Highbury Safika on Ramsay, SA Sports Illustrated and more
Sure, we’ve all heard about controversial rugby writer Mark Keohane – who resigned from Highbury last year – and of it’s most high-profile consumer magazine, SA Rugby, but although it’s a similar-sized company to Associated Media and RamsayMedia we don’t know too much about it. This is probably because a lot of what it does is custom publishing such as for the Foschini Group.
However, the Cape Town-based company was in the news recently when MarkLives revealed that Highbury and Ramsay – the publishers of Car, Getaway and Popular Mechanics – were in merger talks last month.
This month Highbury CEO Kevin Ferguson told Grubstreet the talks were off (and he confirmed it again this week after Ramsay said the talks were still on the table).
He also told Grubstreet why the company was happy to have a low profile, why it’s taken so long to launch a website for SA Rugby and why he thinks Media24’s Sports Illustrated could have avoided shutting up shop.
Gill Moodie: If Ramsay and Highbury did merge, it would make for a very interesting company. You would be the biggest of the independent publishers.
Kevin Ferguson: Yes, they are very similar in size but, you know, the word “independent” is a bit interesting because Caxton owns 30% of Ramsay so it’s difficult to say they are completely independent and that’s where the complication in the (merger) deal came in.
There’s a certain charm in being an independent publisher. You have the ability to make quick decisions and you don’t have to go up the chain of command.
It seems to me that the independent companies such as Associated and Ramsay and you guys have moved faster than most of the big companies into online and social media.
Yeah, but even I think that we don’t move fast enough sometimes. And sometimes people want to move for the sake of moving. People don’t always know where they’re going to… It wasn’t that long ago that everybody had to have a website in order to survive without actually thinking about what the purpose of the website was.
Ramsay and Associated are very much family businesses and for generations. They really are the blue bloods of the publishing business. And I think that Highbury in terms of its culture is still small enough to encompass every Highbury employee (about 200 people).
Paul Kerton commented on Grubstreet a while back that Highbury and Ramsay would have made a great combined company and he said that Ramsay are too “nice”. What does that say about you guys then?
Well, I think companies like Media24 and Ramsay have inflated salaries.
If you want to look at it as a football analogy, we tend to be a feeder system to these companies that want to take a three-year view on a break-even of a publication, bring in the best and poach staff. It’s tough (for us) to retain staff.
Is that what you’re happy to be? Why don’t you pay staff more so that you can retain them?
Well, we do retain staff. We’ve got staff who work for us for a few years who have career paths… But we can’t double and treble salaries in a market that’s in trouble – as everybody says. That would be suicide.
There is talent that we really value who buy into the culture of the business and who we really try to hang on to… We do have people who don’t accept every bigger cash offer that is out there.
Is the sports publishing the core of the business?
Not really. You know, consumer publishing gives you a presence and people know about SA Rugby but not HSM (Highbury Safika Media) – and that’s not a bad thing.
Companies can get too full themselves and can start believing their own press…
You know, SA Rugby, SA Cricket and Wedding are consumer titles. I bought them in an auction in 2002 from Struik, who’d run up over R30-million in debt on those three publications.
It was incredibly stressful because it was a sealed bid. On the opening of the envelopes, Touchline was the second highest bidder at R350 000. I put in a bid for R1-million and was thinking that we could probably spend up to R3-million.
I was shocked to get it and was then accused of overpaying – as people do. Not one person said to me: ‘Wow, you got it at a great price’. But in its first year, it made R4-million profit and turned over collectively R11-million. And that was 10 years ago.
It gave us an identity in publishing as everything up until that time was contract (publishing). SA Rugby is an incredibly strong brand and it’s doing very well.
What do you think about Media24 shutting down Sports Illustrated? They said the title didn’t have enough advertising support. Do you think it was too general a sports title?
It was schizophrenic… I’d love to have it.
Have you put in a bid to get the franchise?
We’ve put in a bid for the swimsuit issue. We used to do it.
I grew up (in Canada) with Sports Illustrated and collecting all the issues. And to see it close here is unbelievable, especially at 18 000 to 20 000 (circulation) copies. If you have to close a magazine on those benchmarks – only selling 18 000 copies – you know, we make a profit on those kinds of ABCs.
It’s got an infinite market – maybe up to 30 000 or 35 000 – but my opinion of it was that it was probably schizophrenic and didn’t appeal to readers. The content can’t lie.
Why do you think the content was schizophrenic?
Because it tried to be a bit of everything to everybody. There was a little piece on surfing and a little piece on skate-boarding and a little piece on something else.
Do you think they should have focused on the big sports codes?
Yes: rugby, cricket, soccer – Premier League and Pirates and Chiefs and maybe Sundowners – and used a bit of the overseas content.
I think the editors of the publication – for the past 10 years that I’ve read it – have always been more fans than experts.
So why have you only put in a bid for the swimsuit issue?
Because that’s all that’s on offer (by Time Warner)… We asked to put in a bid, to look at the licence for Sports Illustrated and we were told we couldn’t. I don’t know what they meant by “couldn’t” and they wouldn’t expand on that.
So what’s up with digital?
We’ve given Keo.co.za back to Mark (Keohane). One of the things that was always an issue for us was that the Keo brand was a person. What do you do with it (as a company)?
We launched SA Rugbymag.co.za this month and it is going better than I thought it would.
I’m amazed you’ve only launched SA Rugby’s website now? Is that because you had Keo? I would have thought SA Rugby was a dead cert a long time ago.
We’ve learned a lot from Keo. It was launched eight years ago and made money from Day One.
You know, we were owned by a UK plc up until 2005 and so there wasn’t the autonomy to be making those kinds of decisions. There was a young guy who registered SA Rugby.com and SA Rugby.co.za was also gone. The laws to protect domain names came in later and we didn’t want to lose energy and money fighting for domain names… and then Mark joined us…
I imagine you want to deliver your content on many platforms, which then also opens up multiple revenue opportunities.
I think we’re the most successful independent. Am I happy with where we’re at? No. I’m happy with our products but we challenge ourselves.
When we bought this business from the London plc, I thought we were one of the worst publishers in the country. It was my firm beliefs that our products weren’t good…
But it you look at the magazines that we put out now, we can hold our own with anybody in South Africa. I think Business Day Sport is one of the best sports magazines around. We are constantly told that by people about products like SA Rugby and Business Day Sport.
– SA’s leading media commentator, Gill Moodie, offers intelligence on media – old and new. Reprinted from her site Grubstreet.