B2B magazine publishers should be careful not to be "pussies".
So said AGA Group new business manager Evan Ivey at a recent Media Week dinner, as he bemoaned their inability to offer creative advertising solutions.
The issue of B2B creativity rolls on, but the release of the latest ABC circulation figures has enabled advertisers to turn the spotlight on the quality of the audience that magazines offer.
To be fair, the performance of B2B magazines is largely dependent on the success of the businesses they reflect. If the electronics industry needs to tighten its belt and cut budgets, for example, the ripple effect will be felt on the titles specialising in that industry.
The latest ABC figures show those business magazines which report annually to December and thus cover only specific titles in their markets.
Jan Pitt, director of business to business at ABC, says the latest figures are "very stable", with some, such as the heating, ventilating and air conditioning sector, and printing titles, showing good growth.
She says that stability has been achieved despite a "lot of churn" in the sector, with titles joining the ABC and leaving in more or less equal numbers.
However, to get the real picture of what is going on in B2B, it is important to delve deeper – to find out who is bringing home the most advertising bacon (see case studies at bottom).
One of the biggest impacts on the B2B sector in recent years has been the rise of digital channels. Many B2B markets have been hit by the migration of their customers to web-based media and have felt the pinch across print titles.
While most B2B publishers have reacted by introducing their own web channels, some have also attempted to cut down on printing costs and make use of digital channels by launching online pdf versions of their titles.
For media agencies covering the B2B sector, the introduction of pdf copies, particularly in the technology arena, has raised questions about the relative value of those editions compared to print editions.
"It's a real bone of contention," says Nicky Gordon, director at Carat Business. "And it has split the B2B publishing community."
For while publishers argue that pdf versions are as valuable as print versions, media agencies are not convinced.
"From an advertising perspective, it is a very different proposition. The reading experience and how the ad is seen will be different," Gordon says.
Pitt says that some digital copies will be included in the next round of ABC results, but will be separated from the headline figure.
As many of the titles in the B2B sector have controlled circulations, maintaining the standard of their readership is vital.
Some media agencies would like to see more detail in the auditing of B2B audiences.
Nicky says: "I would like the ABC audit to prove the quality of the audience."
Currently, a B2B publisher can choose the level of auditing it requires, from a standard audience audit to a profile audit, which includes demographic data on the audience.
Pitt says that about 10% of B2B titles opt for the more detailed breakdowns, including demographic data.
David Harrison, media director of D-Squared, says that "some publishers are lax" when it comes to proving and maintaining the quality of their audiences, particularly in the light of the tough advertising conditions the sector is currently facing.
"There is an increasing number of publications and many different opportunities for clients to spend money," he says.While some have taken steps to improve their products, he says they are still far from being in the same league as other forms of publishing, such as the national newspaper market.
"Historically, although they earn their crust through advertising, they are the worst at self-promotion," Harrison says.
"You phone up a newspaper and they can furnish you with all the surveys and readership data you need, but in the B2B sector, there is not a hope in hell's chance. They are in a different league."
Many publishers have grasped the power of the web and are using it to gain extra ad revenue. "The bigger the publisher, the more switched on they are," says Harrison.
But tightness in advertising in the B2B sector looks set to continue. The latest Advertising Association data forecasts that total advertising expenditure will increase by 4.3% in 2005, but business press will only increase by 1.7% and online will increase by 33.2%.
Stephenson says that the figures show B2B is "just about keeping its head above water".
"I believe those publications which invest in their circulation by increasing subscriptions and/or their requested circulation and aim to update them all within 12 months, will be a much better buy for agencies and advertisers," he says.
The highest circulating title in the electronics sector is the IEE Review, a membership magazine published by the Institute of Electrical Engineers and distributed to society members.
The title was relaunched as a monthly magazine in 2003 and during 2004, it enjoyed a 340% increase in its ad revenue, making it by far the best achiever in ad terms in its sector.
Across the rest of the sector, magazines focus on specific issues within the electronics market.
Electronics, published by Datateam, and Components in Electronics, published by Newsquest, covers the latest components.
Electronics moved in to the Datateam portfolio last May and has since undergone a rebrand.
"It was rebranded under connecting industry.com brand," says Jo Bennett, editor of Electronics. "The circulation is picking up again after a period of decline.
"We have cleaned up the circulation and are really encouraging people to register."
Electronic Product Design is a monthly title which targets senior design engineers.
It is in the process of shifting the audit of the title from ABC to BPA to allow it more international recognition.
"The people holding the purse strings might be in the States," says Caroline Hayes, its editor.
The electronics market is becoming increasingly international and some titles in this sector are reflecting this shift by focusing on territories, rather than on individual countries. US publisher Penton Media launched a European version of Electronic Design magazine last year.
But recent times have also seen publishers in this sector pulling out of Europe.
CMP closed down or sold off its European electronics titles, including UK weekly Electronic Times three years ago.
A spokesperson for CMP said that the titles were pulled during the dotcom crash, though the company still runs an exhibition portfolio in the sector.
Circulations across the computing sector fell heavily during 2004, down 65% on the previous year.
In the B2B sector, this is more likely to reflect a shift in the number of titles reporting within ABC rather than a declining readership.
The computing sector saw a number of high-circulating titles published by Micro Warehouse dropout of the audit.
This sector is dominated by two titles with a strong news-stand presence, PC Advisor and MacWorld, while the rest of the sector has mainly controlled or non-controlled free circulations.
Mac Stephenson, press manager at MediaCom, says the way titles are currently categorised by ABC does not truly reflect the market.
"PC Pro and PC Advisor, for example, are competitive titles, but are listed by ABC in different sectors," he says.
Circulations in the paid-for computing market are in decline, said Stephenson, as online sites eat into their circulations, but some titles are managing to halt the decline.
"As the B2B market has such diverse sectors, it is crucial that the publications know their place in the market and concentrate their editorial on what their readers want," Stephenson said, citing PC Pro as one title which has managed this.
For Stuart Dinsey, managing director of Intent Media, pressure in the B2B market means titles with less than a five figure circulation will struggle.