ABC figures that just don’t add up

It’s hard to imagine such a dry subject as the biannual round of magazine circulation figure announcements causing industry ructions. But such is the case, now that advertiser heavyweight Bernard Balderston, of Procter & Gamble, has thrown down a gauntlet and called for far-reaching change. Nor is he by any means alone in demanding reform. Magazine publishers will ignore this clamour at their peril, though they may understandably balk at taking action over it.

Like almost any media measurement body you care to mention, the Audit Bureau of Circulations is having trouble keeping up with the pace of change. Over the years, the ABC has attempted to placate advertisers’ not unreasonable demands for qualified headline figures by splitting out such items as bulk deliveries and discounted sales. Publishers were never likely to welcome these deflating qualifications with open arms, but they have reluctantly accepted them. Yet the complexity of the current rules seems to have led to some serious gaffes. Major publishers, such as NatMags and EMAP, have been forced to restate their figures, greatly undermining the credibility of ABCs – in the eyes of advertisers and media buyers/planners – as a trading currency.

The solution, argues Balderston – who carries considerable weight as a member of the ABC Council, as well as a representative of the UK’s biggest advertiser – is nothing less than a thorough overhaul of the system, as opposed to the piecemeal tinkering of the past. To achieve a transparency satisfactory to all parties, magazines should publish their figures monthly, as do newspapers. The tone of his message is worth conveying personally: ‘The ABC data produced is less than helpful to advertisers, because it is produced on an average [ie six-monthly] basis. When I buy space on television, I know exactly what I’m paying for… I need the same level of information with magazines. I see no reason why I can’t get a fuller picture, though undoubtedly it would change the way of trading and maybe even put publishers at a disadvantage.’

Indeed it would. Average figures can conceal a multitude of publishing sins, which a demystifying monthly audit would bring to light – allowing advertisers and media buyers to drive a harder bargain. This is not the unalloyed good it appears at first sight. Not all advertisers – for instance, the seasonally weighted fashion brands – need that level of detail. Then again, publishers – which already bear the vast majority of auditing costs – would almost certainly have to shoulder any additional financial burden alone. That seems a trifle unfair, given that advertisers are likely to be the main beneficiaries of the proposed reforms.

Not, of course, that publishers will be losing too much sleep over Balderston’s proposals. They can rest assured that the excessively bureaucratic structure of the ABC Council will neuter anything remotely radical. But, in a way, that is the point. It is precisely because advertisers’ demands have been frustrated that they have gone so public. A wiser tactic for publishers would be to be more accommodating, while tactfully suggesting that any reform of the audit system should also aim to spread more equitably its financial consequences.

Stuart Smith, EditorNews, page 15; Media Analysis, page 19

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