Mags Ditching Audit Bureau of Circulations

The recession has forced many publications to re-evaluate their business practices, and for many niche and regional magazines, one result has been to drop membership in the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

While the ABC is considered by many to be the standard bearer for media audits, with some 750 consumer magazine members, it’s lost about 100 of them in the past couple of years. Some of those are titles that folded, but many are 75,000-circulation and smaller titles that switched to other auditing firms or decided to forgo an audit altogether.

Oft-given reasons were the cost of an ABC audit (which can run $10,000 a year for a small publication, including related services) and limited payoff for titles that get little national advertising.

“The ABC audit is expensive, and we find the only magazines we have that benefit from the audit are those who get a significant amount of attention from major ad agencies,” said Bryan Welch, publisher and editorial director of Ogden Publications, which ended Utne Reader’s longtime ABC membership after buying it in 2006 and deciding the publication wasn’t going to get on a lot of nonendemic advertising plans. “Utne Reader has never been one of those magazines, so we judged that the audit was not a worthwhile investment.”

James Dowden, executive director of the City and Regional Magazine Association, said that as national ad spending in local titles has nosedived during the recession, many members have quit the ABC for less expensive firms. A member survey indicated that ad pages for members dropped 23 percent from 2008 to 2009. “Five years ago I think the publications wouldn’t have considered dropping ABC for someone else,” said Dowden. “Today it just doesn’t seem to be the exclusive badge it once was.”

Michael Lavery, president and managing director for the ABC, said the firm is mindful of its members’ cost pressure. He pointed out that by next January, the firm would have held its rates for fully four years. “Not having raised prices for what would be a four-year period or more is not insignificant,” said Lavery. As for criticism of the audit bureau’s rigorous process, he said, “It is a very thorough audit. Audits by their nature should be.”

Buyers doubted that leaving the ABC would limit small publications with advertisers. “If I were buying a city or regional title, as long as I had demographics, I would be OK,” said Deborah Jaques, media director at BtB Marketing Communications. “The bigger the circ gets, the more you need to know.”

Mike McHale, founder and chief media officer, Cleverworks, who has bought ads in many regional pubs, said the departure of smaller books from the ABC might lead even bigger titles to put pricing pressure on the ABC.

“Why is there just a gold standard?” asked McHale. “I don’t think if someone decided to go from an ABC audit to a BPA [Worldwide] audit it would cause advertisers to pull out of the publication.”

Publishers that have left the ABC confirmed they haven’t seen any advertising fallout. “Most
advertising agencies are very happy with BPA,” said Patrick Williams, publisher of Worth, a controlled-circ pub that targets the super-rich and carries advertisers like Fidelity, Martin Katz and World Yacht.

Wick Allison, editor and publisher of Dallas’ D Magazine, which left the ABC for the Circulation Verification Council (CVC) after 30 years, said the days of advertisers requiring an ABC audit are over. “What people are looking at is the quality of the publication itself and who it’s reaching and how effective the advertising is. With a city magazine, it’s very easy to tell if your advertising is working.”

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