Women’s mags perform weakly

A recent bevy of women’s weekly launches has led to price cuts and falling profits. Perhaps the market would benefit from a culling.

To describe the women’s weekly magazine market as mature would seem something of an understatement; after all, some of the titles have been around since before World War I. Indeed, looking at the activity in the market last year, doddering senility rather than just maturity seems to be prevailing.

Until Eva, a low-priced mixture of “true-life” and soap stars, was launched in 1994 by the IPC Weeklies Group, the women’s weeklies market had seen little since launches from German publishers in the late Eighties. In 1995 there was just one launch: That’s Life, a celebrity-obsessed weekly from Bauer, publisher of the highly successful Take A Break.

Then came 1996. Things were different. The first move in the weeklies market was the entrance of OK!, Northern & Shell’s imitation Hello!, which went weekly in the first half of the year. Then came Gruner & Jahr’s long-awaited launch of Here!.

Here! was to have been the “big new idea” for the women’s weekly market. Using tabloid journalists and the tabloids’ suppliers of paparazzi pictures, it was to be the antithesis of the fawning Hello!. It was modelled on German and French scandal magazines and the US’ more mid-market People magazine. It would also be more expensive than existing weeklies.

Here! launched in a market that was already fragile. IPC blamed the Lottery for disappointing sales in the first half of 1996. IPC reduced the price of its two big gest selling weeklies, Woman and Woman’s Own, to 30p from 55p to coincide with Here!’s two-week launch campaign.

The price cut had the effect of dampening G&J’s initial sales and causing the company to rethink the magazine’s relatively high cover price of 70p. After 18 months in gestation the Here! blueprint was thrown out and the magazine was relaunched just three weeks after its original launch, the cover-price starting at 35p, then dropping to 25p, before settling at 57p.

IPC returned the compliment and cut Woman and Woman’s Own prices for another two weeks. The two sets of price cuts cost IPC almost 1.6m.

IPC’s next stratagem was to launch into the celebrity-paparazzi market itself and Now, which was a launch planned for 1997, was rushed out in October. But not before Bauer had also entered the same market in September with Enjoy.

G&J then acknowledged that IPC’s price cutting had worked and the new Here!’s price was cut again, along with its older sister Best.

In last week’s ABCs, Here! produced a respectable sales figure of 426,000, above its advertisers guarantees, but below G&J’s pre-launch hopes (it had printed close to a million copies for the magazine’s initial launch). OK!’s previous monthly sale of 207,524 has fallen, making it the smallest weekly sale in the market: 120,978.

The upshot of all this activity – the price cutting, the rethinking of strategies and launch plans – has been to move the sales in the weekly market from 8.2 million a week to 8.4 million a week, a rise of just over two per cent.

The most positive estimates in the industry are that Enjoy and Now, the other two launches of 1996, will add another 100,000 to 200,000 to that figure.

After so much effort for such paltry results, the industry is now moving to a war footing. “IPC cannot afford to lose this battle,” says Nigel Davidson, managing director of IPC Weeklies. “We are in the market for the long haul and do not intend to be beaten.”

But the problem for Davidson is that he is being forced to protect his market share by a combination of both expensive price cuts and new launches.

“Portfolio management” may be his catchphrase at the moment, but the fact is only two of his women’s weeklies saw circulation growth and they were supported by price cuts. His four other women’s weeklies all fell by a greater margin than the two that grew increased. And the performance of Eva does not bode well for last year’s launches. The two-year-old magazine fell by a third to 262,000; well below what is thought sustainable in the weeklies market.

“Woman’s Realm and Eva cannot be making any money,” says a publishing source. “In the TV listings market IPC can afford new launches because much of its editorial costs are already there in the centralised TV listings unit. Another title simply help reduce overheads. But with women’s weeklies there is so much more unique editorial that they cannot be sustained on sales of 200,000.”

G&J did little better in circulation terms: Best was down 3.6 per cent year on year at 544,744. Here! did come in over the crucial 400,000 mark, but G&J was left looking shaken by the ferocity of the response to its launch.

The weeklies which launched in the Nineties are carrying fewer advertising pages than the older titles. Volume is down to three or four pages of advertising per issue, roughly half of what could be expected in the past. So the weeklies are surviving on lower ad revenue as well as lower cover price revenues.

One publisher is feeling rattled after a rollercoaster year: “It is time some of the unprofitable magazines dropped out,” he says. “They have to leave room for the main brands.”

We may be on the verge of a new market model in publishing: first a mature market, then a senile market and finally, a market that needs voluntary euthanasia.

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