The appointment of Douglas McArthur to review the Audit Bureau of Circulation’s (ABC) reporting frequencies across newspapers and magazines (MW last week) has got the publishing industry talking.
McArthur, the former chief executive of the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB), is a high-profile figure in the media. He helped transform the fortunes of commercial radio during his time at the RAB and many believe that he will have a similar impact on the print sector.
McArthur’s credentials, experts acknowledge, are tailor-made for his role at the ABC. The appointment of an independent candidate from outside the sector has raised serious hopes of reform.
Paul Thomas, investment director at MindShare, says: “I think it’s good the ABC is getting an independent guy in, with fresh eyes. Let’s hope it leads to more frequent and accurate information out there.”
Thomas wants to see magazines shift from six-monthly to monthly reporting of circulation figures, and a more transparent breakdown of newspaper data.
Other issues urgently in need of reform, according to buyers, are the separation of discounted sales from the headline circulation figure. Publishers have in the past been forced to restate their circulation figures after misinterpreting ABC rules – a transgression which has led buyers to question the integrity of the current system.
Hurdles in sight
McArthur will listen to the arguments put forward by media buyers as part of his review, which is due to be completed by this summer. But, crucially, a move towards greater transparency of data will need rubber-stamping by the ABC Council, which could prove the stumbling block to reform.
The council is made up of advertisers, media buyers and media owners, and the last are likely to argue against such reforms. Publishing houses like Condé Nast and IPC, for instance, believe the current ABC system provides adequate data.
One insider says: “The council’s make-up has proved a thorn in the side of previous efforts to get consensus on issues.”
But in McArthur, the ABC has someone with a successful record of putting disparate parties together. Howard Bareham, head of radio at MindShare, says: “He was good at getting the industry to collaborate in the general marketing of radio as a medium. This was quite significant as radio was a mature medium and not everyone in the industry was pulling in the same direction.”
McArthur, who now owns strategic planning consultancy Planning For Results, was chief executive at the RAB for 14 years until 2006. One of his priorities at the RAB was to encourage radio companies to sign up to fund the organisation – a move which, sources say, was integral to delivering long-term growth in the sector.
Scott Taunton, chief executive of TalkSport, says: “He did a remarkable job at the RAB. He repositioned radio as a wider medium.”
The ABC remains tight-lipped about what prompted this review, apart from saying it “constantly reviews processes and procedures”. It maintains that McArthur’s independence is crucial to the review and, furthermore, admits that previous internal reviews have not prompted significant changes to its procedures.
An independent appointment
Chris Boyd, chief executive of ABC, says: “The most important thing about the appointment of McArthur is that he is trusted by both sides, and not related to buyers and sellers.” Steve Goodman, managing director of print trading at Group M and an ABC Council member, is a long-standing proponent of greater transparency across magazine and newspaper circulation data.
Interestingly, though, Goodman says he will back McArthur’s proposals irrespective of what they may be. It remains to be seen whether or not other council members will follow suit.