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July-Dec 2006 ABCs: a media buyer’s view

Despite some horror stories, mainly in the men’s sector where some high profile titles are seemingly in circulation freefall, there is lots to savour in the latest ABCs. MediaCom’s Lucy Brunning looks at the many positives.

By Lucy Brunning

Mastering your ABC is apparently as easy as one, two, three, but it really is not all that simple to get the magazine game right, as countless publishers have appreciated through the years. But it has to be said that this year for one, the majority of magazines are doing something right, as yet again more magazines than ever have been bought. So, whilst we who deal in the world of print watch over our shoulders as the omnipresent digital revolution continues to cast its ‘inter’net across the media landscape, I take solace in the new audit figures and challenge anyone to predict anything but a rosy future for magazines.

Sure there have been casualties, some of which have been fatal this year, but if we look at the results of the latest stock take we can see markets flourishing and new titles blossoming, a veritable mixed bag which we press heads love to delve into twice a year.

Digging through the numbers gives us something new to digest and consider when doing what we love best, planning and buying. But we are not the cynical, bargain hunters that some may make us out to be, circling the victims of circulation decline, like vultures in for the kill. We love it when the market is booming. More people buying magazines equals more people seeing our campaigns, and there being more titles out there will enable us to target those readers even more tightly. But what is most important to us is ensuring that the numbers add up. That’s why each February and August we get our magnifying glasses out and make sure we investigate exactly what has been going on.

The fact that we have to turn super sleuth is a somewhat contentious issue; yes I know that all the numbers are signed for and certified, but we need to ensure that the numbers we focus on, and the figures that the trade press headlines are based on, are the right ones, the UK actively purchased ones. That’s why it is so great that this number, the one that counts is on the up. More people than ever are parting with their money to indulge in their magazine fix.

Bulks – greater clarity needed

For those titles that still choose to hide behind their bulks, I’m afraid the secret is out, and we are all fully clued up to this nowadays. This is not to say that all bulks are equal and should be dismissed as such. What we planners / buyers need is full clarity as to what makes them up and where they are going. I can find the figures on the certificate, but what I would appreciate is a little more direct disclosure from publishers. It’s not as easy as it should be to find out what is going where; that is all we want to know in order to make our own advised decisions about how valuable these readers are to our equations. Most of the time, where the bulks go makes perfect sense, delivering more of the right readers at the right time and in the right place. In terms of sampling alone, they do a great job to recruit readers, but in a Sarbanes-Oxley world which is growing more and more accountable, we need to ensure that we see the whole picture.

So that is what we do; yes we check out the top line stories, but for every sector, we make sure we look in much more detail at what the numbers are and why people have purchased each issue or not. It’s not as cut and dry as who is up and who is down. To name but a few, it is about who is editing, what the content is, what the marketing budget has been spent on and what is on the front cover, be it a top Hollywood A-Lister or a free umbrella. Making this information more readily accessible and making it available not just twice a year, but every time a magazine is published is what we would really like to see happen. The audit, and the readership data we use in partnership with it, need to work together to enable a three dimensional examination of what is happening. In a digital age, we need to use the most sophisticated technologies available to us, to ensure that print as a medium can compete with the instantly accessible analysis that online campaigns are able to deliver.

Women’s Monthlies

Now to the figures themselves and what happened this time around. In the Women's Monthly sector, it was the youngest titles that showed the strongest performances. That is young in terms of tenure on the newsstand, as opposed to appealing to a younger audience. In Style was the only title in this sector born this decade not to post an increase in circulation year on year. The title delivers a fashion and celebrity mix which seems to be working within the weekly sector at the moment; perhaps how this information is delivered needs some reconsideration within the monthly marketplace. Hopefully, the appointment of Trish Halpin, who was at the helm for the majority of Red’s last audit period, when it grew its circulation both period on period and year on year will signal a change in fortune for the US inspired title.

Of those titles that did succeed this period, a number of them had built on their ability to lure readers in for the long haul and have readers commit to subscriptions. Making readers sign up and pay their money in advance for any length of time is core to securing a good showing in the numbers, especially as the quest to retain a listing on the newsstand becomes increasingly difficult over time. We have witnessed an assortment of mechanics used to entice readers to enrol, be they exceptional price incentives or gifts with the purchase of said subscriptions. We, as planners and buyers, have to be sure that we analyse these sales with the same intensity as with all other aspects of a magazine’s figures and ensure the correct value is placed upon each volume accordingly. If a gift is worth more than the total cost of the magazines, there could be cause for concern. The gift could be what is securing the sale as opposed to a desire to receive the magazine itself.

An interesting observation to make, and one I couldn’t possibly comment upon, is the fact that men seem less willing to commit than women are. To magazine subscriptions that is, unless of course sport or cars are involved!

The real success story of the Women’s Monthly sector appears to be Hachette Filipacchi’s Psychologies, which increased its year on year circulation by a fifth during July to December. As an aside, subscriptions make up a similar volume of its circulation, twenty percent, but that is not to say that these subscriptions make up the entire increase in sales. The full scale of this leap in figures needs to be appreciated given that the jump was based on a smaller number of issues sold than most titles in the market. This was the first time the title passed the one hundred thousand copies marker, an impressive fact given it launched in 2005. It’s a fact that half of the Women's Monthlies in the marketplace now circulate less than two hundred thousand copies, but fifty percent of the market now accounts for more titles than the previous year. There are simply more and more titles out there, each of which caters for an ever increasing range of interests.

Women’s Weeklies

This trend is no less apparent in the weekly sector which has doubled in size in the past ten years. We now have Classic, Real life, Celebrity, News and Fashion sectors and with each audit we see a new title added to the list. Grazia has been the story of this particular season after its first full year in circulation. Giving us not only catwalk news, but where and what to buy and a regular dose of lifestyles of the rich and famous, its fashion undertones are what have inspired the launch of a different, younger proposition, the new ‘sport’ title, Look from IPC. I say ‘sport’ as the advertising campaign tells us that shopping is the favourite leisure pursuit of us women. They’re not wrong; it is something I’m currently in training for in time for 2012!

Whilst this new launch has not had an effect on the numbers this time around, its emergence personifies the weekly sector as a whole, being an instant fix for whatever habit women have, be it shopping, keeping up to date with celebrity shenanigans or a simple desire to see what other people just like them are up to day by day, otherwise known as gossip. This ability to track the needs of the nation is what makes magazines so great and why they will be a force to reckon with for years to come.

Monkey Business

Going back to men and their reading habits, the immediate forecast is a little less easy to predict. Having seen huge circulations in their heyday and bright young upstarts, Nuts and Zoo, adding a lease of life to the genre in recent years, it has been a rocky time for the masculine end of the market. The emergence of Monkey, a magazine that demands the page is turned, albeit in a virtual fashion, demonstrates how this market place is catering for its audience in a new way. It appears to be a wise move that Dennis has taken, but whether it will be a case of monkey see, monkey does is unclear. The paper products will always have a place in the life of readers, not all their audiences have access to the technologies that allow them to consume an emagazine wherever or whenever they want to. What this phenomenon demonstrates is the ever evolving maturity of magazines, and their ability to move with the times and embrace new technologies.

So, it is not as easy as one, two, three or Doh Ray Me for that matter. But what we can see is that magazines are starting to sing to a different tune, making sure that they deliver exactly what readers want, when and where they want them. That may be by being delivered to their own home, guaranteed to land on the door mat month in month out or appearing over the ether. It may be being picked up in a hotel or airport lounge, but by whatever means a magazine gets to a reader we need to be sure that we keep an eye on it, which is just what the ABCs allow us to do.