Magazines prepare for a bumpy ride

The summer is a notoriously slow time in the magazine sector and media buyers are usually offered deals at short notice. However, this summer the number of telephone calls from ad sales staff on monthly magazines trying to off-load space at short notice has shot up. This leaves the magazine industry wondering if these are the first signs of the business entering a recession.

David Garratt, managing director of magazine distributor Comag, says: “Magazine sales are soft, there’s no question about it. I’m not saying we are in a recession, but the scenario is undecided.”

Mark Williamson, publisher of special projects at EMAP Metro, goes further: “People across most types of industry say that a recession is coming. In the magazine trade it is a matter of when, not if.”

Because parts of the magazine industry works on lead times up to six months ahead, it is well placed to gauge whether advertisers are tightening or loosening their belts.

As yet the consumer magazine industry has not been significantly affected. In fact, last year saw the highest ever year-on-year percentage increase in annual advertising spend on current prices for consumer magazines – 13.2 per cent to 659.5m since the Eighties boom, according to The Advertising Association’s (AA) Quarterly Survey of Advertising Expenditure.

However, the AA predicts this growth will slow down over the next 12 months. Its forecasts for annual advertising spend on current prices show a year-on-year increase for 1997/1998 of 6.3 per cent. In the following year, the AA predicts spending will drop by 0.5 per cent.

One analyst says: “Advertising growth rates through the first half of the year are roughly the same as last year. It’s more likely that we will slow down during the back end of the year.”

But Damian Blackden, press director at Zenith, comments: “I think that it’s a little bit early to tell how busy the autumn is going to be. October issues of the monthlies should be well supported, given that they are the key fashion issues.

Blackden adds: “We will really see how strong or weak the market is when they come to sell the November issues.”

Men’s and women’s magazines are understood to be the most affected by the current flood of short-term deals.

Nigel Conway, director head of media planning at MediaVest, thinks that one reason for this is the financial crisis in Asia, which has resulted in advertising and marketing budgets of luxury goods manufacturers being cut.

But the publishing director of Vogue, Stephen Quinn, says: “I am finding that these companies are turning back to the UK with a refreshed attitude.”

In the event of a recession, Quinn says: “The luxury goods manufacturers and fashion brands will turn away from posters at Tube stations and bus sides to concentrate their spending in the medium that delivers wealthy consumers – and one which delivers editorial support.”

After a substantial period of growth in the number of advertising pages in Vogue last year, Quinn has made provision for a period of zero growth on last year’s figures for the second half of this year.

Some press buyers have seen a slowing down in spend by clients as diverse as fashion and financial services for the autumn months.

“If there is a downturn, the sector likely to be hit first will be home interest as a result of a property market decline,” says Blackden. “The men’s sector could be vulnerable, too, as it is relatively reliant on luxury goods and the titles tend to carry proportionately lower paginations compared with the female monthlies.”

Lisa Petchey, accounts manager for women’s magazines at Mediacom, also singles out the home interest sector. She says: “Two years ago people were spending heavily on their houses. There was a lot of windfall money then, but that is petering out now and the magazines that launched then might be in trouble.”

If there is a downturn, recruitment advertising is usually the first to suffer – which hits business titles hard.

In 1993, during the last recession, 379 magazines launched while 376 closed, according to publisher Register Information Services. By comparison, last year there were 154 launches and 51 closures.

Alan McFarlane, publishing director at Register, says: “In an average year there tends to be twice as many closures as launches.”

Anthony De Larrinaga, a media analyst at Panmure Gordon, claims that about 60 per cent of the revenue for consumer magazines comes from their cover prices, which for glossy magazines, have gone up over the past ten years at about ten per cent each year, he says.

De Larrinaga adds that a recession need not spell disaster for strong titles. He says: “If you are the number one in a niche market in the recession then you are in a strong position. Advertisers will consolidate around you, and you can reflect that strength in your rate-card.”

Williamson agrees: “Magazines that are number three or four in the market are the first to feel the pinch.”

He argues that the consumer will not give up his or her monthly fix of leading titles like Cosmopolitan or FHM. But they will trim their additional magazines.

Over the next few of months the magazine industry will hold its breath to see whether the economy is merely going through a period of turbulence, or whether there are darker times ahead.

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