The PPA recently added a Cover of the Year category to its annual awards. Peter Jackson takes this opportunity to look at cover trends in general and what the PPA nominated covers tell us about the current state of front cover design.
There’s something of a paradox in more people than ever being prepared to stump up money in advance for every issue of a magazine for a whole year when less and less people are prepared to pay for single issues.
The annual Subscriber Service Survey, run by Wessenden Marketing on behalf of Dovetail, shows subscriptions of weeklies up by 12% and monthlies achieving 31% growth. Subs are increasing at 1 – 2% a year. But that’s from a relatively small base and can be calculated in tens of thousands whereas an overall drop of 8% across the magazine market means it’s more like hundreds of thousands of people are deserting the newsstands.
Most publishers are taking a fatalistic view that it’s an inevitable trend of print having to give way to online reading.
But I would suggest that’s not the only reason. There is another highly significant factor and it is that the magazine industry has contrived to neglect its most powerful sales weapon: THE COVER.
A cover is not the first page of editorial - it is an advertisement for all that lies behind. It’s your recruiting poster – designed to catch the eye of the passerby and convert him / her into a buyer and thus a reader.
Andy Rork, creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi in its pomp, specialised in the media business and, while sitting in on ideas conferences of his client magazines, was constantly surprised by the desultory manner in which the cover was planned. If it was planned at all! He often witnessed the cover being a last-minute choice on press day of whatever was deemed to be the best picture already in the issue – with coverlines being hastily cobbled together to justify the random selection.
“What a difference if we could give one of our consumer clients the front page of a magazine reaching perhaps a million people of such a clearly defined target audience,” Andy would say. “Think of the care with which we’d choose the image, the calibre of the copywriters we’d employ in getting the words just right. I know editorial folk have to do it every week, every month but that adds up to countless missed opportunities to make the most of your own front page ad.”
Of course, covers don’t need to catch the eye of the subscriber. Already in the home, their role is to make the magazine leap out of its package and say: “Hi! Here’s another exciting issue you’ve been waiting for.”
Wessenden pointed out that people buying an average of 7.7 copies in a year of their favourite monthly were most likely to convert to subscription. The result is that publishers are concentrating their marketing on converting regular buyers rather than seeking to win new readers.
Finding new readers
With home deliveries of magazines now a distant memory, that means the newsstand is where magazines have the life-or-death task of pulling in fresh customers. The evidence would indicate they are failing. Far too many titles project an image overly familiar to the readers they already have and do too little to make non-readers decide to sample the product.
The most successful editors tend not to forget that no matter how big their circulation, it will dribble away through regular readers most extremely dying or for more mundane reasons such as changing their shopping routines, re-locating, needing to economise – or just deciding it’s time for a change. The most given reason why newsstand customers stop buying a title or its subscribers decide not to renew is: “It was all much of a muchness. The mixture always seemed the same.”
Which is why the cover, as well as playing to its established strengths, should above all seek to contain an element of surprise – something to make the lapsed reader give it another go, something sufficiently different to persuade the firmly established non-reader to give the magazine a first look.
Research has long established the sequence in which someone in the vicinity of a newsstand decides to pick out a particular title:
1. A dominant image catches the eye
2. A dominant coverline adds to the image
3. The logo explains the product
4. Supporting coverlines strengthen the impact (so long as they can be read by a person with average eyesight from a range of 6ft)
The German invasion
All this was well understood and generally practiced until the late 1980s. Then came the invasion of German publishers launching titles such as Prima, Bella, Best and Take a Break.
Suddenly our mass-selling women’s weeklies seemed staid and formularised compared with these much more vibrant magazines, packed with a huge variety of bite-sized human interest stories, big-prize competitions, pages of puzzles and sporting busy-busy covers with punchy coverlines. Not only were the newcomers cheap to buy, all this busy-ness shouted “value for money”.
Alerted that “the Germans have parked their tanks on my lawn”, Mike Matthew, then chief of the IPC women’s weeklies, vowed to meet the invaders at their own game. So out went the “Knit yourself your own Royal Family approach” and the British weeklies raised their tempo to embrace celebrity gossip, show business confessions and true-life dramas.
Unfortunately, many publishers came to equate “value for money” with the number of coverlines, the more the merrier. Why have only one picture on the cover when you can squeeze in many? Subsequently, one issue of Chat came up with a cover containing over 90 words of coverlines and 20 different images. A recent issue of Heat boasted 14 people shots and 95 words.
Surprisingly, monthlies and specialist titles have chosen to go the same way.
The once matronly domestic handbook, Good Housekeeping, recently carried five images on its cover and 74 words of coverlines.
For many years, it was accepted that people browsing at a newsstand spent between 5 and 7 seconds taking in any particular title. In our frenzied age, that time is reckoned to have dropped to between 2 and 4 seconds.
What chance has any one image or coverline of registering in that flicker of time from a range of 6ft - even with X-ray vision and a reading speed of 300wpm!
The result is that busy-busy has become clutter-clutter as covers have been turned into crowded contents pages. The average newsstand is a jumbled mass of small images trying to be seen between acres of barely recognisable words. Could it be that people are buying fewer magazines because they can’t be bothered trying to work out which is which and just what is on offer?
Making a tour of newsstands (convenience store, petrol station, high street and supermarket), I found even those titles enjoying full-facing positions in the bigger outlets tended to submerge their dominant image with a surfeit of words. And they were hardly exciting, grabbing coverlines.
First rule of coverlines is they must have a verb and an action verb at that. Otherwise they are merely labels and I saw plenty of those: “Gorgeous bedrooms”; “Cupcakes for every occasion”; “Your perfect golden summer”; “Easy BBQ diet” and the thrilling promise from English Home magazine: “Visions of Serenity”. I’m sure Andy Rork’s copywriters could have done better than that.
In fact, my survey threw up only one truly effective coverline; a yellow panel on the front of Men’s Health promised “Big arms made easy” - indicating how to build up bulging biceps like those of the cover portrait. A perfect message for the MH audience. It was one of the few examples of making full use of the “hot spot”, carefully positioned in the top left-hand corner of the cover which is visible whether the magazines overlap vertically or horizontally on a crowded newsstand.
Have publishers forgotten such elementary tricks of the trade?
PPA Cover of the Year
I took comfort in the news that the PPA was introducing a new award for Magazine Cover of the Year. This was to recognise the all-importance of the cover and (I hoped) set the standard for designs that could triumph in the battle of the newsstand.
The winning cover was truly striking – Sport magazine’s haunting monochromatic portrait of the troubled Paul Gascoigne.
Runner-up was Stylist’s dramatic close-up of Nigella Lawson, her face dripping with salted caramel. This was the classic arresting big image, dominant coverline (no more than nine words in all).
Sport also had the big image and, more daringly, no coverlines at all. But they were not needed because the message was written in Gaza’s face.
So are these two titles showing the way to success on the newsstand?
They’re both free titles which don’t need to fight for space on crowded shelves because they are either pressed into passersby’s hands or enjoy the luxury of solus display in a dedicated dispenser. What lessons can the industry possibly learn from them?
Of the 15 short-listed titles, there were two more freebies and a quarterly. Just one contender from the paid-for weeklies which are the Poor Bloody Infantry of that battle of the newsstand, fighting hand-to-hand (often on hand-to-mouth budgets) to hang on to their sales at this time of deepest recession.
Their solitary entry was scarcely typical of the genre – Hello! magazine’s Royal Wedding cover of (surprisingly) the royal couple. Not a format that others might follow over 52 weeks of the year.
But they might learn from the impact created by GQ magazine from among the remaining monthlies. A brilliantly composed, almost 3D shot of Rihanna against a white background and the powerful supporting line of “The pop icon turns GQ red hot” make for compulsive newsstand impact. No need for the other 50-or-so words of coverlines but the central image is never over-shadowed and would certainly perform the main task of a cover – to see off the surrounding opposition.
Nicholas Coleridge used to insist that Condé Nast editors presented their proposed covers to him by placing them on racking in his office carrying the current covers of their rivals to see how they competed face to face.
Perhaps the next time the PPA judges the Magazine Cover of the Year, it might take place in the nearest news outlet.