Smaller media press home their role in booming UK ad industry

This year’s Advertising Association lunch at the Savoy was enlivened by a confession from the guest speaker, the Arts Minister Mark Fisher. The Old Etonian is an adornment to the earnest ranks of New Labour ministers – indeed, you often have to remind yourself he is a Labour minister.

Last year, he addressed a seminar on the thorny issue of whether museums and galleries should charge for admission. In opposition, Labour believed they should be open free, but in power, with a stern Gordon Brown keeping a tight fist on the purse strings, the Culture Department took a different line, embracing the principles of the market. So Fisher urged the assembled curators to market their museums more effectively and make money from admission prices, shops and cafés. They should take inspiration, he said, from successful retailers – such as Harvey Nicols!

At the AA lunch, Fisher warm-ed to a similar theme. He lavished praise on the ad business for its creativity, which was famed all over the world and one of Britain’s great success stories. And then he came to his confession. He had just discovered, over lunch, that a good deal of advertising wasn’t on TV.

This had obviously come as a blinding revelation – so much so that he wanted to share it with his audience. It left them even more shocked. We all know Government ministers don’t live in the real world, but this administration has hardly been in power for a year. What newspapers does Fisher read? Has he not seen a bus or listened to commercial radio? What does he think those bits are at the cinema, before the films come on? Did he miss “Hello Boys” and “Labour Isn’t Working”?

Perhaps the AA should send him its latest publication, which shows that TV last year accounted for a mere 27.8 per cent of ad business – and that this figure, despite the proliferation of new TV channels, is going down, from 28 per cent in 1996 and 28.5 in 1995.

The AA’s Advertising Statistics Yearbook, just out, is often described as the industry’s statistical bible. It shows that advertising expenditure last year rose to a record 13bn and that press advertising still dominated the industry, with 53 per cent of the total – though, to spare some of Fisher’s blushes, that figure includes classified as well as display.

National newspapers had a share of 12.6 per cent, the same as in 1996. Regional newspapers took 17 per cent (down from 17.1 last year), consumer magazines five per cent (up from 4.8), business papers 8.4 per cent (from 8.5), directories 5.6 per cent (down from 5.8) and production costs 4.4 per cent (4.6).

Direct mail took 11.7 per cent (the same as in 1996), outdoor 3.8 per cent (up from 3.5), radio three per cent (up from 2.9) and cinema 0.7 per cent (up from 0.6).

From which we may deduce that 1997 was a very good year for the smaller (or “minor”) media. Magazines, radio, outdoor and cinema all increased their market share, which some might consider a remarkable achievement in an era of expanding television choice and burgeoning newspaper supplements.

One reason may be that all these media are now marketing themselves better, taking a lead from the Radio Advertising Bureau, which has helped commercial radio more than double its ad revenue in real terms since 1992. And one way the RAB has done this is by skilfully deploying the AA expenditure statistics, to show advertisers and the City just how well radio is doing.

Of course, like all media statistics – Rajar, BARB, NRS and ABC – they can be used selectively. The RAB has always focused – quite legitimately – on radio’s share of display revenue (since it doesn’t compete for classified). For 1997, it claims a display share of 4.9 per cent (which sounds much better than its three per cent share of the total). This is its own calculation, based on the AA’s quarterly figures.

But this year, one medium demanded a recount. Regional newspapers had an excellent year in 1997, boosting circulation, profits and ads. Yet this did not seem to be reflected in the AA figures, which showed lower growth and revenue than those compiled by the Newspaper Society, particularly for the regionals.

NS Marketing – the body set up by regional papers to emulate the RAB – enquired further and discovered the AA’s regular survey of regional publishers produced only a patchy response, understating the medium’s true performance.

So it persuaded the AA to let it co-ordinate another survey of NS members, specifically relating to national display advertising. This time, 75 per cent of the papers took part, and the results showed a 12 per cent rise – proclaimed by the NS last week as “the biggest year-on-year increase this decade”.

Writing to his members, NS national development manager Charles Ross says talks are underway with the AA for more involvement in gathering regional newspaper statistics: “A high sample and absolute accuracy are critical, since the AA reports are respected sources used by journalists and City analysts when comparing the health of various media.”

Yet a comparison between the NS release and the AA’s own press release produces what seem to be anomalies. The AA says total UK ad spending was 13bn, the NS 11 bn. The AA says TV’s share was 27.8 per cent, the NS puts it at 28.3. The AA has regional newspapers’ share as 17 per cent, the

NS 20.3 per cent. The reason is that the NS has, as far as possible, excluded production costs. This is quite legitimate but, of course, like the RAB’s own analysis of the statistics, it muddies the waters.

On second thoughts, perhaps the AA shouldn’t send its Yearbook to Mark Fisher. It might only confuse him further.

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