Work done, feet up, cup of coffee, bar of chocolate. Reach for your magazine. Dream of a glossy, full-colour, luxurious land. A land where waistlines are trim, orgasms multiple and a Versace vest is a snip at 600.
Women’s magazines are a treat. Around 40m of them are sold every month and women spend 346m on them every year. For ten years their circulations have grown steadily while newspaper circulations and TV viewing have declined.
The focus for much of the industry for the past two years has been the race between Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan to dominate the women’s monthly market. Their latest ABC circulation figures show them neck and neck, with Cosmo on 456,131 and Marie Claire at 455,109.
However, Marie Claire is increasing its circulation relentlessly and last month Cosmo changed its editor Marcelle d’Argy-Smith, replacing her with ex-Company editor Mandi Norwood, in an effort to kick-start its static sales.
Tempting as it is to make straight comparisons between the titles, media buyers insist that to do so is to over-simplify how magazines work.
“It is an attitude thing, not an audience thing,” says Steve Goodman, head of press at media independent The Media Business. “Demographically, they’re very similar, but it is about attitudes to the world, to shopping, to how you dress.”
Goodman believes Marie Claire provides a market that is more serious. One that is interested in clothes and world issues, while Cosmopolitan’s readership is more glitzy and fun-loving.
He thinks it is healthy for advertisers that both should exist. They provide different ways to sell products to different women.
“Magazines are a personal badge,” says Marie Oldham, head of press at Leo Burnett. “They reflect who you think you are and you have an emotional attachment to them.”
It is the emotional attachment that makes magazines work for advertisers. Their readers are loyal, they set aside time to read them and according to Nicholas Coleridge, managing director of Condé Nast, they enter a different world where the prices of goods don’t seem unreasonable. “They activate the shopping gland,” he says.
Advertisers are able to tap into that emotional attachment and hope that some of the feeling for the title will be transferred to their products.
Coleridge believes maga zines plugged into the prevailing consumerist ethos of the Thatcher years perfectly because of their own aspirational, selfish ethos.
Oldham agrees that glossy magazines are read for selfish reasons. “They are very much about ‘me’, they are read in ‘my time’. Advertisers would be stupid to place products there that are for any other members of the family. Women read them for what they want,” she says.
As women get married later, have children later and stay in their careers longer, what they want from a magazine is also changing. Both Goodman and Oldham agree that this change provides opportunities for magazine houses to develop new products.
They say there is a gap for more magazines such as the National Magazine Company’s SHE, which provides a bridge between the likes of Marie Claire and Cosmo and the more domestic titles such as Good Housekeeping.
However, Heather Love, publishing director of Marie Claire, believes there has been a fundamental change in women’s social attitudes that has lengthened the age-span of glossy magazines.
“I split women into the pre-and post-pill generations,” she says. “Pre-pill women in their mid-fifties are much more like their mothers in terms of their outlook on sex and how confident they are. Post-pill women have much more in common with younger women than their mothers.”
Love sees a future for women’s magazines that are not strictly determined by age considerations but by shared attitudes and interests. “For an angling magazine it doesn’t matter if the reader is 17 or 70, women’s magazine are moving that way.”
Changing demographics is not the only factor magazine publishers are having to face up to. The past 15 years has seen a doubling in the number of different titles in the UK.
Most of the growth has come from the launch of ever-more specialist titles, but Mike Matthew, chief executive of IPC Magazines, believes generalist women’s titles are also becoming more niche. “The salami is being sliced thinner in all parts of the market,”
It is this niche quality that Oldham believes guarantees the future success of the medium. “Magazines are the original highly targeted relationship marketing channel,” she says. “Tight targeting, databases, response mechanisms, loyalty clubs… Magazines have been doing it for years.”
Further fragmentation of the market has been flagged by the move by NatMags and Condé Nast into contract publishing. “Instead of offering an advertiser AB women ‘of the sort who shop in Marks & Spencer'”, says Oldham. “A well-produced contract title can offer them the actual women who shop in M&S. They are going to be highly profitable sectors.”
Matthew doesn’t believe that contract magazines – which IPC already produces – will ever represent a sizeable part of the company’s revenue.
“With contract publishing you do not have a brand franchise, you are a contractor. It is a bit flaky to get into when magazine publishing is based on brands and a relationship with the readers.”
Strong as the relationship with readers may be, magazine publishing is menaced on a number of fronts.
Paper price increases threaten to halt the growth in new titles and Internet-hype shows that new screen-based media are attracting a lot of attention and investment.
In addition, cable and satellite TV offer the highly targeted market that magazines have traditionally provided. For the past two years consumer magazines have been losing share of advertising spend to TV and radio.
Most ominously, Reed Elsevier last month announced its intention of selling off its consumer publishing interests to move into business and electronic publishing.
Reed is holding onto IPC Magazines, but has posted notice that IPC’s high profits and market dominance are the only things keeping it in consumer publishing.
IPC’s Matthew rejects the assertion that Reed basically believes magazine publishing is a smokestack industry in decline. “Magazine publishing is clearly a mature industry,” he says . “But it has shown very good growth characteristics for the past five years.”
He believes that through new product development and recent improvements in the distribution chain – moving into supermarkets and major multiples –
magazines have more growth to come.
“Publishers,” he says, “have recognised that they are in the fast-moving consumer goods business.”
He accepts that paper-price increases will mean some magazines will close, but he’s confident that a combination of increased efficiencies and passing costs on to customers – both advertisers and readers – will keep the major publishers growing.
He believes, as you would expect from the publisher of more than 70 titles, efficiencies are to be derived from economies of scale. IPC has been pursuing these via printing efficiencies, but there is more to come.
“I question how long magazines can operate a cottage industry front end and a highly streamlined back end,” he says. “Does every individual title need its own editorial manufacturing department?” Matthew plans to cut costs by grouping together as many editorial functions as possible within IPC.
Publishers are bullish about the threat from other media. Both Coleridge and Matthew cite the aesthetic tactile quality of magazines and their portability as protection from screen-based media.
Indeed, NatMag’s managing director Terry Mansfield has been active in campaigning for the right to turn magazine brands into TV programmes because he believes new TV channels offer publishers opportunities.
He wants the right to produce a Good Housekeeping TV cookery programme or a Cosmo fashion segment for example, which at the moment Independent Television Commission regulations forbid.
Jim Marshall, managing director of media buyer The Media Centre, believes publishers are being complacent if they want to act only as suppliers to other media.
“The successful media owner of the future will be the one with the widest range of interests across all media,” he says.
Marshall believes the need to develop across different media is driven by two factors.
First, as audiences split into ever-smaller niches, you need to own more of the channels of communication to hold onto the total audience share you once possessed. And second, and more importantly, media owners need to cross-subsidise and cross-promote to survive.
“It is small beer to achieve economies of scale in your printing costs,” he says. “You have to look at how diversity allows you to dominate media markets. Murdoch essentially used his TV profits to buy circulation increases for The Times and The Sun through price-cutting. He hammered his opposition.”
Marshall believes magazines have already exhausted product developments and cost-cutting and that publishers should be following EMAP into other markets such as radio. EMAP’s acquisition of the Metro Group of radio stations in the North, last month, made it the largest radio owner in the country.
“The trend in media is towards consolidation,” says Lorna Tilbian, media analyst at Panmure Gordon. “You are seeing one or two operators dominating each sector, such as Carlton and Granada in TV and GWR and Capital in radio.
She adds: “The next logical thing is to straddle other media to achieve economies of scale and cross-promote your services. EMAP is a good example of this. It has taken its skills in music and youth magazines and combined them with the experience of selling advertising in local newspaper markets to move into radio.”
The future of women’s magazines seems assured. They are ideal vehicles for the highly targeted relationship marketing techniques of modern advertisers. They are one of the few very personal media purchases that women make. They are portable, and they feel and look nicer than a computer screen or a TV.
But what is not so certain is the future of the companies which publish them.
“You have to get big and you have to diversify,” says Marshall. “Otherwise you get swallowed up.”