Media Perspective: ABCs highlight the challenges facing consumer brands

February is very definitely the cruellest month for a good percentage of the leading consumer publishers. The ABC sales figures made grim reading, coming as they did on the back of months of discussion over the future of the industry and the structural upheaval that key players are facing.

Two weeks ago, Emap published an update on its ongoing "efficiency review", stating that it expects to deliver cost savings of £20 million a year amid a consumer magazine market it described as "challenging".

Over at Dennis Publishing, another strategic review is underway, albeit one apparently driven by different reasons, as the company looks set to offload its US Maxim franchise. If reports are to be believed, this sale will help fund the owner Felix Dennis' desire to create the largest forest in the UK.

Dennis' investment in the US has been seemingly more successful than Emap's - who can forget that eight years ago it made one of its largest strategic mistakes by acquiring the US publisher Petersen, only to sell it on two years later for less than half what it paid?

Emap seemed to have rallied since, but now it's struggling again with a stagnant share price, a chief executive under pressure and a cost-cutting programme that can hardly bode well for its big consumer magazines. And trouble in America resurfaced in December when it suspended publication of FHM.

Emap is still talking confidently. Its executives now insist that the world has moved on and, in the words of Paul Keenan, the chief executive of Emap Consumer Media, is about "the transition from a print business to a brands business". It's funny then that in the same week, it should part company with David Pullan, the strategic brand and marketing director for its consumer magazines and radio business. The man who, more than any other, should have been responsible for building these brands.

Of course, the move smacks of cost cutting, given that Pullan will not be directly replaced. However, his departure also highlights another big issue that media owners such as Emap face. It seems that it's hard for an executive such as Pullan, who is floating between a media company's different brands with no profit-and-loss responsibility, to wrest control of those brands, or at least the final say on their marketing, from the MDs of those brands and their product teams.

An attempt to market a media brand can all too often result in an unholy mess where clear marketing-budget responsibility is not handed to a marketer with sufficient experience. With Pullan gone, it's to be hoped that Emap, which has in the past proved excellent at creating media brands, gets this right. Otherwise, the unrest surrounding it could grow.

ian.darby@haymarket.com.

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