The number of people who are prepared to pay the full cover price
each week for Hello! (including subscriptions and news-stand sales) was
on average, for the six months to the end of June 2001, 366,165. The
equivalent figure for OK! was 351,563. But don't expect to hear those
numbers from the publishers, and they're certainly not the headline
figures you get in the Audit Bureau of Circulations report.
They're not even close. To get the circulation figure you have to add in
all sorts of odds and sods - basically free and discounted copies. For
the record, Hello!'s Jan-June "circulation" was 842,723 and OK!'s was
Mind the gap. It's a big one. On the other hand, as any publisher will
tell you, not all discounted sales are completely worthless. Granted,
there are true "bulk" sales of a very dubious value to advertisers -
giveaway promotions designed to stimulate trial readership plus freebie
contra deals with people such as airlines and hotels. Aside from that,
however, a large number of the discounted sales are active purchases.
For instance, some readers will take advantage of incentives to
subscribe for a year in advance.
The Hello! and OK! situation is different. When Northern & Shell began
giving copies of OK! away for next to nothing with its Daily Express
newspaper and the Daily Mail followed suit by tying up a deal with
Hello!, it was obvious that the magazine business was entering a new
Claiming these as active purchases surely makes a mockery of the ABC
figures, doesn't it? Back in April the ABC amended its rules so that
sales discounted below 20 per cent of full cover price would count only
as bulk copies. But that still means that the latest ABCs include almost
four months of junk sales counted as active purchases.
Martyn Gates, the ABC's director of newspapers and consumer magazines,
says that the organisation should be credited with moving as fast as it
could on this issue: "We can only act as fast as the industry will allow
us and we did act as soon as possible. As far as that is concerned, it's
a done deal. You can't be an active purchase if you sell through a
newsagent for less than 20 per cent of cover price. That's a big
difference to the previous situation."
But is it time to tighten up the definition of an active purchase still
further? How about a headline ABC figure that only counts full price
sales plus subscriptions sold at a modest discount? Probably not, Gates
This isn't an issue, he argues: "Our reports include a complete
breakdown across many categories so they are completely transparent. If
an agency wants to trade only on the full rate sale, it can make that
decision. You can take from the figures what you want.
We are here to ensure that transparency continues to be there rather
than restricting what people can do. It's our role to ensure we keep
that information there and continue to educate people about it."
But other issues have begun to resurface in the wake of the bulks
Tim Kirkman, Carat's press director, concedes that some bulk sales have
some value to advertisers, but he calls for more all-round transparency
in ABC reporting: "For instance, we need more monthly data on monthly
magazines. When an issue has a particularly good cover we want to know
how well it does."
Caroline Simpson, the head of press at Zenith Media, echoes this
But she knows only too well that the publishers will drag their
They are, she reckons, motivated by fear. She states: "They seem to be
obsessed with the notion that greater transparency on magazine sales
data will result in advertising rates being slashed overnight. Of course
the ABC data is used as one of the key negotiating tools between buyers
and sellers but the supply versus demand equation will always remain a
key determinant on price. Publishers are kidding themselves if they
believe agencies don't look beyond headline circulation figures."
Any media buyer worth their salt, she points out, will have an opinion
about the effects on sales of, for example, a 1p cover price promotion,
a celebrity wedding exclusive or £11-worth of cover-mount. "We
regularly estimate the 'real' underlying UK sales figures for magazines,
excluding such exceptional issues, so that a more accurate value can be
placed on anticipated future sales - and probably in far harsher terms
than reality. So why not have total transparency of individual issue
sales and be done with it? Fundamentally transparency fosters greater
client confidence and therefore far from damaging publishers' revenue
base, it could, in fact, enhance it."
Sheila Lamport, the media controller of Barclays, agrees: "The ABC
desperately needs to be modernised but it's something it finds difficult
to do because of the vested interests within the ABC - I think that's
something that everyone acknowledges. But it means we have a system
that's not terribly helpful. It needs a real willingness to change and
to be more open."
Is it likely to happen? Lamport sincerely hopes so - and she hopes
there's a growing realisation in the publishing industry at large that
the current system is contrary to its long-term interests. She adds: "At
the moment the ABC figures are surrounded by a great deal of suspicion.
There's a widespread belief that the figures we are handed are often a
million miles away from the real story and the suspicion is that
absolutely everything is being over-reported. That isn't the case
obviously. But the fact that some people believe it might indeed focus
Bernard Balderston, Procter & Gamble's associate director of UK media,
is also frustrated at a lack of progress. P&G used to spend almost all
of its budgets on television but in recent years has been an increasing
user of other media, such as print. It would be careless indeed if
publishers betrayed this vote of confidence. He states: "We're used to
getting second-by-second data on our TV campaigns and our view is that
there is clearly a need to look urgently at the way that the ABC figures
are published - we need more of a feel of how the market moves on a
monthly or a weekly basis as opposed to the rather bland averages we now
have. I have to say we have had little response from the supplier side
on this. I think they need to understand that they need to be more
specific about what they deliver to advertisers. We need to know how
heavily promoted issues perform and we need to know whether it's worth
advertising in an issue with a particular cover mount. We don't even
know roughly what the actual size of variations from issue to issue can
be. It's going to be a matter of persuasion and debate - and the good
thing about the ABC is that it is a forum in which we can do that."