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How avocado-munching hipsters are strangling the magazine industry

A magazine seemingly for "mundane people with extraordinary lives", Bauer Media's Take 5 took home the top prize at Mumbrella's Publish Awards. While the win may have been a shock to some, editor-in-chief Paul Merrill sits down with Zoe Samios to explain the ongoing appeal of the real-life title, if it has a future, and the challenges media buyers pose to both adland and publishers.

Paul Merrill is the man who launched the search for “Australia’s sexiest wall” and once described his UK readers as having “three different kids by three different prisoners”. But he is also one of Australia’s most experienced magazine editors known for his ability to generate controversy and publicity in equal measure.

Now, he’s at the helm of Bauer Media’s award-winning weekly real-life magazine, Take 5, and he believes advertisers and media buyers alike need a reality check.

The Take 5 and Lucky Break editor in chief – who was part of the award-winning team which took home the top honour at the Publish Awards – tells Mumbrella it’s “criminal” magazines are being neglected by major advertisers, especially given brands aren’t getting value for money when advertising with Facebook and Google.

“Nothing can compare to print magazines”: Merrill

“There are too many 23-year-old media buyers who have never bought a magazine in their life, have been brought up on Instagram and Facebook and are desperate to impress their boss that they know the latest algorithm or whether they’re up with whether Snapchat’s outpacing Instagram,” he says.

“The experience you get online is nothing compared to magazines. You scroll through Facebook and you get a tiny picture here that irritates you and you’ve consumed that ad, as far as the advertiser’s concerned that’s one more view.

“Advertisers have to wise up to the fact the print experience is a richer experience than online, I think they are having the wool pulled over their eyes, part of it is emperor’s new clothes, not wanting to be behind the times, not wanting to look like they don’t know the latest technology.”

He believes advertisers will eventually come back to print and realise they are getting a “fantastic deal” through magazines, because the experience is better.

“The move to online particularly Facebook and Google is a bit of a scandal because they are not getting the value for money they think there are,” he adds.

Online publishers, such as the likes of Junkee, Betoota Advocate and Pedestrian create native and bespoke content, but Merill appears adamant native advertising is “far more sophisticated in magazines”.

“It is far more blatant and its more integrated with the brands so the reader gets a good experience out of it and doesn’t feel like they’re getting ripped off,” he says.

“In a magazine people like the ads. They are designed nicely, people like the products and if you are not interested you can flick past, it’s not irrational. If you are solely advertising on Facebook because you think you can target so well, you’re missing an opportunity and you are just going to piss off everybody.”

Merrill reflects on the last time he checked Take 5’s demographics, which found 94% of his readers were the main grocery buyers – the highest audience of its kind in any Australian magazine, he says.

“This audience doesn’t like celebrity”

“It’s an audience who are not particularly loyal to a brand, they love a bargain, they love a new deal, they’ll look in the shopper dockets, holding onto the coupons,” he explains.

“We do stories in the mag about outback women, these extraordinary stories who are just being ignored. They are so powerful, they are the grocery buyers, they are making the decisions on what to buy, women make decisions on cars, women make decisions on furniture and holidays and stuff like that.”

But as Merrill sees it, there is an ongoing obsession with “high-end fashion” and “glitz”.

“The other section of society that is again ignored by advertising are everyday grocery buying women in rural Australia, if you think about rural Queensland, western Sydney, ordinary mums doing it tough, battling through, yet advertisers seem to be obsessed with the fashionistas.

“These media buyers are the avocado-munching Eastern suburbs hipsters who are completely out of touch with Australia.”

Building “a real connection with readers” who are “extraordinary people living mundane lives”

Merrill attributes the success of Take 5 to its readers – seemingly “extraordinary people living mundane lives” who send in their personal stories in the hope of appearing in the magazine.

Merrill presenting at the 2017 Mumbrella Publish Awards

He says the real-life stories which appear in the title do not appear in the same format on any publication online.

“It does feel like a real connection to the readers, so we see ourselves as a conduit really to connect readers to tell each other their stories, to swap their fears, their worries, whatever is going on in their lives, so it feels like a community,” he reflects.

“Online you can’t really get real-life stories in that format, you can get obviously news stories, you can get stuff like that, but you can’t get a real intimate – like someone is telling you their story personally, it feels like a conversation – but with the readers telling each other and that we as journalists step back from it.”

He also believes the “genuine” puzzles and prizes – which give away $50,000 to $60,000 a week, is a fundamental part of the product.

“They love the real life, this audience doesn’t like celebrity, they’ve got no interest in the latest Kardashian split or what Nicole Richie’s wearing on the beach,” he says.

“These are extraordinary people living mundane lives from the outside, but once you dig in, once you get inside these communities you see extraordinary stories are happening.

“There’s a very loyal core of readers, the readership is something like 750,000 a week on average, and obviously not everyone buys it every single week, but there’s a very loyal group who do buy it every week and to them it’s a very important part of their life, it’s integral to them.”

A weekly, print title forever?

It hasn’t been an easy run for weekly titles over the last couple of years, with the most recent Australian Bureau of Circulation figures – prior to Bauer Media, Pacific Magazines and News Life Media pulling out of the audit – reporting a weekly magazine sales decline of 13%.

Take 5’s last audited circulation figure was in line with this trend – down 13.3% from 155,727 to 135,061. Its most recent print readership figures – according to EMMA – were at 734,000 just behind rival That’s Life.

But Merrill doesn’t think his boss would agree to make Take 5 monthly, and sees a strong future for the title in print, delivered on a weekly basis.

“I think it’s got a big future in print for the reasons we said before – it is delivering something you can’t get elsewhere,” he says.

“Having said that we have a massive online presence, a million people look at our page on Now to Love each week and we have an electronic newsletter that goes to 70,000 people and a big Facebook presence,” he adds.

“They [consumers] are consuming in other ways too so certainly the number of people consuming the Take 5 brand has grown exponentially over the last four or five years so that’s important to us, but the core is the print product at the moment and it’s very successful and it’s outperforming the entire weeklies market because its offering is consistent.”

For Merrill, there still is “huge value” in keeping the title weekly, but he says it is important to keep the magazine content fresh.

‘Fresh’ content in Merrill’s past at Zoo Weekly included the search for Australia’s Sexiest Feminist and competitions to win breast enlargements and divorces. He says, similar antics – or tactics – have worked well at Take 5.

“We did do win an exorcism last year, for Christmas this year you can win two front teeth and it’s genuinely literally, you win two front teeth because a lot of people have dental issues.

“We’ve done Single Mum of the Year, Single Dad of the Year, win a divorce, stuff that is surprising and stuff that’s entertaining to them. Just staying one step ahead and evolving the magazine and keeping it fresh, it helps enormously.”

Developing ideas which create surprise is a part of his job he really loves – and he says the success of the magazine couldn’t occur without his team of 18.

“It’s a great team of people, I’ve assembled them over the last four years and they understand the readers like no other magazine team. They don’t get to go to the glitzy, glamorous parties that the monthlies go to.”

Paul Merrill (left), BlueStar’s Natalie Taylor and Take 5 team at 2017 Publish Awards

He argues they are “better journalists” who “never stop realising what an honour it is” to tell everyday people’s stories.

So what next? 

Merrill says the publication will continue its new newsletter and its online presence across Facebook.

The magazine also has its own Psychic mag Spirit and Destiny, which it will continue to run.

“Looking to expand the brand and look at new revenue opportunities is important and making sure we never drop the ball or never lose sight of the fact that we are successful because we don’t take the readers for granted and we make sure that every issue is as good as the last one and we have that attention to detail to keep you going,” he says.

“I can’t think of a better magazine to edit, because these people are so much more interesting than vacuous supermodels and daytime TV celebrities desperate for fame. These have got really good stories, lots of those water coolers moments where you are just gobsmacked.”

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