MEDIA FORUM: Should publishers be cutting back on bulk sales?

Emap is the latest in a long line of publishers to be caught in a bulks fracas. Is the ABC system still open to abuse? Alasdair Reid investigates.

Bulks just won't go away, will they? This is an issue that has bedevilled publishing for as long as anyone can remember - and will continue to be troublesome while publishers (and some advertisers) continue to have ambiguous feelings about the whole business.

Bulks are, of course, the copies that, for various reasons, publishers give away. Two main reasons, to be precise. The legitimate reason is all about stimulating trial readership, which will, it is hoped, attract genuine paying readers. The slightly less legitimate reason allows publishers to boost the numbers mainly to impress advertisers.

This rarely works and usually succeeds in irritating just as many people as it fools. Over the years, the Audit Bureau of Circulations has acted to minimise that irritation, the general philosophy being that if you can't outlaw bulks altogether then you can at least accurately record the exact number of giveaways.

The trouble is that the system is less than perfect and the headline figure reported by the ABC is still the bulked-up figure. So it is little wonder that squabbles break out. Like last week, when Emap was discovered by the ABC to have broken the rules - and as a result new circulation figures will have to be issued for 14 consumer titles, including Elle, New Woman, The Face, FHM and Red. The worst offenders (if offenders is the right word: it is claimed that the erroneous figures are down to a "genuine" accounting error) are Arena, Q, Mixmag, Here's Health and Smash Hits.

Is it time to act more decisively on bulks? In particular, is it up to publishers themselves to put their houses in order? The Telegraph Group certainly thinks so. A couple of weeks ago, it radically cut back on bulks - a painful decision because it meant The Daily Telegraph's circulation fell below one million for the first time since 1994.

But Chris White-Smith, the ad sales director of the Telegraph Group, states: "We have removed all our bulks with the exception of airlines. Hotels, health clubs, gyms, they all go. We've also reduced foreign distribution. The truth is that we were shoring up the circulation figure, keeping it above one million, which everyone believed was a psychologically important figure, but effectively we were kidding ourselves. In cutting out bulks and in cutting out foreign copies that weren't being sold, we can put that revenue back into above-the-line promotion with the aim of getting our full price sale above the one million mark again - which is a legitimate ambition."

White-Smith admits that the advertising ramifications of this were obviously considered - and he says that many advertisers, mainly retail, trade on circulation to some extent. And, he adds, the paper reserves the right to use bulks where they constitute a genuine sampling exercise.

There are, of course, many in the industry who continue to defend the "legitimate" use of bulks as a promotional device. Ian Locks, the chief executive of the Periodical Publishers Association, comments: "Bulk copies have been occupying the ABC greatly as the bureau has sought to rationalise a raft of disparate and complex rules governing what constitutes a bulk copy, and to what extent such copies should be included in audited figures. To a very considerable degree it is a case of 'damned if you do and damned if you don't'. Bulk copies are real copies. They can be read avidly and are an invaluable way to encourage sampling by readers. In so doing the magazine extends reach for advertisers in a magazine's target audience."

Conversely, Locks argues, removing bulks from audited figures can have an unsettling effect on the reader per copy figures of the National Readership Survey, giving an unrealistically high reader per copy figure. From an advertiser point of view, he asks, is not a sale equally valid if made to a recipient of a bulk copy?

Lock continues: "Surely the key is that ABC figures should be open and transparent, allowing agencies and clients to see how a magazine's circulation is built and accordingly to place a value on that title? Publishers who choose to declare their bulk copy figures should certainly not be penalised."

Paul Thomas, a managing partner of MindShare, agrees that sampling can form part of an overall marketing process but he stresses that transparency is important when it comes to circulation figures. Headline ABC figures are still widely used as a measure of a title's health especially, as readership tends to lag behind circulation. The truth is that the bulked-up figure is actively sold as a good indicator of the where the title is going.

Thomas adds: "We all know that publishers play around with their circulation figures for a number of reasons and we always take a dim view when it's obvious that a publisher is deliberately trying to maintain a figure at a false level. In any case it's bad for magazines as brands when you do that. When you give anything away it damages the brand. And we all know that there are titles that are doing more than 15 per cent of their headline figure in bulks. It's costly too. They'd be better off spending the money on brand building and on building genuine circulation."

But media agencies are surely grown-up enough to look closely at the small print? Well, perhaps, Thomas responds. But it's hard work ploughing through the reports - and if it is transparently obvious, why do publishers always quote the top figure? So does he want to see further change to the rules? "Yes. I want to see the headline figure as the number of people who paid full whack for your brand. That's the true figure. That's your true sale. That's the real health check."

So what does Emap say to all of this? Its response, as it turns out, is refreshingly direct. Theresa Colligan, the magazine sales director of Emap Advertising, admits there's a certain degree of cynicism about bulks at media specialists. That's why Emap has decided to revert to its former policy of being very sparing in the number of magazines it gives away. It will still use bulks to encourage sampling, but not to the extent that it has been doing so recently. "I think there's a clear consensus that agencies would prefer to work with an ABC number that represents actively purchased copies. And that's the way we are moving. It is still valid and valuable to let people sample our titles at relevant locations and events but we won't submit those numbers to the ABC figure," she states.

Colligan points out it's not difficult to extract the true picture of paid-for sales from the ABC reports and those who negotiate on circulation use this figure. "People know the numbers and it is clear what lies behind the headline figure but we are as keen as anyone to avoid confusion," she says.

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