Time Inc. yields to advertisers, gives the guarantees they want

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MediaVest's Robin Steinberg gave the magazine industry an ultimatum six months ago. Last month, Alpha Media's Kent Brownridge called his fellow publishers wimpy and pathetic for not changing their ways. A week later, publishing giant Time Inc. relented, agreeing to speed the way it reports circulation and establish guarantees for each issue in which a marketer buys an ad.

Major magazine publishers have tenaciously clung to the convention of providing circulation data only twice a year, guaranteeing a rate base that reflects average sales across multiple issues. But that standard has looked increasingly brittle as digital media deliver new options for advertisers as well as almost-instantaneous results. It's a sign of the power that marketers have accrued during the rise of digital media; there are simply too many options beyond traditional advertising for media owners to set the agenda anymore.

"This is what the advertisers really want," said one Time Inc. publisher, who, like others at the company, discussed the plan on condition of anonymity. "So at the end of the day, what are you going to do?"

"While I am one of the biggest proponents of print, the need for change is critical in order to propel this medium forward," said Steinberg, MediaVest's senior VP-director of print investment and activation. "We continue to hold our stance on accountability and will work with those that work with us."

Brownridge said he was thrilled by Time Inc.'s decision. "Sometimes a few folks have to take the first move, like they are and we are, to get everyone to see the light—but so be it," he said.

Time Inc.'s stance is a departure from its position in May, when MediaVest publicly threatened to pull its clients' ad spending from any magazine that wouldn't give issue-specific promises. Time Inc. wasn't eager to adopt the more-stringent standard. "They want all guarantees and all protections at all times," John Squires, senior exec VP at Time Inc., said in May. "That just kind of forces a completely unrealistic expectation on our business."

He and many others also pointed out that publishers don't get any credit when they sell more copies of an issue than they promise their advertisers. Issue-specific guarantees are a waste of time and capital anyway, some said, because missing rate base is so rare.

But MediaVest argued that as long as averages remained the benchmark, magazines that missed rate base one issue had an incentive to make it up the next issue by leaving more copies around doctors' offices and in other public places.

Time Inc.'s plan will credit advertisers only when an issue misses its promised circulation by more than 2%. Time Inc. also is ordering its magazines to join Rapid Report, the online service from the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Adoption of both Rapid Report and the issue-specific rate base has been uneven at best. Alpha Media, under Brownridge, is adopting both issue-specific guarantees and Rapid Report for Maxim and Blender.

Time Inc.'s size is likely to tilt the landscape toward the faster, more-precise metrics advertisers have asked for. Its U.S. brands include People, Time, Entertainment Weekly, Sports Illustrated and Real Simple.

A Time Inc. spokeswoman confirmed that the company would enter its titles into Rapid Report by the end of the year. "We look forward to offering our advertisers the most up-to-the-minute circulation data as it becomes available," she said.

She declined to comment on the issue-by-issue circulation guarantees.

Nat Ives is media reporter at Advertising Age, a BtoB sibling publication.

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