MEDIA FORUM: Should publishers be more honest about ABCs? The ABC figures are under scrutiny once again. Isn't it about time that publishers accepted the need for more transparency?

The number of people who are prepared to pay the full cover price

each week for Hello! (including subscriptions and news-stand sales) was

on average, for the six months to the end of June 2001, 366,165. The

equivalent figure for OK! was 351,563. But don't expect to hear those

numbers from the publishers, and they're certainly not the headline

figures you get in the Audit Bureau of Circulations report.

They're not even close. To get the circulation figure you have to add in

all sorts of odds and sods - basically free and discounted copies. For

the record, Hello!'s Jan-June "circulation" was 842,723 and OK!'s was


Mind the gap. It's a big one. On the other hand, as any publisher will

tell you, not all discounted sales are completely worthless. Granted,

there are true "bulk" sales of a very dubious value to advertisers -

giveaway promotions designed to stimulate trial readership plus freebie

contra deals with people such as airlines and hotels. Aside from that,

however, a large number of the discounted sales are active purchases.

For instance, some readers will take advantage of incentives to

subscribe for a year in advance.

The Hello! and OK! situation is different. When Northern & Shell began

giving copies of OK! away for next to nothing with its Daily Express

newspaper and the Daily Mail followed suit by tying up a deal with

Hello!, it was obvious that the magazine business was entering a new


Claiming these as active purchases surely makes a mockery of the ABC

figures, doesn't it? Back in April the ABC amended its rules so that

sales discounted below 20 per cent of full cover price would count only

as bulk copies. But that still means that the latest ABCs include almost

four months of junk sales counted as active purchases.

Martyn Gates, the ABC's director of newspapers and consumer magazines,

says that the organisation should be credited with moving as fast as it

could on this issue: "We can only act as fast as the industry will allow

us and we did act as soon as possible. As far as that is concerned, it's

a done deal. You can't be an active purchase if you sell through a

newsagent for less than 20 per cent of cover price. That's a big

difference to the previous situation."

But is it time to tighten up the definition of an active purchase still

further? How about a headline ABC figure that only counts full price

sales plus subscriptions sold at a modest discount? Probably not, Gates


This isn't an issue, he argues: "Our reports include a complete

breakdown across many categories so they are completely transparent. If

an agency wants to trade only on the full rate sale, it can make that

decision. You can take from the figures what you want.

We are here to ensure that transparency continues to be there rather

than restricting what people can do. It's our role to ensure we keep

that information there and continue to educate people about it."

But other issues have begun to resurface in the wake of the bulks


Tim Kirkman, Carat's press director, concedes that some bulk sales have

some value to advertisers, but he calls for more all-round transparency

in ABC reporting: "For instance, we need more monthly data on monthly

magazines. When an issue has a particularly good cover we want to know

how well it does."

Caroline Simpson, the head of press at Zenith Media, echoes this


But she knows only too well that the publishers will drag their


They are, she reckons, motivated by fear. She states: "They seem to be

obsessed with the notion that greater transparency on magazine sales

data will result in advertising rates being slashed overnight. Of course

the ABC data is used as one of the key negotiating tools between buyers

and sellers but the supply versus demand equation will always remain a

key determinant on price. Publishers are kidding themselves if they

believe agencies don't look beyond headline circulation figures."

Any media buyer worth their salt, she points out, will have an opinion

about the effects on sales of, for example, a 1p cover price promotion,

a celebrity wedding exclusive or £11-worth of cover-mount. "We

regularly estimate the 'real' underlying UK sales figures for magazines,

excluding such exceptional issues, so that a more accurate value can be

placed on anticipated future sales - and probably in far harsher terms

than reality. So why not have total transparency of individual issue

sales and be done with it? Fundamentally transparency fosters greater

client confidence and therefore far from damaging publishers' revenue

base, it could, in fact, enhance it."

Sheila Lamport, the media controller of Barclays, agrees: "The ABC

desperately needs to be modernised but it's something it finds difficult

to do because of the vested interests within the ABC - I think that's

something that everyone acknowledges. But it means we have a system

that's not terribly helpful. It needs a real willingness to change and

to be more open."

Is it likely to happen? Lamport sincerely hopes so - and she hopes

there's a growing realisation in the publishing industry at large that

the current system is contrary to its long-term interests. She adds: "At

the moment the ABC figures are surrounded by a great deal of suspicion.

There's a widespread belief that the figures we are handed are often a

million miles away from the real story and the suspicion is that

absolutely everything is being over-reported. That isn't the case

obviously. But the fact that some people believe it might indeed focus


Bernard Balderston, Procter & Gamble's associate director of UK media,

is also frustrated at a lack of progress. P&G used to spend almost all

of its budgets on television but in recent years has been an increasing

user of other media, such as print. It would be careless indeed if

publishers betrayed this vote of confidence. He states: "We're used to

getting second-by-second data on our TV campaigns and our view is that

there is clearly a need to look urgently at the way that the ABC figures

are published - we need more of a feel of how the market moves on a

monthly or a weekly basis as opposed to the rather bland averages we now

have. I have to say we have had little response from the supplier side

on this. I think they need to understand that they need to be more

specific about what they deliver to advertisers. We need to know how

heavily promoted issues perform and we need to know whether it's worth

advertising in an issue with a particular cover mount. We don't even

know roughly what the actual size of variations from issue to issue can

be. It's going to be a matter of persuasion and debate - and the good

thing about the ABC is that it is a forum in which we can do that."