How do you audit a brand, industry muses

FOR THE magazine journalist the overall trends in the biannual ABCs figures can be measured by the cut of the canapés doled out by publishers on the day itself. Previous incumbents of the magazines reporter chair tell of champagne delivered directly to their desk, or dining out on the hefty sales rises. This year, I got a box of cupcakes and a children's comic (with thanks to News Magazines and Egmont — they both went down a treat). The devil's in the detail. Even this year's ABCs parties'

invites told their own tale. The biggest consumer publisher IPC has been busy rebranding its ABCs bash to the point where the invite to last Thursday's champagne reception omitted reference to the figures altogether.

Considering IPC's overall ABCs performance, chief executive Sylvia Auton was probably glad of the chance to talk about other things. But there, among the swift slides of Look and the unveiling of grand plans for two "big and good" digital brands in 2007, was a mention of the ABCs, like the elephant in the room you had turned down the lights on in the hope of hiding.

Past glories were wheeled out — the launches of Pick Me Up, Nuts and TV Easy held up as examples of IPC innovation, with only the briefest mention of the sales decline in the first two. It was somewhat inevitable that the biggest publisher might suffer the biggest falls — overall IPC was down 6.8 per cent year on year as Loaded, Uncut, Woman and Woman's Own all posted double-digit decreases.

If IPC was having problems putting a positive spin on its results, at least they weren't across the West End, where Emap, fresh from time spent having the consultants in, were apparently bracing themselves for cuts across their consumer titles.

Here too were signs that the men's lifestyle market wasn't about to do a Lazarus as Arena, FHM and Zoo lost between 20 and 30 per cent of their sales in the past year and a sweeping reshuffling began across the three titles.

As much as it can be tempting to run away with the figures, it's worth remembering that many of all the aforementioned titles still sell between 100,000 and 500,000 copies an issue. That's still a lot of dead wood to flog and dead wood that publishers are hoping to spin off into money making digital brands.

Aside from the main action of who's up and who's down, this period, ABC asked questions about its own future as a measure of a magazine's success, made more pressing by the fact that 2007 should see the big guns finally get in gear over online.

This new wave of digital activity is already causing problems with ABCs reporting. Previously publishers' battles raged over price-cutting, promotions, actively purchased versus bulk sales and frees.

Now, if your print title is flagging, you can always point to page impressions and unique users to defend the umbrella brand. Publishers are increasingly pushing their online expansion as compensation for the decline in the parent magazine. The question, come ABCs time, is how you measure the brand against the magazine.

ABC is working on a cohesive measuring system, but it is unclear when this might come to fruition, or if it will be embraced by publishers already quantifying their digital strategies through other means.

Consider Natmags' proposed digital magazine for teen girls, apparently CosmoGirl! branded. If that's the case, the CosmoGirl! brand would become a monthly magazine, a website and a digital magazine.

Now the CosmoGirl! magazine is in a state of decline, down 23.8 per cent year on year, Natmags will understandably argue that the CosmoGirl! brand is thriving across three platforms. But how do you measure these different strands cohesively and convincingly?

The arrival of Monkey on the men's market has caused consternation among rival publishers. "How can a digital magazine be compared to print?" they cry, understandably peeved at the cheap, easy solution delivered direct to your desktop that Dennis came up with it in the face of Zoo and Nuts.

But they have a point: the ABCe figure of more than 200,000 refers to the copies of Monkey magazine opened by users every week. How can advertisers be convinced those same users will make it to page three? (There's an answer in there somewhere, I know.)

In the same week that Felix Dennis announced his intention to rid himself of his US portfolio, it's no surprise he wants to keep Monkey and his other current UK success, The Week. The relative buoyancy of the current affairs market tells its own, positive story for magazines.

Media saturated, time starved consumers have less time for magazines than ever before, but it does not mean they are abandoning the market altogether. The lean, mean women's weeklies such as Heat, Closer and Grazia are all putting on sales and IPC is banking £18m on the success of Look and Grazia for a younger, poorer generation. There was actually an increase of 0.8 per cent in the volume of issues actively purchased in the UK in 2006, to 1.2 billion.

The death of the monthly remains an overstatement. The doyenne of luxury monthly fixes, Condé Nast, remained steady across its 10 titles — albeit with results that included, to varying degrees, bulk sales and frees.

The monthly market across men's and women's continued to turn away from mass-market general lifestyle magazines and towards more niche propositions. For men this means more gadgets, cars and fitness, good news for titles such as BBC's Top Gear, which may explain their jolly good effort on canapés come ABCs evening.

For women, ‘niche' seems to be translating into highly targeted titles defined by subject, whether that be Vogue's high fashion or Psychologies' spiritual wellbeing — or by honing in on a group defined by a narrow age range. Most magazines' individual markets are shrinking, which requires branching out into multi-faceted brands.

Perhaps as magazines become multi-stranded brands, the ABC figures will start to mean less. Perhaps they will mean more, either as a cohesive form of universal auditing or if separate but ABC electronic and print audits are embraced throughout the market. This sounds like a lot more number crunching, either way. A magazines reporter cannot live by cupcakes alone. Here's hoping to a better spread come August, for everyone.

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