After three years fighting fires at Future, Colin Morrison is back building empires at the helm of new weekly magazine publisher ACP-NatMag. The joint venture company unites Australian Consolidated Press - Kerry Packer’s magazine group - with Hearst’s UK subsidiary, National Magazine Company, and plans to become a leading player in the weekly market.
A sample copy of its first launch, Reveal, hits the shelves today, mixing celebrity gossip with real-life stories, beauty tips and TV listings. It is aimed directly at the 20 and 30-something female audience that has been taking to Emap’s Closer with the same appetite as their mothers took to Woman and Woman’s Own.
Reveal is backed by a marketing budget of £16m over three years, priced at £1 and will have an initial print run of 600,000. If it reaches its circulation targets it will enter the top 15 women’s weeklies, and further fuel a sector in which revenue from sales has grown by 19 per cent in the past three years, according to Natmag’s distributor Comag.
The UK weekly market (not including TV listings) has a turnover of around £400m, or a quarter of the entire magazine market, according to industry estimates. Successful weekly titles are the profit drivers of publishing groups: the top 10 titles in terms of newsstand value in the UK magazine market are weeklies, and account for 50 per cent of the value of the top 40 titles overall.
That said, weekly titles are also notoriously risky, given their potential to become equally effective lossmakers. Emap’s Heat, which is now estimated to make a quarter of the company’s consumer magazine profits, flopped dramatically when it was launched in 1999 and had to be drastically reinvented.
Morrison accepts that the potential rewards offered by the UK weekly market come with commensurate risk and hardship attached: “We are not coming in with novices, but it won’t be easy,” he says. “We are prepared to fight a tough battle.”
While recent analysis suggests that, cover price rises and new launches aside, the market is stagnant, Morrison views the sheer number of launches as a positive sign: “The overall numbers may be the same as, say, 10 years ago, but the amount of new launches behind those numbers say that this is a market reinventing itself... Overall, the UK magazine market has never looked better.”
Indeed, there’s no dampening his enthusiasm for building a new force in the weekly market with the combined weight of ACP and Natmag behind him. “I feel as though I’ve been in training for this my entire career,” he says. His training ground includes the premier league of UK, European and Australian magazine publishing, including a four-year stint as ACP’s deputy CEO, then CEO, in the 1990s. There he developed a huge respect for a company he describes as combining “the best of IPC with the best of Emap and a few other publishers as well”.
The leader in almost every magazine sector in its territory, accounting for half of all magazine sales in Australia and posting profits of A$211m (£85.9m) for the year to June, ACP’s key to success is down to its mix of public and private ownership, says Morrison. “It combines hard-nosed business with creativity, a combination often lacking, or found to be contradictory in the UK market,” he says. “Often you come across one of those qualities, but rarely together. It’s a public company taking profit growth seriously, and at the same time it has a dominant shareholding group in the Packer family, which has given it a huge amount of stability.”
Before working in Australia, Morrison was chairman of Emap Business Communications, now Emap Communications, where, for four years from 1991, he took the company from seventh position in the market to number two, growing profits more than 10-fold, largely through acquisition.
”He’s very strategic and good at thinking through the bigger picture,” says Tim Brooks, managing director of IPC Ignite, who worked with Morrison at Emap.
More recently his reputation as a strategic troubleshooter was confirmed as part of the team which led Future Publishing through its turbulent post-dotcom years to stability.
Now embarking on the next chapter of his career, he is relishing the challenge of building a weekly magazine empire to rank alongside IPC, Bauer and Emap. “The excitement of the joint venture is the excitement of a market that’s alive and responsive,” he says. “It’s our job to capitalise on that.”
For Natmag, the joint venture also brings welcome expertise in the weekly market, where its track record is mixed. Reveal will sit alongside Best, which Natmag bought from Gruner + Jahr in 2001. Struggling under G+J’s ownership, the title’s circulation has fallen from more than 600,000 to 400,000 since entering the Natmag stable.
Further launches are expected in the coming years across all weekly markets, but Morrison says that the speed of a new venture is critical to its success, and says he is not going to “bust the speed limit”.
He describes magazines as the “ultimate FMCG market” and believes that a company dedicated to weeklies can be a focused and agile operator: “I’ve worked for big companies and small companies, and I’ve always believed the greatest danger is the belief that size is an objective. Companies should be judged by their muscle, not their waistline.”
Needless to say, the competition is watching closely. “It’s both reassuring and troubling that ACP and Natmag have got together,” says Brooks. “The weekly market is one of the most difficult and expensive to break into. Their commitment to it proves there is more room for growth, and the combination of Hearst and ACP as competitor is a potent one.”
Morrison, meanwhile, has already rolled his sleeves up: “Unfortunately, I’ve spent a fair bit of time closing and selling things, but fundamentally I’ve always been heavily involved in launching and trying new ways. This is absolutely where I love being.”
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