The glossy game

The consumer magazine market in the Middle East is flourishing, but issues of quality and accountability will not go away. Iain Akerman speaks to some of the region’s biggest players

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By  Iain Akerman Published  August 7, 2005

The glossy game |~|Viva200.jpg|~||~|For anyone who has been living in the Gulf region for a while, today’s consumer magazine market is virtually unrecognisable to the small-scale industry it was a few years ago. Where there was once desert, shelves now strain under the weight of new magazines while waves of eager publishers lap against the shore. Integral to this boom has been the creation of Dubai Media City. Formed in 2001, it allows 100% company ownership and a 50-year tax exemption from personal, income and corporate taxes. As a result, DMC is now home to 133 publishing houses that churn out 375 magazine titles. Prior to DMC, the consumer magazine market had few landmark launches and was blighted by poor quality. More than 40 new launches took place last year and hardly a week goes by without a new magazine hitting the shelves — and the trend is set to continue for the foreseeable future. ITP, publisher of titles such as Ahlan!, Viva and Time Out, is to launch a Middle East version of the glamour and gossip title Grazia, which is one of the world’s few glossy weeklies. The initial edition will be in English but an Arabic version is planned for the end of the year. The company, which also publishes Campaign Middle East, is also due to launch Middle East Golfer in September and has a working title of Yachting Middle East for the October launch of a publication aimed at those who revel in the marina lifestyle. Not to be outdone, Dubai-based Corporate Publishing International (CPI), whose consumer titles include OK! Middle East, is set to launch Take 1 in September, a cinema-orientated celebrity gossip magazine aimed at Malayalam speakers from the Kerala region of India. Hilal Al Khaleej, part of the Bahrain-based Al Hilal group, which publishes Arabian Knight, has just seen the first edition of its latest glossy title Bollywood International hit the streets. Ian Fairservice, managing partner and group editor of Dubai-based Motivate Publishing, which counts What’s On, Emirates Woman and Hello! among its titles, says: “The market has grown enormously, particularly within the last five to 10 years and after the opening of Dubai Media City. When What’s On launched in 1979 it was the only English language magazine in town — now it’s one of hundreds. “What is particularly obvious is the diversification of magazine type — magazines no longer have to be all things to all men and more specialist magazines can thrive.” An example of this in the UAE has been the explosion in the celebrity weekly sector. Two years ago the market simply didn’t exist. ITP Consumer’s Ahlan! kicked things off in 2003 and was followed by CPI’s OK! Middle East in January this year. Motivate’s Middle East version of Hello! followed in April and in between came Arabic and Indian versions of Ahlan!. And it doesn’t stop there, thanks to the announcement that an Arabic version of OK! Middle East is to be launched in September. Things have also hotted up in Lebanon over the past few years, where Nadine, which is published by Ash-Shark and was founded in 1981, now faces stiff competition from Layalina. Greg Wilson, ITP Consumer’s editorial director, says: “The consumer market is at a very interesting stage at the moment. “The growth trend is only going to continue into next year, whether it’s ITP Consumer launching new titles or our rivals doing so. As everyone knows, there are newspapers on the horizon and with those newspapers will come weekly supplements.” CPI’s publisher Dominic de Sousa says: “When you look at what’s happening in Dubai, population has increased over the past few years dramatically and, if you look at His Highness Sheikh Mohammad’s vision, it’s all geared towards driving the population up further. And as the population is driven up you are going to get a flow of magazines that come in. “As a publisher, I would say the challenges will be to find the niche area where you can fit in. And there are niches. My theory is very simple: if it can be done in places like London and even a mini state in America, then it can be done over here.” For Anand Chikodi, regional planning head at media agency Mediaedge:cia, the niche lies in sports publications. For Wilson it’s the men’s sector. Fairservice remains tight-lipped. The huge diversity of people, cultures and languages — particularly in the UAE — makes the search for niches easier but can result in limited readership if a publication is directed solely at one group. “I think there’s a lot of room in the market, particularly on the consumer side, if you look at the demographic breakdown of races and cultures,” says de Sousa. “There’s Western, there’s Indian, there’s Filipino, there’s Lebanese, there’s Arabic, so it’s a rich melting pot and there’s room for consumer magazines across the board.” But Elie Khouri, regional managing director of OMD Middle East, says there must be a health warning to prospective publishers. “The region features many countries with very small populations, often fragmented into even smaller ethnic groups, which limits their ability to support many titles in terms of circulation or advertising. Although choice is a good thing, it’s hard to see how they can all make a living.” Wilson believes one of the main gaps in the market lies in “the completely immature and under-developed male-orientated market.” “It’s a tricky one to do,” he says. “Most male magazines are all about sex and alcohol, but it’s got a huge amount of potential. I think the market’s got to mature a little bit but you are seeing more male brands advertising. People like Hugo Boss always advertise a lot with us and you’ve got the likes of Gillette who are quite active. “We are looking to experiment on that side in the next six months. Titles like Middle East Golfer and Yachting Middle East will be targeted more at that male readership. That’s our first experiment with it but I don’t think you’ll see our first big title in that area until 2006.” The demise of men’s magazine Focus On (FO!) last month, which was shut down by DMC after just two issues when it failed to stick to its “business plan",||**||The glossy game|~|De-Sousa,-Dominic200.jpg|~|‘The market will savvy up and the newcomers to the market who come in thinking let’s shoot from the hip, make a buck, will soon realise that’s not the way this market works’ Dominic de Sousa, publisher, CPI|~|is an example of what can go wrong. A similar case is that of CPI’s trashy celebrity magazine Face, which was launched in 2004 and died a short while later. Both are an illustration of what Khouri refers to as “Darwinian evolution”. As the marketplace becomes more crowded and clutter becomes an issue, only the best and most astute will avoid falling foul of either market forces or DMC. Asked whether consolidation of the market is imminent, Khouri says: “We’re more likely to have a Darwinian evolution where only the fittest will survive. Lame ducks will either improve or slowly disappear.” That sentiment is echoed by de Sousa. “It’s like any mature market,” he says. “If you look at the US, if you look at the UK, one has just got to walk down the street and you’ll see newsagents which are full of magazines. Some come in, some die, and yet there’s a new publisher born every week. “The market will savvy up and the newcomers to the market who come in thinking let’s shoot from the hip, make a buck, will soon realise that’s not the way this market works. So I think you will find it will be natural evolution.” Shafquat Ali, managing editor of Hilal Al Khaleej’s Bollywood International, goes one step further, laying the blame for clutter directly at the doorstep of DMC. “DMC has done us all a lot of damage,” he says. “A lot of fly-by-night operators have been flushed out, which is good news for committed publishers, but a lot of two-man outfits thought they could be publishers and thought it could be simple. But you need the infrastructure, you need careful planning to make things work. But the problem is being addressed and the real players will emerge the other side.” Nadine Kaaki, editor of Lebanon’s Nadine, says: “Even in Lebanon it’s very crowded and it is a case of survival of the fittest. But from an editorial point of view, it’s not as easy to set up a magazine as in Dubai. There are a lot of procedures to get through and you need a lot of editorial, a lot of reporters. It’s harder.” Partly as a result of the ‘damage’ inflicted by DMC, Hilal Al Khaleej is now concentrating on strengthening its existing titles rather than entering further into the consumer arms race. According to latest figures sourced by the World Advertising Research Center, the share of total ad spend in the magazine industry varies greatly in the Middle East, ranging from 14% in the UAE, to 6.7% in Lebanon, 1.6% in Oman and 0.3% in Qatar. And in a market where the majority of publications are either free or effectively free, advertising becomes paramount. “You can’t keep on publishing magazines without revenue, especially when you’re on free distribution and you don’t get subscription money,” says Chikodi. “Then your dependence is entirely on advertising.” It is at this point that one of the three main challenges facing the consumer magazine market becomes apparent. Advertisers want to know they’re spending their money wisely and that comes down to readership. “The major challenge is basic readership habits which are not very strong in this market,” says Chikodi. “People tend to read less and want to do other things with their time. You only get 24 hours in a day and within that 24-hour cycle you are cramming in everything that you are interested in.” So what is the best way to overcome poor levels of readership? “Good contents would definitely make a difference,” says Chikodi. “The production qualities are fantastic because printing quality is excellent in this market but editorial content is what needs to drive a magazine. It’s not pretty pictures.” Fairservice agrees. “Publishers have to have more respect for their readers and work harder to ensure that their magazines are fulfilling their readers’ needs. Without readers there will be no advertisers.” But even if editorial content is improved and titles attract more readers, the next main challenge is proving your readership to advertisers. Transparency is virtually zero in the Middle East and only a handful of magazines have been audited, What’s On and Time Out among them. “The industry is facing a huge challenge with the onset of independent circulation verification,” says Fairservice. “There are many publishers in the region who have been running magazines based on ridiculously inflated figures who will struggle with the inevitable task of proving them. It is a challenge which must be faced head on. Transparency and credibility will be key issues, both editorially and from a business perspective.” Khouri agrees: “In this accountability age, it is an anomaly that we still lack proper verified circulation data. The good news is that it can be easily sorted, as long as there is an industry consensus, which we are working on.” To Khouri, the lack of transparency is symptomatic of a lack of professionalism facing the industry as a whole. “Too many titles are launched without proper assessment of the market, almost on a whim,” he says. “It’s high time publishers took their role more seriously and acted more responsibly. “Some tidying up is urgently required. Proper research on what consumers want, read and value would provide a first step for the whole industry. So far, it lacks an umbrella organisation like the Periodical Publishers’ Association of the UK or the APPM of France that could federate the region’s publishers and allow them to work together for their common interest. It’s also true for other media.” In light of these challenges, what does the future hold for the consumer magazine market and can it emerge on the other side with its reputation in tact? “We will see a rationalisation of publishers,” says Fairservice. “Those remaining will have stood the test of time and more stringent verification procedures or will be new entrants who appreciate the more sophisticated publishing procedures necessary to survive.” Khouri believes the industry can thrive if it puts its house in order, sets growth priorities and adopts best practice. “It must conduct independent industry and region-wide surveys to validate its role and strengthen its case. Magazine publishers must strive for the kind of quality that will attract more readers and, in turn, more advertisers. This will come from investments that some will be able to make, while others won’t. “Not everyone will win, but that’s the market economy for you. Time to wake up and smell the coffee.”||**||

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