Brownridge Is Back, Slinging Mud

Exec Commits Blender to Rapid Report, Calls Mags That Sit Out 'Pathetic'

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Kent Brownridge hasn't been back in the magazine business six weeks yet, but already he's making waves, committing music magazine Blender to the stringent circulation-reporting standards that advertisers want -- and calling other publishers' reasons not to do the same "pathetic."
Kent Brownridge said music mag Blender will join the Audit Bureau of Circulations' Rapid Report system, which allows near-real-time sales reports.
Kent Brownridge said music mag Blender will join the Audit Bureau of Circulations' Rapid Report system, which allows near-real-time sales reports.

The remark is vintage Brownridge, the veteran executive once dubbed "Dr. Evil" by Ad Age columnist Simon Dumenco, but the matter of measuring magazine performance is all about the future. Marketers and their media agencies are increasingly demanding faster, more-precise metrics from magazines, a drive fueled partly by an ascendant internet model that seems to promise instant accountability.

Under Mr. Brownridge, Blender is joining the Audit Bureau of Circulations' Rapid Report system, which has allowed near-real-time sales reports since its arrival last year, and guaranteeing each issue's paid circulation. Longtime industry practices provide circulation data just twice a year -- and only guarantee circulation averaged across multiple issues.

Waste of time, capital?
With notable exceptions such as Time, which joined Rapid Report in July, most major magazines have stuck with biannual circulation reports, partly because they fear giving their competitors an intelligence edge. Most publishers don't want be seen promising each issue's paid circulation either, arguing that they shouldn't be penalized for underdelivery while advertisers don't credit them for overdelivery. Shortfalls are rare anyway, they say. Surely there are better uses for the industry's time and capital.

But it's those objections that Mr. Brownridge called pathetic. Also: "wimpy."

"It's not something advertisers might want," he said. "It's something that they absolutely do want and they have absolutely been clamoring for. It's absolutely something that irritates them that they don't get a straight answer on and they don't get uniformly through our industry."

The push for issue-specific guarantees burst into the open last May, when powerhouse agency MediaVest threatened to pull its magazine spending if something didn't give. "As somebody who's ultimately paying the bills, what I'm looking for is accountability and transparency," MediaVest client Donna Campanella, Avon's executive director for global media, said then. "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."

Uneven response
The response has been uneven, complicated by the secretive dynamics of negotiating ad buys. Wenner Media's Rolling Stone is sticking with "the industry standard" of guaranteeing circulation averaged across six months, according to a spokesman. But Malcolm Campbell, publisher of another Blender rival, Spin, said he's been happy to meet advertisers' demands. "They'll mandate it in a lot of cases," Mr. Campbell said last week. "What are you going to do, say, 'No, that's not our policy'?"

Asked whether it was fair to accept penalties for underdelivery without winning credit for overdelivery, Mr. Campbell laughed. "The door only swings one way," he said. "What, a bonus for delivering a bonus circulation? That's rich."

The picture beyond music magazines is at least as mixed. "This is a major issue right now," said the publisher of one men's monthly, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Any publisher that comes out against it is putting a bull's-eye on his chest."

Reservations endure
Although executives at the country's biggest publishers, Time Inc. and Condé Nast Publications, previously have expressed reservations about the cost and importance of issue-specific guarantees, both declined to comment last week. Men's Health Publisher Jack Essig said recently that he is giving qualified clients issue-by-issue guarantees -- but the owner of Men's Health, Rodale, made it clear afterward that he spoke only for himself.

For Mr. Brownridge -- who earlier this summer made a similar show of independence by saying the newly acquired Alpha Media (formerly Dennis Publishing) would not be joining the Magazine Publishers of America this year -- the move is a way to train attention on Blender's growing circulation before its rate base goes up to 900,000 from 800,000 with the January/February issue. "People will see that they're already delivering it," he said. Blender's big brother Maxim is also entering Rapid Report now and will begin guaranteeing individual issues' circulation next year.
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