Why Bauer's secret launch could be just the tonic for tired market

There was a notable lack of magazine ABC parties this month, and - as the Age of Austerity drags on - a number of publishing bosses headed for foreign shores as the figures landed on media buyers' desks yesterday.

The 45+ women's market is an 'undervalued opportunity'
The 45+ women's market is an 'undervalued opportunity'

The latest results mark the period the sector finally emerges, shellshocked, from the devastation of the last two years. And with the overall picture showing a flattening, rather than a recovery, in the consumer magazine market, perhaps you can’t blame those senior publishers for jumping on the nearest plane.

There were encouraging signs of growth - most notably in the women’s lifestyle sector, up 14.6% year on year - but the wider picture shows magazines are struggling to crawl back from the recession as quickly as other media.

Total magazine circulations rose just 0.3% year on year, while advertising revenue is flatlining, with magazine adspend falling 1.6% year on year in Q1 2010, compared to the 9.8% increase over the same period for newspapers.

This means industry revenues and ratecards have been rebased, resulting in an interesting polarising effect between winners and losers, with the stronger circulation titles taking a disproportionate share of clients’ advertising budgets.

In short, there are simply too many magazines in some sectors, and - naming no names - it may be time to close those titles that have had their day to make room for exciting new blood, such as Bauer’s rumoured launch (more on that later).

Douglas McCabe, press analyst at Enders, says: "There comes a point where there is structural oversupply in the market, with too many magazines chasing too few readers. Being in twelfth place in a category is not a pretty place to be."

Meanwhile, the actively purchased debate rumbles on, with publishers relying on bulks, bundles and cheap subscriptions to shore up circulations. NatMag multipacked Reveal, Real People and Best 20 times over the last six months, while Richard Desmond's Northern & Shell multipacked OK!, New and Star 18 times over the same period (not that anyone's counting).

This strategy delivers greater volume, but if done for too long it devalues the brands and makes it harder to persuade consumers to pay full-price on the newsstand - which remains the strongest barometer of magazine health.

As BBC Magazines’ deputy managing director Nicholas Brett said in a dig at his rivals Conde Nast and News International: "You won’t find Lonely Planet Magazine given away in hotel bedrooms next to the free chocolates."

Another battleground is subscriptions - BBC Magazines was jubilant it overtook NatMag to become the biggest magazine subscriptions business in the UK - and building subscriptions revenue to counter the power of the supermarkets will become an increasingly important part of publishers’ business models.

In the digital space, Conde Nast has led the way onto the revolutionary iPad and rival publishers are swiftly following suit, with BBC Magazines due to appoint a publisher to work exclusively on mobile, and Dennis Publishing’s four-strong iPad team poised to announce an app for one of their leading brands next week.

However, publishers should only invest in new platforms if it is right for their audience and the content is suited to that device - and the same goes for print launches, which have been thin on the ground over the last year.

One rumour that is refusing to go away - and was referenced in an Enders Analysis report last month - is the whisperings that Bauer Consumer Media is planning to launch a weekly magazine aimed at the 45+ women’s market, believed to be an "upmarket Good Housekeeping".

Whether Bauer is indeed preparing a launch or simply researching the audience, Media Week wishes them luck. Such a launch would be a brave but astute play for one of the most undervalued opportunities in the business - and just the tonic the tired market needs.