Magazine review

By The Drum | Administrator

June 7, 2002 | 13 min read

Cog Magazine

In the UK in the last 10 years, the total number of magazines has increased by 25 per cent. With 440 new magazine launches last year alone (more than one a day) and the current uncertainty over the economic climate, it appears the need to get to the market quickly is still considered business critical rather than delaying for a better climate.

But it still begs the question, is there ever a good time to launch a magazine? Well, with the right concept, a sound business plan, market research, receptive readers and advertisers, time is less of an issue, says Emma Barnard, managing director of Scott House Publishing: “Timing is not as crucial as research. You must have a very clear focus on what you are aiming to achieve. Sounds obvious, but so many people are just looking at competitive titles and thinking 'Hey, I could do better than that.' They are not analysing the marketplace to ensure they have something new and exciting to offer, and making sure there is a clearly defined 'need' for what they are about to publish. With Caledonia we spend considerable budget on research and listen to feedback from advertisers and readers alike.”

This view is supported by Paul Grant, MD of Pro-Sport publishing house: “There is never a bad time to launch a magazine if the product’s good. There is always room for a new magazine title out there. In saying that, though, there are too many currently, all trying to do the same job.

“A magazine needs to be able to take the lead, and if you are not much better than anyone else you will not last long.

“You really need to have a unique story to tell and sell to the advertisers and their agencies.”

David Riddell, managing director of International Magazines, thinks that money is often the key to success: “You need deep pockets to really become successful. Quality needs investment. If you look too parochial, people will find it hard to take you seriously. Standards now are high, so the product has to be right.”

Grant, however, disagrees: “We’ve never had deep pockets at Pro-Sports, and I’d like to think that we’re a success. I think that deep pockets can often become a problem. It is a burden that people shouldn’t have.

“The concept should be able to run by itself if there is an adequate market and a good product proposition.

“It is often the magazines that launch in a blaze of publicity that struggle. Too much money is thrown at it and, as a result, there is no proper strategy.”

So, now you have the idea, you’ve done the research and have launched your product at the right time, the biggest question is “will it survive?” In Scotland the marketplace is small and in many sectors it is almost reaching saturation point. The business magazine sector is one such area.

David McMurray, publisher of CA Magazine, says: “Estimates of the number of magazines published in the UK vary. British Rate and Data (BRAD) lists almost 9,000 separate titles that carry advertising. In Scotland, the PPA puts the figure at over 100. In sectors such as business-to-business publishing, healthy competition exists but, with circa 20 publications in this market, high quality of circulation and editorial will remain the key for advertisers looking to utilise their advertising spend effectively.”

“However, there is definitely room for more,” adds McMurray.

Denise West, managing director of The Insider Group, says: “The business magazine market is extremely competitive. In Scotland it is a small and finite market.

“Over time we will definitely see a number of closures and consolidations – only the strongest will survive.

“We were established in 1984 and we are now the market leaders, but we can’t afford to rest on our laurels. We have to continue to be innovative and creative to continue to serve the market well and provide a relevant platform for advertisers.

“If you are operating from a position of strength then you have an advantage. You have the tools you need and the access to an infrastructure that can encourage a quicker growth.

“Yes, there are gaps in the market; that is inevitable with the way that society changes. These gaps are opportunities for publishers.”

Steven McColl, publisher of Firm magazine, a business title launched more recently, has managed to expand his small publishing empire quickly over recent years: “The Scottish marketplace is competitive. However, there is always room for niche titles and always room for new titles to replace or compete against weak or underperforming ones.

“We took the decision to grow when the rest of the industry was down – more titles, more staff, more turnover. When the good times return we will be even better placed to take advantage of growth opportunity.”

The downturn has affected the publishing industry, as it has every other media reliant on advertising spend, so, for some, the long lunches have had to be cut short – yet not everyone has been hit by the slow-down.

“We have been fortunate because a great deal of our magazines lean towards the retail sector. That market has continued to boom in the UK despite other sectors diving all around it,” says David Riddell. “Over the last six months or so our advertising revenue has actually increased. So much so that we now publish Homes and Interiors six times a year instead of four.”

McMurray adds: “The downturn has worked in our favour, as advertisers have sought out recognised magazines with proven track records to ensure the most effective use of their limited advertising budgets.

“For the industry as a whole, ad spend is up, but this is spread across an increased variety of titles.”

Richard Ulph of Cogmedia says that the thing to remember is that where a magazine relies on advertisers to sustain itself, the focus should always be on building a strong and loyal readership; this is, after all, what your advertisers buy into: “There are bound to be casualties,” continues Ulph. “Most of which will be found lying at the side of well-beaten tracks. It will be titles that innovate and provide something original to attract new readers that will survive.

“The downturn had quite a serious effect on cog magazine, as we rely on advertising revenue to fund each issue. The brunt of the downturn also took hold just after we had launched cog in London. However, we have received continued advertising support from loyal advertisers both north and south of the Border. This, coupled with the success of the contract publishing side of Cogmedia, has helped to see us through some sticky moments. The industry in general has suffered. I really feel for those who lost their jobs or businesses. I am optimistic for the future, as the general public don't seem to have lost their passion for media of all types.”

But what is it that makes magazine publications so valuable to the forever sought after advertisers?

Riddell says: “The advantages that magazines have over other media is the consent. People subscribe to magazines – often they’ll get pissed off if someone opens their copy before them. It is their leisure time; they choose to read your product and the advertising that it holds. That is by far the best time to get the reader, when they are permitting you to sell to them on a neutral ground. They have taken a decision to read your title so of course they will be more receptive to it.”

Ulph of cogmedia agrees, adding: “Magazines can offer a highly targeted audience. Newspapers, for example, cast a very wide net and reach a mass audience; there would be considerable waste for a specialist hi-fi manufacturer who could instead use a specialist hi-fi magazine. I feel the lesson for space buyers is that cost per thousand is no longer a relevant measure by itself, cost per effective reach is a more valid criterion.”

The internet too has helped the magazines’ plight, says Grant: “The internet has not had the impact on magazines that everyone once anticipated. But its initial challenge has meant that magazines have become so much more creative and the quality has heightened.”

Barnard, however, feels that the strength of the magazine lies in more fundamental escapes: “It is all down to the loyalty relationship you build with your readers. In the lifestyle sector in particular readers look to the magazine's content for inspiration – people, places, brands that they aspire to – and if you get the balance right, then you can offer your advertisers a certain level of endorsement from the magazine's brand identity. Caledonia's brand has developed into so much more than a magazine title – it incorporates a whole set of values, a real lifestyle statement for life in contemporary Scotland.”

“And don’t forget the great rates offered by magazines!” adds McColl, publisher of Firm.

West also subscribes to the quality of magazine publishing. However, she insists that the industry cannot afford to become complacent: “Magazines have a certain strength – an element of quality. They have a long shelf life and, for their readers, they are very influential. But you always have to make sure that you serve your market well and remain relevant so that you are exciting and interesting for your readers and effective for your advertisers.”

Standards undoubtedly have improved over recent years, despite the increased accessibility of the industry. And although all it now takes is a Mac and a phone to call yourself a publisher, standards have been set that need to be met if people are to take you seriously: “Access to technology? Cheaper printing costs? A plethora of brilliant publishing ideas? I'm not sure,” says Richard Ulph. “Perhaps people are inspired to go into publishing in Scotland because they see what's available and think 'the magazine for me isn't here' or 'there's so much dross about, surely I could do better than that' or maybe it's the free booze at launch parties.”

“Technology really has to take the majority of the plaudits for the rise of the small magazine publishing houses,” says Riddell. “It has given them the ability to grow. Many larger, successful publishers have grown from a very small team that managed to sell a couple of ads. To start, all you really need is a Mac and a phone, but high standards have been set, and these standards need to be met quite quickly if you are to be taken seriously.”

McMurray agrees, but also believes that a strong entrepreneurial streak, especially in Scotland, has led to the continued growth of the industry: “The return to Scotland of staff from London publishing houses and the fall-out of key staff from Scottish publishing houses not able to offer equity or promotion prospects has spurred the growth. But so has the desire of individuals to run their own business or see their ideas come to fruition.”

However, McColl argues: “There is no great rise in the number of small publishing houses. I believe that the sector is led by the big houses and that consolidation is the way that the Scottish marketplace is going to go. We have acquired two titles from single-title houses in the past year; strength is very much to be found in numbers.

“I believe that there will be consolidation in the Scottish marketplace, with a number of the one-title houses being absorbed by the bigger players. I envisage a growth in the 'middle sector' houses, which are made up of the former single-title independents.

“There will always be a place for a small independent publisher. But it’s not easy to run a business in that way – lack of support, often low salaries and lack of holidays for the hard-pushed owner–manager. It is on this note that I believe that many one-title publishers benefit from becoming part of a larger group, which can offer the support and infrastructure which will allow an improvement in terms of lifestyle and title development.”

So what does the future hold for Scottish publishers? Will it only be the strongest that survive?

“Only the well-funded will survive!” says Barnard. “Seriously, magazine publishing is not about instant profit, and you really must take a long-term view on viability. You will need to keep investing in your title over the first few years, and honing and redefining your product, never allowing complacency to set in, even when you reach the stage where advertisers are calling you up to buy space. Caledonia has just reached its three-year anniversary – a huge milestone for us, as there is so much theory bandied around, claiming 95 per cent of new launches fail within the first year, and that the marketplace is so heavily saturated, so it is immensely satisfying to have bucked the trends and have such a strong flagship title.”

Riddell says: “It is not only the strongest that will survive, but it is only the strongest that will succeed in being taken seriously. And if you want your name branded on all the agency lists then, again, they have to take you seriously. It really all depends on what park you want to be playing in.”

Grant agrees: “There is a lot of mediocrity but, in the long term, only the strongest will survive. Both consumers and advertisers are now asking for more.”

Obviously, titles run by large entities that can weather the storm have a better chance of survival when ad revenues fall away. There is also the advantage for those titles with large or established circulations and reputations. However, there are some lucrative niches in the market that can provide a little shelter for the smaller players. But as McMurray says: “If the magazines’ propositions are viable, innovative and have substance, most will survive; but ultimately it will be the market that decides who will survive and who won't.”


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