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July-Dec 2004 ABCs: a media buyer’s view

Of all the sets of eyes pawing over the recent concurrent release, perhaps the most critical and analytical were those belonging to the media buyers. Steve Goodman, director of press at MediaCom, looks at the underlying trends and sees a buoyant sector but also one crying out for greater transparency when it comes to circulation reporting.

By Steve Goodman

Thursday 17th February 2005 was a date eagerly awaited by media buyers and their clients alike. This was the day the ABC released the latest set of magazine circulation data spanning the July – December period.

Anyone who knows me would be very surprised if I didn’t make some mention of the need for this data to be more transparent, and in particular, broken out for each issue rather than being the average of a six month period. It does seem bizarre that publishers expect agencies to buy off averages, when circulations can fluctuate significantly from month to month. This is a debate that has been going on for many years, and the more publishers stick to their guns in not providing this information, the more agencies will believe they have something serious to hide. However, not all publishers are taking this view. Recently, the National Magazine Company has broken ranks, and published its own monthly figures on its web site. While these are not currently audited figures, they do give a very clear insight into how different genres of magazine might fluctuate seasonally, or with various promotions and incentives that may be running with any one particular issue. While publishers are concerned that agencies may use this data to achieve better rates on poorly circulating issues, clients, quite rightly, are demanding that they should only have to pay for the circulation the title achieves, or has promised. If a title over-delivers, that may be due to a cover promotion, which may open up another debate on the true value of these additional readers lured temporarily to a title by free cover-mounted gifts or very cheap cover prices. If a title regularly performs well, due to the editorial nature of the publication – Christmas issues with relevant recipes for example – sales teams should be able to demand a premium. With any under delivery, clients should be compensated. With all the recent developments in the industry, it’s a shame that magazines remain intransigent on this issue.

Champagne and roses

Enough of the rant, and back to 17th February. The release of the six monthly data is always accompanied by a fanfare from those publishers releasing positive results. This year was no exception with all manner of goodies being distributed around the agency world from cakes to Champagne, chocolates to balloons. Publications with less attractive results remained, as ever, conspicuously silent. The latest results, however, were very impressive. Overall, consumer magazines saw a 9.1% improvement in total net circulation year on year (YOY). This is the result of a number of factors. Established titles new to the ABC have obviously affected the figures; and the Newspaper sending over 300,000 copies an issue (on average) to schools, along with Emma’s Diary Pregnancy Guide at over 400,000 copies an issue are two prominent examples of this factor. Marketing has played an important part, with gifting becoming an essential element of the promotional armoury. Covermounts and bound-on supplements have been prolific in many sectors, particularly the teen market, to the point where publishers are nervous of the impact of not promoting in this way. Cover price cuts have played a particularly important role in the establishment of the men’s weekly market, while many monthly magazines have been concentrating on developing their subscription bases. This can be beneficial to advertisers, ensuring there is a loyal core to any magazines circulation, providing the UK doesn’t follow the American model where, often, the incentive is of greater value than the publication itself, putting into question the real value of the readers attracted by these ‘bribes’. While editorial developments have certainly played their part in attracting new readers, the biggest factor (excluding those established titles that have recently joined the ABC) has been new launches and a prominent example of this is the men’s weekly market.

Men’s lifestyle

The men’s lifestyle sector has been a particularly volatile one of late, with the development of a weekly market in Zoo and Nuts. Both launched at the beginning of 2004, and are now registering a combined circulation in excess of half a million a week. While they have helped grow that sector by 24.8%, this success has come with a few casualties. All the major monthly men’s magazines have suffered some circulation losses as readers have migrated from a more leisurely read to a staple diet of immediacy, sex and sport housed in the saddle stitched, throwaway environment that a weekly provides. FHM, still leader of the pack, has lost 3.5% of its circulation, but still boasts an enviable figure of 580,027. Maxim, Loaded and Front suffered this cannibalisation to greater degrees, with Front (probably editorially the most akin to the weeklies) losing over 18% of its circulation. Arena, however, proved that differentiation is the key to success, adding 9.2% to its expanding figure, as it maintains stylish, intelligent content rather than chasing the numbers historically associated with high quotas of scantily clad women. Nevertheless, the phenomenon of the new men’s weekly market will have proved to publishers that there are untapped sectors out there, and with the right formula, amazing success to be had. This market, in particular, was one of which it had been said could never be cracked, but that was probably the view of the same bunch who thought men would never buy a lifestyle monthly magazine!

The success of these men’s weeklies will have played a part in publishers re-evaluating their portfolios and having another look at the extent to which a weekly can play in contributing to the profitability of their respective companies. Lower production values with relatively high cover prices, combined with fast turnovers on healthy volumes, makes this market less dependent on advertising revenues, and a very attractive proposition. Publishers will have been pawing over the performances within the very volatile women’s weekly market with this in mind.

Women’s weeklies

Overall, there has been a 3.9% growth YOY in this sector excluding Reveal’s figures, where results for a limited number of issues were released late following pressure from agencies. The fortunes of titles in this marketplace have been quite mixed, with no consistent theme. Closer has seen the biggest growth at 31%, having just broken through the psychologically important half million threshold. These figures are particularly significant as they are almost all actively purchased in the UK, with only an insignificant quantity of sales overseas. Not every title in this sector has figures that are quite so pure, and some may appear to have increases in their headline figures but where closer inspection may show that these increases are largely made up of bulks or overseas copies, or both. Hello, for example, has seen a 9.1% increase in its headline figure, or 31,884 extra copies. However, while its UK actively purchased circulation has fallen by nearly 10,000 copies, its UK bulks have moved from 0 to just under 37,000 copies. Throw in an extra 3,480 copies sent overseas, and you have what, at first glance, is an impressive headline figure. This practice has been widespread in the consumer magazine marketplace, however, of late, media buyers have been paying much closer attention to the figures behind the figures, and concentrating on UK actively purchased sales, which in turn has pressurised many publishers to look at reducing the numbers of bulks within the makeup of their circulations. Emap has now taken the bold move of excluding bulks altogether from its ABC submissions. Nevertheless, the women’s weekly sector has been particularly buoyant over the last few years, and further diversification with new launches such as Grazia and Pick me up should help to grow this market further. Titles like Grazia may, however, in the same way that the new men’s weeklies have cannibalised the men’s monthly sector, have a similar impact on the women’s monthly market.

Women’s monthlies

The women’s monthly market, or "Women’s Interests: Women’s Lifestyle/Fashion" as it is categorised by the ABC, also had an impressive performance. Up 20.5% YOY, representing the biggest growth in actual volumes of copies distributed of any sector, although this is mainly down to the inclusion of Debenham’s Desire, a customer title with a free distribution of 973,116 copies. That aside, most publications saw growth in this sector, and in particular Glamour (the leading monthly newstrade / single copy sales magazine of any sector) which notched up a 6.5% increase in sales to deliver a substantial 620,391 copies a month. There has been a significant rise in subscriptions in this sector as publishers attempt to lock in readers in this increasingly competitive market.

TV listings

TV listings magazines continue to dominate the top of the UK actively purchased charts, with What’s on TV in pole position at 1,587,251. This market has always been surprising in its ability to withstand the competition of free listings given away with just about everything. While most titles suffered, the attractively priced TV Choice added 8.5% to its circulation, and the clear price elasticity has sparked off a cover price war which may force some players out of the market altogether.

It is certainly clear from the latest set of ABC figures that consumer magazines are in a very healthy state, and, with a barrage of new launches on the way, these are exciting times for the sector. That, combined with new research being developed by the PPA to prove the effectiveness of the medium, and the renewed interest in the industry as a result of the advocacy programme (a joint initiative between publishers to promote the medium to clients who historically have shied away from print as part of their marketing mix) should result in a very prosperous 2005.