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July-Dec 2008 ABCs: a media buyer’s view

The ABC tables for the period showed an alarming number of minus signs. But, before you reach for the Valium, it is worth looking below the surface of what is a dynamic and diverse market to see what lessons we can apply going forward. Lucy Brunning looks at the underlying trends.

By Lucy Brunning

For press buyers, the release of the ABCs is eagerly anticipated. Admittedly, we don’t necessarily wait with baited breath solely to analyse the peaks and troughs of individual titles; more likely we salivate at the arrival of the vast array of cakes, indulgent treats and prize draws which tend to accompany the figures.

So, herein lies my first lesson for this audit: you can no longer rely on magazine publishers for your sugar fix!

The implications of the omnipresent ‘crunch’ on our industry are twofold, marketing budgets have fallen victim to cost cutting exercises and, more worryingly, fewer titles have reason to draw attention to their ABC figures. Good for the waistline, but worrying for the breadline!

One could be brazen and declare that, with over one billion copies in circulation, magazines have never had it so good! I’m slightly more pragmatic than that, however.

On first glance, the July-Dec audit is demonstration that fewer people are buying magazines, a worrying thing to have to admit for someone who plies her trade in this field.

But, what we have on our hands is a dynamic market. With a little digging under the surface, we can see titles with cause for concern and lessons to learn, alongside publications which have thrived and strategies others would do well to follow.

So, what do you want first, the good news or the bad? Let’s take the sting out of things quickly and take a look at the Men’s market. Seemingly terminal decline for the monthly sector has only really been abated by an injection of sales from (quite aptly) the health titles. Over a quarter of all sales in this market are now represented by the two titles dedicated to the body beautiful. In stark contrast to a few years ago, it is naked torsos of men rather than women that are stimulating sales. Rather than representing an about-turn in the desires of the nation, this development is symbolic of the fact that, like many other things that so many men seem to thrive on (sport, music and gambling to name but three), it’s easy and cheap to access pictures of women online. Without sounding too crude, men don’t need to be told what to do when presented with a lovely lady, whereas they do need advice on what they should be benching at the gym, or what protein shake they need to compliment their workout.

Once advice and expertise come into the mix, consumers need to know that they are reading something they can trust. The credibility associated with certain magazine brand names is something readers seem to latch on to. In this context, it appears to be based on perceptions of brands delivering a more cerebral experience. Obviously, health content is enjoying a resurgence at the moment, but across the board, if you look at the performance of titles in this sector, it is the titles that rely on content of the textual, as opposed to sexual, variety that have succeeded in increasing sales.

Interestingly enough, the only other title in this sector that does not rely heavily on titillating content, but has still experienced a significant decline in circulation, is Arena. Its forte, style, has not proved a solid enough foundation upon which to deliver sales and has, as I write, announced its closure after 22 years.

Lesson 2: Substance wins the day.

This tendency towards content that, rather than merely entertains, adds value to the reader, educating and inspiring, is most apparent when we observe the growth of the News and Current Affairs sector. Doubtless buoyed by the current state of the nation (them and Domino’s Pizzas alike), the more cerebral reads have Messrs Brown and Obama to thank. Perhaps indicative of these more sober times, Private Eye did see a small dip in sales. It does however still lead this market, with nearly 25% more sales than its nearest rival, the Economist.

With an increase in UK sales, the Economist is benefitting from the nation being in the red, a colour it has long been synonymous with. For all its success, there can be no doubting that the Economist remains a heavyweight proposition, which a finite number will indulge sufficient time to fully digest. There must be a plateau of willing and able readers which it will reach, regardless of how low the pound goes.

Another title to flourish in not only this audit period, but also the previous 21, is the Week. Ironically, taking the best of the world’s press and condensing it into palatable morsels, would appear to be an approach that the web has mastered, to the detriment of the printed word. This model delivers hope that it is not that people don’t want to pick up magazines, they just want a guarantee that the time they spend doing so will be worthwhile. The editorial integrity of press is harder to replicate than the web community would like you to believe. Yes, we all may be loving following Stephen Fry, or whomever, twittering on and there can be no doubt that the right to reply that online enables has been rejuvenating for all channels; but without prompts it will soon dry up.

Lesson 3: We all need some basis upon which to form our own opinions, and magazines remain a crucial stimulus to many.

Please don’t think that the future of magazines is entirely grounded in intellectual types scratching their chins whilst they ponder which political digest to pick up next. It is simply a case of putting in context what information people value. In the case of Women’s Weeklies, this has in recent years revolved around the fickle fairground that is fame, but without a doubt the merry-go-round has slowed.

At first glance, the performance of the weekly marketplace this time around was less than spectacular to put it mildly, and darn right awful to be blunt. But it was the longer standing titles in the market, who arguably know their readers and what makes them tick, that fared better. Their readers obviously appreciate the mix of content veering towards family life and practical advice. Again, if we look to more general consumer trends, magazines seem to be benefitting from the Cadbury effect, whereby people still buy into brands they know and trust. It would appear that, in recent years, they have tasted different, newer brands on offer from the newsstand and are now in need of some comfort and a more nurturing editorial proposition.

Lesson 4: Celebrity knowledge does not necessarily equal power.

Celebrity titles, in recent years, appeared to be the shot of adrenalin the weeklies needed, increasing their sales period on period whilst the rest of the sector suffered. Initial signs of weakness emerged in the Jan-June figures, when they took their biggest knock since this micro market first emerged. They then lost the greatest proportion of sales within the weekly sector as a whole across July to December 2008.

Rather than being a worrying sign of the times, I believe that this is merely a readjustment. It has only been in the past year that we have seen a consistent number of titles in this marketplace from one audit period to the next. New launches were hurried through to grab a piece of the action. Whilst this is great in the short term, it is unrealistic to expect it to stand the test of time. What we are now seeing is a natural level at which these titles can sustain sales. With a fickle audience who will be drawn to exclusives and trends, we will still get occasional flurries on sales, but hopefully we can get a better gauge as to how many readers we can reach on a regular basis. This is no bad thing; a bit of consistency can go a long way and let’s just remember that, at over 150 million copies sold in the six month period, we’re not talking about a market marginalising into oblivion.

With sales on such a considerable scale, it’s important to note that some perspective is lost when we scan the audit data to see the peaks and troughs across the sectors. Noting the percentage increases and decreases posted does distract us from appreciating the bottom line figures, the scale of the marketplace and, in turn, the place of magazines as an integral part of British life. Yes, all titles have their days in the sun, followed by harder times; markets each have their moments and hence publishers have tough decisions to make on a daily basis to vie for space on the newsstand, marketing expenditure and individual sales.

Home Interest titles, for example, have suffered from the lack of homes being purchased combined with the inability of cash strapped homeowners to splash out on home improvement, but will doubtless experience an upturn when the ‘Sold’ signs start going up again. The scale of the economic downturn is also going to hinder those markets that have previously found themselves more resilient. Luxury Fashion titles’ sales teams will be learning the art of short term selling for what could be the first time should their flat plans look sparser than usual. From an advertising perspective, it gives opportunities for better value, but I appreciate that from a publishing perspective, it makes for worrying times. But please, the temptation to run smaller issues or limit commitment to editorial innovation or simply up the cover price to recoup lost profits must be avoided at all costs.

Lesson 5: Quality will always trump quantity; only by delivering the former can you can hope to increase the latter.

Readers are far from stupid. You sell them a smaller issue for the same cost or indeed more than they paid before and they will notice. Like the clients we serve, consumers at the moment require even more justification for every pound they spend. If there is any reason to deny them making a purchase they will take it, and any smattering of guilt will be removed from that decision. A loss of faith, resulting in the dropping of a title from a schedule or a magazine failing to make it into a shopping basket, is very difficult to reverse. So, the Home Interest titles that have lost their way with seemingly little content to write about need to buck up their ideas and find new ways to keep readers interested until the tide has turned; likewise the Fashion pack need to hunt down new ways to talk to a less financially flush fan. Only by truly reflecting the ability to empathise with what readers are experiencing and acting as a guide to help them will titles be able to stand their ground.

Back to me missing my sugar fix. It is true that, in the past, I have been guilty of concentrating on the short term highs and inevitable lows that follow them. Perhaps it is time to credit magazines with being a much more slow burning success story. Evolving yes, rejuvenating definitely, but most importantly learning lessons from individual successes and failures. As long as the magazine industry as a whole can continue in this vein, not striving to over exceed expectations, not attempting to squeeze value out of it for immediate gain that will only stand to weaken it over time, then the future is brighter than some might think.