Interviewer: Chris Sutcliffe

Why do you believe print is back as a viable medium for publishers?

Well, I think for many years, let’s just take the last 10 years, for example, there was this whole conversation that started around ‘print is dead’, and I think that was part of disruption, because it had to have a starting point. So, they started with ‘print is dead’. And I think what’s happened now is obviously digital has had incredible growth, and I think it’s a vital part of a brand and channel mix. There’s no debating that at all.

But I think that print is starting to be recognised as a very trusted environment for advertisers. You know that your consumers want to experience a deeper, a very engaged user experience when they read something in print. And I think it has a sharp contrast to a much faster, information, newsy-driven thank you, that a user gets when they actually engage with the digital channel.

So, I think when print is used appropriately, it just allows more space, and it allows more one-on-one and deeper engagement for the user. And I think when it’s used properly inside the strategy for any brand, it’s incredibly powerful, and advertisers and consumers are starting to appreciate that again.

That feels like a shame in a way because it’s not as though those publishers lost any of their expertise. They they managed to keep hold of what made print special over those years.

They did. But I think again, depending on the objectives for each and every brand and how are they going to remain relevant, and make sure that they drive conversations that matter. And that they engage with their audience who are effectively consumers, they’re not only readers. They’ve got to be seen as consumers as well, that drives a value for an advertising partner. So, I think the thing is, that we’ve almost done not a good enough job in terms of publishers, and certainly not quick enough in my opinion to sort of reskin ourselves, and repackage ourselves and help our partners, who are advertisers and are consumers, understand why we are still relevant.

We’ve done a lot of work around a much more transactional strategy, in terms of talking to our audience and especially around shopping for product. And I don’t know if you followed this, in terms of our strategy particularly, but utilising our brand platforms as shop windows. And in South Africa, e-commerce is still relatively small. But I think that a magazine medium has an incredibly important part to play in curating products for consumers.

And if you look at our audience, they still want the same things. They want to know what’s the best, fastest, most beautiful dress. They still want to be empowered. They still want to be informed. They still want to be kept up to date. They want to be entertained.

So, essentially, what we call ‘ready to shop’, is an extension in terms of our strategy of keeping our brands and our mediums relevant to our audience, and understanding that this is such a valuable consumer, and you have such a deep-seated trusted relationship with this consumer as a medium. And you’ve got to respect that. And then you’ve got to curate content that helps them in their life, allows them not just to see something that they want but also to shop it. And that’s very much around a much more consumer-focused strategy as a magazine medium.

So, where then are you placing your chips, in terms of being that major part of your audiences life? Particularly, when it comes to actually enabling them to shop to fulfil their consumer desires.

So, we started this about two years ago, testing it, in terms of our brands and our audiences and which environments would be easiest to place a QR code. And we started with a QR code because, in South Africa, that is the payment gateway that’s very well recognised. So, it may differ in different environments around the world, but we started in South Africa with a QR code.

We partnered with a QR code technology that was powered by a bank, and we started testing it. We started placing it around the magazine but in a very integrated way, because you don’t want to suddenly become a catalogue. We also had to upskill our editors who were curating the product, because you can’t just plunk any product in your inverted commerce shop window. So, it’s taken us two years and everything we do now we test, and then we analyse the feedback from the consumer. So what are they shopping most of.

In South Africa for example, 80 percent of merchandise that’s actually sold, is basics. It’s not runway, but you obviously want your runway and your high end fashion products because that is part of the narrative, and part of the story, and part of the inspiration. But you’ve you’ve got to almost think like a buyer, and that’s a totally different skill set from editorially what we were producing and curating when we only had print in one medium, versus now, when we have print in eight mediums daily, versus one product in print monthly.

So, for us it’s been getting our teams to understand the role that we would play working with retailers. We’ve done a lot of test cases and case studies working with one of the biggest retailers in South Africa, where we work with them to understand what’s pushing sales of their product. And we showcase this in all of our platforms and then we measure everything with all the data. And that’s another entirely new skill set that we’ve introduced into our publishing world.

Actually getting all that data..the investment required to harvest all that data from the print product must have been huge.

It’s a big investment of time and energy and resources. But for me, this was so vital to understanding the next Esko for publishing media as we saw it. I was working with one of the big retailers, and I had this sort of ‘aha’ moment, where he said to me the beginning of our conversation, which was two years ago, ‘I’m a retailer and you’re a publisher. So, I’m not sure how much we can actually talk about, and how much we have in common.’

And that actually made me think about our products as shop windows. And it’s funny when you have an ‘aha’ moment and you can almost frame your journey at certain points, then you’ve got somewhere to start from.

But it’s taken a huge leap of faith. And it’s also taken a lot of investment, to sort of bear with us and back this journey, because it’s quite a different mindset to go from being very reader focused, to consumer focused but still remembering that you always need a balance in terms of your medium and your stories and your narratives, because otherwise you’ll become a catalogue.

Finding that balance between really creating great content and being consumer focused is something that I know a lot of publications in the UK are struggling with as well. So, how’s that consumer focus affecting the transition? How’s it affecting your growth overall?

OK. So, we can see, and I’m actually going to give you a few stats, and for us, any growth is very important because, it was quite funny, but when we started doing it, we worked with this person in the bank that we met up with, in terms of the payment gateway, and he was our partner, and he’s a young, very dynamic guy. He was one of the founders of a company called SnapScan. We started working with him, and he said ‘Listen, if you change one person’s behaviour when they engage with your brand, you’ve actually managed to do something. So, just start somewhere with an MVP (Minimum Viable Product).” And it was actually a wake up call. Let’s just get on it, let’s get going with it.

But just to tell you, from mid-December 2018 to mid April 2019, which is a short period of time, our QR scans have grown from 7,000 to 17,430. Our page views in our shops grew from 47,000 to 84,441. And the products that we’ve loaded in the shop, which is our back end, which we call ‘ready to shop’ have grown from 1,500 to 3,174. So, remember that this has been a huge learning curve for our teams. But everything they learn, they’re applying immediately.

And I think because we’re a small, independent, family-run business, we’ve kept our offering quite small in terms of the titles that we run. We have a huge focus on the quality of content, we collaborate with great creative partners as well. And we’re able to change quite quickly. We’re able to remain agile.

I think in the bigger companies, it’s probably more difficult to almost just decide on a route, and then get going. Because of the huge amount of disruption and change in our industry in particular, it’s everywhere. But I mean in our industry, in publishing, it’s experienced really radical change. If you didn’t have the advantage of agility, you were disadvantaged.

So, I think one thing that we’ve got built into the DNA of our business is agility, and also a lot of chutzpah. So, we redesigned House and Leisure, which is our decor title, because we just looked at the newsstand, and we said ‘This is just a sea of sameness’. And if we don’t do something in terms of designing an iconic cover – because in South Africa 70 percent of your sales, in terms of circulation, so printed copies, are still coming from the newsstand. It’s an important part of the sales funnel. So, it’s quite a departure, but go big or go home.

Well, I suppose doing something as radical as that, making that big a transition was actually quite scary for an independent outlet like yourself.

It’s one of those things that you just say ‘Gulp, I’m going to swim upstream, and I’m going to do it fast, and I’m going to do it with the right people’. And I think that’s what’s kept me very invested in our business, and in media particularly, it’s through creating work that you’re actually proud of, because there is a lot of talent, and there’s a lot of talent in the world.

But I’ve also realised through sitting on the FIPP board, that a lot of the people who sit on that board, they are seasoned professionals. Obviously, they do traditionally compete with each other, but most importantly they collaborate because we a future for this industry. We want this industry to survive and flourish, which isn’t going to be easy. That’s why you need to collaborate.

And we need to attract the next generation of talent, which is my next little bugbear in South Africa. I’m going to start working with educational platforms and organisations, because I don’t know if they’re teaching how to be in the new world of media. I’m going to get onto that after our conversation. What’s happened in terms of like, who’s the next generation who’s going to take over in terms of keeping publishing and the right content…because it’s not how it was?

So how do they actually teach it? Have they got the right case studies, have they got the right people speaking to students? Because I think that people, the next generation, they are confused about how to be in the world of media. Are they an influencer? Or are they a publisher? Where do they fit? How do they train themselves? How do they make a business out of it? It’s really important right now that we attract talent.

Yeah exactly. We have this conversation quite a few times over here as well, because a lot of the times when we talk about magazine courses, and magazine courses for people who want to get into magazine journalism, they’re often taught by people who are fantastically well versed in the history of the medium. But they don’t necessarily have the right skills to pass on to people who are just now entering that space, and actually who might be able to bring new ideas to the table.

Yeah, I mean this is not the time for textbook teaching, in terms of the media. This is the time for looking at the success stories, looking at case studies, getting people who are opinion leaders in front of these kids, helping them understand how important reading is, and print as well as all the other channels. Because each one has a different reason for being. It’s important to understand, how does the user feel when they are engaging with that medium, and not one is better than the other.

It’s about being exceptional, and doing whatever it is that you do. Innovation, inspiration, but also execution of a strategy. I don’t think they teach turnaround strategy enough. If you look at where we’ve been as an industry, how we’ve reinvented ourselves, there are a lot of case studies now, and also a lot of failures, but you can learn from failure, and you have to be prepared to learn, you have to be prepared to fail, and be able to take that ‘intelligent failure’ as it’s called.

Flexibility also, and working flexibility, is something that is relatively new, and a subject that we’ve really looked into, in terms of our own workforce because the majority of the people who work in our company happen to be women. So the new workforce wants to be flexible, which is great. And we are totally up for it, but if you don’t have the right workflow system, so that your output of your workforce is being measured in the appropriate way, then flexibility doesn’t work either. Anyway lots of subject matter to cover!

So, earlier you mentioned a lot of cross-border collaboration that you’ve got going on with FIPP, and I imagine in your position, you actually get to talk to quite a lot of people who are grappling with similar issues, but internationally as well. So, what lessons have you taken from the international magazine community?

We’ve been in partnership with Hearst for 35 years, because when we started Cosmopolitan here, it was the first international title to come on to the market. And they’ve been the most incredible partner, I have to say. And they’re almost a family, we’ve been through ups and downs together, I mean 35 years of working together.

I’ve seen how they’ve changed their business, and they’ve seen how we change ours. And I think there’s value in exchange of information, looking at different systems, looking at how you structure your staff and your teams to deliver for an entirely new market. The only way you can do that is by sharing information, testing it. South Africa is a great incubator for innovation, because not only do you have kind of a mindset…we’ve always been a little bit at the tipping point of Africa.

So, we’re used to thinking out of the box, and obviously not all your ideas are going to be good, but at least you’ve got a lot of ideas. Because we’ve got a very solid foundation with Hearst, and we’ve also worked with a lot of other publishers, we worked on Marie-Claire for many years, and we published Oprah’s magazine when she had another title besides the one in the US. We’ve got deep-rooted relationships where there’s deep-seated trust. So, you are able to share a lot of information.

For me, sitting on the board of FIPP where I get a lot of inspiration, is the mixture of people. So, for example the Head of Media for Red Bull sits on the board of FIPP, and they are having a conversation around an incredible case study of a business that is hugely successful in selling energy drinks, but doesn’t see itself as an energy drink business. It sees itself as a media business.

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