HEARST, TIMES MIRROR TURNING TO MRI RIVALS IN RESEARCH FLAP

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Two publishing powerhouses are forging research alliances outside industry leader Mediamark Research Inc., a move that will stoke the fires of a 2-year-old research controversy and reverberate through the American Magazine Conference in Bermuda this week.

HEARST TRIES SIMMONS

Hearst Magazines has signed for the fall research report from Simmons Market Research Bureau, a deal estimated at $800,000, and Advertising Age has learned that Times Mirror Magazines President-CEO Efrem Zimbalist III has been huddling with Audits & Surveys.

The latest developments prom-ise to keep the research controversy at full boil, even though neither Hearst nor Times Mirror gives any indication of abandoning MRI.

"We've been talking and listening and we like what we're hearing," said Michael Rooney, publisher of Times Mirror's Field & Stream, Home Mechanix and Outdoor Life, of Audits & Surveys.

CONFERENCE PANEL

The research flap will be the topic of a panel at the conference this week. Panelist Charlene Trentham, director of research services at Business Week, and Sue Smollens, VP-research at Hachette Filipacchi Magazines have spearheaded a magazine industry task force on research since last March. Last week, the task force accepted nominations from about six ad agencies to serve on the panel that will scrutinize Simmons' and MRI's research.

The key complaint with those services is that their audience levels often fluctuate wildly from year to year. That's especially true on smaller magazines, where results are sometimes based on as few as several hundred actual readers in the overall surveys that reach 10,000 people each spring and fall.

"I think what has boiled over the top recently has been brewing for the past 10 years," said Steve Blacker, VP-research at Conde Nast Publications; Mr. Blacker is a vocal critic of MRI and one of the loudest cheerleaders for Audits & Surveys' approach, keyed to primary audience levels.

STILL ON TOP

For all the criticism, however, MRI remains the dominant research service-a sharp reversal from 20 years ago, when Simmons was No. 1 and MRI was a newcomer.

"Basically, it's always been our feeling that it is better to have two [strong] companies than one with a monopoly," said Robert Brink, exec VP at Hearst, which didn't opt for Audit & Surveys.

In part, that's because rival Conde Nast was one of the first to sign up with Audits & Surveys. At the time, Conde Nast President-CEO Steve Florio put MRI on notice that it wasn't going to buy its research reports once the company's contract expires in 1997.

METHODS QUESTIONED

Simmons came under fire in 1994 when the Magazine Publishers of America questioned some of its research methods. It was then that Simmons decided to drop its costly "through the book" style of interviewing, asking if particular editorial sections of the title had been read. Instead, it went with a small logo to prompt readers on whether they had seen or read a particular magazine, a method used by MRI for 20 years.

The move to recent-reading methodology cost Simmons dearly at the time, as many magazines and agencies felt there would not be enough of a difference between the two studies to warrant buying both reports.

But Simmons' recent moves-particularly its accreditation this summer by the Electronic Media & Ratings Council-has swayed even some of its harshest critics.

"I think Simmons has made tremendous strides," said Mr. Blacker. Conde Nast two years ago dropped Simmons for all its magazines.

Recently, one Conde Nast title, Gourmet, bought the Simmons fall survey.

TWO NEW CLIENTS

Simmons President-CEO Rebecca McPheters said the company also picked up two new agency clients, Advanswers, St. Louis, and Euro RSCG Tatham, Chicago.

Audits & Surveys, meanwhile, has landed Hal Riney & Partners, San Francisco.

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