Media Analysis: Australia's second assault

The ACP-NatMag merger is attempting to do to magazines what Murdoch did to UK newspapers.

Australian Consolidated Press' (ACP) move to form a UK magazine joint venture with The National Magazine Company marks the biggest move by an antipodean publisher into the UK since the arrival of a certain Rupert Murdoch in 1969.

ACP, which currently has 120 titles and accounts for 40% of all Australian magazine sales, aims to achieve a similar impact on the UK magazine market to Murdoch on the UK's newspapers.

The joint venture, called ACP-NatMag, will concentrate on developing weekly titles, initially women's weeklies. For NatMags, it marks a second attempt to expand out of its upmarket glossy business.

Four years ago it acquired G&J's five UK titles, including the weekly Best, for a reported £43m.

At the time, NatMags said the purchase presaged a strategic entry into mass-market weeklies. Yet Best, which has since shed more than 70,000 sales, remains NatMags' sole weekly title. In June it announced that two weeklies were in development: Project Reveal, a celebrity title; and Project Buzz, thought to have a healthy living spin.

For its part, ACP arrived in the UK nine months ago, with plans to launch UK titles. It set up a London HQ, headed by Colin Morrison, the former Future Network chief operating officer, and hired Now's deputy editor, Vicky Mayer. It too has yet to launch anything.

Launch pending

All that is about to change - the first ACP-NatMag launch, timed for later this year, will be announced shortly. Morrison, who takes the role of chief executive of the joint venture, is keeping his cards close to his chest.

Clues to the sectors into which the venture may launch lie in ACP's Australian portfolio. It includes the celebrity title NW, described as 'targeting the young trendy woman,' but which Morrison likens more to Now in the UK, than the younger and trendier Heat.

Launching into the competitive maelstrom of young women's celebrity magazines would be risky. A more lucrative opportunity might lie in a UK adaption of ACP's Woman's Day, the biggest-selling weekly in Australia with sales of more than 500,000.

That too has a celebrity slant, but it is balanced with traditional women's weekly fare such as cookery, health, beauty and real life, and is aimed at older women.

In the UK, this older end of the weeklies market, currently dominated by IPC with Woman, Woman's Own and Woman's Weekly, has been in the doldrums for years. A more contemporary approach, which recognises that women over 30 are also interested in celebrity gossip, might have mileage.

Morrison accepts the validity of the argument, adding: 'I could imagine that IPC's titles might have fared better if they had developed into something like Woman's Day. They have a grand old past but a more troubled present.'

For advertisers, particularly FMCG brands that traditionally use women's weeklies, a shot in the arm to this moribund sector would be welcome.

However, some would prefer to see the advent of a new genre of magazine that combines the quality and aspirational values of glossy monthlies with the frequency of the weeklies.

Iain Jacob, chief executive of Starcom Mediavest, believes publishers are missing an opportunity to bring more retail and FMCG advertisers into magazines. 'Many of these advertisers can't use monthlies as the long lead times for booking ads don't fit with their price-led and seasonal promotions,' he says. 'But the existing weeklies don't have the right demographics in sufficient numbers, nor the best production values.'

H Bauer attempted unsuccessfully to address the gap with its now-defunct Real, a glossy package with a fortnightly frequency. But Jacob points out that Bauer does not have the same glossy publishing pedigree as NatMags.

A marriage of NatMags' glossy expertise and ACP's weekly know-how might break the mould of women's magazine publishing in the same way that the weekly Nuts and Zoo have turned the men's sector on its head in recent years. However, Duncan Edwards, NatMags' managing director, appears to rule out this sort of radical invention of a monthly/weekly hybrid.

His priority is to bring more balance to NatMags' revenue streams, making it significantly less dependent on advertising revenue by adding mass-market weeklies with their big circulation revenues.

So it remains to be seen whether a marriage of NatMags, with very little experience of weeklies, and ACP, with no track record in the UK, can successfully take on IPC, Emap, Richard Desmond et al at their own game.

Challenge anticipated

These UK rivals will certainly not underestimate the latest antipodean threat. They can recall recent history only too well, and how a much smaller Australian publisher, Pacific Publishing, came over to the UK in the mid-90s and snatched the teen magazine market from right under their noses with a revolutionary teen glossy format that went under the name of Sugar.

With the backing of NatMags' US parent, the mighty Hearst Corporation, and ACP's market capitalisation of £3.6bn, the venture will not be short of resources. ACP has already ploughed £22m into buying a 50% stake in Best.

Morrison says ACP is 'very competitive, battle hardened for overseas expansion, and determined to be a significant player in the UK'.

The stakes are undoubtedly high. The weeklies market is valued at £400m, having grown 19% over the past three years, and it is UK giant IPC's most important market.

The portents are for an Anglo/Aussie battle that will make the bloodiest of Ashes series resemble a Buckingham Palace garden party.

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