Media Forum: Has NatMag abused ABC?

Is selling multipacks against the spirit of the ABCs, Alasdair Reid asks.

Some of us, our intellectual horizons dominated as they are by snacks, can't hear the phrase "multipack" without thinking of crisps. Or, indeed, breakfast cereals.

For the true aficionado, multi-packs are not just about buying in reassuring bulk - they're as close as some of us get to a walk on the wild side, where one wrong move could see you confronted with something truly scary. A Frosties-type experience, say, or a brush with prawn cocktail.

And, of course, you see variations on a multipack theme in all sorts of retail environments. It's just that you don't expect your local newsstand to be one of them. And certainly not at the glossy end of the magazine market.

Magazines, to branch out metaphorically into a more sugary snack world, are all La Maison du Chocolat (or Ferrero Rocher at the very least) and surely sneer at the very thought of the pick'n'mix counter.

Or so we thought. But, recently, the multipack has emerged as the marketing wheeze du jour in the magazine business and has been superseding the largely discredited covermount phenomenon - the practice whereby publishers would offer a reasonably priced knick-knack with a quite nice free magazine attached.

Last week, however, in the run-up to this week's publication of the magazine market's Audit Bureau of Circulations figures, we saw the whole multipack issue brewing up into an angry row for the first time.

Stephen Quinn, the publisher of Vogue, last week wrote to agencies and advertisers complaining that The National Magazine Company has boosted the Harper's Bazaar ABC figure for the past six months of 2009 by as many as 9,000 copies an issue by selling it with sister titles She and Coast in a multipack.

Is such activity within the rules and the spirit of the ABCs? The NatMag chief executive, Arnaud de Puyfontaine, admits his enthusiasm for Quinn's stance is not entirely unqualified. He states: "Any briefing and estimates in the market in the weeks prior to ABC release day can be potentially damaging if the wrong results are printed in the media. ABC bylaws stipulate that members must not release or publicise any data relating to a title before the official release date and time set by the ABC Council.

"Most publishers adhere to these rules but there are those who are so threatened by their competitors that they feel the need to wage a dirty war. Their attempts to discredit other publishers by releasing incorrect figures to the media or advertising industry is distasteful."

Or just bizarre, Alan Brydon, the head of trading at MPG, adds. He says it's great that Quinn and his colleagues are clearly so passionate about issues like this. But he finds their views rather misguided.

He explains: "Individual publishers are free to do this multi-bagging if they think it justified. It's then down to their sales teams to sell it to us and it's our job to form judgments on what they're telling us. There have been examples in the past that have just felt wrong - but the publishers respond by making a case for it as a sampling exercise. I don't think there can be a media industry line on this. Some agencies will like individual examples and other agencies will not. It's a matter of opinion - and in the end, that is what we are paid for."

David Davies, the managing director of women's lifestyle and entertainment brands at Bauer Media, agrees: "Where a portfolio is made up of truly differentiated yet complementary products, multipacking can be an effective marketing tool that drives sampling to the right kind of audience - and that can have a long-term positive impact on base sale. However, it can only be effective as part of a broader marketing mix. Investing in brand difference and editorial excellence will always deliver more sustainable performances and better quality audiences for advertisers."

And Vanessa Clifford, a managing partner at Mindshare, agrees that it's relatively easy these days, given the way the ABC reports are formatted, to split out the figures. She concludes: "You can see how much of a magazine's issue has been multipacked and with which other title. And we know historically what the circulation figure is, so you can see what the effect has been. So it's an issue we can talk around with the publishers. Some feel right - and are clearly genuine attempts to stimulate trial and drive long-term circulation gains. In those cases, you can argue it's entirely legitimate. The issue then is whether the publisher is attempting to trade on the inflated figure. So there's no simple answer. I have no real problem with the practice as long as it's transparent."

NO - Arnaud de Puyfontaine, chief executive, NatMag

"Everyone knows value packs are an effective tool to reach a wider audience of similar profile and that the number of copies sold as a multipack are delineated in the breakdown of the ABC figures. We play fair."

NO - Alan Brydon, head of trading, MPG

"ABC rules on this are clear. Harper's Bazaar abided by them and Vogue can do this too. There is a point to be made perhaps about the value of poly-bagging magazines that don't share brand values."

MAYBE - David Davies, MD, Bauer Media

"The ABC rules and certificates are transparent about the way they allocate the proportion of discounted copies sold in any given period through this type of activity. But this is a healthy debate and perhaps should extend to free media."

NO - Vanessa Clifford, managing partner, Mindshare

"Broadly, I don't have a big issue with this, though now Conde Nast has instigated a debate, I'm sure we'll hear more about it. Multipacks have always sort of been around, it's just that there appear to be a lot more of them as publishers move away from covermounts."

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