on the bright side of life”. If you examine the results deeper, there are positives.

Some success stories

Firstly, there are examples of clear successes within print circulations themselves. As political decision-making has an increasingly direct impact on consumers’ lives, the news and current affairs sector has shown growth of +4.4% YoY. This has been driven in particular by strong results from both Private Eye (+9.7%) and the Week (+2.5%). Likewise with the global financial situation, finance and business magazines have maintained their circulations as the public seem to be engaging with more serious editorial content.

The music sector too has seen growth, up +7.2% year-on-year. 2012 saw digital music sales overtake physical versions for the first time, so for consumers to be utilising print content in this area is particularly encouraging. This growth has largely come from free distribution publications such as Propaganda and the Fly but even heritage music publications have seen uplifts, such as Mojo (+1.2%).

In the context of a weak economy, the lower end of the home interest sector, focused on practical renovations, has been able to steal share from mid-market magazines. Style At Home and Good Homes with +52% and +9.4% YoY increases, have taken readers from titles such as House Beautiful (-11.1% YoY). Also within the stalling motoring sector there were a few notable successes, namely Car (+3.6%), Classic & Sports Car (+1.7%) and Octane (+6.3%). Like Four Four Two (+19.3%) and GQ (+4.0%), these publications found a way to attract male readers.

Across the markets that experienced sales losses, there were certain tactics used to drive circulation success: Elle has used social media (using cover content seeded on Twitter / Facebook) to maintain its circulation despite a 10p cover price rise, so gaining the number 1 spot in its market. With new editor Deborah Joseph on board and an extended fashion section, Easy Living experienced an increase of +7.2% YoY; Slimming World used discounted copy sales to drive a +25.5% increase YoY; and Saga Magazine managed to find growth (+2.7%) through a broad balance of editorial - not alienating the over 65 audience while managing to bring in new 50+ readers.

Brand reach

The second positive within this ABC release is that print circulation can no longer be viewed in isolation to the multi-media brand reach delivered across the numerous touchpoints available to consumers. Britain has changed dramatically at different points in its history due to the development of technology. Likewise media consumption continues to evolve as technology has advanced and people’s needs have changed. This does not mean the end of traditional media nor the established brands already occupying this space, but more than ever, consumers will see brands not channel specific products.

To view the printed edition figure only is akin to viewing Team GB’s medal tally based only on track and field. Yes, Mo Farah’s double-gold was a vital part of the team’s success but equally important was the gold win in the Team Dressage and Peter Wilson’s gold in the Men’s Double Trap Shooting. In the media world of today, consumers engage with magazine brands in many different ways across varying formats all contributing to the ‘overall result’. In this context, media brands with magazine heritage are leading the way.

We are slowly making progress in recognising this new era with the inclusion of digital editions in the ABC certificate; here both Men’s Health and Cosmopolitan lead the way with figures of 12,142 and 13,928 respectively. We still need to go further though as this accounts for direct replicas of the print edition, but does not include tablet editions with increased content or functionality. These are a key way for magazine brands to engage with audiences and our reporting needs to catch up with this consumption. Across sectors, tablet app editions are growing: the Week is delivering over 31,000 additional weekly unique users through its tablet issue; the Good Food app reported 33,967 downloads across July; and the UK weekly reach of the Economist is increased by 66,148 unique active users from tablets and smartphones. We need to view magazines brands in this new context.

Overall then, at first glance, the latest ABC results suggest a magazine industry currently struggling and with limited circulation successes, however to consider media brands on this single vertical metric is to take a narrow view. If consumers view media brands beyond a specific platform, then all of us within the industry need to adapt our approach too. Although this change in perspective is already happening at a varying pace, any delay will limit the future of an industry we all strongly believe in. It will be those publishers, agencies and advertisers who adapt quickest that will reap the benefit.

On closer inspection then, it really is a period to view magazines brands with our trademark British optimism. Yes, there are undeniable challenges for magazine brands, not least the tough economic climate putting pressure on the budget of an increasingly dynamic consumer. Yet as we move towards a truly multi-platform media world, the numerous credible magazine brands that consumers know (and love) are in an advantageous position to not only maintain but grow their audiences.

To put it another, slightly more appropriate way given the theme of this article, in the context of many negative pieces about the latest magazine ABCs: “when you’re feeling in the dumps, don’t be silly chumps, just purse your lips and whistle, that’s the thing … aaaannnnd always …”