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Magfest 2018 review: “The only thing that makes you unique is your idea….”

Organised by PPA Scotland, Magfest 2018 brought together many of the UK’s most progressive publishing professionals amidst the splendour of Edinburgh’s iconic Central Hall.

The event kicked off last Thursday evening in true ‘Edinburgh Fringe-style’ at Cabaret Voltaire where the PPA’s CEO, Barry McIlheney, stated that, “As publishers, the biggest challenge of our age is generating revenue”. On hearing that soundbite, more than a few guests raised their half empty glasses.

Yet amidst the challenge of today’s publishing landscape, Magfest 2018 was ring-fenced by an unbridled optimism that the central tenets of publishing remain very much alive. In short, it’s about creating an outstanding idea, executing it with excellence, and constantly innovating. This has always underpinned successful publishing and it remains true today.

“It’s knowing your audience and delivering what they want, what they don’t expect, and delighting them”

A few of the PPA’s behind-the-scenes team

This theme was taken up the following day by PPA Scotland’s very first Hall Of Fame inductee, Shortlist Media’s Mike Soutar, who outlined the numerous lessons he’d learnt over a career that spans numerous award-winning publishing ventures both as an Editor and Publisher.

Below are some of Mike’s key points for fellow publishers:

  • Talent is never enough, you need to be lucky too”…..”but you need to be tenacious and make your own luck
  • No ideas are bad but some are more relevant to the situation than others”….”developing these ideas comes from experience but you also need boundless enthusiasm”
  • We invest in excellent journalists”….”and we prefer lean, boot-strapped offices where people are encouraged to think for themselves and act on their own initiative
  •  “A limitless editorial budget is worse than a small one because it stifles ingenuity and encourages laziness/clumsiness
Mike Soutar, Chairman, Shortlist Media

  • Speed is important and a team that has too much time just prevaricates”…….”we give our teams just three days to come up with new creative solutions”…….”and we prefer two teams of three than one team of six – building competition into development is a good thing. It brings out the best in people.

Soutar’s keynote address was followed by Magfest’s surprise package for 2018, Twitter’s Director of Curation, Joanna Geary. Like other social media giants, Twitter has an uneasy relationship with publishers, but in a surprisingly conciliatory address, Geary admitted that, “Social media companies are not comfortable being the arbiters of trust and truth, and we are looking for help from publishers.”

She also added that, “Journalists are the most important people on our platform, they were the ones who ‘got us’ first.”

Geary then outlined how she heads a team of 70 journalists worldwide whose job is to curate content created by other users. She urged publishers to harness Twitter’s Moments ‘curated stories’ feature, “There is a huge opportunity for publishers to get involved in Moments and boost their reach 120%.

Joanna Geary, Director of Curation, Twitter

Ominously, Geary also issued the warning that, “Fake news is a really complicated social problem and the danger for magazines is that they are not a voice at the table for trust issues,” and added that, “Device holders are going to be the new gatekeepers.” Publishers take note, more change is afoot.

Other event highlights included Mike Soutar dropping in on the Media Voices live podcast, and in an impassioned series of interventions stated, “There are still lots of digital opportunities…and you don’t need to chase scale either…it’s all about quality of audience and creating a valuable community with multiple touchpoints.”

Indeed, the theme of publishing business models was ever-present throughout Magfest 2018 and was neatly summed up by Media Voices’ Peter Houston who, when debating whether ‘free’ print or digital can work long term, insouciantly remarked, “Plus ça change, it’s the three-legged stool: content, audience, revenue. If you don’t have all three, the stool falls over.”

Esther Kezia Thorpe, Mark Frith, Peter Houston, Chris Sutcliffe & Mike Soutar

WNIP also took in a presentation by Keigh-Lee Paroz on ‘Post-Panic GDPR‘. If there were two reminders we took away from this, it’s that, “A really good data culture leads to a really good business culture” and “Email is the #1 data breach, so be very careful when emailing anyone outside your organisation.”

Another highlight was Radio Times’ Mark Frith, editor of the UK’s biggest selling magazine with 650,000 readers, who gave a timely piece of advice for the young editors in the audience, “If a PR handler interrupts an interview you’re doing, put it in the interview.”

The event also saw a brief cameo by PPA Scotland’s Nikki Simpson who unveiled the latest news surrounding the proposed International Magazine Centre in Edinburgh, for which a feasibility study has now been completed. The Centre, which will be a hub for academic and professional magazine expertise, is looking for help across a number of initiatives as well as to recruit international magazine centre ambassadors. Interested parties should get in contact with Nikki via the PPA.

All in all, Magfest 2018 was a compelling event which fully captured the brimming optimism of the Scottish publishing industry, and offered up valuable insights to help publishers prosper in the current digital paradigm, not just merely survive it.

As comic king and NY Times bestselling author Mark Millar concluded in his closing keynote address, “The only thing that makes you unique is your idea….so make it stand out!”

WNIP would like to express its thanks to Laura Dunlop and the entire team at PPA Scotland for making us feel so welcome in Edinburgh