By Vanessa Doyle, campaignlive.co.uk, Thursday, 12 January 2012 08:00AM
With 2011 now behind us, the magazine industry can be relieved it survived relatively unscathed. Yes, there have been job losses and restructuring, but there have been very few mainstream closures and some titles are going great. However, there is a definite feeling that the sector is at a fork in the road. The BBC magazines are in new hands, Future has lost its high-profile figurehead in Stevie Spring, apps are springing up left, right and centre, and new names (or rather old names, in Mark Frith) are being brought in to shake things up.
What happens in 2012 will depend on whether the industry manages to ride the waves caused by these changes and then makes some good decisions about the crucial issues it faces in the immediate future.
The past couple of years have seen a real step change in the way the public receive magazines and what they want from publications. There is less of a demand for Heat-style celebrity gossip by women and men no longer want the salacious, tits-and-bums content of the 90s and early 00s. As a result, last year saw men's magazines in serious decline. The likes of Nuts and Zoo continue to struggle, while traditionally more upmarket titles such as Esquire are becoming more mainstream in search of new readers, mainly by sticking a lot more flesh on the cover. It's something of a surprise that we got to the end of 2011 without many casualties in the magazine market and I can't believe there won't be more closures in 2012; there are certainly some very hard times ahead.
The strong and buoyant frees such as ShortList, Stylist and Sport prove people still love magazines and that they can reach a new audience - in this case, the younger commuters at whom the titles are aimed. That this crucial audience will still reach for magazine content is hugely important and eschews the naysayers' claims that the press is doomed. Titles still need to fight for their place in people's hearts and hands, via whatever platform they can.
To that end, tablets provide a new approach for magazines to really embrace their brand identity. People don't read magazines online and it's unrealistic to expect people to read them on their mobile phones, as you simply don't have the same experience. But no magazine should be without an app: tablets make great quality editorial content that is interactive, engaging and, just like their old-fashioned printed sister, portable.
Magazine apps must be paid for. The industry wasted the opportunity when it gave away magazine content for free on the web; it can't afford not to monetise it now. To get ownership of strong positioning on, say, the Vogue app, in the way some luxury and prestige clients have first refusal in print, will be imperative to clients as tablet uptake increases.
If magazines are to flourish in 2012, they need to be strong and stand firm by their brands. The public are spending a fortune on monthlies and publishers need to realise people are choosing magazines because of the edited choice that magazine brands stand for: they should live and die by it. It doesn't matter what platform they read it on, they just want a consistent voice. If editorial messages are inconsistent across platforms, people will think it's not for them, lose interest and then you've lost them on any platform. Strong, consistent brands are what people want. In five years, I'm sure there will be a different platform again; but whatever that is, it should be about your brand being there and doing it right.
Instead of being streamlined, editorial teams are key in building brands and need to be supported. While once journalists were employed to write for the magazine and nothing more, today they are writing the print edition, the iPad version, Tweeting, keeping a blog and so on - it's never-ending and inevitably results in a reduction in editorial quality, which risks alienating readers.
What needs to happen is for publishers to do some serious work on their agency marketing, rather than being inward-facing. Cost-saving is a necessary evil across all businesses at the moment, but it is crucial that this is not to the detriment of the overall product representation. There has been a lot of change in the past 12 months, with the likes of Hearst and Hachette merging and IPC having a complete restructure. The trouble now, though, is that there is less investment in the industry's future, evident by the lack of resources available to actually sell the magazines into media agencies.
The new generation of graduates and planners struggle to understand or differentiate between many magazine brands and know what each magazine stands for. Magazine publishers are reducing their staff and running costs, the result of which is fewer magazine brand champions. We need these ambassadors to make us passionate about their magazines and give us a reason to buy space and in turn sell their brands to our clients (especially since the demise of the Professional Publishers Association marketing department), promoting the industry both internally to strategists and to clients. Even though the PPA is now being reformed, we are way off receiving the day-to-day support we need.
Advertising needs to be more accountable and magazines need to stand up against other media and fight for their place on schedules. Magazines aren't dying - on average, 30 million magazines were sold every month in the latter half of 2011. People will always read them, be they on paper, tablet or tomorrow's format, in the same way a child will always pick up a book because it is such an engaging activity. But in 2012, the focus needs to be on getting the voice and the positioning consistent across every platform.
The British public love magazines, and that isn't even close to disappearing. We love them for their fantastic content and the wonderful experience they regularly provide their readers. The industry now needs to be brave during these troubled financial times and embrace essential and urgent change. If it does that this year, it will ultimately emerge stronger and retain its readers' loyalty. Yes, there will be some casualties along the way, but I believe those that survive will make for a stronger UK magazine sector moving forward.
Vanessa Doyle is the press director at Initiative.
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk