By Alasdair Reid, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 28 August 2009 12:00AM
The industry has always had an ambiguous (not to say schizophrenic) attitude towards the whole business of bulks - and now and then, as in the nasty little row that's currently brewing up, someone gets their fingers burnt.
Bulks are copies sold via wholesale distributors usually at a nominal sum (often 1p a copy) to operators in the travel and leisure businesses, notably hotel chains and airlines. These travel companies then give them (or at least offer them) to their customers for free.
And there's surely no harm in that, especially given the fact that, following reforms that began more than a decade ago, the Audit Bureau of Circulations figures have been increasingly transparent and now show bulks in all their glory.
True, a title's headline ABC figure still includes bulks; but advertisers, if they choose, can ignore them completely and invite their media agencies to negotiate a rate derived on the UK full-paid circulation figure - which, indeed, many do.
But, hang on a minute, some publishers tend to argue, bulks are potentially good for you. Thanks to the launch of Metro ten years ago and its subsequent success, the stigma attached to "free" has largely been dispelled.
We know that people avidly read free newspapers - especially in transport environments - and advertisers have the return on investment results to prove that they work as advertising vehicles. Consumer attitudes to these titles have been comprehensively researched by both buyers and sellers alike.
And in the case of bulks, you have the added attraction not just of a captive audience but (especially if you steer clear of budget operators) an upmarket audience with significant levels of disposable income.
What's more, publishers say, the whole business is good for the media industry as a whole because it promotes trial, thus encouraging younger audiences to maintain or take up the newspaper habit.
From an advertiser perspective, however, there's always been a suspicion that the practice is not quite reputable and is open to abuse.
The latest imbroglio, involving Telegraph Media Group, Associated Newspapers and the Financial Times, is not exactly designed to persuade them otherwise.
1. A fortnight ago, following a five-month deliberation, the ABC retrospectively adjusted the circulation figures of five titles - The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, the Financial Times, the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday - during the period from October 2008 to April 2009. They'd been found guilty of overstating bulk copies supplied by an intermediary, Dawson Holdings, to the airlines. The publishers have argued all along that this is just a silly misunderstanding - and this was the basis of an appeal against the ABC's provisional findings back in May.
The disqualified copy figures jump about significantly where the Daily Mail is concerned - just over 15,000 in October, for instance, and more than 40,000 in February - but for The Daily Telegraph, the other major offender, the range is slightly narrower, from more than 42,000 in April to more than 62,000 in February. Publishers say the copies in question were sent to Dawson Holdings and indeed on to Dawson's clients, it's just that the accounting paperwork wasn't properly administered.
All that's at stake here, they insist, is a bit of careless bookkeeping. Some media buyers are convinced that this is just not true - and believe that publishers have made the most of flaws in the system to pull the wool over everyone's eyes.
2. Guardian News and Media chose last week to arrive, rather belatedly some say, at a holier-than-thou positioning on bulks. The group's circulation director, Joe Clark, says: "To a greater or lesser degree, bulk sales are used by newspaper groups to prop up their ABC figures ... yet their credibility in the advertising community is low - and for those affected by the recent investigations into airline bulks, that credibility has been undermined further."
3. The Sun and the News of the World have never really used bulks (although the same can't be said of their group stable-mates The Times and The Sunday Times). The Mirror titles scrapped bulk activity in 2004 and Express Newspapers followed suit in 2005. Telegraph Media Group resolved as far back as 2002 to radically reduce bulk activity - but the performance of The Daily Telegraph's paid-for circulation has regularly served to undermine the group's resolve.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
- Some agencies have sympathies for the predicament of the publishers involved in this row. They agree it's no more than a storm in a teacup, point out that the numbers involved are relatively small, feel that there's been no real duplicity on the part of the media owners themselves and suggest that it will be easy for publishers to find added-value ways of making it up to their clients.
- Other buyers are more militant. As Dominic Williams, the press director of Carat, puts it: "Could we end up seeking compensation? Too damned right we could."
- It's time they put their houses in order. Some agencies say they'd have no problem with bulks if the proposition was managed on a consistent, considered and above-board manner. As one source puts it: "If a publisher were to come to us and say that they planned to distribute X thousand copies in, say, London gyms and they provided us with a rationale about the audience they'd be targeting there, we'd be interested. If they then did some research to show that they'd been successful in hitting that audience, then we'd have absolutely no problem with that at all. As it is, the bulks business is not only hazy, it seems completely haphazard."
- Perhaps ironically, given the fact that it has actually managed to stand up to Associated and Telegraph Media Group, some agencies believe that the ABC organisation has been tarnished by this whole episode. It should, they argue, get tougher, sooner, with errant publishers. That's easier said than done, however, given that ABC is funded by those selfsame publishers.
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk