NatMags hunts silver lining with new weekly

NatMags aims to make its mark in the weeklies sector with a title aimed at older readers. But will this point of difference enable it to survive in a cluttered market? By Sonoo Singh

It was four years ago that the National Magazine Company first plunged into the cut-throat world of the weeklies when it bought Best as part of the acquisition of Gruner & Jahr (G&J) UK magazines. The move was a first for NatMags’ parent company Hearst, known otherwise for its glossy monthly portfolio including Cosmopolitan.

At the time Best had a circulation of 462,000 copies a week. Fast-forward four years and NatMags’ only weekly title has not only been overtaken by H Bauer’s Bella, but its circulation has declined by more than 41,000 copies to 420,437 according to the July to December 2003 Audit Bureau of Circulations figures (ABCs).

Undeterred by its seemingly ineffectual foray into women’s weeklies, NatMags is launching another title in this sector. It is considering the name Reveal for the new title (MW last week).

Unlike Best, the new launch is likely to be celebrity-focused but for a more mature readership like EMAP Consumer Media’s Closer or IPC Media’s Now. IPC launched Now in 1996 and the latest ABC figures show that the title has overtaken OK! magazine and has a circulation of 592,076.

However, industry experts consider the planned launch as “atypical” of NatMags, which does not have the same reputation for successful launches (as opposed to magazine management) as IPC or EMAP. Its most recent launch includes Cosmo Girl!, a brand extension of Cosmopolitan targeting teenagers.

The managing director of IPC Connect, the weekly magazines division, Evelyn Webster says: “I was quite surprised when we first learned that NatMags was launching a weekly title, especially because it is not its heartland territory.” IPC Connect publishes Woman and Woman’s Own, which dominated women’s weekly magazines until the late Eighties. During that time, readership was on a downward spiral and there was thought to be no room in the market for new titles. Yet in the summer of 1987 German publishers G&J stepped in with Best, followed by rival German company H Bauer, which two months later published another weekly title Bella. The two titles, marketed aggressively with a cheap cover price, defied logic by selling 1 million copies a week within months of their launch.

The women’s weekly sector has since expanded to accommodate a growing number of titles, including classic weekly magazines such as Take a Break and Chat, which offer readers gritty real-life stories of rape and domestic violence, and celebrity-led titles like OK!, Heat and Hello!. Currently, there are 18 different titles in the women’s weeklies market, which according to the latest ABCs is growing in circulation by 4.3 per cent year on year and 2.1 per cent period on period to 8,276,951.

Webster adds: “In 1998 there were 7.3 million weekly women’s magazines being sold every week and today that number has risen to 7.8 million [news-stand] copies. Any publisher would be attracted to the sector with these figures.”

But press buyers are worried that if NatMags’ latest launch is another “me-too”, it will only cannibalise the market instead of helping to increase it. One press buyer points to the latest set of ABCs and says that except from Closer making significant gains, the growth in the celebrity sector has begun to stall.

Closer added 15.1 per cent to its circulation in the period, but sales stablemate Heat were flat, despite EMAP supporting both titles with television advertising during the period. Sales of IPC’s Now were also flat in the last period, even though it discounted three issues from &£1 to 50p. Elsewhere, Northern & Shell’s New! failed to make any progress on its impressive debut; it reported a period-on-period decline of 1.4 per cent to a circulation of 334,310 – less than that of dwindling Hello!.

Sophie Wybrew-Bond, publisher of Closer, points out that in a crowded market publishers need to make big investments in marketing just to maintain market share. It is thought that NatMags will invest &£10m in the marketing of its latest launch and is already talking to advertising agencies. It is understood to have shortlisted Fallon, Clemmow Hornby Inge and HHCL/Red Cell.

Vizeum press buyer Alex Randall says: “Clearly any publisher with deep pockets can launch a new product, but the key to success has to be a point of differentiation. The traditional women’s weekly titles are being eclipsed by the likes of Heat and Closer, and to replicate the success of these titles could prove to be a difficult task. NatMags will have to come up with a magazine that can bring new readers to the market, such as an older and more discerning readership.”

MediaCom press director Steve Goodman says that he has no details about NatMags’ intended launch but adds: “The problem I see with this market is that it is very cluttered and I’m not sure that there is a gap in the sector. Also there is a sense of overkill where celebrity magazines are concerned. But the new launch will help to beef up NatMags’ portfolio.”

One rival publisher says that the timing for the launch is “just right” for managing director Duncan Edwards, who now appears to be making his mark at the privately owned publishing company.

“Edwards has too long been under the shadow of former managing director Terry Mansfield, who led the acquisition of G&J. Now that Terry is no longer involved with NatMags, Duncan has to be seen to be doing something to prove his leadership,” he adds.

Mansfield, the president of the company, stepped down last October after 20 years with NatMags. The G&J deal, reported to be worth &£100m, was a coup for Mansfield and surprised the industry given that its arch-rival IPC had been put so firmly in the frame as the likely buyer of G&J titles.

Earlier this month Edwards led a partnership with US-based Rodale International, to create a 50-50 joint venture in the UK called NatMag Rodale. The deal, initially to include Men’s Health and Runner’s World, will publish both titles under long-term licence from Rodale International (MW May 13).

The publishing industry viewed the deal as a stepping-stone for NatMags on the path to launching additional publications in the less cluttered health and fitness sector.

However, it is the launch of the weekly title that will be examined more closely. The new title will obviously add another women’s weekly to NatMags’ stable, but it will have its work cut out before it can match the weekly might of either EMAP or IPC.

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