'In wobbly moments you find out what sort of a business you are'

It didn’t go unnoticed during the latest round of consumer magazine ABCs on Valentine’s Day that The National Magazine Company was the only publisher to send out goodies to the Press Gazette newsdesk – a selection of cakes and chocolate wrapped in the circulation figures of some of its magazines.

Not so many years ago, bottles of champagne and food hampers were sent by the PR departments of a number of publishers to journalists working on the ABCs. So do the goodies mean that NatMag is the only company with something to celebrate? Certainly not, according to its chief executive Duncan Edwards, who insists the magazine business is in robust shape.

Using the men’s sector as an example, Edwards points out that although some previously popular titles have fallen out of favour with readers, that doesn’t mean the industry is in crisis. ‘Magazine sales have been growing over the past few years on an aggregate basis very strongly,’he says.

‘Consumers have been buying more products and they have been prepared to pay increased prices for those magazines as well. I think the business is doing better than some well-informed commentators would have it,’says Edwards, his comments backed up by the fact that overall total annualised circulation for the consumer magazine industry is up 134 million copies, 8.6 per cent year on year.

NatMag faired well, overall; circulation rose 5.1 per cent period on period and remained relatively steady year on year, with a small decline of 0.3 per cent. NatMag Rodale, a joint venture with an American sports publisher that publishes Men’s Health and Runner’s World, was up 2.1 per cent.

It was a poor show for NatMag’s weekly arm ACP-NatMag, which was down 9.1 per cent year on year, but the company appears undeterred by this drop, and last week announced its plans to acquire the 50 per cent stake held by Australian Consolidated Press.

Heavily saturated market

This means the three titles – Best, Reveal and Real People – will be fully integrated into NatMag under Edwards and managing director Jessica Burley, leaving ACP-NatMag chief executive Colin Morrison without a job.

Edwards says that the decline in circulation for his three weekly titles is a reflection of the overall decline in sales in their respective sectors. He feels that the heavily saturated celebrity weekly market that Reveal sits in has peaked – Heat, Closer and Now are all down 10 to 13 per cent – and that there’s a battle ahead. ‘There’s need for innovation in that sector. A lot of magazines look the same and are actually delivering fairly indistinguishable content and I think we need to fix that. We certainly have plans to do that with Reveal. We intend to come back to the market with some very clear differentiation.”

Edwards predicts that the next sector to peak will be the shopping weeklies, such as Grazia and rival publisher IPC’s big launch of 2007, Look. ‘My bet is that they’re going to go down,’he says. ‘I think Look has had its best ABC figure.”

Last year, the £18m launch of Look was the only major new consumer magazine from one of the big publishers, and currently there are no rumours of any imminent projects.

Edwards doesn’t think that the era of the big print launch is over, however. Instead, he believes that the big companies are nurturing their herds. ‘If you think in historical terms we went through a period, over the past five years, of an extraordinary number of launches and I think we’re now settling down into a more-normalised pattern, where launches will be perhaps a little rarer,’he says. ‘Most companies have done something that involves investment, followed by a period of consolidation and making sure that what they spend their money on is working as well as it should be.”

Over recent years, NatMag has successfully re-invented a number of its titles. The return of Harper’s Bazaar to its original title from Harper’s & Queen saw a circulation turnaround and a number of industry awards. Reintroducing ’emotional content’to mature women’s monthly She saw the title bounce back from difficult times – it recently posted a 16 per cent rise year on year. A popular redesign of men’s monthly Esquire reversed its dwindling sales and brought in a 14 per cent year-on-year rise to 59,800 for the second half of 2007, helped by a push in discount subscriptions.

NatMag made a conscious decision in 2002 to rely less on retail sales, and after five years of building subscriptions, Edwards claims the company is the largest subscription business of its kind in the UK, with its March issues across the portfolio hitting 800,000 subscriptions copies.

‘I actually believe that good magazines sell better than poor ones, and once you strip away all the tricks of marketing, consumers know when they’ve got a great product.”

Strong foundations

‘What we’ve got with Esquire is clearly a differentiated magazine,’he explains. ‘One of the things about this company is that we stay at projects for a long time, it’s a difference between us and other publishers. Inevitably magazines go through moments when they are wobbly, and I think it’s at that point you decide what sort of a business you are. Do you try to fix them, or do you let them die?”

While strong foundations for Esquire have been laid, there’s still a long way to go before its figures match those of the majority of its competitors, and its website has yet to be developed.

NatMag, unlike many of its competitors, looks at its print businesses and online businesses separately. The creation of Hearst Digital in early 2007 and the acquisition of two leading online only websites in their sectors – health site NetDoctor and women’s interest site Handbag.com – is a reflection of Edwards’s view that magazines need to be more aware of their competitive framework online. ‘The idea that the best website in a particular category will automatically spring from the best magazine in that category is just not going to be the case. What we will continue to do is look for the best websites in each category that we want to be in, rather than think they’ll automatically come from a magazine.”

Cosmopolitan’s website was relaunched this week, a project a long time in the making and a brand that Edwards is particularly proud of. It stands ‘for something profound and timeless,’he says.

All or nothing

Edwards said that a magazine editor needs to be all or nothing when it comes to online: ‘It’s either you’re 100 per cent integrated or 100 per cent separated. I think what’s difficult is when you’re halfway between the two.’And while Cosmopolitan has an entirely separate dedicated web team, as does the AllAboutYou webportal that combines the web content of mature women’s brands such as Prima and Good Housekeeping, on specialist magazines such as Baby Expert the editor oversees both products.

Like many of his predecessors at NatMag, Edwards himself doesn’t have a journalism background. He originally wanted to be a journalist, but started his career selling recruitment advertisement on Media Week in 1985. ‘After I left university I couldn’t face another year training,’he says. He worked his way up the ladder, before joining NatMag in 1989 as advertising director for Company, working in various roles before becoming chief executive in 2002.

Edwards’s ranking in the Media Guardian top 100 leapt from 90 in 2006 to 61 in 2007. Though he claims not to take such things very seriously, he thinks that NatMag’s move into the digital world played a key part in the leap. ‘We were thinking for some time what we should do in the digital world, and when we moved we moved decisively and we made two big acquisitions,’he says. He also cites some good editorial hires, including Esquire’s Jeremy Langmead, and winning a number of industry awards more proportionate to its size than its competitors. ‘People have acknowledged that we are a strong creative magazine house,’Edwards says.

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