International Business Media: For the love of lists

Hugely popular and almost an event in itself, the list issue is a business media staple. Lucy Aitken looks at what makes them so attractive to publishers and the people reading them.

Many publications, including Campaign, have recognised the list as a neat means of marshalling expert editorial knowledge into an easy-to-use and digestible format.

And certain lists in international business titles have become so popular that they have assumed their own identity. Take the FTSE: it is half-owned by the Financial Times and the London Stock Exchange. Established as an independent company in 1995, FTSE now calculates more than 60,000 indices daily, in addition to the FTSE Global Equity Index and its flagship list, the FTSE 100.

Paul McLean, the marketing manager at FTSE, comments: "The FTSE 100 has become a brand in itself because it is a globally recognised measure of the UK market. It is published in 80 countries, as well as in every UK newspaper."

McLean even suggests that the omission of the FTSE 100 could cause certain titles to lose face: "If a serious newspaper such as The Daily Telegraph or the Wall Street Journal didn't publish the FTSE 100, it would damage their credibility. We see those newspapers publishing our indices as a valuable part of the visibility of our brand and we do not charge them to do it."

Other FTSE lists work differently. "The Global Equity Index doesn't have the same visibility, but it's used by investors in 77 countries," McLean says.

The Fortune 500 also wields extraordinary power in influential circles.

The list, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, has become such an authority that it was granted its own index fund in 2000. The Fortune 500 issue, published in April, is the magazine's most popular edition of the year. Ten years ago, Fortune launched a sister list, the Global 500, which hits newsstands in August. This year, it was topped by Wal-Mart, with BP nipping at the retail giant's ankles.

Just like the FTSE, the list exists independently of the media brand.

"The Fortune 500 has taken on a life of its own," Robert Friedman, the international editor at Fortune, says. "Some organisations have it as part of their corporate mission statement to become a Fortune 500 company and the Chinese government has made it a priority to get more companies on the Fortune 500 global list."

Over at Forbes, lists also play a big part in the editorial calendar.

The magazine publishes the Forbes 2000 survey, which was this year revamped after the title decided to scrap its 36-year-old list of the top 500 US companies. It also brought forward its publication date to April - just after the Fortune 500, in fact.

Put rich people on the cover, though, and the magazine will sell like hot cakes: Forbes' best-selling issue internationally includes a list of billionaires. In the US, the magazine's rank of the 400 richest Americans offers a reservoir of information for gossips.

What does Tim Ferguson, the editor at Forbes' international edition (which was, until recently, called Forbes Global), regard as the inherent value in producing these lists? "They help to frame the context of the ongoing business discussion," he claims.

"We try throughout the year to do some meaningful corporate profiles and personality pieces on business executives. At list time, you get a clear breakdown as to where those players stand."

Eric Pooley, the editor of Time's European edition, adds that lists can be as much about who is excluded as well as who is top of the pops. The omission of Tony Blair from the Time 100 (the A-list of the world's most influential people) generated masses of press coverage. And sometimes the list choices are not strikingly obvious: Time likes to shine the spotlight on people doing good work that would otherwise remain unrecognised on the world stage.

"Last year, a husband-and-wife team in Poland called the Sudowskis were named European heroes," Pooley recalls. "They work with homeless people by rebuilding abandoned farmhouses in the Polish countryside and the attention we gave them in Time helped them to get a law passed."

BusinessWeek also publishes lists, which as well as focusing on rising stars in Europe and Asia includes rankings such as best managers and the best products. Newsweek, too, despite not having a list culture like Fortune and Forbes, publishes an end-of-year issue, Who's Next?, that names "a dozen people who will make headlines" in the coming year.

And a three-year-old partnership between The Wall Street Journal Europe and the German daily paper Handelsblatt generates the Europe 500, published in June. Ranking businesses on sales, the oil giant BP came out on top this year, with DaimlerChrysler coming in in second place.

The editorial appeal of these lists is evident, but are they strong advertising vehicles? Wayne Philbert, an associate director at MediaCom, recognises their prestige from a business perspective. "Most organisations want to be seen as leading the pack and these media owners help them to do that. The list issues are very much their flagship issues," he says.

Malcolm Hanlon, the managing director of ZenithOptimedia International, agrees: "A list issue does attract more advertising because it has appeal - it's like a special event."

But he thinks the editorial coverage around them could be improved: "The lists could include more in-depth coverage on certain companies. They also tend to be heavily skewed toward the US."

Given that Hanlon and Philbert recognise the value of lists, it is surprising to learn that neither of them think it is worth paying a premium for their clients to appear in a list issue rather than an ordinary issue. There are a couple of reasons why: first, the PR appeal of lists appears to be more magnetic than their attraction as an advertising medium. Second, magazines are becoming increasingly saturated with lists.

Ferguson recognises this and sounds a note of caution to those media owners who are becoming over-reliant on ranking everything: "Every time you undertake a new list, you have to estimate whether you are adding real value for your readers." He points out the effort involved should not result in what he calls "audience exhaustion". He says: "Putting a list together is an extremely labour-intensive exercise. There's a natural limit to the number that any one publication can do."