Magazines need to stop playing safe and get innovating

Consumer magazines have had it good. While television and national press sales departments might have felt like John Humphry's head after a good kicking from Mr Campbell, magazines saw both advertising spend and consumer spend on titles increase during 2003, writes Ian Darby.

This week's ABC circulation figures will, as usual, bring varying amounts of cheer. You'd forgive advertisers if they exhibit more than a little concern that leading sectors, such as men's and women's monthlies, aren't performing as well as they have, but in general publishing companies still have much to shout about.

It was a different set of figures that caught my eye, though. Last week, the Periodical Publishers Association posted news on its website that the number of consumer titles published in the UK rose by 100 in 2003 to a staggering 3,229. It heralded this launch activity as "a sign of renewed buoyancy in the consumer publishing market".

Now 2003 might have seen plenty of new titles but I would argue that if you're looking for signs of buoyancy don't look too closely at them. Few were on a major scale: the most significant consumer magazine launch of 2003 was Northern & Shell's New!, a blatant copycat product designed to capture some of the celebrity market rather than grow a new circulation or advertising market.

The year was characterised by launches such as Bang, Trash and Flaunt (all now closed or with their future in doubt). Until last month's launch of the men's weeklies Zoo Weekly and Nuts, the level of launch activity from major publishers was depressingly low.

Emap's Closer (in 2002) was the last really exciting launch as the major publishers spent the last year seemingly milking what they already had on the newsstands.

What's interesting is that the last great year for magazine launches was 2001 (Glamour, In Style, Real and CosmoGirl) and that this activity reinvigorated a women's sector led for years by Cosmopolitan. The PPA's argument that the number of consumer titles published mirrors the fortunes of the advertising market (falling in 2000 and 2001) didn't stop major publishers such as Conde Nast and The National Magazine Company from investing millions in launching during a downturn.

While it's easy to understand that the priorities of, say, IPC lie in maintaining the circulation of titles such as What's On TV rather than launching every other week, advertisers need more evidence of vibrancy and innovation than they were shown during 2003.

The launch of PPA Marketing in December, the body that will pitch the case of magazines to advertisers, should help matters, but the past two years show how little bravery there has been from some leading publishers. This needs to change in 2004.

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