Time for magazines to face stubborn paradox of TV bias

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The industry has of late been preoccupied with an apparent paradox: a TV ad sales boom that persists despite continued sluggishness in the economy and in most other media industry segments.

I've chewed this over with agency CEOs, buyers, publishers, marketing directors, even network sales executives. Most admit to being baffled, and the theories they offer tend towards the simplistic: In tough times, people turn to the tried and true. Advertisers are convinced on a gut level that TV works, that it's the quickest, most efficient way to communicate to a large segment of the population.

That could explain why marketers and agencies might shy from newer, unproven media. But what does it say about magazines, a prominent, long-established medium that's yet to see sustained signs of recovery? This question, too, is often met with shrugs and sometimes with criticisms about undifferentiated, over-fragmented titles or the weakness of print creative or the medium's lack of immediacy.

As the early `90s recession ended and ad spending began to rebound, media buyers predicted magazines would recover more slowly than TV. They cited attractive pricing in a weak TV market, saying advertisers would spend more of their budgets on TV, leaving less for magazines.

This time around, buyers again predict magazines will recover more slowly. Only now they cite TV's strength, noting high prices have forced advertisers to spend more on TV, leaving fewer dollars for magazines.

The message to publishers: Whether the TV market is up or down, print loses.

What's at work is a continued industry bias that favors TV over print-over every other medium, really. It persists despite agency claims of solution neutrality, and despite marketers' insistence on exploring alternatives to measured-media advertising. It persists because agencies are still TV-centric and creativity is still judged by reels. It persists, as noted earlier, because marketers believe TV works. It persists, at least in part, because of continued reliance on a TV upfront where advertisers commit significant chunks of budgets to one medium.

Some viewed this year's robust $8.1 billion upfront as an early indicator of recovery. It now appears budgets aren't growing so much as shifting. Publishers aren't blameless. There is more they can do to raise respect for print, to market its strengths and better prove its effectiveness. Publishers often complain they are held by agencies to a higher standard of accountability than TV. Fair or not, it's a reflection of advertisers' instinctive belief in TV.

Product innovation is also needed in the magazine business. In its place is a reliance on brand extensions and copycat products. The leading publishing groups seem intent on blurring distinctions between their stables. "They have one so we need one" is the predominant launch mentality.

There is a need for new ideas in on the sales side, as well. Despite casual conversations about a cross-media upfront, there are no serious steps to explore one. Many of the advertisers that commit dollars to TV a year in advance won't buy schedules in magazines. They place ads on an issue-by-issue basis that keeps magazines off balance. Even as publishers fret over just-in-time buying, buyers complain closing dates for monthlies remain unreasonably long.

Top publishing executives convene this week for the American Magazine Conference. Challenges must be confronted. A cyclical rebound can't be assumed. Publishers should avoid predictions of when advertiser wallets will re-open and focus instead on how to secure their fair share of dollars now.

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