Media Forum: Is NatMags right about digital?

Will the centralisation of digital activity work this time round?

During the first dotcom boom, the theory was the consumer magazine publishers were going to make a mint because the website experience was closest (in old-media terms) to reading a magazine. That they made considerably less than a mint was hardly their fault - anyone who put serious money behind internet ventures six years ago ended up with rather charred fingers.

This time around the theory is that, as the second internet bubble continues to inflate, it's TV and film production companies that are going to clean up - because the broadband, streamed internet experience is, in old-media terms, closest to watching television.

So it's obvious, isn't it? The consumer magazine publishers, hardened by experience and twice as wily as a result, really will make their mint this time around. And we'll all be looking the other way when it happens.

Even The National Magazine Company, not the publisher with a track record in online publishing, is up for it, having just unveiled a new, centralised division designed to focus its digital efforts. It will seek to go beyond the family of NatMags mastheads, while developing bespoke content for current sites. It will also manage the pure-play business and launch new sites in areas not already covered by magazines.

It's a big commitment - and one that's rather different from the efforts of rivals. Other publishers, such as Emap, have been evolving a hybrid structure. Titles have their own sites and the managers of these titles are given responsibility for overseeing the straightforward stuff - tailoring existing print content for online use.

Additionally, however, they have added tiers for developing bespoke content and developing new, non-magazine brand sites.

So, has NatMags got it right? Paul Keenan, the chief executive of Emap Consumer Media, can't say either way but he admits that Emap's centralising tendencies in 2000 and 2001 were proved to be unsound. He explains: "We were very centralised and there are huge advantages of centralisation in terms of pushing things through. But there was too much of a separation.

There is always a risk that the two tribes - the internet people and the non-internet people - mentality sets in. That's risky but I can see that if you are coming from a late start-point, you might want to prioritise speed to market."

Tim Brooks, the managing director of IPC ignite! is also sceptical. Earlier in his career, he was a founder member of Emap Digital, but he is loath to criticise a rival publisher. "How you construct a business is a function of existing structures and culture, so it's impossible to generalise," he says.

But Brooks also thinks it might be ambitious for a magazine publisher to contemplate digital ambitions in sectors in which they have no previous track record. He explains: "Running a dotcom is the same as running any other business. To succeed you need to have a distinct competitive advantage against your competitors in the field. Magazines succeed if they develop a relationship of trust with the communities they serve and also build trust with the advertisers targeting that community. But there's no rule book."

That's not the way the agency world tends to view the digital world, however. They're considerably more gung-ho. For instance, Dominic Williams, the press director of Carat, says issues such as editorial structure and brand custodianship must play second fiddle to commercial considerations.

He says: "Clients are asking about which media companies are ready (to do multiplatform deals). It's up to the editorial and production sides to move quickly too, but I think many magazine companies are good at buying in the appropriate expertise to cover what they need to cover. It's an exciting time and it's vital that media owners are able to sell themselves on a multimedia basis."

Greg Grimmer, the managing director of Zed Media, agrees. Getting the commercial side right has to be the priority - and from that standpoint, a centralised structure is probably going to work best. He says: "With centralisation, it's easier to experiment. It's easier to add a section to an existing digital portal than it is to have a separate entity with a separate editorial team. But commercially it's also the way to go and I think the media owners who have been successful in this space have gone about it that way, such as Conde Nast, which has been consistent about this right from the earliest days."

MAYBE - Paul Keenan, chief executive, Emap Consumer Media

"You can understand why NatMags, who are coming to this very late, might want to do it that way. Sometimes it's time so say, 'Right, let's get on and do this.' But our experience of a centralised structure was that it didn't leverage the immense knowledge we have running right through the company."

MAYBE - Tim Brooks, managing director, IPC ignite!

"We do things differently here but we have five divisions, each of which are substantial businesses in their own right. Historically, NatMags has always been a centralised business and it's a much smaller business than IPC. But it's always been my view that separating digital from individual brand teams would not be productive."

YES - Dominic Williams, press director, Carat

"What they are doing is bang on and the timing is good. If they had left it any later they'd have missed the boat and last year was probably too early. Clients are now talking multi-media and it is important that the sales structures of media owners are up and running."

YES - Greg Grimmer, managing director, Zed

"The individual NatMags brands are not perhaps as strong as they were so a centralised approach is probably sensible for them. If you want the flexibility to move into new areas it's a lot cheaper to add a section to an existing digital portal than it is to have a separate entity with a separate editorial team."

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