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Duncan Edwards - interview

The National Magazine Company is one of the highest profile magazine publishers in the UK, publishing as it does a whole host of famous magazine titles. Lucy Aitken met with its chief executive, Duncan Edwards, to hear his views on the challenges and opportunities facing consumer magazine publishers today.

By Lucy Aitken

"If you are producing a brilliant magazine, there’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t be around for years to come," says Duncan Edwards, the chief executive of the National Magazine Company (NatMags) – the Hearst-owned home of magazine stalwarts such as Cosmopolitan, Esquire and PPA Consumer magazine of the year, Harper’s Bazaar. His conviction about the future for magazines is refreshing in a media landscape where doom-mongers have been sounding the death knell for print media since the arrival of the internet in the 1990s.

Yet, rather than skulk in the corner when digital media appeared, most magazine publishers worth their salt – including NatMags - instead responded with an avalanche of launches. Ten years ago, women’s magazines didn’t come in handy handbag sizes, Hello! owned the celebrity sector, while men’s weeklies such as Nuts and Zoo weren’t even a wicked glimmer in the eyes of IPC Media and Emap. If the magazine industry has shown such resilience and creativity in terms of maintaining existing readers and identifying new ones in the last decade, the future bodes well. Publishers look set to keep taking the kinds of risks with sizes, formats and brand extensions that have kept it looking fresh and innovative over the last few years. Pass any newsstand and the chances are it’ll be bursting with colourful magazines, all vying for the attention of the passing consumer.

Considering the UK magazine market is so saturated, how on earth does Edwards ensure that NatMags titles will continue to stand out from the competition? "My first advice is to use COMAG [the distributor jointly owned by NatMags and Conde Nast, of which Edwards is chairman]," he jokes. Giving the question more serious consideration, he says: "Consumers are fickle; they’ll try all sorts of different products, tempted by gifts or price or other marketing tactics. But I still think that the secret to success is to have the best product. Notwithstanding all the marketing gimmicks and promotional tools that you can use, getting the editorial right is what counts the most. After that, it’s about being consistent."

Online extensions

NatMags has extended many of its titles into online formats, and Edwards clearly thinks that digital media present an opportunity rather than a threat. Yet he does concede that titles which tap into a particular interest will continue to lend themselves better to online brand extension than more general interest ones. He uses the example of Runner’s World, a NatMags title with a website at, to illustrate his point. "If you have a strong magazine brand in a defined community with strong endemic advertising, extending your brand online makes sense. But if you’re a women’s or men’s title, it’s much less straightforward."

NatMags has invested in digital-only properties, such as its 2006 acquisitions, the portals and, and it is still dipping the toe in the water with other online projects. Jellyfish is one such example. Jellyfish was an online magazine distributed via email to 18- to 25-year-olds which NatMags was testing over a 20-week period. In August, NatMags ended the experiment, blaming a spanner in the works regarding distribution. Edwards explains: "It’s difficult to get through firewalls, particularly in corporate offices, because IT departments are increasingly blocking stuff which isn’t work-related - there’s been a lot of coverage recently about Facebook being banned in offices. We encountered a lot of issues around distribution which we found challenging, and we concluded from our test that we weren’t going to get over them. But the great thing about a test is that you can stop it because you haven’t spent all your money, so overall, it was a good experience."

NatMags also shut down its six-year old title CosmoGIRL in June, although Edwards is firm in his belief that this closure doesn’t indicate a lack of enthusiasm on the part of teenagers to read. Rather, he believes that the material they seek out is more celebrity-oriented. He comments: "Teenaged girls haven’t stopped reading magazines; they’ve just stopped reading teen magazines. A typical 14-16 year old girl might be reading Reveal or Heat or OK! because the very nature of the kind of content is young in its appeal. The people who are in Big Brother or Pop Idol tend to appeal to young readers." Edwards is also quick to point out that the reading habit is alive and well for even younger readers, as evidenced by the continued popularity in core magazine titles and a strong launch culture at publishing houses like BBC Worldwide and Titan. "The children’s magazine market is very strong," he adds.


Still, the best way to achieve loyalty among younger readers so they’ll stay with a particular stable of titles throughout their life is to encourage them to subscribe. That way, a Reveal reader can effortlessly glide into a Cosmo subscription and eventually swap that for She. Subscriptions currently account for approximately 12 per cent of all magazine sales, and Edwards is proud of NatMags’ achievement in this area: "We are the biggest seller of subscriptions in the UK," he claims, "and we have a huge range of different techniques that we employ both in acquisition and retention which we’re constantly refining. We have a huge bank of knowledge and have been at the forefront of new ways to market subscriptions, whether it’s opening up on or putting retail subscription packs in-store."

In the coming years, however, magazine publishers will be attempting to build on whatever success they have enjoyed to date in terms of subscriptions. Without a doubt, some of the trickiest challenges currently facing publishing houses are focused around distribution.


Most worryingly, there’s the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) announcement – which is currently being lobbied by the magazines trade body PPA – which would bring changes to the supply chain that would threaten the livelihood of thousands of independent newsagents. What’s more, it would limit the availability of certain magazines in certain areas of the country. Currently, UK retailers don’t choose their wholesalers; publishers award contracts based on geography, but the OFT claims that this is not in line with EU competition law and wants to change the current structure. PPA is campaigning for a block exemption.

Edwards says: "All the CEOs of all the major magazine publishers have participated in trying to resist this proposed change to the supply chain. Over the last few years, we have been trying to find an answer that satisfies all parties – publishers, retailers, distributors and wholesalers. The magazine industry, via PPA, has done an unbelievable amount, and now we are all hoping for a good outcome."

If the OFT announcement is implemented, PPA argues that bigger retailers such as supermarkets – of which the ‘big three’ (Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco) currently account for over a quarter of all consumer magazine sales – would benefit. Edwards comments: "Big grocery retailers have been good for magazines in general. Standards do vary, but the best ones are really good at selling magazines, and that’s been to the benefit of the industry over the last 20 years that they’ve been in this game."

Maintaining multiple routes

Yet, he emphasises the advantage of maintaining a portfolio of different avenues to target readers. "We want to see a balanced set of routes to market: a healthy independent sector, a good strong retail sector, a strong supermarket sector and a direct to consumer route via subscriptions. In my view, it’s about balance, so if you’re smart, each of those routes to market should feel that they have a future, and each of those routes to market should be supported appropriately for the returns that they yield."

Talking of appropriate returns, one further challenge for publishers is the rising cost of promoting magazines in retail outlets, be it the expense of cover-mounts, slashing the cover price itself or organising a retail marketing promotion. Edwards says: "How we judge whether or not to use a retailer’s promotion scheme varies hugely – some are good and some are terrible; you have to make a judgement call. The priority is to ensure that anything they’re selling delivers a return on investment."

Environmental issues

Subscriptions offer an excellent return on investment, but even this method of distribution is facing concerns due to hikes in postal rates and an emphasis on size as well as weight in Royal Mail’s pricing system. However, this can be off-set against the environmental efficiencies offered by subscriptions. Edwards says: "If environmental legislation limits the amount of waste you can have and makes it punitive, then subscriptions will benefit because you only print what you sell, whereas you can obviously print quite a lot of unsold copies for newsstand. What’s more, if the environmental lobby were to limit the use of cover-mount gifts, then newsstand would be likely to suffer at expense of subscriptions as well."

Staying on the subject of environmental issues, what other steps is NatMags taking to reduce its carbon footprint? Edwards explains that the company has its own environmental committee which he chairs. It meets quarterly to examine macro issues such as paper-buying, as well as micro issues such as drinking tap rather than bottled water. In line with its commitment to recycling, Good Housekeeping magazine has even set up a wormery on the roof of NatMags headquarters in the heart of Soho.

Despite the not inconsiderable challenges for publishers in the years to come, Edwards appears to thrive on the cut-and-thrust of the magazine publishing environment, and remains upbeat about the role of the printed product at the heart of it. "I have a positive feeling that ink on paper will remain one of the most used formats for disseminating information and entertainment for decades to come."