CAMPAIGN REPORT ON ASIA: Print wars - Magazine circulations appear to be stable throughout the Asian continent, although the battle for advertising dollars remains as vigorous as ever

"But below the tip of the iceberg, you're seeing rampant rate-cutting, creative packaging of volume for low value in cash, plus a very obvious shift, especially in consumer titles, to advertorial-type content - the traditional respect for content is being eroded. It's a buyers' market."

He adds: "The sustained recession has fundamentally changed economies across the region. There's a structural realignment of global economics, with manufacturing heading to China and software to India. Low-cost manufacturing, which steered growth in the rest of Asia, is gone, and so far I've not seen any coherent alternative strategy. The foundations on which economic success were based have crashed."

So what is going to drive economic growth for the next ten years? Pereira believes that, "Publishing is a mirror of the health or sickness of the economy. If the structure on which the economy was based is gone, I'd be very hesitant about predicting fair weather and plain sailing. The money isn't there - the economy just doesn't have it."

China is the Asian economy's biggest potential bright spot. But, World Trade Organisation entry and near double-digit GDP growth notwithstanding, it remains a fiendishly difficult market to exploit: publishing licence restrictions, ownership rules and bureaucracy tend to ensure that money made in China stays in China.

As for the rest of Asia, foreign-owned publishers will be praying that after a long period of decline, the good times will start to roll again for the broader economy: and the sooner the better. Ultimately, the events of 1997 and their aftermath, rather than those of 2001, may turn out to have the biggest effect on the prospects of the Asian advertising market, and on the fortunes of the big print media owners in the region.

It will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone to learn that publishers in Asia have had a torrid year. Just like everyone else in the world. Except that Asia, as ever, throws up a unique set of circumstances.

For a start, the market was rocked at the beginning of December when the AOL Time Warner-owned local stalwart Asiaweek shut down. Then there was the effect of the events of 11 September on an extremely travel-reliant advertising market. And that on the back of a sustained recession, the like of which the developed economies of Asia have never seen before: apart from the technology-fuelled blip of 2000, the roar of the tigers has been consistently losing its ferocity since the continent-wide financial crisis of 1997. All that has spelt trouble for a smallish advertising market that is unusually vulnerable to the vagaries of its region's macroeconomic fortunes.

Certainly, the numbers don't look good. According to figures from CMR International, Reader's Digest was the only really big international title to do well during 2001, registering a 17.9 per cent rise in revenue; Fortune's China edition, Forbes Global and National Geographic also upped their takings. But every other major title saw revenue decline: Businessweek was down 34.7 per cent year-on-year; the Chinese news weekly Yazhou Zhoukan down 33.3 per cent; Asiaweek down 30.9 per cent, precipitating its collapse; The Economist down 30.2 per cent; the Asian Wall Street Journal 23.9 per cent; the Far Eastern Economic Review 23.8 per cent; Fortune 23.7 per cent; the Financial Times 21.9 per cent; even the market-leader Time Asia lost 18.8 per cent.

The market as a whole was down 19.8 per cent, according to CMR. All this was using figures that are calculated by multiplying volume by ratecard, without taking discounts into account, in a discount-heavy recessionary climate.

But the picture isn't entirely bleak. The big, international print brands tend to have been in Asia for longer than their broadcast counterparts, for example, and have a more entrenched and secure place in the market.

And if you talk to individual publishers right now, what you'll generally hear is cautious optimism.

Tim Pinnegar, the regional advertising manager for The Economist in Asia, says: "For most people, 2000 was the best year they had ever had advertising-wise, and the higher you are, the more dramatic the fall. So a lot of people fell by 20 per cent, but it was from a high starting point.

"The big spenders in Asia are often in travel, so the recession has hit hard here, but I think Asia's bouncing back quicker than the rest of the world. The highs and lows are much more exaggerated here. It only takes a few clients to go out to send the figures tumbling, and it also only takes a handful to come back in to constitute a recovery."

Stan Stalnaker, the marketing director for Fortune Asia, goes further, claiming that 2001 was the magazine's second-best year ever in the region, behind 2000. "Fortunately, Fortune came out of 2001 in pretty good shape,

he says. "There were some drops, but in the context of recent years, it was a good year. And 2002 is shaping up to be more stable."

Dow Jones, which publishes two print titles in Asia, the Asian Wall Street Journal and the Far Eastern Economic Review, is expecting to rebound from a poor 2001 in the second half of this year, according to its vice-president, international, Phil Revzin.

"The year 2001 was lousy, but things are looking up now,

he says. "It has been a slow start to the year, but we budgeted for that. We didn't think that the major business would come back before the second half of the year, and I've seen nothing to make me change that view. We're expecting this year to be a mirror image of 2001: where there was a gradual downward curve last year, there'll be an upward one this year."

The twin nadirs of that downward curve would appear to have been the closure of Asiaweek and the fallout from 11 September.

Asiaweek collapsed after a relaunch earlier in 2001 as a technology/business/lifestyle title, from its previous positioning as an Asia-specific news weekly. The events of 11 September rocked Asia's travel-heavy market hard. But publishers and buyers alike are sceptical about how much of a long-term effect either event had: whether 11 September really trashed the market; whether Asiaweek's closure meant that much; and whether much business really flowed from the defunct magazine to its rivals.

Stalnaker, for example, claims that the effect of the New York and Washington terrorist attacks was short-term and limited in scope. He says: "There was an initial drop after 9/11, but for Fortune, things were recovering as quickly as four to six weeks afterwards. Categories such as travel and tourism were obviously affected globally, but regionally, travel companies are still advertising - they're just focusing on the Asian traveller more, and on travelling within Asia.

That's good - where the region used to look to North America and Europe to support it, now it's looking to itself.

"It was a shock to the system, and that takes a while to be absorbed.

But people still have to advertise. They still need to tell people what they're doing, and the big clients are coming back."

Likewise with Asiaweek. Tess Caven, the general manager of CIA International in Asia, explains: "I don't know that the closure really affected the market. In a normal year, I'd look at Time, Newsweek and possibly the Far Eastern Economic Review to see who's picking up revenue. But it's been such a weird year, I'm not sure it's made much difference."

Antony Young, the chief executive officer of Zenith Media Asia, thinks the collapse may have concentrated media planners' minds. "Because budgets are tighter, planners are not just distributing budgets based on audience criteria,

he says. "They're looking to rationalise into a smaller number of titles. That's benefiting top-tier titles such as The Times and Newsweek rather than the second tier."

Asiaweek wasn't alone in feeling the pinch. Newsweek has been pulling journalists out of Hong Kong, although it claims to be boosting the headcount in its Shanghai bureau. And Dow Jones combined the editorial departments of the AWSJ and FEER in November 2001. At the time, the company described the move as part of an ongoing "integration process" intended "to produce more efficiently and to maintain the editorial quality of both publications".

This sounds exactly like the sort of cost-cutting, productivity-enhancing rationalisation that's sensible when a market goes into a period of long-term semi-decline. Of course, that hasn't stopped some of the company's peers characterising it as a defensive move, which is bound to have a negative effect on editorial quality. The main concern is that FEER's editorial department has been swallowed whole by the Journal's.

"We look at editorial very closely. Some titles have suffered as a result of shrinking editorial resources,

Caven says. Pinnegar adds: "As soon as you start cutting back on journalists, printing and so on, it's a slippery slope. If you're serious about Asia, you've got to be here on the ground."

But according to Revzin, that hasn't been the prevailing reaction from prospective advertisers. "The market, to my delight, is just looking at the two publications and saying: 'What's changed?'

he says. "I'm getting fewer questions about it.

We got a little bit tarred with the Asiaweek brush. Because it closed down, people assumed that when we did what we did, we must be struggling as well."

Everyone talks about the need for foreign-owned publishers and for brands to localise their content. But with Asiaweek gone, FEER is now the only purely Asian regional brand; the rest are nearly all US imports. "The global brands are better localised now,

Young says. "Plus, generating all your content locally is a big cost."

According to Cyril Pereira, the chairman of Asia's leading print media trade body, the Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA), and the managing director of the publishing consultancy Telesis, the lessons of Asiaweek should shape the way both international and local publishers approach the future. "AOL Time Warner had three titles in the same market and by closing the weakest, it hoped to preserve and strengthen the other two," he says.

"The local brand went and the global brands were kept, because global brands have the strength to survive a recession."

The fortunes of western brands, he adds, are intimately tied up with the fortunes of those local brands they might instinctively regard as rivals.He explains: "The globalisation of publishing is here to stay.

As with broadcast, the global players are going to leverage their strength to extend their consumer reach in Asia. Local and international publishers should form partnerships, which will save costs for international publishers, and allow local publishers to use the strength of their brands.

"The reality that has to come to publishing houses is survival through consolidation, merging, rationalisation, co-operation, productivity improvements. They have to give value to readers and advertisers, not by increasing rates, but by eliminating wastage.

And that thinking has not entered local markets."

Right now, foreign-owned pretty much equates to regional, and locally owned to single-market, which in a recession confers advantages on both sides. "People are moving towards international and global deals, so companies with a US and European presence are in a strong position," Caven says.

"But still, most clients try to save their in-market budget and sacrifice their international spend. It's short-sighted but it's bound to happen."

"Generally, those with the resources to last out this tough period are best placed to recover,

D. Sriram, the chief executive of Starcom MediaVest in south-east Asia, agrees. "While that could be some of the big international publishers, many of the small, local publications that have a strong franchise and are managed by a local businessman are better able to make tough decisions to keep the business running viably through recessionary times."

With their deeper pockets, the western-owned companies can afford to resist trying to loss-lead their way out of recession, sacrificing yield for volume. "By and large, publishers have been conscious of the need to hold the price line,

Sriram says. "They're getting more creative with value-adds and more visible effort in ad sales, and to some extent there is an accent on deeper discounts for the same level of spend, but not to a level that could be labelled desperate."

The view that the downturn has led to a greater demand for added value, rather than vicious rate-cutting, is backed up by other media agencies. Young says: "Clients have taken the opportunity to be more effective. Media owners are reciprocating, and have diversified their offerings. They're worried about losing brand budgets, so they're doing a lot more than sell space: events, online, promotions and so on.

They're responding to client needs, and clients need sales."

The irony is that right now, media owners have more to offer advertisers than ever before: circulation has been rising across the board, with the dizzying nature of recent news events perhaps piquing people's thirst for information. Fortune is now regularly selling more than 90,000 copies, from a circulation base of 85,000; The Economist saw a rise of 10 per cent to 92,000 during the second half of 2001; and the Asian Wall Street Journal was up 17 per cent year-on-year in 2001, at 85,460, with double-digit circulation growth in each of its last five six-monthly reporting periods.

For Young, circulation rises are proof of the shallowness of the current downturn. "The big difference between this recession and the one in 1997 to 1998 is that this one is very much about business confidence, as opposed to being a consumer-led recession,

he says. "Consumers are continuing to spend. The increases in circulation show that the recession isn't being driven by consumers. The advertising recession has been driven by corporates having to meet short-term targets, and so cutting their discretionary, long-term spending. It's an artificial recession, in a way, and we're more likely to bounce back from it."

Others believe that the problem runs deeper.

According to Pereira, the broader economic picture augurs badly. "There has been a sustained decline since 1997 - advertising is down 30 to 40 per cent,

he says. "People are so used to growth that they believe it's short-term, and it'll be back up again next quarter, but it's a sustained decline now.

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