The Title Deed

The normally genteel world of contract publishing has been somewhat ruffled by unkind words from a couple of notable consumer publishers.

At the Periodical Publishers’ Association’s Magazines & Business to Business ’99 conference last month, Gruner & Jahr group advertising director, Joanne O’Hara said that reading customer magazines is like “living on a diet of junk food which leaves you longing for a real meal”.

O’Hara’s comments were based on qualitative and quantitative research carried out on behalf of G&J by BRMB and Millward Brown (which also conducted research for the Association of Publishing Agencies to show the effectiveness of customer magazines).

O’Hara said: “It’s difficult to assess true readership. Many people read them because they are stuffed inside a shopping bag and have free coupons inside.”

O’Hara warned delegates that customer magazines pose a threat to newsstand sales “but not in the way you might think”. G&J presented the research to top advertising agencies and several clients, including Marks & Spencer and Safeway.

“What we found on several occasions was that the media decision to use customer magazines never made it to the agency. The use of customer magazines is often part of a “back scratching” exercise between the client and the sales promotion agency – it is not always planned as part of the media strategy.”

Steve Goodman, director of media at Mediacom TMB, disputed this. He said that although “in general customer magazines don’t perform as well as paid-for magazines on things like QRS – we use both customer and paid-for magazines and they work for us”.

O’Hara’s comments highlight the usually well-hidden antagonism between contract and consumer publishers. But the response from contract publishers also demonstates that the sector, now worth nearly &£300m a year and growing at 17 per cent annually (Source: Mintel), is not about to concern itself with snipes from consumer publishers.

“I love it when I see high-profile publishers slagging off customer magazines – it means we’re being effective,” says Andy Sivell, managing director of Working Titles Publishing.

Referring to O’Hara’s comments on coupons, Sivell says: “It probably never occurred to her that having loads of coupons, which would have been redeemed, was exactly what the client wanted. These comments are a great example of newsstand paranoia.”

This lack of understanding of what customer magazines are trying to achieve is part of the problem. The fact is that there are as many definitions of a successful customer magazine as there are magazines. Every client wants some thing different – and they don’t usually want the same as newsstand publishers.

In its study of the contract publishing industry last year, Mintel listed eight different primary objectives that clients could have for their publications, including coupon redemption, brand building, enquiry generation, sales uplift, post purchase reassurance or, most significantly, collecting data.

Despite what newsstand publishers say, there is a lot of research being conducted among individual publishers and individual publications. The problem is there is no objective benchmark research against which publishers and clients can measure the success of their magazine.

It is for this reason that the APA has just published its first set of results of a major investigation into the contract publishing industry to yield some empirical evidence that these magazines work.

APA director Hilary Weaver says: “Last year, we appointed a research consultant to collate all research done by our clients into their magazines, and discovered that all research was different because the objectives were too.

“This meant we didn’t have a body of evidence to prove that customer magazines were effective.”

To rectify this, Millward Brown conducted primary research among consumers and business respondents from the public. According to Weaver, the contract publishing industry has at its disposal independent empirical research proving the veracity of these titles.

“This will stand alongside the research that publishers already do for their clients. All we wanted was to set an effective benchmark,” says Weaver.

Board director at Premier Magazines David Fernando calls the APA initiative laudable, but still maintains that because magazines are looking to achieve different results, it will always cause problems.

He says: “This is why it is critical when talking to a client to establish how their magazine’s perfor- mance is to be measured from the outset. Clients should be looking for a tangible series of results from a magazine. Part of the problem is that marketing directors and departments change – and if successive people can’t see what they are getting out of a magazine, our business is in trouble.”

Fernando says it is not difficult to establish whether a magazine is doing what it should. “We do a number of airline magazines and it’s easy for them to measure effectiveness through ad sales. BA’s Highlife works extremely well in terms of revenue generation and is turning in a tidy profit for the airline,” he says.

The ability to collect data is another important objective set by many magazines, particularly in the automotive sector.

Fernando says: “We do VM, a quarterly magazine for Vauxhall which goes out to 700,000 existing and potential Vauxhall owners. The motor industry is driven by collecting data and information. The main reason for VM’s existence is to generate that response, so they get people to complete questionnaires with every issue.

“VM is central to Vauxhall’s direct marketing programme and achieves response rates of between 25 and 30 per cent per issue – higher than anything else they have tried before. That data is money in the bank for Vauxhall.”

Many contract publications have Audit Bureau of Circulations figures and are on the NRS – an effective measurement by anyone’s standards. Some contract publications even have subscription programmes. For example, the Post Office Counters’ magazine Active Life, published by Lexicon, has a 240,000 circulation including a paid subscription of 50,000 and an eight per cent renewal rate.

Eddie Southcombe, Lexicon commercial director, says: “People are prepared to pay for it rather than risk missing it, if it is not at their local post office.”

Managing director of The Publishing Team Neil O’Brien says publishers make a mistake when comparing contract magazines with newsstand titles.

“The research we have just done shows that 47 per cent of people who receive customer magazines have bought something from the sponsoring client – nothing else is that effective. Prima {published by G&J} can’t link the magazine to any uplift in advertisers’ sales.”

He adds: “I laughed when I saw those comments from G&J. I had just come from a contract publishing conference in Germany where I shared the platform with G&J, one of the biggest contract publishers in Germany. The company obviously thinks the medium’s good enough there. My initial reaction was that Prima’s UK advertising marketing share must be going down.”

The point is, in an age of scrutinised budgets, clients are not going to spend increasing amounts of money on a marketing communication that has unknown value.

Julian Treasure, chairman of TPD, says: “Customer magazines only exist so long as they work. Any client which pumps that kind of money into magazines demands to know whether they work or not. Far more research goes into the effectiveness of contract publications than it does consumer publications.”

But Treasure believes contract publishers cannot afford to be complacent about the research they are conducting. While he applauds the work of the APA, he adds: “I still have the feeling that differences between customer magazines are more significant than their similarities.

“In a way, the APA research is comparing apples with pears. Maybe it is not going to be possible to construct a meaningful study because each magazine sets out to achieve individual objectives. Magazines need to be measured against their own objectives and not some compromised industry standard.”

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