The response was swift and, in many ways, predictable. On Tuesday of last week, The National Magazine Company announced it was retrospectively releasing monthly sales figures (essentially single-issue figures for monthly titles) covering the past three Audit Bureau of Circulations reporting periods: January to June 2004, July to December 2003, and January to June 2003.
For many years advertisers and agencies have put pressure on the ABC and the Periodical Publishers Association to release monthly magazine figures. After all, the information exists, it can be released at little extra cost, and its availability would help agencies and advertisers produce more efficient schedules. There's a moral angle here, too - all sides of the industry are committed to transparency, so how do publishers justify hiding information that is readily to hand?
This conundrum was acknowledged by NatMags' managing director, Duncan Edwards, in last week's statement: "We have done this in response to repeated industry demands for greater transparency in monthly sales trends."
The move may also have something to do with NatMags' attempts to restore faith in its circulation figures following two recent occasions on which the publisher had to restate some of its ABCs.
Whatever his motives, if the release of the data goes well, Edwards says, NatMags will look at breaking out its monthly data as a matter of routine.
Many observers thought this was likely to be a milestone moment and the rest of the market would feel shamed into following NatMags' lead. They were soon disabused of that notion.
On Thursday, the PPA issued a statement revealing that it will continue to oppose change. It said: "The PPA position on auditing of individual issues is that the extra costs involved would result in a rise in the cost of advertising, both through potential rate renegotiations and also the cost of increased auditing. This would disadvantage magazines against other media."
PPA resolve was stiffened by the fact its new chairman is Nicholas Coleridge, the managing director of Conde Nast, NatMags' closest rival and the publisher most opposed to monthly auditing.
But media planners and buyers are getting agitated about the role of the ABC in this. In particular, they point out the ABC was set up to look after advertisers' interests, not to be the publishers' plaything. And historically, they're right.
1. The ABC was launched to provide clarity and transparency. The bureau was launched in 1931 on behalf of ISBA during the first great circulation war (and it was as vicious as anything we've seen since) between Lord Beaverbrook's Daily Express and the first Lord Rothermere's Daily Mail. Truth is often the first casualty of war and the industry as a whole needed a currency it could trust.
2. In theory, advertisers, agencies and media owners can have their say in matters concerning the ABC. In practice, it rarely does anything that will upset publishers. It has a general council of 32 members, with five seats reserved in perpetuity: two for ISBA, two for the IPA and one for the Newspaper Publishers Association. A specialist committee on consumer magazines meets four times a year.
3. Advertisers have been pushing for more transparency in the ABC's reporting of magazine figures for at least a decade. In 2001, Bernard Balderston, the associate media director of Procter & Gamble, stated: "We're used to getting second-by-second data on TV campaigns and our view is there is clearly a need to look at the way the ABC figures are published."
4. Advocates of more transparency argue the figures are readily available and could be audited to ABC standards at little cost. They say planners should be able to take account of seasonal variations in consumer magazine sales.
5. Publishers say that greater transparency would be too costly and in any case variances in circulation issue by issue are so small as to be irrelevant. Which doesn't quite square with their other argument - that media buyers would abuse new data by attempting to leverage discounts on weaker issues.
6. Those following suit: no other mainstream publisher has backed NatMags' initiative, though IPC Media has indicated that if there is to be change, it must be gradual. Emap will happily sit on the fence for as long as it takes.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
- As a body, they may believe they have acted decisively to regain control of the agenda following NatMags' decision to break ranks. Some acknowledge privately, however, that this is not an issue that is likely to go away.
- If they delay, they risk losing even more good will, especially among large FMCG advertisers, which have been returning to the medium in recent years.
- Publishers argue that an advantage of releasing average figures on a half-yearly basis is that it creates a feeding frenzy of activity both in the trade press and the media sections of the nationals.
- They will find a way of preserving this tradition at least in the medium term, by releasing only retrospective data on a quarterly basis.
- Many believe the publishers should embrace differential pricing as soon as possible and market themselves as forward-thinking media owners, rather than being bumped into it reluctantly at a later date.
- Advertisers and their agencies have always maintained that they need the figures to improve planning and to enable them to migrate towards certain appropriate issues across the year.
- But they would be expecting publishers to regulate and smooth out the market by introducing some form of differential pricing.
- Advertisers could lose out if there is change. Without checks on demand, some issues across the year would start attracting horrendous advertising clutter.