Adrop in sales for Hello! of 37 per cent and of almost 23 per cent for rival OK! in this week’s ABCs may at first glance signal that the bottom has suddenly dropped out of the celebrity market.
But on closer inspection, the latest figures published by the Audit Bureau of Circulations for the six months to June 2003 are a result of both Hello! and OK! abandoning the practice of giving away their magazines – in hotels, airports and trains or as part of other marketing exercises.
To explain Hello! posting an ABC of 347,461 compared with 546,952 in July to December last year, it is necessary to examine the third column of the top 100 biggest circulating magazines in the country.
This reveals that 99 per cent of Hello!’s circulation was actively purchased, compared with 72 per cent in the last six months of 2002.
OK!’s 7 per cent drop from 519,388 to 484,705 reflects a less dramatic shift from 81 to 86 per cent actively purchased sales over the same period.
Sally Cartwright, publishing director of Hello!, claims the decision to “clean out all the bulks” reflected the reality of the advertising market.
“Ad agencies have discounted them completely for some time so we haven’t been trading on those bulk figures,” she says.
But Mark Bishop, founding partner of publishing broker and consultancy firm Mark Bishop Associates, believes that overall the move could have a negative impact.
“An optimist would say that it reflects a greater sophistication among buyers and agencies, but most agencies lack the sophistication to look beyond the headline figures,” he says. “It’s in the interests of the magazine industry to have as high a figure as possible because if circulation appears to fall it won’t attract advertisers.”
A glance at the top 100 shows that publishers are beginning to abandon giving their magazines away, something that two years ago was an increasingly popular practice.
Industry sources point to a gradual tightening of the rules governing bulks in the wake of Hello! and OK!’s “one penny war”, when the virtual giving away of the magazines through the Daily Mail and Daily Express titles led to them being rapped by the ABC.
But Martyn Gates, the ABC’s director of newspapers and consumer magazines, argues: “In the magazine sector especially, it’s a costly exercise and, as with any business, they are looking at the return on their investment and bulks have got to come under the microscope.
“Our vigilance is always there but I think this is more to do with publishers looking at their own profits and costs.”
Gates adds that a further tightening of the rules for the next six-monthly figures may have prompted magazine publishers to ditch the bulks now.
The new rules will require a certain number of regular bulks to be sold in order to be included in overall circulation figures.
Gates continues: “It may be that purchases of bulk deals may not be as attractive as they may have been and so the decision to drop them now may be for business reasons, and some people thinking as they may not be able to do it in the future they might as well stop now.”