Friday 23 March 2018

Handbags at dawn in glam title fight

UK celebrity magazines are suffering a sales bloodbath but Irish publishers remain bullish

Laura Noonan

Laura Noonan

In the language of their publications it would probably be called a "bloodbath". Maybe even an "alarming bloodbath", or a "spectacularly alarmingly bloodbath" if someone particularly ebullient were at the helm.

In the more moderate language better befitting mainstream newspapers, it is at the very least a "considerable slump".

In just six months, three of the UK's largest celebrity weekly magazines have shed more than 10pc of their readership.

IPC's 'Now' magazine leads the charge downwards, haemorrhaging 12.9pc of its readers, a feat almost matched by Emap's 'Heat' (down 11pc) and sister magazine 'Closer' (down 10pc).

The public fascination with the weekly diets, weight gains and 'circles of shame' of Z-list celebrities is deteriorating at a rapid rate, it seems, as readers shun the populist magazines in favour of niche titles.

And it's not just the big name celebrity-driven fodder that's in decline, women's mags 'Love It!' and 'Bella' both slumped 10pc, while working girl favourite 'Glamour' dipped more than 6pc into the rouge.

Trends from the UK have a nasty habit of migrating across the small tranche of water that is the Irish Sea, and many here are now wondering what the latest developments mean for the magazine industry here.

So is the Irish weekly/women's magazine sector heading for a fall too?

Will today's ABC figures for the island of Ireland bear striking similarity to the set of figures that caused such waves across the pond last week?

Industry insiders think not, arguing that the Irish magazine market is so radically different to the UK market as to not be afflicted by similar problems.

For a start, there simply is no Irish equivalent to the UK's brigade of Heat/Closer/Now titles. The nearest is Michael O'Doherty's 'VIP', which he argues is closer to the Hello/OK! market than it is to 'Heat' et al.

In any case, O'Doherty got his figures last week, and they showed a 0.5pc slump in circulation to 35,015, nothing like the decline in the UK.

Another O'Doherty title, 'TV Now', is also arguably in a similar market. This title lost 7pc of its circulation during the six months; O'Doherty says this is linked to the increased prevalence of TV magazines in newspapers, rather than any industry switch.

"It's too soon to be talking about a decline in the UK anyway," he says.

"There's been a lot of launches, a lot of magazines were selling very well and something had to give. There was always going to be a natural adjustment and that's what we've seen."

Norah Casey, chief executive of Irish magazine group Harmonia, argues that the UK trend was prompted by one-off factors rather a general mood shift away from the magazines' content.

"If you look at the Emap titles ['Heat' and 'Closer'] they spent hardly anything on marketing last year because of company restructuring, and there was a redesign of 'Heat' as well, which didn't go well," she says.

She also points towards the remarkable performance of 'OK', which grew circulation by 9pc during the period, as a mark of the sector's resilience.

"The really interesting thing was they didn't have any big exclusive during the period and they still went up so much," she adds.

Unhelpfully, the ABC figures for UK magazines group together UK & Ireland as one region, so getting exact figures for how UK titles sell in Ireland is impossible.

The best estimate of their performance comes from the annual TGI readership figures which chart readership across all titles on sale in Ireland, albeit from a limited survey pool.

"The biggest gossip magazines, 'Now' and 'Closer' have both doubled their readership in recent years, and attract more readers than any other women's magazines (with the exception of 'Cosmopolitan')," says Louise Fitzpatrick, research manager at media agency Initiative.

"Ireland has a growing obsession with celebrities, not only in magazines, but across all media. With 68,000 viewers a night TV3's Xposé is further evidence of our growing demand for celebrity news and gossip. Online, RTÉ's entertainment site ranks only second to its news site in gaining page impressions, getting 1.5m page impressions per month compared to 1.1m for sport."

That's not to say that Ireland will emerge unscathed from the UK's burgeoning bloodbath on the newsstands though.

"One concern is that UK celebrity magazines will become more aggressive in the Irish market so they can boost their circulation," says Richard Power of Image Publications.

"We've noticed it already, the Dublin supplement here and there, but we could be in for more of it."

Sean McCrave, head of the advertisers body IAPI, says Irish magazines are already having a difficult time fighting it out against an "influx of competition" from the UK, while O'Doherty says the single biggest problem can be getting space on the newsstands.

"A big UK publisher can insist that they get 30 magazines into a shop just because they have one good one," he says.

"Those magazines are up on the shelves and the Irish magazines are hidden down in a corner somewhere."


The women's magazine sector has already taken something of a battering from overseas competition, Norah Casey admits, as witnessed by her own 'Woman's Way' magazine. The worst is over in that sector, she says, as the circulation for 'Woman's Way' has now stabilised.

Amid an ever-enlarging market, Harmonia's flagship title, 'Tatler', is battling to retain its market share by putting Irish stars on its cover.

"Our single biggest-selling issue had Victoria Smurfit on the cover. We had one with Grainne Seoige as well and that sold really well," she says.

"People buy us because we're Irish and so we're focusing on that."

Norah Casey is very hopeful for today's 'Tatler' ABC figures, as her magazine targets a double digit circulation jump.

In a business where success and failure is judged primarily on topline growth rates, it is Richard Power of Image Publications who puts his finger on the biggest challenge for the indigenous sector.

"The difficulty for Irish magazines is trying to maintain growth in a market that's quite small," he said.

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