Invisible but indispensable

The recently released BE:Europe survey sheds light on the C-Suite, an elite audience notoriously hard to research. Alasdair Reid examines how the downturn has affected them and the high-end media they consume.

You'd expect, wouldn't you, that any survey of Europe's business elite would add up to an unremitting litany of doom and gloom. The current downturn has, you could argue, been the product not of vague and numinous notions such as "the business cycle" but of a spectacular failure in leadership among a generation of business and (especially) finance leaders.

This, in short, has not been the C-Suite's finest hour. (The C-Suite, for those uninitiated into the racy argot that is executive-speak, is comprised of those with the word "chief" in their job title; for instance, chief executive or chief financial officer.)

At the very least, you'd assume that this group of ladies (it's true: there are a few) and gentlemen would be much thinner on the ground than ever before. Big companies can't do without a chief executive - but they certainly can (as the advertising market knows only too well) do without the likes of a chief marketing officer.

You'd also assume that those who'd survived any culling process would be, on the one hand, rather less handsomely remunerated; and, on the other, responsible for smaller budgets. As a consequence, you'd also expect that the outlook for the elite media they tend to consume, not least the high-end, big-picture international media brands, would be looking grim.

And, yes, it's true that there's a good deal of hurt out there - but actually, the main lesson to be taken from the latest BE:Europe survey is that the C-Suite is remarkably resilient. One of the most interesting nuggets of attitudinal data to emerge from the survey, conducted by Ipsos MediaCT and published last month, is that 86 per cent of respondents regard this current recession as the worst they've experienced.

Which is only fit and proper, given that few of them can be expected to remember 1931-32 with any great clarity. But it's the next question that sets a definitive tone, with 70 per cent of the sample proceeding to the notion that, despite this, their jobs are secure.

This has to be good news for advertisers - performance-related stress, for instance, is clearly not about to distract this group from absorbing the advertising carried in the media they consume.

Your average BE:Europe respondent is male (or 86 per cent likely to be male, at any rate), 46 years of age and pulls in a salary of EUR161,000 (£145,000). 2009 found him travelling slightly less frequently (or opulently) and spending less time in luxury hotels; and he was also responsible for smaller business purchasing budgets.

Collectively, this is a group of people with a direct decision-making input on investments totalling EUR2.4 trillion, down roughly a third on 2008. But (and again this borders on the astonishing) this EUR2.4 trillion was still higher than the corresponding spend figure on the 2006 survey.

Obviously, though, this year's relative investment slump translates into pain for publishers. "Actually, travel (advertising) has held up comparatively well," Brian Shields, the worldwide research and analytics director at the International Herald Tribune, says. "Hotels will always have rooms to fill and executives still have to fly, though some of them are probably sitting ten rows further back then they've been used to. The categories that have been hardest hit - and there's no real surprise here - have been corporate and financial."

Unsurprisingly, few publishers are expressing anything other than cautious optimism for 2010. The silver lining, however, is that according to BE:Europe, this elite audience is consuming more media than ever before. In every category - newspapers, magazines, TV channels and websites - average issue readership or monthly reach is up.

Again, there are sound logical reasons for this. As Ben Hughes, the Financial Times' global commercial director, puts it: "The C-Suite remains a very important elite audience and we're now a real multimedia platform able to reach this audience across print, online and magazines - and, of course, in editorial terms, the financial story (how the downturn evolved and when it is likely to end) is right up our street."

Jonathan Foster Kenny, the international sales director of BusinessWeek, tends to agree. "During periods like this, people tend to have an even greater appetite for seeking out and sharing knowledge," he says.

Where individual readership and reach scores are concerned, the pecking order remains pretty much as it was last time out. Planners tend to point out that this piece of research (it has a heritage going back to 1973 and it was, until a couple of years ago, called the European Business Readership Survey) tends to, for whatever reason, reinforce continuity. Other surveys produce significant fluctuations in readership levels year on year - the BE:Europe methodology seems to smooth out any discontinuities, not just in the universe size but in the performance of individual media brands.

But it's during years like this that C-Suite stability can start to seem slightly frustrating, especially if you're lower down the league tables. And, of course, from a media owner perspective, the C-Suite audience isn't exactly the be-all and end-all of existence.

Take BusinessWeek, a title that, you'd imagine, exists to attract a self-selecting business elite - yet members of the C-Suite make up only 40 per cent of its audience. And it's not alone in this. Even the driest of business journals can boast surprisingly large generalist (albeit well-heeled and well-educated) hinterlands. If you're looking for growth, it might prove profitable, you could argue, to seek it outside the rather sleepy world of the C-Suite elite.

And indeed, there's a suspicion that this sort of thinking has underpinned some of the more interesting developments concerning international media brands over the last year or so. In July, for instance, The Economist unveiled a cinema ad aimed at softening its previous elitist image and broadening its appeal to new audiences of "curious minds", from whatever demographic background, in the UK market.

It's not as if this heralds any compromise or a sense of dumbing down on the editorial side - and the title clearly has no desire to alienate the C-Suite. But, still, it's an interesting departure.

It certainly seems to be of a piece with the new sense of urgency we've been seeing at The Wall Street Journal, which has been growing aggressively in the US market (its circulation there is now more than two million). And when you combine its print and online scores in the BE:Europe survey, it is the fastest growing media brand against this audience. The impact of its latest initiative - a redesign of The Wall Street Journal Europe - will be intriguing.

So, is the C-Suite audience becoming less alluring for media owners? Not in the slightest is the unanimous view (among the publishers we talked to, at any rate) - even though individual publishers sometimes leave room for a suspicion that they'd rather like to have their cake and eat it.

Which is also a trick they're trying to pull off where online is concerned. And in this respect they'll continue to be alarmed at the BBC's unmolested presence way ahead of the field in the BE:Europe website table.

All of the big international media brands have been attempting to fine-tune their abilities to derive subscription revenues from their web traffic. Success or failure in developing that revenue stream will surely determine who the future winners and losers will be in this sector.

The BBC's free offering is only going to compound the problems faced by the commercial sector as it attempts to climb out of recession.

And this, of course, is the EUR64,000 question. Just when is that likely to be? Sorry to say, there's not a lot of optimism out there, with even the hardiest of souls talking about very shallow rates of recovery even when the upturn does come. As Hughes puts it: "It's true that some sectors appear to be picking up, but the market is still very short term, that's for sure. I think we're going to be bumping along the bottom for some time to come."

2009 2008
bbc.com/bbc.co.uk 21.4% 20.8%
ft.com 12.1% 10.3%
cnn.com 8.7% 7.7%
skynews.com 7.8% 6.8%
bloomberg.com 6.7% 5.3%
economist.com 5.9% 5.0%
nationalgeographic.com 4.3% 3.5%
euronews.com 4.0% 2.8%
businessweek.com 3.9% 2.5%
harvardbusiness.org 3.8% 3.4%
newsweek.com 3.8% 3.1%
nytimes.com 3.3% 2.7%
wsj.com 3.2% 2.6%
cnnmoney.com* 3.1% 2.3%
time.com 2.8% 2.4%
cnbc.com 2.1% 1.8%
forbes.com 2.0% 1.7%
iht.com 1.2% 1.0%

*incorporates fortune.com; Source: BE:Europe 2009 Universe: 455,947
senior business executives.

Changes in attitudes to digital media were marked in this year's survey, which shows executives at the very top of the tree getting to grips at a personal level with new ways of doing things - many, for instance, responded to the BE:Europe questionnaire online for the very first time. So growth in website reach was rather to be expected - though very welcome for all that. This table doesn't paint an unreservedly rosy picture, however. For one thing, it features a long and slightly straggly tail; and for another, it's dominated by a state-owned organisation that's cushioned from the realities of the commercial marketplace. With so many of these media owners desperate to offset potential decline in the prospects for their print products by growth on the digital front, the BBC's dominance of this sector is a continuing worry.

Daily reach Weekly reach
2009 2008 2009 2008
Net International Channels 17.0% 15.5% 40.3% 35.7%
Net International News Channels 13.9% 12.5% 34.3% 29.8%
Sky News 6.3% 5.6% 14.2% 12.4%
CNN International 4.2% 4.1% 15.0% 13.1%
Discovery Channel 4.0% 4.1% 12.6% 11.5%
BBC World News 3.3% 2.0% 11.3% 7.1%
National Geographic 3.1% 2.9% 10.5% 9.4%
EuroNews 2.6% 2.8% 8.9% 7.9%
Bloomberg 2.1% 2.1% 6.2% 5.5%
CNBC 1.1% 1.1% 4.0% 3.3%

Source: BE:Europe 2009 Universe: 455,947 senior business executives.

Supposedly, the business elite is far to busy to watch television - but that old adage is firmly laid to rest thanks to these survey results. Four out of ten catch at least one international television channel at least once a week - a reach figure that's up a stonking 17 per cent on the 2008 survey. There is, of course, a particularly strong showing from news channels, with Sky News leading the way - but all eight channels on the survey recorded improved results year on year. The best performer was BBC World News, with a 59 per cent improvement, admittedly from a relatively low base.

2009 2008
Net International Titles 38.6% 38.1%
Daily Titles
Financial Times 14.7% 14.3%
The Wall Street Journal Europe 2.3% 2.4%
International Herald Tribune 1.7% 1.8%
USA Today 1.6% 1.7%
Weekly Titles
The Economist 12.3% 12.3%
Time 7.0% 6.7%
BusinessWeek 4.7% 4.3%
Newsweek 4.5% 4.2%
Fortnightly Titles
Fortune 3.2% 3.4%
Forbes 2.8% 2.7%
Monthly Titles
Harvard Business Review 9.4% 8.7%
National Geographic 8.5% 9.3%
Euromoney 2.7% 2.5%
Bloomberg Markets Magazine 2.6% 1.8%
Institutional Investor 1.6% 1.4%
Scientific American 1.4% 1.4%

Source: BE:Europe 2009 Universe: 455,947 senior business executives.

As on previous surveys, the Financial Times is top of the daily newspaper table by a considerable margin - and its rivals will be disappointed to see their scores slipping slightly year on year. The picture looks considerably brighter for the weeklies: The Economist remains pre-eminent, though all three of the other titles surveyed posted handsome gains. The monthly market looks healthy too - and it features one real star performer, Bloomberg Markets Magazine. And overall, there's good news for the international print sector as a whole, with net average issue readership moving in the right direction.


BE:Europe 2009 was compiled from fieldwork undertaken during two periods: October 2007 to August 2008 and April 2009 to August 2009. The total sample size was 11,222, with respondents drawn from 16 countries: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Respondents are selected to represent Europe's business elite. The majority (60 per cent) qualify specifically under the "C-Suite" designation and 78 per cent are at vice-president or director level or are more senior. The total universe projected from this BE:Europe sample is 455,947, down slightly on the universe of the previous survey, which was 457, 990.


- The BE:Europe universe looks after the interests of 120 million employees across Europe - that's two-thirds of the working population.

- The number of people taking more than 11 business flights per year has remained stable; the decline in flying noted by the survey has occurred among less frequent flyers.

- Those execs who speak three or more languages are nearly three times as likely, compared with the average, to have taken more than 20 business flights in the past year.

- Respondents who agree with the statement that "Climate change or environmental issues are of critical importance" take, on average, 14 flights per year.

- Residents of the Nordic countries (Finland, Norway and Sweden) are much more likely to own a boat or a yacht than any other European countries.

- Nearly a third of respondents visit social networking sites.

- There are strong attitudinal differences between the business leaders of the major economies.

- French residents are (36 per cent) more likely to strongly agree with the statement "Climate change or environmental issues are of critical importance" than UK residents (24 per cent).

- BE:Europe respondents also reveal that their financial portfolio is changing. We're seeing a movement away from the sorts of investments that, over the past year, have become notoriously volatile - such as stocks and shares in quoted companies (down 11 per cent on 2008) - and into investments that offer a more stable return, such as government securities and Eurobonds.

43% - Percentage of Brits who agree strongly with the statement "It's important to me that I earn as much as possible", compared with their German counterparts (25 per cent).

56% - Percentage of French residents likely to strongly agree with "A company's brand image is important in deciding whom to do business with". For Germans (28 per cent), it's a far less important consideration.

36% - Percentage rise in German property investment due to the buoyant buy-to-let market; in the UK and France, investment in property is down by 23 per cent and 24 per cent respectively.