FORUM: Should ABC figures be disclosed more regularly?

The simultaneous release of consumer magazine circulations on ABC day provides an avalanche of numbers. These figures are more than enough to be getting on with, surely? Not so. Agencies and advertisers seem insatiable - they want the figures once a quarter or even monthly. Is this a good idea? Alasdair Reid investigates.

The simultaneous release of consumer magazine circulations on ABC

day provides an avalanche of numbers. These figures are more than enough

to be getting on with, surely? Not so. Agencies and advertisers seem

insatiable - they want the figures once a quarter or even monthly. Is

this a good idea? Alasdair Reid investigates.



Valentine’s Day was the occasion of a great coming together of figures

in the magazine world. Circulation figures, that is. It was, in fact,

the second time that the great ABC day has taken place but the novelty

has yet to wear off. It’s effectively a ’festival of magazines day’ and

the fact that the whole industry now releases its figures simultaneously

puts the whole business in perspective and, arguably, allows for

meaningful comparisons.



There’s no pleasing some people, though - agencies used the event as an

excuse to make renewed calls for better information. Or rather, more

frequently supplied information. Magazine ABCs come out twice a year and

give six-month average circulation figures - for January to June and for

July to December. They always have done. ABC day has only tidied things

up a bit: it hasn’t changed reporting methodology one jot.



Why can’t we have the quarterly release of six-month rolling average

figures or the quarterly release of three-month average figures? Or

even, let’s think the unthinkable, monthly figures for monthlies? Even

dangerously optimistic observers concede that weekly figures for

weeklies might be asking just a little too much at this stage. But what

is the value of some of the cover price initiatives we’ve seen recently

in the weeklies market if agencies have no idea about the detailed

effects they have on circulations?



The Audit Bureau of Circulations is under a lot of pressure these

days.



For a start, there is the controversy about its rules on newspaper

circulations and the allegations that it is failing to take a lead on

aggressive marketing techniques used by titles such as the Telegraph and

the Times. There’s also a long-running debate about whether mainstream

consumer magazines can move to the rather more lax methodology currently

applied to specialist consumer titles.



So it might not be the best time to raise this issue. And there’s also a

small matter of costs. Each time a magazine puts together an ABC figure

it has to pay a fee to the ABC (not exactly cheap) and to independent

auditors (definitely not cheap). On top of that, the publishers claim,

there’s a huge amount of internal administration involved. Who would

foot the bill?



Jackie Almeida, a director of CIA Medianetwork, sits on the ABC consumer

magazines working party. She insists that there is a real need for more

transparency in magazine ABCs. ’The ABCs have moved on dramatically with

a greater breakdown of circulation figures,’ she concedes. ’We know how

the total figure was arrived at and can have a breakdown of sales

according to geographical region. But the six-month figure doesn’t show

seasonal fluctuation.’



Almeida points out that, after all, the National Readership Survey is

conducted on a quarterly basis and other media have far more immediate

and ’hands on’ research techniques. ’The industry has to move forward

This issue has been around for a while but little has happened. We have

to convince publishers that this isn’t a stick with which to beat them,

it’s actually in their interest. Clients are demanding more

accountability and I’m not sure that costs are the great obstacle that

some publishes make out.’



Jerry Ibbotson, the advertising manager at the Halifax building society,

agrees wholeheartedly. ’As a relatively infrequent user of magazines, we

would like to see more up-to-date figures. We tend to dip in and out of

the sector and we need an accurate picture at a particular point in

time,’ he says. But he also has some sympathy for publishers: ’They

would be meeting the costs, though we would be the main beneficiaries. I

understand that.’



Sue Hawken, the managing director of Emap Elan, is the company’s

representative on the ABC consumer magazines working party. She is not

convinced the industry needs more frequent data. ’We have to look at

this from a broad perspective. What will benefit the industry as a

whole? Publishers are doing a lot of research, reassuring advertisers

about what a good medium we are. The cost is an issue and so is the

amount of grief it causes us to get the ABCs out. Advertisers have to

work out what they want. Do they want more ABCs or quality of reading

research?’



Hawken also insists that there is no real demand for more frequent

ABCs.



’Few advertisers buy into only one issue of a magazine. Anyway, if they

have a good relationship with the publisher, there is nothing to stop

them finding out individual issue figures. But let’s be reasonable. At

the moment they pay absolutely nothing to our ABC costs. They can’t have

everything.’



Ian Locks, the chief executive of the Periodical Publishers Association,

points out that weekly magazines report on as many issues - 25 - for

their six-month ABC figures as a national newspaper does for its monthly

figure.



’I don’t think there’s much pressure to change the system. It’s stood

the test of time and I regard it as being fair to all parties.’



However, Robert Ray, the deputy managing director of the Media Centre,

fundamentally disagrees. ’Publishers - and this applies to newspapers as

well as magazines - really have to get their act together if they want

to maintain their share of the advertising cake,’ he warns. ’In a world

where advertisers are demanding accountability and transparency in all

aspects of their business, magazines cannot afford to continue hiding

behind averages. The sector’s biggest competitor is TV and it can

deliver figures by the programme, by the hour and by the spot.



’Yes, publishers do their own research. But much of it is misdirected

and focused on taking revenue from other publishers rather than on the

health of the medium. We need better magazine data right across the

board, quantitatively and qualitatively. They say we can’t have it all,

but we have it all in TV. Publishers have to look at this as an

investment. We make large commitments to research on behalf of our

clients and we do it on far tighter margins than publishers do.

Advertisers have to know they are getting what they have paid for. It

doesn’t happen at present.’



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