Circulation expert Scott Bullock on the mag industry’s self-esteem issues, dazzling circ strategies, and breaking the glass ceiling on magazine’s business side.
Scott Bullock puts his hand to his ear and mimics a telephone conversation:
“Oh, I’ve got a great idea for a magazine!”
“Great, when are you planning on going to print?”
Bullock mimes hanging up the phone. “Click,” he says, deadpan.
The impromptu dramatization was sparked by our discussion about the value of circulation people. Bullock admits that circulation expertise is valued and important at big companies like Rogers and Transcontinental media. But often, he says, smaller publications and companies don’t consider circulation until it’s too late. “That person,” he says, referring to the hypothetical man on the other end of the phone line, “should have contacted me a year ago, maybe six months ago, and maaaybe three months ago.”
After 26 years of experience in Canada and the United States, Bullock is a major circ player in the country. Currently he runs his own consulting business, Circ3, out of his Toronto Beach home. He’s been the Director of Consumer Marketing at major Canadian magazines like Toronto Life and Fashion, and, prior to founding Circ3, was a partner at Coast to Coast Newsstand Services. In 2003, the Circulation Management Association of Canada named him Magazine Marketer of the Year.
Bullock is passionate about his craft. During our lunch meeting at an abnormally chilly, pub-style restaurant in his neighbourhood, he gestures wildly with his arms and flitters his hands this way and that, sometimes thrusting his gesticulations right under my nose. He leans in close and screws up his face when he wants to emphasize a point. On three separate occasions he picks up my menu and pretends it’s a magazine. He employs sarcasm liberally and often speaks in analogies.
An American who moved to Canada in 1989, Bullock is a champion for Canadian magazines. He is incredulous that people are hesitant to pay $19 for a yearly subscription. “How much does a paperback novel cost? How much does it cost to take my wife to the movies?” He is annoyed by controlled circulation strategies, and thinks they can devalue magazines. “If you give something away for free,” he says, “people will pick it up, look at it for three minutes, and throw it in the can.” To demonstrate, he picks up my menu and tosses it on the seat of the restaurant booth.
Although he’s discouraged by the lack of thought that some publications put into their circ strategies, he cites just as many approaches that he admires. A week before our lunch, Bullock was at Ryerson University, imparting his marketing wisdom to final year magazine students. One of the most ingenious circulation coups in Canadian history, he says, was Al Zikovitz’s plan for Cottage Life.
In 1985, Zikovitz and his wife purchased a cottage for the first time. They had a thousand queries about cottage living, and nowhere to find the solutions. “There was a realization in our mind,” says Zikovitz, “that this market needed a magazine that could answer all these questions for us.” So, two years later, Zikovitz wrote a business plan. It included such a clever scheme for circulation that Bullock still talks about it twenty years afterward.
“We were able to acquire names from the Federation of Ontario Cottagers’ Associations and we were also able to grab the boater’s list throughout the cottage municipalities and extract, through there, who the cottage people were.” In total, Zikovitz used 200,000 names. Cottage Life mailed out 70,000 free copies of the magazine on a rotating basis, so that no cottager would ever receive two free copies in a row. Along with the magazine came a wrap-around — if the reader liked the magazine, he could purchase a subscription. “Then every time we got another subscriber, we took another one off the controlled-circ list,” says Zikovitz, “So if we got 10,000 subs we sent out 60,000 controlled.” Zikovitz had promised Cottage Life’s advertisers 70,000 paid circ, and through his rotation, he very quickly delivered.
Of course, Zikovitz doesn’t take all of the credit for his magazine’s success. He needed circulation experts to put the plan in motion. “The idea was my idea,” he says, “but we did hire a circulation consulting company which no longer exists. Nancy Baker and Karen King handled that for us.”
One of the key factors in Cottage Life’s success, Zikovitz says, was that he produced a quality magazine, and charged the reader accordingly.
“We have 72,000 paid circulation,” he says. “A one-year sub is $27.50 and that’s what we charge — and that’s for six issues. We don’t do any of the whopping big discounts. Compare that to Toronto Life, which you can buy for $24 and you get twelve issues.”
It’s this kind of self-value that Bullock appreciates in a magazine. He praises The Walrus for charging $29.75 for a yearly subscription. “They’re saying, ‘We’re worth something!’”
It’s well into our conversation and I’m starving. But Bullock’s been talking non-stop about his craft for an hour now, and he shows no sign of slowing down for a meal. Finally I interrupt to ask if we can order.
Over neglected crab cakes and bean soup, Bullock continues. “Right now in Canada, circ people are working harder than they ever have. People are getting asked to do more with less,” he says. “Look at me with this BlackBerry.” Indeed, Bullock has ignored its buzzing several times in the past hour. “Twenty-four/seven, on demand…ugh!”
The added strain on circulation experts and magazine people in general, he says, is due partly to the ever growing number of “players” out there. These players, or new magazines, are “cutting up the same pie into smaller pieces.”
But are “circ geeks” (Bullock’s affectionate term) reaping the rewards of all their hard work? According to Bullock, some finally are. There used to be a glass ceiling in the magazine industry for circulation experts, but now, he says “more and more circ people are making it to the publisher’s suite.” As an example, he cites Sharon McAuley, current VP Group Publisher at St. Joseph Media, responsible for the urban group of magazines like Toronto Life and Where Canada.
McAuley started at the bottom, as a circulation data entry clerk for Saturday Night Publishing Services, but eventually went on to become circulation manager at CB Media, overseeing Canadian Business, Your Money and Small Business (which is now Profit). McAuley then became the publisher of Quill & Quire.
“Generally,” says McAuley, “I think circulation people are really perfectly positioned to be publishers because they understand the needs of the audience and as well as understanding the advertiser need for reaching a specific target market.” But she says that traditionally, the track to becoming publisher is often through ad sales since they’re the people who pump in most of the magazine’s revenue.
“A magazine that understands its readers and its readers’ needs will be successful,” she says. She also has a couple of theories as to why small publications might neglect circulation when they launch. Some, like Frank Stronach’s defunct Vista, are “ego motivated” with “no understanding of the readership.” Others are forms of artistic expression. “There’s a place in the world for creative outlets, but they aren’t usually viable businesses unless they meet a reader need.”
A magazine that does seem to have the right circulation formula is the newly launched More, aimed at women over 40. Both McAuley and Bullock tout its success in finding a seemingly untapped target market. And according to McAuley, “They were able to leverage the strength of paid subscribers” by accessing subscriber databases from Canadian Living and other Transcontinental publications. So far, More has approximately 80,000 paid subscribers.
McAuley says that in addition to paid circulation and advertising, common sources of revenue for magazines, there is a third source of revenue that magazines may turn to: becoming a registered charitable organization and relying on fundraising and foundation money. It’s the formula that’s given The Walrus some longevity. She says, “The Walrus was able to get that third source of funding and that has allowed them to continue to publish.”
Bullock’s business is helping magazines find winning circulation solutions. In a recent success story, Bullock helped a Canadian historical magazine, The Beaver, increase its single copy sales by 70 per cent. One of his bright ideas came when he realized that Canada’s History Society was distributing CD-ROM samplers to schools across Canada. “He said, ‘Well why wouldn’t you put these on the magazine?’” recalls publisher Deborah Morrison. “We put them on our newsstand copies and that issue was the biggest selling newsstand issue in our 86-year history.” To date, they’ve sold about 2,700 copies.
While Bullock hasn’t broken through that glass ceiling to the publisher’s suite yet, he’s definitely been successful in his current position. And it’s keeping him more than busy. After our allotted hour and 45 minutes, he literally runs out of the restaurant. “I hope this is enough,” he says, flipping me a ten- and five-dollar bill. It’s not. I end up paying $20 for a $9 sub-par panini. But for almost two hours of consultation with one of the city’s most sought after marketing gurus, I definitely got my money’s worth.
Julia LeConte was the Production Editor for the Spring 2007 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.