Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Mag Nation, alive and thriving in the age of dying print | Part 1 of 2

Mag Nation 4I had noticed it before. In fact, last time I was in Melbourne I visited the coffee  shop a few doors down and I over heard the barista say “oh yeah, you can get any magazine you want in there. It is right next door.”

This time around I was on the hunt for a Mountain Biking Magazine so I wandered in to see what Mag Nation had to offer. As its name suggests, there is a lot of magazines, in fact, they stock over 4000 titles so I had to climb a few flights of stairs to find what I was looking for.

When you enter Mag Nation you can tell it is about more than just magazines. I am not sure if it was the smell of the coffee they serve, the sheer colour that is everywhere or the customers sitting around the store just browsing but it was obvious that it wasn’t as shallow an offering as “just magazines”.

I started to wonder how is it that a shop seems to be thriving when so many of the marketing and digital media experts are telling us that print is dying. How is it that essentially they can sell what I can get at the local newsagent yet create an atmosphere so very different? I decided to dig a little and got in contact with Sahil Merchant, Chief Magazineologist, co-founder and owner. Sahil was very willing to share his story.

I have never interviewed someone about marketing. I was a little nervous because Sahil had already said he’d do it before I had really thought much past the notes I scribbled on the plane back to Canberra.

So I did what any self-respecting marketing, social media user, would do – I asked my Twitter followers to source some questions and inspiration. Zac Martin and Nathan Bush helped me out with some ideas that I probably would have come up with myself if I had of applied my brain - is this the problem with having a ready made research group at your fingertips? I was appreciative nonetheless.

The most interesting Twitter response I got was from @mag_nation itself (a good sign they are listening to the conversation) with “@DanielOyston How is it that their founder can be so handsome and intelligent at the same time. (he he)”

However, the surprising Twitter response actually came from a Twitter handle @print_is_dead with “@DanielOyston When are they going to recognise that print is dying? (he he)” This intrigued me so I visited its homepage. I smiled when I read the bio - “Disclosure: We are @mag_nation. In the interest of baiting ourselves and balanced debate (and having fun) - we have created our very own twitter nemesis”.

It was then that I started to realise that Mag Nation was being driven by people who were serious but didn’t take themselves too seriously.

The enthusiasm and honesty is immediately realised when you talk to Sahil. Enthusiasm for what the business is trying to achieve and it comes lined with a sense of self-assuredness. Maybe the self-assuredness comes from the honesty – the honesty in telling me that the business, ironically a print business, almost died.

Mag Nation 2 In a previous life, Sahil was a management consultant and lawyer who travelled the world advising large retail companies. Sahil’s uncle Ravi, and now business partner, migrated to New Zealand 12 years ago but was not allowed to work as a medical doctor due to non-recognition of his overseas qualifications.

Re-training as a doctor was out of the question so instead Ravi purchased a small Auckland based magazine store. At the time Sahil was consulting to a major NZ corporate.

As time went on, and family conversations were had, Sahil and Ravi hatched a plot to take the Auckland magazine shop well beyond a little store and create a new retail concept. The dream wasn’t to be just another big fancy newsagent and they believed it had to be skewed to magazines. The dream was realised when Mag Nation opened its doors in March 2006.

While other retailers are cheap and nasty, with worn carpet and fluoro lights,Mag Nation is built on creating an experience around magazines. “We don’t care about New Idea etc, we make our margin on the $40 magazines, the fashion, architecture mags, design mags. The niche interests. If we expect the customers to spend that much money on a periodical then do we think they really want to do it in a fluoro lit store with a pimply kid behind the counter who doesn’t speak much English?” Sahil explained

I asked Sahil to describe Mag Nation’s ideal customer and “Urban Savvy” was his non-hesitant response. “Urban savvy is a term we created. We didn’t originally have that focus but not having that focus almost saw us go under. Originally we focused on the product, magazines, magazines, magazines. We thought that was a smart way to go but it made us ask the wrong questions and that meant we got the wrong answers” Sahil said.

“Our original focus led us to ask ‘Who likes magazines?’ and the answer was ‘everyone’ because there are so many areas. There is one for every interest. That led to the question of ‘where is everyone’. Our answers led to us opening up in shopping malls in pursuit of foot traffic.”

The result was a disaster and on its deathbed, Mag Nation re-examined the every fundamentals of the principals of what the business was founded on. You can liken it to a person’s life flashing before their eyes but just before they drift off towards the light they just pull through and bring with them a heightened sense of purpose. Sahil provided this post-mortem “Mag Nation was too focused on the product and we got that wrong. We should have focussed on the core customer.” 

That comment from Sahil highlights the timeless battle of sales vs marketing. Mag Nation were to concerned with moving product rather than creating a concept around their target market’s needs or problems.

Mag Nation 5 “We didn’t know who the core customer was when we first started out. We never knew that there was such a latent, pent up demand for all the products that we stock.” Sahil continued “Of course we stock all the other titles and they are still very important to us but now what we have become known for is all the high end, fashion, architecture and design titles.”

“The high end was where all the love was coming from. So we asked ‘who is that customer?’ We didn’t find a single customer in terms of demographic but what we found was a characteristic, a common outlook on life and so we coined the term ‘urban savvy’.”

“The standard marketing segments don’t work for us because we might have a 22yo who only has a small amount of money to spend but wants to spend it on a particular mag that defines his fashion sense. Or we might have a 45yo architect who has a lot of money to spend and is conservative but buys all the high end architecture mags. It is not age defined or income bracket defined but an outlook on life.” Sahil said.

The second instalment of this story has now been posted here.


James Duthie said...

Nice interview Oyst and proof that print isn't dead. I'm not one to subscribe to the theory that the Internet will kill all other forms of media. Sure, it will cannibalise some attention. But... this story is proof that "heritage media" formats can survive if they find a way to connect with their audience and actually fulfill their needs. Marketing fundamentals really...

Anonymous said...

I love the fact they've got a split Twitter personality! In Mag Nation yesterday, and they really are fulfilling a still-relevant part of the market. Great coffee too!