MEDIA FORUM: Is IPC's cull the first wave of magazine casualties? What conclusions can we draw from the cull of titles at IPC? Is it time for the big publishers to rethink their portfolios, Alasdair Reid asks

The redoubtable Marcelle D'Argy Smith has edited a magazine or two

in her time, most recently, from 1997-9, Woman's Journal. So she spoke

with more than a little authority last week when she declared herself

unimpressed with IPC's decision to close the magazine. It led her to

compare cultures at IPC and its more upmarket rival, Conde Nast. Where

Conde Nast is, she suggested, a small and exclusive school of publishing

excellence, IPC is more like an unruly comprehensive.



Ouch. There was obviously a modicum of score-settling involved here -

she didn't feel she was given the support she deserved during her tenure

- but possibly more than a grain of truth too. The 74-year-old Woman's

Journal was not the only IPC title to receive bad news last week. Your

Life, Your Garden, Homes & Ideas and Marie Claire Health and Beauty were

also culled.



Sure, there's a recession on, but perhaps the broader themes here are

focus and discipline. For years magazine brands have been propagating

indiscriminately, almost like viruses. There's hardly a title in the

market that hasn't been subjected to a myriad of brand extensions and

spin-offs as publishers attempt to exploit all manner of perceived "gaps

in the market".



Not that this theory applies directly to Woman's Journal, but it failed

to stand out any more than your average spin-off - it merely arrived

there by another route. Is this the main lesson we should take from the

IPC cull, that the days of woolly thinking are now well and truly over,

that there's absolutely no room now for ill-defined or undifferentiated

magazines?



Or is there another agenda here involving IPC's new owner, AOL Time

Warner?



"Absolutely not," Philippa Brown, IPC's group marketing director,

states.



"We must absolutely, categorically set the record straight on that. This

isn't driven by AOL Time Warner. It doesn't work that way - it lets you

get on with the business." What's the story? In a recession you tighten

belts, not lop off limbs. Brown responds: "There are very few companies

with 100 brands. That's what we have. When you have a portfolio that big

it must continually be under review. If products aren't delivering, then

we are not afraid to close them. By the same token we are not afraid to

launch or relaunch magazines. If you want evidence of that look at the

TV Times and Loaded. We are not risk-averse. Sometimes it takes people a

while to get used to new ideas and for new sectors to come into being -

but that doesn't mean that innovative titles are ill-defined. One thing

that we remain committed to in particular is putting investment into our

pillar brands - the core titles that support profitability."



In other words, IPC has always pursued a portfolio management strategy -

a high turnover of properties. Launches and closures, in almost equal

measure, are the mark of a dynamic publishing company. Brown says that

throughout its history IPC has done this and, she claims, been very good

at it. So this is business as usual.



Caroline Simpson, the press director at Zenith Media, agrees. "It's

harsh for the individuals involved, but this is a step that should have

been taken months and, in some cases, years ago. The emphasis IPC has

placed on market share has perhaps clouded judgment on the long-term

viability of individual titles in the past."



She agrees that there is even less room for woolly thinking in an

environment of mergers and acquisitions. "The real strength of any

publishing group comes not from its cumulative sale, but from the

strength of its individual brands. Weaker titles tend to be infrequent,

secondary purchases. They don't have the readership loyalty, the depth

of relationship commanded by the stronger brands. This is particularly

true when the economic climate starts to get tougher. Spin-offs, such as

Marie Claire Health and Beauty, suddenly find both advertisers and

readers reverting back to the core brand."



Simpson adds that the lack of reader loyalty is more obvious when a

title has been "buying" its audience with a heavily discounted cover

price or cover-mounts. Such promotions artificially raise sales figures

and ill-targeted cover-mounts skew the readership profile away from the

core audience at which the editorial and advertising are aimed.



Oliver Cleaver, the European media director of Kimberly-Clark, uses a

lot of magazines. Has he noticed a greater churn rate in recent years,

with publishers launching speculative ventures to which they are in no

way committed? He states: "My first thought is that the UK market is

over-magazined. The second thought is that what refreshes the market is

the survival of the fittest and that the smart publishers react before

they are absolutely forced to react."



Cleaver adds: "Big corporations can be clinical when it comes to killing

things off but the flip side is that they are able to protect brands

with identity and potential. When it comes to launching magazines, if

you use a slide rule then you lose all the creative juice. It's probably

true that some perceived gaps in the market don't really exist at all.

But the thing is that you won't ever know until you try. With the IPC

situation, when you look at what's gone, I don't think there are many

surprises."



Laura James, the media director of PHD, argues that many publishers need

to face up to the fact that they publish a lot of faceless titles:

"There are many magazines out there in the marketplace with clearly

defined offerings and editorial propositions, but they need constant

nurturing, attention and investment. But when you look at IPC's

portfolio you might conclude that this sort of pruning is inevitable in

the current climate."



James adds: "Homes & Ideas, for instance, was 13th in the pecking order

in its category - a category that has been showing little or no growth.

Marie Claire Health and Beauty is, you could argue, in a secondary

market. Your Life is in a sector completely driven by the celebrity

titles. Woman's Journal has been rumoured to be closing for a year."



She concludes: "In general, the market is very bland. You can de-badge

many titles and they'd all look exactly the same. Given the current

climate, people might be thinking it's better to invest in brands that

have a definite place in the market. And if that means getting rid of

some of the also-rans, then so be it. For advertisers it means less

choice, which isn't good in some respects but it's perhaps better in the

long run if we have stranger brands than a complete spread of titles

ranging from the red hot to the nondescript."



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