With the sector taking strain long before the disruption of the pandemic, magazine publishers have had to get creative in order to survive, and perhaps even thrive.
2020 was a ghastly year for the media, particularly the publishing sector. Magazine publishers who reacted quickly and positively to challenges are able to face this year with realism and a dose of optimism.
During May 2020 both Caxton Magazines and Associated Media Publishing announced they were closing up shop. In hindsight, it’s a wonder the shake-up in the magazine publishing sector waited for 2020, as circulation and advertising revenue had suffered steady declines over the previous five years.
The revenue model that had served publishers well was way past its sell-by date, and onerous contracts to publish international glossies at the mercy of volatile exchange rates became nooses around the necks of publishers. Airline magazines were grounded and dozens of smaller niche titles simply drifted away.
2020 is recognised as the year in which the rules of publishing were rewritten, legacy practices were changed and established relationships were disrupted. Embracing technology, reconfiguring distribution channels and creating higher levels of value for readers took publishers out of their lethargy and into a world of collaboration, consumer-centricity, brand consciousness and fresh business models.
On a decidedly more positive note, during the lockdown South African readers embraced multiple content-reading platforms and the published word now finds itself at the top end of the SEM scale.
No more runway
Minette Ferreira, general manager of lifestyle and news at Media24, is both pragmatic and upbeat about the future as she and her team have been following a strategy of reinvention and repositioning over many years.
“Suddenly, in 2020, the runway remaining for our four-to-five-year plan evaporated, forcing dramatic change,” says Ferreira. “The lesson I learned most was always to think forward and not look for excuses not to change when you can see the sands of time running out.”
One of Media24’s first tasks was to exit from licensing agreements to publish Hearst titles such as Men’s Health and Runner’s World. Then titles such as Sarie and Fairlady moved to six editions a year, and Tuis and Home to eight; this decision was accompanied by further cover price increases.
“These moves placed the onus on us to ensure and improve quality,” says Ferreira. “For example, with Fairlady we have upped the number of pages and expanded the content offering; it is easier for consumers to find cash for a luxury purchase every two months.” The overall result has been a 20%+ increase in copy sales since August.
Another significant move saw Media24 magazines adopt an outsourced staff model. Editors were offered contracts to produce magazines based on a fee per edition. Given a budget and the freedom to choose who they want on their team of content creators has meant the company has “a flexible cost base” and dedicated teams who can bring their own ideas to the table and deliver the “huge need for niche-interest content like gardening and crosswords; we are seeing fantastic sales of these stand-alone products”.
Of the advertising sales front, Ferreira says: “A small, full-time team handles media agency sales for Huisgenoot/YOU/DRUM and we expanded the outsource model to travel titles, True Love, Sarie and Tuis/Home. Focus, a vested interest in success and strict performance methods are supported by shared resources like our creative studio. Direct sales now play a big role in revenue. These titles are not classic big agency sales, and selling creative solutions rather than just a page ad is seeing good results.”
Clients are offered an array of content and platform opportunities including events, digitorial, advertorial, and television. Advertising sales exceeded expectations in the last quarter of 2020.
Authentic content will win
Lani Carstens is group managing director at John Brown Media, part of the dentsu Group. She stays alert to global trends, listing some of the standouts as inter-agency collaboration, increased omnichannel focus and purpose-driven content “backed by proper use of data and insights, and which responds to a human need. Video and podcasts will continue to dominate”.
Although Carstens describes the future of magazine publishing as tough, she adds, “Print is not dead: we just launched a new magazine for Old Mutual called Nine Yards, targeting SMEs and entrepreneurs.”
While operating under lockdown she kept in close contact with her staff and clients such as Pick n Pay, with whom she was in deep discussions to find a solution to “mitigate the significant costs associated with printing half-a-million copies”.
They worked on altering the business model, building and launching a Fresh Living website within five days and switching from a free monthly (for Smart Shoppers) to a paid for quarterly with a print order of 50 000. Following an omnichannel model, Fresh Living is now available in print (currently selling 38 000 copies per issue) and the full magazine can be downloaded for free. It also suits advertisers, who can reach Fresh Living readers in print, online, on social channels and in-store. She busied herself further with the launch of a cooking channel, Just Cook at Home SA with Justine Drake.
Despite many challenges, Carstens describes 2020 as a good year. “We collaborated with our sister agencies within Dentsu and have fortunately won significant new business in the digital content space. Especially now, with Covid-19, audiences are tired of bull; authentic content that fills a real human need will win.”
Sandra Gordon is CEO of Stone Soup PR. Founded in 2002, Stone Soup South Africa is a 100% women-owned and managed boutique agency, specialising in bespoke public relations strategies and plans, communications, reputation management and events. Gordon was the founder of The Media magazine and The Media Online, selling Wag the Dog Publishers to Arena Holdings in 2019.
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