Morrison set to lead ACP into weekly battle on newsstands

The former journalist says partnership is key to the UK market, Emma Barns writes.

In what sounds like an entirely rehearsed comment, Colin Morrison rubs his hands together with glee and says in his deep, gravely voice: "I just love reading magazines." As a man whose career has spanned consumer, specialist and business titles in Europe, Australia and the US, however, he is perhaps more genuine than most in his passion for all things glossy.

Morrison is now back on the UK scene and in March he was re-recruited by Australian Consolidated Press, a company that he left five years ago, to lead its infiltration of the UK market.

After six months of almost total silence, the company has now resurfaced and last week settled on a joint venture with The National Magazine Company.

Set to target the women's weekly magazine market, ACP's first move was to buy a 50 per cent stake in the NatMags title Best, and the new business is now beavering away at launches with the new weekly, Reveal, expected to be its first project early next year.

"We're moving into a heavily competitive market and never expected to launch anything by ourselves," Morrison says. "A major partner was important as we are looking to compete with the big players."

From a journalistic background, Morrison, 52, started his working life on an Irish newspaper and has since risen through the ranks with various management jobs at Emap, Axel Springer and, most recently, as the chief operating officer and UK managing director of Future. Greg Ingham, the chief executive of Future, says of Morrison: "He's a wise old stick. He's an extremely experienced guy, with a broad, brash approach."

Tellingly, Ingham points to the wisdom of appointing the hands-on Jessica Burley, NatMags' group publishing director of women's home and lifestyle titles, as ACP-NatMags' chief operating officer.

Ingham says that Morrison has "stood back in roles before" but asserts that the venture should by no means be underestimated. "Nuts versus Zoo will become a sideshow battle compared with what's going to happen on the newsstands here (in the women's market)," he says.

Going into business with NatMags was arguably the most natural route for ACP owing to its joint ventures with Hearst, NatMags' parent company, in other parts of the world.

"NatMags felt right," Morrison explains. "We have two quite distinct interlocking companies - NatMags is a good, quality operator in the UK market and ACP has the weekly experience with nine titles in the Asia-Pacific region. I really think what we've ended up with is a case of two plus two equalling five-and-a-half."

Rivals are less convinced that this formula adds up, arguing that the deal should be seen as a sign of NatMags' weakness. Chris Llewellyn, the managing director of Emap International, says: "ACP is formidable competition in Australia, it is hugely profitable and commands great respect, so I find it remarkable it finds the need to tie up with Hearst. It seems a tacit admission from NatMags that it is not comfortable with weeklies."

Morrison, on the other hand, is entirely confident and palpably excited by the opportunities he believes the UK weekly market will afford. He notes the 19 per cent increase in consumer spending on weeklies over the past three years (circulation is also up 4 per cent this year) and he has a theory that consumer sensitivity to advertising is a subtle driver of the market, with consumers being drawn to the portability and accessibility of weekly titles not laden with ads.

"Our magazines will necessarily be editorially led and the challenge will be how to make the advertising work," Morrison says. NatMags will play a big part here, with its portfolio available for cross-sell whenever possible.

But, with the promise of a whole new range of weeklies, is there space in the market? Mark Gallagher, the press director at Manning Gottlieb OMD, says: "There is definitely still room. Look at (Emap's) Closer - that has created something completely new. I'd want to see what ACP-NatMags is launching but any innovation in the market is good if the products are strong enough."

Certainly, Morrison is aware that it will not be a pushover. "We'll be competing with strong, clever companies that publish good magazines. We need all the advantages we can get and we're going to have to be very good," he says. And, bearing in mind Llewellyn's assertion that ACP is formidably strong in its domestic market, it looks like the battle with H Bauer, Emap and IPC is about to commence.