Mobile navigation


Jan-June 2014 ABCs: a media buyer’s view

With many consumer publishers investing heavily in social media and other touchpoints that don’t register on the ABC dial, what can an analysis of the latest ABCs really tell us about the state of the magazine sector and, asks Jamie Higginson, how relevant is the ABC as a reporting metric in today’s multi-channel world?

By Jamie Higginson

“There are no facts, only interpretations.” No, this is not the latest sound bite from Cannes but a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, a late 19th century German philosopher. Although Mr Nietzsche wasn’t a big player in publishing, his quote perfectly summarises the latest magazine circulation figures. Like the ABC equivalent of a Rorschach inkblot test, the latest data is being perceived in varying ways with observers choosing to see what they want from the latest release.


For some, the results show another nail in the print coffin, with significant decreases across the majority of sectors and some high-profile closures. These are the commentators prone to melodramatic headlines like ‘the end is nigh for mags’ and who invariably depict those working in print publishing as King Canute types, vainly trying to hold back the unstoppable tide of digital content (a misused analogy as the Viking leader set out to prove the tide would come in anyway).

The more optimistic will point to the successes, individual magazines bucking the trend by posting increases in circulation. They see this as proof that when publishers get it right, printed magazines are still a relevant medium for consumers. These print advocates are also always keen to highlight the heavy investment in magazines from leading, global advertisers; “they wouldn’t use magazines unless they worked”.

Meanwhile there are those with a more rounded view who see success in the development of overall brand reach, noting the number of magazines expanding across digital, tablet, social and events. These observers have a belief that content is king and everything is connected. In their world, surely the engagement with the consumer is most important, not the platform?

So who is right?

Well of these approaches, the third is the where the largest opportunity lies and certainly where advertisers, agencies and publishers are moving towards, albeit slowly. By focusing on each viewpoint though, we begin to understand all the factors at play.

Print… err… down

Firstly, yes, print circulations are falling. The majority of sectors follow the same pattern of print circulation decline, accompanied by increases in digital editions lessening the fall but not doing enough to put the brand in overall growth: Women’s Monthlies -1.5% print circ (-0.8% combined print & digital circ); Celebrity & Fashion Weeklies -9.2% (-8.6%); Traditional & Real Life Weeklies -5.6% (-5.5%); Men’s -2.4% (-1.1%); TV Weeklies -3.9% (-3.8%); Motoring -6.4% (-0.8%); News & Business -3.4% (-0.8%); Film -16.7% (-4.8%); Home & Gardening -1.4% (-0.3%); Parenting -5.6% (-5.3%); Gaming -16.1% (-13.6%); Sport -16.2% (-15.3%); and Music -44.4% (-43.4%).

For other sectors, particularly at each end of the age spectrum, the digital editions had no effect on the overall decrease: Grey -14.2% (-14.2%); and Kids Magazines -11.9% (-11.9%). While even in sectors with print growth such as Food & Travel +4.8% (+5.0%), nine out of the thirteen titles included still experienced a decline.

Despite these results, to sound the death knell is unhelpful sensationalism. A medium which consumers spend £2bn on every year and reaches over 86% of the population is hardly on its last legs. These views are more indicative of magazines’ historic success combined with the year-on-year comparison culture we are preoccupied with as an industry, rather than a genuinely neutral view of magazines’ health.

The death knell has rung for some, including the high profile closures of Nuts magazine in April, Bliss shortly following that and the more recent announcement that Company magazine will cease publishing in printed form beyond the October Issue. While there are closures though, there have also been launches giving new energy to the magazine market. Most recently, Forever Sports (from Sports Direct) following hot on the high-heels of Porter (Net-A-Porter) as an established successful retailer launching a traditional printed magazine, albeit with very different brands.

There are certainly some positive print circulation stories also. These come from a variety of sectors but they all have strong, relevant content at their heart: Style At Home +12.5%; Women’s Health +7.5%; FourFourTwo +5.2%; Prima +4.7%; Octane +3.8%; Vanity Fair +2.4; Woman’s Own +2.4%; Good Housekeeping +2.0%; TV Choice +1.6%; and Woman & Home +1.3%.

Even the most ardent magazine enthusiast, though, would concede the successes are limited. Supporters of magazines as a channel are better served promoting the unique attributes of print (such as credible environments, undistracted engagement and a uniquely deep relationship with consumers), rather than overly focusing on circulations. These attributes are why advertisers and agencies use magazines.

Multi-platform publishing

Publishers have evolved their products beyond printed form into multi-platform brands, accessed by consumers across many touchpoints. There is clear evidence of this in the latest combined ABC results, where digital editions have pushed the overall result from decline into growth: Fashion & Luxury Monthlies -3.3% (+1.0%); Health & Wellbeing -0.4% (+1.1%). This does not include app editions that are deemed to differ significantly from their print versions, not to mention the plethora of other magazine touchpoints, for example from the Fashion & Luxury sector, the 360,000 ElleUK Instagram followers or the 26,000 British Vogue YouTube subscribers. Similar brand expansion is happening across the market largely into social, video content and events yet not recognised by official reporting. King Canute, publishers are not.

Despite this magazine expansion onto many platforms, tablets have not been the explosion of success many expected or at least hoped they would be. Only around a third of the country regularly uses a tablet with the majority of usage on gaming and social media, hence the relatively small volumes of digital editions. The revenue opportunity for publishers has been further complicated by silo structures within the industry, development costs and perhaps most importantly, the slow progress of de-duplicated cross-media reporting. Magazines are suffering from a ‘publishing gap’, as print circulations decline while they wait for either tablets to reach a tipping point or multi-touchpoint reporting to catch up (and include ALL the content areas where they are engaging with consumers).

Is the ABC still relevant?

Here we reach an important question. If magazines are expanding across channels, agencies are changing approach to optimise multi-platform systems (not silo channels) and advertisers are putting multi-purpose content at the heart of everything they do (be that owned / earned / paid) – how relevant is a single-channel reporting metric such as ABC? I believe increasingly less so. Certainly our focus as agencies should not be on small print only circulation changes but on delivering the right messaging to consumers through the most relevant and engaging publishing brands (no matter what platform they are communicating with their audience on).

Publishers (working with reporting bodies and agencies) must force through a valid reporting metric covering the breadth of magazine brand reach, and quickly to boot. Newsbrands are forging ahead of their magazine counterparts in this area with tools such as Guardian News & Media’s ‘Audience Not Platforms’. Magazine brands must catch up as agencies are as cynical as ever and ‘publisher’s statement’ figures simply will not do the job, not when everyone has to be so accountable for their decisions.

What next then for publishers? In the midst of this ‘publishing gap’, what can be done in the short-term to drive revenue for magazine brands?

A new type of publishing

Firstly, publishers need to stop thinking from their historic print base and shift their mind-set to match the digital / mobile / social world. Houzz, a successful American digital product which has recently launched in the UK is a good example of this type of publishing. It is part home-interest magazine (browse and save inspirational home photos), part search engine (find the right tradesmen to deliver it) and part community or social forum (connect with other users). Another is The Debrief, Bauer’s ‘digital-first’ launch from the team behind Grazia which now has 496,830 monthly unique users. Importantly, publishers must explore new models even if they threaten existing magazine revenues.

While tablet adoption has been slower than expected, there is still a clear shift by consumers to mobile devices. Tablet penetration is likely to increase beyond 60% of the population by 2018; likewise smartphones are already used by over 75% and will continue to rise. Smartphones are disrupting typical magazine occasions throughout the day such as breakfast table, commute, sofa, bed and bathroom (mainly because magazines were the original ideal mobile product!). With this in mind, it is easy to see why mobile devices are the biggest threat to magazine usage (much more than desktop) and why it is critical that publishers adapt to this consumption.

Mobile optimised

The starter for ten is making sure the magazine websites are built responsively for mobile devices, which surprisingly many are still not. Beyond this, the biggest opportunities may well lie in mobile or social video. This feels like a natural progression as many magazine brands attract distinct audience groups, set-up costs have declined significantly (or, alternatively, this area is well served by 3rd parties) and video advertising will continue to see large consumption / advertising revenue growth in the next few years.

Video also feels less of a commercial risk than high-cost full e-commerce development, tempting though that is for publishers due to lucrative rewards. Interestingly, it would seem retailers and publishers are crossing into each other’s business areas (eg. Net-A-Porter launching Porter magazine, while Condé Nast has seen success with its online boutique marketplace Farfetch). The odds are stacked in the retailers’ favour though, as moving from merchandising to publishing has less risk attached than the reverse journey. With this in mind, video feels a better opportunity, particularly as outside of advertising or subscription profits, it is complementary to creative partnership revenue which is increasingly important to publishers.

And what do the ABCs tell us about what to expect from advertisers and agencies? Well we have already discussed the continued importance of content and creative solutions. Beyond that, the analogy we used was, the ABC is like the Rorschach inkblot experiment and much like this test, the actual analysis of the information presented is less important than what it says about our approach or mind-set. The advertisers (and agencies) that will gain the most from magazine brands moving forward are not those who focus on small changes in print circulation, but those who embrace the consumer view of magazines as engaging brands accessible across many platforms.

When viewed in this reality, it is those who are structured to optimise the magazine brand system (rather than the print silo), while recognising its role and connections to the wider communications system that will see the success in the coming years.