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July-Dec 2007 ABCs: a media buyer’s view

Whilst the latest ABCs were anything but all-gloom, there were some worrying trends: editorial inconsistency, me-tooism and short term marketing tactics which could come back to haunt. Lucy Brunning applauds the winners, but urges all publishers to invest in their editorial.

By Lucy Brunning

Here we go again! Before you know it, another six months has flown by and a flurry of celebratory cakes, helium balloons and lobsters fill the agency world. Well ok, the lobster was a first, a very jolly chap, pincers and all, came and handed out sticks of rock to celebrate the latest increases for NatMag’s Coast magazine, but the general idea was the same.

Now whilst we agency types love all the fun and fondant fancies, and especially love being spun around the block in a Ferrari (thank you BBC Top Gear), it’s not all good news. ABC day can strike fear into the hearts of many (obviously including me, as I realise I have to get this article in on deadline) and rightly so. The bottom line is no matter how beautiful, inspiring, practical, full of white space and snazzy font your magazine is, you need people to buy it. When magazine readers have got plenty of other ways to spend their money and time, it is crucial that we make sure they keep spending their money on magazines.

As a result of this pressure to "sell, sell, sell", what we see is some interesting stories emerging sector by sector.

The bad news was the casualties of this latest round of figures. Whilst other titles were alerting us to their increases, Bauer had to announce the closure of two women’s publications. The weekly First, which lasted less than two years on the newsstand and NW, formerly known as New Woman, which had dramatically slid down the circulation charts in recent years. Despite a significant budget at launch for First, and a number of well researched editorial changes for NW in recent years, the newly merged publishing venture could not see either title as being financially viable propositions, demonstrating just how hard it is to get magazines right.

The irony is that most magazines fill their pages with information on all the things that people should be doing other than reading magazines. It is magazines which give advice on what books to read, gigs to go to, shops to hit, TV to watch and websites to visit, but magazines are not the only place people can find this. The digital revolution has meant that we can suss out what to do, where and when, at any time, be it via our PC, mobile, blackberry or EPG. But if we take a look at the latest ABCs, then we can see that magazines are obviously doing something right, because, regardless of the trappings of the internet etc, people are still buying magazines in their millions.

TV listings

Take the TV listings marketplace. Traditionally the cash cow of the magazine world, these titles must still be doing a pretty good job of keeping up the balance sheets. In an average week during the last six months, over 5.3 million copies of one title or another were sold. This figure may be marginally down year-on-year, but only very marginally in a world where people not only can pick up their newspaper each day and get the low down on what to watch, but also can sit on their sofa and scroll through the live menu to see what takes their fancy. Even if they miss something, they can find it online and download it the next day, but yet still they want to pay around anything up to a pound each week to have that very same information in their hands and in their lounge. This to me is testament to the power of magazines, and proof that there will always be a place for them in the hearts of consumers.


Celebrity magazines are hot on the heels of TV listings in terms of copies sold and will have taken over in terms of monies made on the newsstand given the higher cover prices they charge. There can be no doubt that they are more costly to produce. Paying J-Lo for the exclusive piccies of the new twins is rumoured to be setting OK! magazine back $6 million, but in recent years this has proven to be money well spent as we have seen circulations rise and rise. The increases have come about as a result of both more people buying the brands they know and love and other titles getting in on the act. Where once there were two, then became three, four, five, now eight titles that qualify for the celeb moniker.

Yet again, some titles posted dramatic increases on their figures with Star up 18% year-on-year in terms of actively purchased copies, Hello! up 14% and OK! up 12%, but the market as a whole posted a decline year-on-year. This could be a sign of the bubble bursting. As more titles have hit the newsstands, the quality of celeb featured on the front pages has declined. Yes, this is a sign of the Great British public’s unceasing infatuation with all things reality, but who is actually fuelling this? Is it a case of what the people want, or who the editors have access to? Magazine publishers are treading a very fine line playing to a very fickle audience. Editorial integrity is crucial as people can get the same info in a million different places. Perhaps the brands themselves need to get back to basics and remember what it is about themselves that sets them apart, rather than who they have on their cover.

Men’s market

One sector which has continually struggled in recent years is the men’s market, with several titles having slipped into the trap of doing something because everyone else is doing it and falling flat on their faces as a result. One month boobs are in, the next month you’ll struggle to find a bare shoulder. Now I know most men are fickle, but you can hardly blame them when each month the magazines they turn to for advice on how to muddle, sorry, steer, their way through life have changed their tune. It’s even more crucial in this sector that publishers get it right. It can be argued that men are currently better served online than women, be it via sport, music, gambling or gaming sites, all aggressively marketing themselves to this audience. This and the extra threat of not one, but two free magazines now targeting men on a weekly basis and men’s paid-for titles really have got a job on their hands to hold on to sales. Whilst most titles still have a lot to do if the latest circulations are anything to go by, there is a light at the end of this tunnel. Although granted off a very small base, Esquire magazine posted a fantastic 21% year-on-year increase on its actively purchased copies. Putting time, effort and money into getting the editorial right, appears to have paid dividends for new editor Jeremy Langmead. So now we’ve seen that copycat tactics are not going to work, here’s hoping this focus on delivering a good quality product month after month can act as inspiration for the rest of this market going forward.

Women’s monthlies

The final sector I want to focus on is the women’s monthlies, where on first impressions you may think there was little news. Once again, Glamour was in the top slot despite posting a year-on-year decrease of over 5%. With the exception of She, Psychologies and Essentials, who all boasted double digit year-on-year growth, there appears to be nothing spectacular to shout about, barring the loss of NW. Yes, the sector as a whole lost 9% of all sales year-on-year, but with one title down, a market which has been bombarded with the onslaught of more and more weeklies to compete with in recent years has done well to hold onto sales. In fact, with big name titles such as Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan and Red all delivering static results, some pundits have been celebrating the resurrection of the monthlies versus the weeklies, given the wobbles that some more frequent titles experienced this time around.

Closer scrutiny of the numbers, however, has revealed that the latest tactics employed to retain readers, whilst undoubtedly proving successful, don’t necessarily bode well in terms of driving loyalty in the long term. The usual covermounts were as apparent as ever; a mix of these and a focus on celebrity covers doubtless contributing to the revived fortunes of She. A slightly different tactic, employed by Conde Nast, was the cross promotion of two of their titles. On the whole, this sampling exercise is reserved to monthly and weekly titles that are sold in tandem. This time around, the December issue of Glamour was sampled with the December issue of Easy Living, copies sold counted for both titles’ ABC figures. Whilst it’s true that both copies were purchased, given that the price of both was equivalent to the price of one it could be argued that the term ‘active purchase’ should not be applied to them both. With each title targeting a very different audience, I struggle to believe that significant numbers of Easy Living readers will now be heading to the newsstand for the next issue of Glamour, but at least the latter remains the biggest selling women’s monthly in the UK for another six months!

Whilst I remain confident that magazines will continue to captivate the attention of readers, I cannot help but voice concern yet again about some of the tactics employed by publishers to keep their sales up. I want more than anything for magazine circulations to continue to grow, but not at any price. The strength of magazines and their real selling point is the trusting relationship that readers have with their titles and the ABCs have yet again made this all too apparent. Trust is gained by delivering a consistent editorial proposition which can only be formulated by considering the needs and wants of your target audience. Those that have integrity have shown the way, it is important for the rest to follow suit.