Media buyers long have been frustrated with many magazines' insistence on guaranteeing only average paid circulation -- instead of guaranteeing the paid circulation of specific issues in which ads actually appear. But now MediaVest USA has gathered support from heavyweight clients to make issue-specific guarantees a reality.
"Let me be clear that I am a print champion," said Robin Steinberg, senior VP-director of print investment and activation at MediaVest. "However, we believe that all publishers should make this guarantee, and we will walk away from business for those who don't." MediaVest spent about $900 million in consumer magazines on behalf of its clients last year.
The new power play reflects the growing demand for precision metrics in the media business, a drive fueled by an internet model that seems to promise instant accountability. It is also, though, part of a broader regime change in the industry, one that has delivered dominance to advertisers from media owners. Marketers now have too many options and have found too many ways to sell themselves, beyond traditional advertising, for publishers or broadcasters to keep setting the agenda. There's a reason commercial ratings on TV have arrived at last: Advertisers seem to finally have enough leverage to force the issue.
"As somebody who's ultimately paying the bills, what I'm looking for is accountability and transparency," said Donna Campanella, executive director for global media at Avon, a MediaVest client. "We want to make sure that the impressions we were hoping to get for a particular issue have been delivered. Because what we advertise is coordinated with what's in our brochures, timeliness is important."
"In this age when there are so many choices out there, particularly in the digital arena, traditional media needs to step up and really prove their value, good or bad," Ms. Campanella added.
But change still doesn't come easily or instantly. Time Inc., the country's biggest magazine publisher, guarantees most advertisers an average paid circulation across the issues in which they buy space; if you buy into five issues, the company promises those five issues will achieve a certain average paid circulation.
Anything else would only hike costs for everyone, said John Squires, senior exec VP at Time Inc., because publishers would pump up print runs to make sure not one issue falls even a percentage point shy of its rate base. "They want all guarantees and all protections at all times," he said of marketers and media buyers. "That just kind of forces a completely unrealistic expectation on our business. We do have to concentrate on some efficiencies."
Publishers don't get any reward when magazines sell more copies than guaranteed, Mr. Squires noted. And swings of 50,000 copies in newsstand sales at magazines that consistently sell millions can't be the top challenge in marketing right now. "In these times, in this world, with the kind of competitive pressure that there is on publishers already and the intense pressure on rates, is this really a big issue?" he asked.
Ms. Steinberg said advertisers need protection against tactics publishers can use to meet average guarantees. A few titles have made up for shortfalls early in the standard six-month reporting periods by drastically increasing their use of copies -- called "verified" by auditors -- that are distributed in hair salons, doctors' offices and so on. "Verified circulation was put forth with the notion that publishers would use and place these copies strategically and with transparency," she said. "However, we believe the proper use is not taking place, and the current use is to make up for rate base underdelivery from newsstand decline."
A challenge from Hachette
Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S., publisher of magazines such as Elle and Car and Driver, already has started selling its men's enthusiast titles against issue-specific guarantees and is considering doing the same across its portfolio next year. But if Jack Kliger, president-CEO, is going to meet the buyers' challenge, he has one of his own for them.
"Issue-specific circulation-based pricing, to me, is an interim step to issue-specific audience-circulation guarantees," he said. That is to say, once the industry can better measure how many people see an issue, whether they borrow it from a friend or read a public-place copy, media buyers should drop this obsession with refining paid-circulation metrics. "It's like trying to make the kerosene lamp produce more light because that's what we're familiar with," Mr. Kliger said, "and don't trust this newfangled electricity thing."