Battle for the Coffee Table

It all started with Right Said Fred around ten or 11 years ago. Richard and Fred Fairbrass were in town to strut their stuff, the “first white artists to appear in the country following Nelson Mandela’s election as (SA’s) president”, according to their website. We were sitting at a press conference in Gallo Music’s Rock Garden.
I was there in my underpaid capacity as writer, editor, layout artist and conceptualiser of Pulse, the Rosebank Killarney Gazette’s entertainment pages - too shy to ask a question. I whispered in a colleague’s ear and she projected on my behalf: “We hear you have relatives here in South Africa—” The louder, camper one replied, “Hey, how’d you know? Yeah, we’ve got a cousin, Caroline, in Durban, who we’re hoping to see.”

I looked around to see colleagues from our sister papers, the Northcliff Melville Times, Sandton Chronicle, Randburg Sun and Northeastern Tribune - each about to rush back to Caxton House to skryf up their earth-shattering reports on Right Said Fred. And then it hit me: we’re each probably being paid a few thousand rand a month; wouldn’t it be more cost-effective to have one quality, dedicated entertainment journalist write an article to be shared across the broader northern suburbs - even at R5,000 a month? After all, SABC3 was the same, whether you lived in Melville or Sandton. I jotted down five or six points supporting this premise and handed it to my boss, who handed it to Noel Coburn. Half a year later Leisure Options hit the streets - a pan-northern suburbs entertainment and leisure newspaper dedicated to celebrating the good life - with me as editor.

Options’ first year was all about firsts: SA’s first McDonald’s in Northcliff, Tracy Chapman’s first SA concert at the Standard Bank Arena, Africa’s first Gucci and Levi’s stores in Sandton, the first Loads of Living (or Loads of Linen, as it was known) in Emmarentia— With our quicker editorial turn-around time, we were at the forefront of SA’s lifestyle revolution, always beating the glossy magazines to the punch. Virtually every week, we naively declared war on the great SA Cultural Cringe, seemingly closer to victory with the sale of every Big Mac.

Things have settled since then. A minor Jackson sibling came to tour and flopped, selling a few hundred concert tickets. The USA’s Domino’s Pizza, TGI Friday’s and Chic-Fil-A have come and gone - rejected by increasingly savvy South African consumers who’ve been globalised by exotic travels, the internet, DStv and an ever-expanding choice of brands, products and offerings.

Now it seems almost everyone wants a slice of the South African lifestyle. Our magazine shelves are groaning under the weight of international titles ranging from Oprah, FHM, Popular Mechanics and Elle to Glamour, GQ, Shape and Men’s Health. The home décor market is probably the best example: Style (under the décor editorship of Michael Dunn), Habitat and Garden & Home took pride of place on most SA coffee tables throughout the 1980s. Since then - with the launch of House & Leisure, Condé Nast House & Garden, Elle Decoration and VISI - it’s become a daunting struggle for a title to earn its coffee table space. After all, the average size of a South African coffee table hasn’t grown to keep pace with the number of new titles in the past ten years - sooner or later someone’s going to be knocked off. Still, local lifestyle magazine and newspaper editors are bullish.

“I think that media is converging globally, and that brand extensions - whether it’s television, print, web-based or merchandised lines - are a reality that can be built upon,” says Clare O’Donoghue, Top Billing’s (ABC: 31,611, July to December 2004) new editor. “There are several successful print/TV partnerships existing internationally, but there really isn’t a significant example in South Africa. Top Billing aims to be a carefully considered cross-pollination. Significant reader and viewer research has recently been conducted, so I can confidently say that we utterly understand our market and what they want from this brand, both in television and in print.”

Laurice Taitz, editor of Sunday Times Lifestyle (ABC: 357, 000, January to June 2004—full ST July to Dec figures are at 505,402, but they’ve yet to be broken down), offers a different insight: “Our editorial mix is global and local content, and we package local content in the same way as we do international stories - so it’s the same top-level calibre of writing and photography regardless. South African readers are just as savvy as their American or English counterparts these days. The country has opened itself up to the world over the past 10 years, with DStv, the Internet, the growth of the magazine market, of international stores and brands and wider travel. But these changes have also meant that it is more difficult to keep a reader’s attention. You have to work harder than before. As a weekly, we can respond to breaking news. So for example when Hunter S Thompson died, we could run an article on him within the same week. We have a major advantage over magazines, many of which are working months in advance.”

Editor of Style magazine (ABC: 12,017, July to December 2004) Naomi Larkin says: “In a broader sense all other upmarket forms of entertainment will be competing with us for attention. But as far as rival publications go, I feel Style has a unique position in the market with little direct competition. It’s the only magazine that caters to a discerning sophisticated upscale readership, which has a 25-year reputation for meeting that specific need. South Africa is currently experiencing an economic boom and consumer spending is at an all time high. Forecasters predict that this trend will continue for at least the next three years. As more and more potential readers have entered the market, there is a significant proportion of affluent black readers who relate to a sophisticated publication like Style.”

In their fight for their right to party on SA’s coffee tables, editors are sharpening their USPs. Paul Duncan, editorial director of Condé Nast Independent Magazines (publisher of Condé Nast House & Garden, ABC: 46,086, July to December 2004) says: “Like many of our top-end advertisers, Condé Nast itself is a covetable brand, one that’s internationally synonymous with publishing quality. As a benchmark of excellence, our magazines worldwide have always attracted top writers, photographers, advertisers and brands with proven track records. And it’s the same here. I think there’s always been a perception that South Africa’s a second-rate country, but that’s certainly no longer the case. Things have moved very quickly in the last few years and you can pretty well see, do and buy here what your friends in Europe and the US have access to. If you can’t, our magazines will tell you what to do about it. We have world-class food and excellent wine, we’re making waves in décor and architecture, we have burgeoning fashion and film industries. People come here from abroad to see what we’re doing and they’re carting ideas and merchandise back home with them.”

Again, what this all means is heavy competition in the broad lifestyle publishing arena. “The bun fight for adspend is at fever pitch and - with overall declining circulations - I think it’s going to be a tough year for magazines,” admits O’Donoghue.

Thoko Modisakeng, Clarins marketing manager, offers insight into a marketer’s brain that’s overwhelmed by choice, where “spend smart” is quickly replacing “spend loyal”. Where and how much is Modisakeng spending? It’s a broad mix.

“Our magazine adspend hasn’t increased; it’s flat so we’ve had to reduce the number of bookings in certain publications to accommodate new ones. Our above-the-line spend has traditionally been applied to female glossy publications - mostly international titles. But, we’re also one of the first international brands to invest in homegrown Afrikaans titles like Rooi Rose and Sarie, and black magazines like True Love. For our ‘moment in time’ spend - time-locked promotions with specific retailers for Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day - we tend to use newspapers like Rapport, Sunday Times and The Star. It depends on where we focus. Last year a lot of our focus was on the 50+ market, so we went into magazines like SA Garden & Home, or mags with a healthy living spin, like Longevity or Shape.”

The ideal? More coffee tables. Until then, expect a lot of furrowed brows in the glossy lifestyle publishing game.

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