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Beyond circulation – the dangerous, dark world of media currencies

Using audited figures as a starting point, and data from just about everywhere, readership is the current trading base for advertising and, says Roger Holland, it is not quite as straightforward as some may think.

By Roger Holland

If you work in advertising, as many do, how do you decide where to place the brilliant concept you’ve just created for your client?

On television? On posters? Magazines? Fashionable ambient media? Or regional and local newspapers? Do you put it where it was last time because that’s the easiest thing to do? Do you do what the client suggests because he’s paying the money? Do you use the best fit for the campaign? The best response? Or do you go for the cheapest option?

Inter-media comparisons have always been odious. There’s never been enough reliable information to make watertight decisions to satisfy a really demanding client. That’s probably why account handlers have to be so devious. Post-rationalizing the creative idea and the media plan has become a business art form.

Much media choice is about money. Posters became suddenly very fashionable when the outdoor companies increased the agency commission. Advertising agencies are businesses which exist to make a profit for the shareholders and staff. They often use those media which are most cost efficient for them, not necessarily their clients. That’s why newspapers and magazines have gone out of their way to make themselves more user friendly with systems like Adfast which delivers advertisement copy on the internet.

Why on earth am I writing about advertising in a magazine about circulation? Because, without advertising, newspaper and magazine cover prices would have to at least quadruple and some would be forced to close. And, as research has shown, people read and buy publications as much for the ads as the editorial. Many ads are more interesting and better written than the editorial. Long ago, I remember working with an editor of the Scotsman who was convinced that his readers would pay four times as much for their copy if they had to. Not a view now generally shared.

Regionals – no readership data

Twenty years ago there were only circulation and distribution figures for titles in the regional press. These were just copy distribution figures which were used as currency for the negotiation of advertising and to give an indication of a publication’s health. This was also the universal measure by which editors, circulation managers and publishers were judged. If the circulation went down, agencies tried to negotiate a better deal. Nowadays, most circulations are going down, but that doesn’t stop publishers putting up their rates at more than inflation.

One of the reasons regional newspapers used to be ignored by agencies placing national advertising, was that there was no clear indication of who read them. They couldn’t match the reader profiles of the newspapers with the target market profiles of an advertiser’s product or service. If the target was housewives aged between 25 and 44, the newspaper ad person had no idea how many of these his publications would deliver.

Although individual publishers did undertake readership research, there was no national focus and no comprehensive listing. So, regional newspapers were largely ignored by national advertising agencies which thought the medium was too expensive, too unwieldy and too unprofitable for them to use.

Other media had already developed respondent/exposure systems. Nobody was really interested in the number of radios or televisions, but they were interested in the number and characteristics of people who listened and watched them. Advertisers had to put up with the totals of local newspapers distributed because there was nothing else.

There are several currencies for advertising media and most of them are ‘joint’, that is with representatives from media owners, advertising agencies and advertisers on their boards. They are commonly called ‘JICs’ – Joint Industry Committees - and there’s one for each medium.

National Readership Survey

The oldest, and some would say, the best, is the National Readership Survey. The NRS has been around for nearly fifty years and has a reputation for high quality, consistent results. It contains readership data for national newspapers and some magazines. There have been many times when the media owners wanted separate surveys for newspapers and magazines. There are strong views on both sides: that the survey method does not favour newspapers or, if you are a magazine publisher, it cannot carry enough magazine titles.

However, the NRS has found it increasingly difficult to recruit sufficient respondents, particularly in London and particularly AB adults. It has recently shocked the media research world by announcing that it is considering abandoning its tried and trusted (gold standard in-home, face-to-face, double CAPI) research method for an internet access panel. This is currently the subject of heated debate. For example, if all the panel respondents are internet users how do you cover those who are not?

Launch of JICREG

JICREG (the Joint Industry Committee for Regional Press Research) was warmly welcomed when it was launched fifteen years ago. It was a struggle to obtain acceptance from all publishers: many could not see the need to move on from circulation but were eventually persuaded by far-sighted agency people who said they would probably get more advertising business as a result. At a 1989 Media Research conference in Lisbon, where the knives were out for several people giving papers, (including the director of the NRS, who left shortly afterwards) we gave the first description of JICREG with some trepidation. But the response was far from critical. Instead, the first question was, ‘What took you so long?’ And we won the best paper award.

So, at last, regional titles, over a thousand of them, could be contrasted and compared with other media and identified by demographic profile just like national newspapers and magazines, television and radio stations. It needed another dimension, which was detailed mapping. Few people, even in our industry, have much idea of geography. So, with Beacon Dodsworth, JICREG has developed a mapping system which can show store catchments and drive times and newspaper overlap areas. Just about anything anyone wants. However, it could not operate without audited circulation and distribution figures.

While the driving force was to obtain more advertising, JICREG has been used effectively for editorial and circulation targeting. Editors now know more about the composition of their title’s readership and can change their presentation and story content accordingly. Similarly, there have been successful circulation drives among, for example, wealthier, or younger, households. There are countless ways of using the data to improve a newspaper’s performance and integration with its local community.

JICREG is now used for all serious advertising schedules in the regional press. It now has details of more than a thousand titles – it has just about every eligible title in Britain in membership - and has continually added features such as technological upgrading and even more detailed demographics. Regional press planning, selling and buying now relies on JICREG as its principal currency.

But there was a problem we noticed about ten years ago, which has taken some fixing.

What we noticed was that the major research currencies were using different household and population figures. In some cases the national totals were out by two million. This was because RAJAR, the NRS, BARB, POSTAR and JICREG were getting their figures from different sources, which used totally different methods of estimation. And each source said ‘our figures are better than their figures’. This occurred at local distribution levels as well, and still does, up to a point.

No one seemed to want to take this on. The Advertising Association wasn’t interested, and neither was the Market Research Society. So, with the help of the IPA and ISBA, representing the agencies and the advertisers, we launched JICPOPS (the Joint Industry Committee for Population Standards).


The first thing JICPOPS did was to get the cooperation of the population information providers - the Census agents CACI and Experian. At the time, these companies provided figures for about 90% of advertising, research and marketing companies. We enlisted academics and used government experts and other appropriate gurus to agree the best methodology for estimating household and population figures by small area. The small areas concerned were postcode sectors and what a joint team from Experian, CACI, JICREG, RSMB, and Ipsos now do is to produce annual estimates, which are used by just about everyone. It includes households and population, by sex and age breaks, in each one of 9000 or so postcode sectors. The estimates are based on Census data and several other major sources, and they are as accurate as it is possible to get them. That’s not to say they’re infallible. They are not, but neither is the Census. They are just the closest we can get to who is actually out there.

Selecting which medium

Now that they more or less match, all these currencies are all very well but they exist as separate silos of information. In other words, if you are an agency media planner, how do you decide which medium to use and how much to pay? Agencies have long had their own ‘black boxes’ which they claim are better than anyone else’s and which they use to design the optimum schedule for each product. But there is no industry standard, no agreed way of looking at media scientifically and dispassionately. Not yet.

The IPA, on behalf of agencies, has started a project called ‘Touchpoints’ which used a ‘hub’ survey to connect the research data from each medium. This should be a breakthrough for planners, but the system is not detailed enough to go down to the buying and selling level.

To do that, data needs to be linked using sophisticated modelling methods. This is now possible and exists in some forms, but is not yet widely accepted. One of the first methods tried was fusion, but this works by linking similar respondents from different surveys and usually means that a part of one survey has to be left out. A more interesting idea is called ‘Multibasing’, which has been used with significant effect in some newspaper centres. This links newspaper readership with readership of other titles on the same survey, together with radio data (from RAJAR if required) and users of the newspaper’s internet site. So the advertiser can be shown what a multi-media campaign delivers in terms of exposures for his chosen target market.

Which is where I began. It won’t stop agencies weighting their favoured medium, nor will it create an entirely level playing field. But the field will be flatter than it used to be.