A touch of consolidation and merger mania can do wonders for the image of a business sector, making it feel vibrant and exciting. Sadly, you could argue that the reverse has been true recently in the world of consumer magazines.
There's been some monumentally big chunks of the industry on the move or reported to be on the block of late. BBC Magazines, including some of the market's most desirable titles (Radio Times, for instance) has been up for sale and Richard Desmond has been out there fishing for interest in his portfolio of mainstream Northern & Shell titles, including OK!.
And the biggest deal of all was Lagardere's decision to offload the international editions of titles published by its Hachette Filipacchi subsidiary, including Red, Psychologies and (though it wants to keep the French-inspired editorial and brand control of this one) Elle.
Incredible stuff. And yet it has merely served to confirm the notion that, in the sleepy world of glossy print, things can move desperately slowly; and even when things do at last look like moving forward at pace, those involved tend to make the whole business sound desperately dull.
BBC Magazines was put up for sale almost a year ago. Last week, it announced that, fingers crossed, it has whittled the field of prospective candidates down to one - Bauer. Perhaps. All being well. Similarly, the Northern & Shell prospectus has been circulating since last year and has hardly created major ripples in the marketplace.
So you could argue that, in comparison, Lagardere and Hearst have been moving with indecent haste. The former erected its "for sale" sign in the first week of December last year. Last week, the latter confirmed it had concluded an agreement to buy Hachette's titles outside France (102 titles across 15 countries) for £560 million.
Except that the proposed deal could trigger competition investigations in some markets - so it may not be formally concluded until much later this year. In the meantime, Hearst is declining to comment. Its UK subsidiary, The National Magazine Company, told Campaign that Duncan Edwards, the US-based president and chief executive of Hearst Magazines International, may issue a statement when the time is right.
Meanwhile, NatMag has declined to give even the sort of off-the-record briefing that may help to keep the pot boiling. So all we have to go on, really, is a previous statement from Edwards to the effect that the deal wouldn't be very interesting from a UK perspective.
That and a pithy analysis supplied by a rival. Commenting on the prospect of NatMag being able to tout Elle alongside Harper's Bazaar, Nicholas Coleridge, Conde Nast's managing director, succeeded rather neatly in accentuating the negative. "They are nice titles but they sure ain't Vogue," he said.
1. The sale was given a rather dowdy context by Lagardere, which made it clear that it regarded its magazines as underperforming assets with a less-than-exciting future in a declining market. Since then, however, there have been signs that the magazine advertising market (in the US, at least) has been picking up.
2. The UK market has been bumping along the bottom, however. 2009 was a difficult year with consumer magazine ad revenues in each quarter down around 20 per cent year on year. The fourth quarter of 2010 looked fairly decent, up 3.6 per cent year on year to £163.4 million; but print advertising was the one gloomy sector in the recently published Advertising Association/Warc Expenditure Report figures.
3. Hachette's most important assets in the UK are women's lifestyle titles: Elle, which recorded a circulation of 200,531 in the most recent Audit Bureau of Circulations figures, Red (231,028) and Psychologies (120,119).
4. Nat Mag's flagship titles in the women's lifestyle sector include Cosmopolitan (400,575) and Harper's Bazaar (119,712).
5. In a recent interview, Edwards downplayed the notion that the deal will have significant implications for the UK magazine market - instead, he focused on the opportunities it gives Hearst to increase its presence in China.
6. The deal coincides with a restructure on the ad sales side at NatMag with the formation of Hearst UK Cross Media, headed by Matt Salmon and Greg Witham.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
- UK consumer magazine publishing has perhaps been guilty of being cowed in the face of aggressive propaganda by the digerati to the effect that print is already dead.
- Consequently, the industry has put all its energies into showing what lovely iPad applications it can come up with. Which is laudable.
- But what was, not so very long ago, the best-sold medium in town has, as a result, acquired the lowest visibility in rather short order. There seems to be little buzz surrounding magazines and the important part they continue to play in people's lives. A reminder to us what a glorious creative environment they can provide might be overdue.
- The Hachette/Hearst consolidation, and others that may follow, could and should be regarded as an opportunity to put that right.
- Advertisers and their media agencies are not entirely convinced that there are any big implications. As Vanessa Clifford, the managing partner and head of press at Mindshare, puts it: "You hear mutterings about monopolies but I'd argue that, from a consumer perspective, it doesn't make a jot of difference who owns these titles."
- And Clifford's not even sure it will make much difference to NatMag's ad sales outlook. She concludes: "You could argue that they might try to sell differently. With a bigger portfolio, for instance, you could try selling an audience rather than different titles. And, yes, you may now be able to buy two titles with one phone call - but I'm not sure it will give NatMag more leverage in the marketplace."