SMG Offers Up a Fighting Chance

For years, both magazine buyers and sellers have bemoaned the established approach to buying ads in magazines as archaic and unfair. Advertisers, they say, have long accepted audience-based measurement standards (which they consider flawed) when it comes to TV and the Internet while relying on an archaic method of counting copies sold when it comes to magazines.

Publicis’ SMG Exchange is attempting to level the playing field by bringing issue-specific audience and engagement metrics into the mix, Mediaweek has learned. The media agency is close to inking a partnership with at least one publishing company to pilot the new buying platform. SMG will likely incorporate issue-specific audience measurement and engagement services that Mediamark Research & Intelligence and Affinity have developed into its current buying approach.

The initiative unites separate efforts by two print buying power players, Starcom USA’s Brenda White and MediaVest’s Robin Steinberg. Each controls around $1 billion in print spending for blue-chip clients like Walmart, Kraft and Procter & Gamble. Both have pushed to bring more detail and accountability to print measurement.

“We’ve been using circulation as the basis for a very, very long time,” said John Muszynski, chief investment officer, SMG Exchange. “It’s the only measurement that doesn’t address audience.”

Until now, that is. “We think the research and data are available,” continued Muszynski. “We don’t have all the answers, but we’re looking to work with key publishers to learn more to adopt new ways of audience measurement.”

Muszynski emphasized SMG won’t abandon circ as a buying metric: “That circulation piece is very valuable. But we have more research available to us. Why the hell aren’t we using it?”

U.S. ad spending declined 9 percent in 2009, but spending in national magazines plunged 19.3 percent, per Nielsen, the medium’s worst year in decades. Muszynski said the goal was to give print a leg up on the competition.

“At the end of the day, you’ve got all the mediums adding new insights,” he said. “You’ve got set-top boxes for TV, there’s new research for out-of-home.

It’s moving magazines further and further away from playing in this same audience world. We look at this, at minimum, as trying to level the playing field. If I can learn more about their consumer and I’m able to more effectively connect with their consumer, then I’m ahead of the game.”

But the SMG plan is already meeting some resistance. One issue concerns smaller titles not measured by the big research firms or whose audiences are less stable. “One should be aware of the research methods [of MRI] and how they skew results in favor of mass brands,” said Justin Smith, president, Atlantic Media, parent of the 471,548-circ Atlantic. Muszynski said SMG supports the idea of having many players in a category and that it would find a workaround. “We’re not going to kick horses out,” he said. “We’re going to find a way to incorporate them into the process.”

Jack Kliger, senior advisor for TV Guide parent OpenGate Partners and a longtime champion of buying magazines on audience, pointed to concerns about the stability of current issue-specific audience metrics. “I don’t think they’re going with something that’s reliable,” he said.

Kliger also questioned the notion that SMG would continue to buy based on circulation and rate base. “It seems to me, buyers need to buy based on metrics used to measure audience,” he explained. “If you’re adding this on top of distribution-based pricing, it adds another layer to a cumbersome process.”

As for rate base, Muszynski said how a magazine’s circ guarantee would fit into SMG’s approach going forward was one of many questions the agency will be exploring during the pilot phase: “It’s definitely something we’re going to have to wrestle with.”