Media Forum: Are consumer titles healthy?

Did the PPA Awards show consumer magazines are in fine fettle?

At last week's Periodical Publishers Association Awards, Good Housekeeping won the Consumer Magazine of the Year Award. Not bad for a title launched in the UK in 1922, but which has a more venerable pedigree in the US, having first hit newsstands in 1885.

In comparison, many of the other star performers at the awards were mere whippersnappers. Such as the Radio Times, launched in 1923, and that child of the 70s, Country Living.

Many observers agreed with the judges' praise for Good Housekeeping's "chameleon-like ability to evolve to fit its audience" and its recent circulation gains - a year-on-year increase of 13.9 per cent - make it a worthy winner.

It's true that in ad revenue terms, the consumer magazine market is in relatively fine fettle. The Advertising Association's figures for the whole of 2005 reveal it to be the only print sector to show growth. Revenues have been holding up this year, while the picture in other sectors remains uncertain.

But there are those who believe the medium should be concerned that its star performers are ageing brands.

There are even those willing to argue that the sector is falling seriously behind in another respect - marketing. Now that TV has Thinkbox, the Newspaper Marketing Agency is producing robust initiatives based on impressive figures and everything the Internet Advertising Bureau touches turns to gold, magazines seem under-represented.

So where does the consumer magazine sector sit these days? Is it really in rude health? Clearly it is, Duncan Edwards, the chief executive of The National Magazine Company, says - though no-one can afford to be smug.

But as the second dotcom wave gains momentum, isn't there a danger the magazine business is starting to look like a heritage industry? Absolutely not, Edwards says: "The danger is management thinks it's more exciting to get stuck into doing something new rather than ensuring something older remains fresh, vibrant and viable.

"If you look after and nurture older titles, they can be kept in good health - as long as they actually stand for something. That's the key. Where magazines remain relevant to people, they continue to be central to their lives."

As for the internet, no new medium ever kills off the old, Edwards says.

"What will happen is all media will shuffle along a bit to make room in the bed for the new one. Magazine companies will have to decide whether they want to be in the online game or not. We do. And web content is fundamentally magaziney."

But Chris Locke, the UK trading director of Starcom, needs convincing.

He says: "Whether reinventing the old or inventing the new, magazine companies are great at identifying not only a gap in the market, but also a market for the gap. They are great at creative and new ideas but the growth of the weekly market could potentially, and ironically, be a long-term own goal.

"Magazines' relationships with their readers are changing. Sure, they are still readers' friends, it's just that these days the playground is bigger and there are a lot more mates to choose from, not all of which are in the magazine space. More titles equals less loyalty, more impulse. For impulse read throwaway, which could mean magazines have less reader - and thus advertiser - value."

Bob Wootton, the director of media and advertising at ISBA, says compared with other media, consumer magazines are at least holding their own in revenue terms. He adds: "There were those at the PPA Awards arguing that we saw some great examples of brand stewardship being rewarded. There is nothing wrong with senior titles behaving in a senior fashion, especially as, with a title such as Good Housekeeping, there is innovation within stability - it keeps moving on."

However, Steve Goodman, the managing director for print trading at Group M, has some reservations. He concludes: "Good Housekeeping probably ticked more boxes than any other title this year but you'd have thought there'd be more exciting things out there. Having said that, I'd like to see publishers putting even more effort behind some of their established monthlies. The weekly market has exploded but that doesn't mean people have stopped reading monthlies and there is an increasing understanding of the powerful way (from an advertiser point of view) that monthlies and weeklies can work in combination. In general, the medium is well placed."

YES - DUNCAN EDWARDS, chief executive, NatMags

"Newspaper owners are trying to get into magazines and it's a better place to be than TV or radio. It's fantastic that something like Good Housekeeping is still so strong. New initiatives shouldn't be to the detriment of established products."

MAYBE - CHRIS LOCKE, UK trading director, Starcom

"Balance between weeklies and monthlies could be destabilised. Loyalty to weeklies could decline, while monthlies struggle to compete. Older titles can reinvent themselves and have kept loyalty, but in the future, I wouldn't be so sure."

YES - BOB WOOTTON, director of media and advertising, ISBA

"Celebrity weeklies are an area of innovation that has been electric, but there's a lot of cannibalisation going on. But that's where the noise is. For a medium to have the noise and the stability is an ideal situation."

MAYBE - STEVE GOODMAN, managing director, print trading, Group M

"Total combined circulations of magazines are at an all-time high. From an advertising point of view, you can find any environment and more niche audiences. And I think magazines are being well marketed as a medium."

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