/ 15 December 2004

Fine Young Cannibals

My old man has told me frequently that “failing to plan is planning to fail.” It would seem that some new entries in South Africa’s consumer magazine market should heed the same advice.

According to Starcom’s Gordon Patterson, head of one South Africa’s largest media agencies, over the last two years South Africa has seen a veritable rash of “impulse publishing”.

As Patterson wrote in The Media some months back (June 2004): “[Magazine publishing] has become more about advertising revenue than about the readers. There seems to be a general fear of talking to readers and a shift toward the silo business model — income generating and product separated. This is why we are seeing so much impulse publishing without solid, thought-through business plans. There is a wait-and-see response and a growing lack of confidence as failures increase.”

So it all comes down to the business plan. Is there a niche, a valid gap in the market? Is the new title attracting new magazine readers to the pool, or is it simply cannibalising the audience and adspend of other established titles? Is the magazine more dependent on its advertising than its audience?

With the total circulation of all magazines amounting to just under 5,5-million (ABC Jan-Jun 2004), in a population of roughly 46-million, it is evident that South Africa’s magazine publishing sector is far from saturation point. What remains to be seen is which new titles can make it through their first winter.

“As long as there is an audience that can be delivered, that advertisers want to reach, there will be potential to launch new magazines,” says New Media Publishing’s (NMP) Irna Van Zyl. The publishing house, an arm of the old giant Naspers/Media24, has ruffled more than a few tail feathers by launching new titles pitched at the crowded market segments of lifestyle and travel, and aimed at the bankably dependable upper LSMs.

NMP have attracted trademark and competition lawsuits from two competitor magazines, Good Taste and Getaway, regarding their newly launched titles Taste and Wegbreek.

But maybe the lawsuits have a bit to do with NMP’s history of success at sniffing out the “niche within the niche” (‘cos you don’t really sue someone unless you’re scared of something). Woolworth’s in-house magazine, Taste, which hit shelves in September last year, falls into the heavily congested lifestyle category, but differentiates itself by a focus on food and the obvious tie-in with Woolworths.

Mimicking trends in the UK, where food and lifestyle titles are converging to challenge the dominance of fashion magazines, New Media saw the business gap in the fact that only one local consumer magazine was dedicated to things culinary. Taste basically operates as both a customer and consumer title, and is achieving good sell-through and a very reasonable circulation of 15 624 (ABC Jan-Jun 2004).

Wegbreek, NMP’s Afrikaans outdoors travel and lifestyle magazine, and the nemesis of Ramsay, Son & Parker’s Getaway, has so far exceeded all expectations. After launching in March this year, the magazine has already achieved twice as many copy sales as editor Bun Booysens expected when, pre-launch, he said he’d be happy with a circulation of 22 000.

“I think it is quite clear from the numbers that Wegbreek has created a new market,” says Van Zyl. “If you take the figure that 40-45% of Getaway‘s readership is Afrikaans, that would mean that every single one of them has been buying a Wegbreek, because our sales are already over 40  000.”

The NMP bull-run has also seen them launch an English version of popular Afrikaans lifestyle quarterly, Visi. “Launching the English version has grown Visi‘s market by about 40%,” says Van Zyl, sounding a bit like a cash register going ka-ching!

“There’s something happening in the lifestyle segment; people want more information, and they want good information, which is what we’re giving them. People are now asking us, when do you take Visi international?”

One new magazine that has received a relatively cool response from advertisers and audiences alike is Itch, published by Bell-Roberts, who also publish Art South Africa.

Itch‘s editorial policy is to attract free editorial submissions (a business plan that keeps overheads extremely low) on a range of subjects, from academic-type essays on South African politics to pop culture and “cutting edge” design and photography.

On launch, editor Mehita Iqani described the Itch reader as “socially aware, upwardly mobile, brand exhausted, image and socio-globally conscious, ad-savvy, creative, trendy, choosy and generally intellectually under-stimulated by other mainstream magazines.”

With an initial print run of 3 000, and a cover price of R95, it is difficult to understand how the title expects to attract the avant-garde, intellectually under-stimulated South African reader, especially when you consider that (pretty cheekily) they don’t pay for content. Not an issue, says Iqani.

“Despite the fact that we don’t pay for content, we do attract a lot of high quality stuff. They’re often people who are employed as full-time journalists but have things to say that don’t fit into the established framework.”

Right. Anyway, added to Itch‘s relatively shaky business model is the fact that the content was judged “too risqué” by some branches of Exclusive Books, so it is not hard to understand why Bell-Roberts has cut back on the print run and is allowing the magazine to grow more “organically”.

“My biggest shortfall is that I don’t come from a consumer magazine background,” says Brendon Bell-Roberts. “At the same time, we manage to struggle on with our direct contacts, who don’t operate in those areas, but we are finding the need to start tapping into those mainstream areas in terms of sustainability and advertising revenue is becoming more crucial now.”

More is the pity, because if there is one thing South Africa desperately needs, it’s a vibrant alternative press.

Back in the mainstream magazine slug fest, Conde Nast’s South African launch of handbag-sized Glamour magazine has, in less than a year, achieved rapid success in the brutally competitive women’s fashion magazine market, hitting a circulation high of 121 591 in their latest ABCs.

This notably surpassed Cosmopolitan‘s 114 727 and is close to True Love‘s tidy circulation of 128 827 (ABC Jan-Jun 2004).

Meanwhile, Heat magazine has got massive marketing benefits from publishing parent Media24 and broadcast “auntie” Multichoice since its launch last year.

Of course South African advertisers have generally avoided the celeb-gawking magazine market, and despite the marketing blitz Heat‘s circulation of just under 45 000 is still way behind that of its Caxton competitor People, which sits at 113 862 (ABC Jan-Jun 2004).

Copy sales is the business here – at launch Heat came in at around R5 more on cover price than People — so this new magazine’s model has yet to be proved.

In the teen girls market, new entrant (8 Ink and Media24’s) Seventeen is currently slapping it out with old favourite (Atoll Media’s) Salt Water Girl. The latter is holding onto a marginal lead of 28 167, with Seventeen at 28 097, while Paul Kerton’s relative newcomer Wicked trails with 23 846 (ABC Jan-Jun 2004).

If international trends are anything to go by, the spending power of this audience makes it the darling of advertisers, so if you can convince the readers the revenue should come.

Then there’s the sports market, which saw the launch of Johncom’s SoccerLife in April this year.

According to publisher Gisele Wertheim-Aymes, the company has “never spent less than a year researching and investigating any of its new product launches,” and this title (initially an idea pitched by then Bafana Bafana captain Brian Baloyi and soccer TV presenter Walter Mokoena) had to hold up to rigorous quantitative and qualitative research trials before the final go-ahead was given.

On the face of it the thoroughness is paying off — Wertheim-Aymes insists that SoccerLife has innovated in a category that has few players. “We have managed to attract advertising into our magazine that our competitors have never been able to. This is due to the quality of readership projected and the quality of the magazine we produce, as well as the strong lifestyle feature content which is providing us with new advertising opportunities.”

And talking of lifestyle, Top Billing magazine launched with a bang in June this year, banking on the popularity of the TV show of the same name. A collaboration between Tswelopele Productions and ex-GQ editor Daniel Ford’s publishing company, Schreiber Ford Publications, this magazine is currently selling issue number five, and awaiting their first official ABC audit.

Editor Ford is extremely optimistic. “I think it is safe to say it’ll be over 40 000, which I’m really pleased with because my target was 35 000. Obviously, in terms of adspend, everyone is a bit quiet until you’ve got an ABC, but what I’m particularly pleased with is the quality of advertiser.”

Which is not all that surprising when you hear the following from Ford: “In terms of our marketing, the SABC is a full-on partner, so it has been fantastic. I don’t think a South African magazine has had such heavy marketing support as this, ever.” That said, rumours of massive rands being needlessly squandered before launch and the rookie mistake of bagging the inaugural issue, with free packets of cereal to boot, make you wonder whether the publishers have the staying power for the long haul.

Another exciting contestant about to dive into the magazine pool is Real, affiliated to the popular TV show All You Need Is Love. It appears to target a new sector of the population with a complete and realistic business plan. “Real is not a teen or youth title,” says associate publisher Nechama Brodie, “it’s a woman’s mag, aimed at black readers 18-30.”

Brodie cocks a snoot at the plethora of new titles. “I believe there are too many luxury magazines. How many mags do we have specifically for black women? One. How can that be enough to serve a massive market? In the white women’s mag market, we have so many titles reflecting different lifestages and choices. I think that the black mass mag market is a real growth area. Up until now we have seen massive focus on men’s sports, and a couple of black business titles. It’s time to move on—”

Alas, moving on is not easy when there is no track record or advertising confidence in an untested target market. Just look at how YFM, despite a huge audience, struggled to attract revenue.

When every wannabe-publisher-cum-businessman and their auntie is attempting to launch new titles, and so many of those titles fail due to lack of planning, taking their advertisers for an expensive one-way roller coaster ride, it is obvious that there is going to be a fair amount of scepticism.

Starcom’s Gordon Patterson sums it up best. “For those interested, my advice to publishers is: know your readers and want what you’ve got. To the newbies: understand where your title will fit in and why readers should buy it; publishing doesn’t guarantee advertising. If you deliver what your readers want, the advertising will follow.”

Magazines Launches Jan – Sep 2004

  • Visi English edition – Media 24

  • Wegbreek – Media 24

  • Glamour – Independent Group

  • Tuis – Media 24

  • Nat Geo Kids – Media 24

  • Heat – Media 24

  • Top Billing – Tsepelelo Productions

  • Soccer Life – Johncom media

  • M -REAL – Media 24

  • Fit Pregnancy – Media 24/Touchline Media