The Big Issue’s founding editor, John Bird, describes its fifth birthday this week as “an awful success”. His feeling is that while the magazine sold by the homeless has gone from strength to strength, its very longevity is a sad reflection on the state of British society.
It is hard to disagree with the assertion that the magazine is a success. Since it started out in September 1991 it has moved from a monthly published only in London to a weekly magazine with six regional issues.
In response to requests from agency buyers it produced its first Audit Bureau of Circulations figure in 1994 to prove the magazine was being sold. It now has two ABCs, one of 132,000 in London and 104,000 in Scotland.
Some agencies still remained reluctant to buy space in the magazine because they thought of it as a charity purchase that was not being read. So The Big Issue got itself a National Readership Survey figure. This gives it a readership of 825,000 each week, just 100,000 or so behind the Independent on Sunday.
The Big Issue’s sales growth and back up data has not made selling the magazine to agencies very much easier than before. Now that it has an ABC and an NRS, agencies are complaining because the magazine’s readership is not matched to the Target Group Index.
“Agencies are very traditional in their approach,” says Sylvia Johnson, the advertising sales manager. “Because they cannot place us, or pigeon hole us, we can get left out of schedules.”
The sales team is embarking on a round of breakfast meetings with agencies to do what it describes as “low-scale” presentations concentrating on the magazine’s numbers. It has its own readership lifestyle research which it is using in place of TGI.
Where The Big Issue has been successful is with advertisers rather than agencies. “Clients tend to have a feeling that they want to be badged with what The Big Issue stands for,” says Johnson.
Banks and utilities used to advertise through their corporate and community service budgets, using the title as an image enhancer. But the magazine is quick to maintain that its advertising is not a pity purchase. It sells its numbers not its good intentions, says ad sales director Dermott McPartland. Otherwise it would just get one-off ads.
Now banks are more likely to use the title because its young readership is more amenable to the kind of new, direct response services banks are trying to sell.
Charity advertisers wishing to plug into the magazine’s socially aware readership are an obvious client base, but Johnson wants to emphasise that readers who are “joiners” or active in social issues tend also to be early adopters of new products. “We are not talking about couch potatoes here,” she says.
The magazine developed its what’s on section, Pulse, two years ago allowing it to target more leisure advertisers such as film and record companies. Leisure and charity are now well established and the title is looking at targeting mainstream consumer and lifestyle advertisers.
It has had a lot of success with brands such as Boddington and Levi’s which are looking for a street-cred image. Boddington has been with the magazine since it launched, using it as part of its outside back cover magazines strategy.
“It is not a charity thing,” says Philippa Stuart, head of press at Motive, Boddington’s media buyer. “We get access to a large audience through it and it is not a high capital cost.” Motive especially likes The Big Issue’s back covers because of the way it is sold, “it’s like a poster site in the press”, says Stuart.
The Big Issue now claims to be the biggest independent publishing company in the UK, selling over 20 million magazines a year. It has just appointed Andrew Jaspan, former editor of The Observer, as managing editor to tighten up its commercial operations and oversee planned new product launches (MW July 26).
Jaspan refuses to be drawn on what the company has planned, but it seems it is not restricting itself to magazine publishing. “It doesn’t take a genius to work out that vendors on the street could be selling things in addition to magazines.”
The publisher is already moving into new areas and thanks to a donation from Bloomberg Finan-cial Services it has a film and editing unit for a planned move into socially-aware TV programming.
With the help of a grant from the European Union The Big Issue acts as an advisor and model for a European network of 30 homeless or “street” magazines.
The Big Issue’s success and Jaspan’s own personal beliefs are probably enough to explain the presence of a former national newspaper editor in such a relatively low key role.
But as he leads you around the large and mainly unoccupied offices of Big Issue House in Clerkenwell it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the diminutive Scotsman has some very big plans for all that space.