MEDIA BUYING & PLANNING: MAGAZINE RESEARCH DEBATE TO BE RESOLVED BY AGENCIES: FATES OF MRI, SIMMONS AND UPSTARTS REST ON SHOPS' EXECS

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Print research companies are caught between a proverbial rock and a hard place: magazine publishers on one side, and agency media buyers and advertisers on the other.

The information needs from each side have been growing and have become increasingly divergent. This demand for applicable data has pitted research mainstays such as Mediamark Research Inc. and Simmons Market Research Bureau against those seeking a part of the market through targeted studies-most notably Audits & Surveys Worldwide.

SHOPS TO DECIDE

Ultimately, representatives from agencies will decide which of the services best suits the communities' needs.

Yet as A&S prepares to release its first round of syndicated magazine audience research data, agency media executives are divided as to whether the forthcoming information marks an improvement over existing research.

One of the biggest debates is whether MRI and Simmons' total audience approach, which uses lengthy personal interviews asking about a consumer's recent reading of various magazines, can be replaced by A&S' circulation database-driven, mailed survey methodology.

Some media executives say MRI and Simmons can't be replaced.

"For our current clients we are not even considering the Audits & Surveys fall release," says Hadassa Gerber, exec VP-strategy at New York-based DeWitt Media. "None of the syndicated research studies are perfect, but the biggest are MRI and Simmons, and that is not about to change."

SUPPORTING TOTAL AUDIENCE

DeWitt Media, says Ms. Gerber, is a strong supporter of the total audience approach.

"If you are comparing multiple magazines one against the other, we feel you have to take a random approach for total audience because you want to know how these magazines are reaching the total population and not just those who subscribe," says Ms. Gerber.

Other media executives, however, are taking a more moderate stance, for varying reasons.

"We have a dilemma, from the advertiser perspective, because recent reading is inappropriate and flawed for what we need, and the excitement about the reliability of a database approach doesn't discount the fact that it is only measuring what is essentially a primary reader," says David Marans, senior partner-media research director at J. Walter Thompson USA, New York, who says he will subscribe to Audits & Surveys. "So we have two methods that both have problems."

Susan Bentzinger, VP-partner in Media That Works, Cincinnati, says she is taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the fall results.

"The big syndicated services are not going to go away, and the A&S research will not ring the death knell on MRI or Simmons. But anything that increases our hoard of knowledge, which A&S research will do, is a good thing," Ms. Bentzinger says.

Others in the magazine industry also appear to be hedging their bets among research services. Despite being a critic of existing print researchers and a big booster of A&S, Conde Nast Publications recently renewed its contract with MRI (AA, July 21).

SEEKING AGREEMENT

Getting the magazine buying and selling community to agree on what specifically is needed from research services was the topic of a three-day meeting in June sponsored by the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the Association of National Advertisers, Advertising Research Foundation and Magazine Publishers of America.

One suggestion emerging from the confab was to develop separate buying and planning databases.

"The buying database would be more useful because its primary component would be magazine readership habits, including pass-along and total audience. It could measure more magazines and be more accurate about the ones it did measure," says Jim Spaeth, president of ARF.

Another thought was to create a neutral print research lab, supported by the ad industry to test new research approaches. Among them: creating a separate survey with agency- and client-requested inquiries about a consumer's product usage and media consumption. These questions had been tacked on to magazine-reading surveys.

"The idea of having separate media-and-product surveys delighted us," says Rebecca McPheters, president of Simmons, which already conducts this study separately from its magazine research.

TWO DATABASES

If the idea of two databases of information takes hold, it could benefit Audits & Surveys' new initiative.

A&S will release its first wave of research this fall from its total audience surveys mailed to a sampling of magazines' circulation files. The company's argument for using mailed surveys is that more affluent magazine readers respond through the mail than agree to personal interviews.

The value of the A&S research won't be known after the first release.

"It's not so much what's in this first wave and how it compares to MRI or Simmons, but how that first wave of data compares to the two or three more waves of the same methodology that counts," says Ms. Gerber.

"How it is used all depends on what the data says after they publish. At minimum for this first wave, the A&S data will be used as a tiebreaker for planners trying to decide between two titles," says Erwin Ephron, partner in Ephron, Papazian & Ephron, a media consultancy.

In the short term, participants in the June gathering are advocating better education about what's currently available.

DATA MISUSED

One common complaint is that syndicated data are often misused.

"There is a lot of agreement that the data is abused and stretched beyond all reason of what it should be expected to do. The biggest mistake people make with the data is treating the numbers as facts instead of as well-known estimates," says Mr. Spaeth.

"The difficulty in designing and maintaining a service like [MRI] is accommodating all the demands placed on it," says Alan Tessier, MRI chairman-CEO.

"It is important to remember that there is nothing in the survey that hasn't been requested by someone. Each wants its needs addressed and when you have many constituents . . . to accommodate, you end up with a long but very comprehensive

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