Will Keenan's evolutionary plan work for Emap?

Paul Keenan admits that things need to change at Emap, but believes that the digital vision is now there, Ian Darby writes.

These are tough times for Emap, the once golden boy of the UK media scene. Profits warnings, an embattled chief executive and savage circulation losses across its men's magazines have put an unwelcome focus on the media group.

Its management is attempting to improve its fortunes though with a programme of efficiency reviews designed to deliver cost savings in excess of £20 million a year. Spearheading this on the consumer side of the business is Paul Keenan, the chief executive of Emap Consumer Media since 2000 and a close ally of Tom Moloney, the Emap group chief executive.

Keenan, 43, a former editor and publisher of Emap business titles, is now focusing on a review of Emap's consumer magazine business, dubbed "Magazines 2010", and is in the middle of a consultation period with staff that will result in significant redundancies. Reports have suggested that Emap will strip out management at publisher level and consolidate some production resources. But even with these efficiencies, Emap has predicted a bleak 2007-2008 for its consumer magazines and radio stations, stating last month that their operating performance "is likely to be below market expectations".

So with an unsettling time ahead for Emap's staff as the consultation period concludes over the next few weeks, Keenan is candid about the mood at Emap's West End offices, admitting that there is an over- riding sense of apprehension.

He says: "Getting an organisation to change is very difficult, especially as we've had such a good run for the past five years with the success of magazines such as Closer and Grazia. People are rightly sceptical as they have the attitude of 'we're already winning'. The human element is tough, people will be leaving the company, but when we've been through all this you'll see a sharp, confident Emap."

Keenan says the review of consumer operations is driven by fundamental factors - changes to the magazine market that have created the need to evolve the way it produces magazines. "The really big change has been the emergence of a twin-speed magazine market, with weeklies being quite hot and monthlies on the whole being slow," Keenan says.

He says that Emap is already shifting its focus accordingly - concentrating on launches in the weekly market (the women's weekly First was its most recent). It hasn't exactly given up on men's magazines, and is trying to turn around the fortunes of titles such as FHM and Arena by installing new editors, but it's clear where it sees future growth.

Keenan also argues that Emap hasn't fundamentally changed the way it produces magazines in the past 25 years, meaning that new developments are long overdue. Keenan says that he, following advice from consultants, considered ambitious plans to restructure around brands rather than platforms (Emap is currently structured around separate units in radio and consumer magazines). However, he says that Emap has stopped short of this ("We couldn't find one media company in the world that has done that"). He does, however, want to see more focus on audiences rather than platforms.

Emap will appoint "brand leaders" to each brand to ensure brand consistency across various platforms. Keenan says that the big change is a move to "separate the creation of content from the publishing of it". Emap will create "publishing hubs" in key areas such as automotive and sport to take content and publish it online, in audio or in print. However, this is unlikely to happen with its top- selling lifestyle magazines. "In the lifestyle market, I didn't feel we're ready to organise everything in that way - creating a world-class radio station or magazine is a distinct skill," Keenan argues.

A key part of Keenan's vision is to invest more in marketing expertise. He says that there will be stronger brand management and an investment in marketing which will be led by the appointment of a chief marketing officer, who will have a seat on the Emap board and will be responsible for Emap's entire marketing budget and for product development.

All of which sounds positive, unless you happen to be one of the dozens of people who face the prospect of redundancy. However, will Keenan concede that mistakes have been made? In particular, its retrenchment from digital after launching Emap Digital in 2000? He replies with an emphatic "no" to that charge. "The money wasn't there, broadband has made it (digital) work and made it profitable," Keenan argues, before pointing out that it is committed to reinvesting in the digital side of its business.

He says: "There has been a rapid take-up of broadband, which has led to a rush toward online advertising. There is talk of a crisis in marketing and from the summer of last year we could see that we would have to become significantly more proficient in digital media than we were."

The most recent evidence of this was its acquisition last month of the mobile content business Yospace for an initial £8.7 million. Keenan hopes the move will bring in the expertise required to leverage brands such as FHM, a title that already has 50,000 mobile users, via the mobile channel.

Keenan's faced some difficult moments in his current role (he cites the painful decision to close FHM in the US last November as one of the toughest), but is optimistic about the future of the business and his role in it: "We are a hugely profitable business with the highest margins in our peer group already, but we haven't changed the way we've made magazines for 25 years. We are changing so we can inspire, educate and inform consumers."

Will this be enough? The nay-sayers claim Emap has already missed the boat and is too short on quality people to deliver real change. However, Keenan and his team are now responding to those who have accused Emap and its management of displaying a conspicuous lack of vision. Maybe just in the nick of time.