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Q&A with Bauer Media’s Andrew Cook: Now what?

There's no denying Bauer Media has had a rough couple of years. Multiple CEOs, numerous magazine closures, a challenged print advertising market, and now a complicated merger with Pacific Magazines and a pandemic-induced market downturn.

So, how do you solve a problem like Bauer? Director of sales Andrew Cook believes it's all about the power of the publisher's brands, doubling down on its connection with women, and proving to advertisers that it has what it takes to help them reach consumers and change their behaviours. He speaks to Mumbrella's editor Vivienne Kelly about his belief that all Bauer's brands can survive, even though it won't be smooth sailing.

INTERVIEW:
Andrew Cook, director of sales, Bauer Media (AC)
Vivienne Kelly, editor, Mumbrella (VK)

VK: One of the dynamics that a lot of media executives have talked about is the fact that engagement is really high with consumers, which we’ve seen mirrored in the Bauer subscription figures, but on the flip side, they’re saying that advertiser engagement isn’t there, because budgets have diminished so much. So even though eyeballs are there, advertiser dollars are not. Is that playing out at Bauer as well? What are you seeing in the advertising market?

AC: I absolutely agree with that.

I think it’s fair to say that a lot of what’s happened with COVID has taken clients back as they work through how to work in the new normal. ‘What is the new normal?’ is also one that people are trying to work out.

So we, early on, in the March/April period, we definitely saw in those first few weeks of March/April, clients pull back, stop their briefs, agencies were trying to get a hold of their clients and work with their clients on direction moving forward. There were clients who were working through how do they get their imports back out of China? We had clients who get imports out of Italy. And all of that just meant a stop and pause to see how they can start to move forward again.

So with that, there were a few weeks there where revenues for – I’m sure the entire media industry – weren’t necessarily always in the positive.

Cook: I’m seeing some greenshoots

What’s interesting now is I think several weeks into this, we’re starting to get a few client and agencies alike starting to understand how to work from home, and how to get into an operating rhythm and they’re starting to get a sense of a little bit of future certainty – albeit I still think this market is very short term.

But there are definitely, from where we were say eight weeks ago to now, I’m seeing some greenshoots. There’s positivity in the market with people looking forward to the coming months, and starting to plan a little bit further out. And whilst there’s still conservativeness around their approaches, because there is a lot of uncertainty – let’s be honest, a second lockdown might take place, and other outbreaks – people moving forward with a little bit more confidence, definitely, than where they were several weeks ago.

VK: And speaking of several weeks ago, several weeks ago you didn’t have the Pacific Magazines titles in your offering, and now you do. One of the concerns that the ACCC voiced before it allowed the deal was that there was too much crossover between the Bauer Media titles and the Pacific Magazines titles. So do you think there is space for all of them in terms of advertiser appetite and what you can offer advertisers?

AC: Yes, I think there is absolutely.

Looking through the various titles in the category, those brands are now clustered together, you flick through the likes of Woman’s Weekly, Better Homes, Woman’s Day and New Idea, and they are the dominant players within that industry and that particular market or category niche if you like.

Woman’s Day: A ‘dominant’ player

And we believe that there’s definitely room for these titles when you think about the differences that they have. Naturally, some of them have similar types of demographics, but I suppose I look at the bigger picture too around what’s going on around the Homes market and the different types of brands that there are within Homes with House and Garden, Home Beautiful, Country Style, Real Living, Belle. They all have their own niche, and as we know there are people who are reading these titles who are all at different income levels. They live in different types of houses. They have different aspirations and inspirations, and they’re all at different life stages.

And I think from my perspective, these brands reflect various life stages within people’s lives, and as a result, the demand is there.

We’re seeing subscriptions, we’re seeing sales relatively healthy. So, that’s a really good sign that we’re not seeing things in enormous decline across certain categories.

And I think from an advertising point of view, the market are definitely interested in understanding as we move forward how we can show them the brand fit within those various categories, and how those brands can complement what they’re trying to achieve with their advertising.

So I have real confidence in 43 brands that we are representing and the way that they connect with Australians. We’re hitting six in 10, 60%-plus Australian women now, and I think that scale is exciting to talk about along with the added dimensions of what our size and scale is now from a digital portfolio.

I believe print is at the heart of our offer and the heart of how people connect with our brands, and the amplification of our digital assets is how we can extend and help our advertisers really connect and deeply engage.

Print is still at the heart of the new Bauer

I think the other point I just really want to make too is, we’ve been running a survey called Her Pulse, and we’ve just done the most recent, which is actually quite interesting.

It’s about 600-plus women that we spoke to, 25 to 64, and one of the many takeouts for me was around the fact that 54% of these women, they’re wanting to escape. They’re wanting to stop day-in, day-out about what’s going on with COVID. Yes it’s important, and news services keep us educated and they’re very important to us in this day and age, but there’s this sense of ‘I need escapism, I need to be able to get away from that’. And whether it’s jumping in the pool at Tamarama, or going for a cycle, but also reading mags. And we’re seeing this. Yes, there’s a binge of Netflix, and there’s a binge of probably watching TV as well, but there’s circ and sales numbers – I think people are binging on magazines as a form of escape for reading. Because it’s as much about keeping your brain trained for a bit of reading as well as keeping us relaxed in terms of watching a bit of live entertainment as well.

VK: So what does your integrated sales team look like now that you’ve got Bauer and Pac Mags together?

AC: So, we have an overall sales team who are talking to advertising agencies, both from the boutique and let’s call it a consortium agency group. So we have agency sales, we have direct sales, and those sales staff across the various states are the representatives for the entire brand, the entire Bauer portfolio. So the connection that they have with their clients and agencies – they can deliver a complete response across the entire portfolio whatever those titles might be.

We also have a specific luxury category, and we believe that that particular category is a unique one, and those clients within them are a quite special service in terms of the luxury category and the needs and wants of that market because it is so specific. So we have a luxury sales team that also look after the brands within those, and that is the likes of Marie Claire and Elle and Bazaar and InStyle and the like.

Marie Claire sits within Bauer’s ‘luxury’ titles

We also then have a brand team who are the liaisons internally both working with our editorial staff, the publishers, the digital teams as well as the sales teams. So they’re the experts within those areas to make sure that when we receive briefs from clients, or they’re looking forward for proactive ideas, they’re the conduit between editorial and sales.

And our team that look after our strategy, our thought leadership and creative, is Story 54. That’s led by Jane Waterhouse. They’re the team that deliver everything to do with our creative ideas, the implementation of those activations as well, the strategic thought leadership that we produce and all things research in terms of ensuring that we are up to speed with all of our research needs within and across the business.

So that’s pretty much the summary big picture of the team and our approach to market.

VK: When you started looking at taking over Pacific Magazines, the advertising market just wasn’t in the state that it is now because we were pre-COVID, and pre economic collapse. So, what will success look like for you in 2020 now under these redefined terms and this redefined market?

AC: I’ve got a couple of priorities.

First and foremost, for me what success looks like will be around our staff and my team. I really want to make sure that outside of their health – which is the absolute priority for us – that they’re well-trained in terms of understanding the bigger Bauer, and we strategically position the business to our clients through our staff. So taking a staff approach to make sure that they do understand our brands – we’ve got a lot of them to learn and a lot of them to understand, there are a lot of numbers there as you can appreciate, and a lot of various life stages that we’re now talking about. So that is definitely a priority. So the success of the staff is paramount.

I think the positioning of our brand in market in terms of the trade sense – so when you talk to clients and you talk to agencies, they understand what our offer is. They understand our brand. And probably most importantly, we’re easy to deal with. And we get good feedback.

One of the biggest success metrics will be if we can be offered the opportunity to respond on briefs when it comes to women and the health categories. I think that would be fantastic.

We’re not going to win every single brief. I would hope that when clients think about health, think about women, those two particularly – because naturally we do have genres around homes and food etc. – but if you pull back in terms of a bigger picture view – if our clients understand that they should at least offer the opportunity for Bauer to respond and provide our strategic insights and creative, then I think that would be a real win.

I believe that we have the size and the scale and the brands that are really a part of Australian society and culture. We’ve got brands that have been around for many years, and we do need to get on the front foot with our clients and our agencies to ensure they understand what we stand for. What the brand stands for. We need to take it easy for them to understand that and easy for us to be able to execute with them.

So they’re probably some of the main things.

I think finally too, our digital offering. Whilst I believe digital is an exceptionally important part of every business moving forward, it’s making sure that we have a solid digital offering, but it has to be recalibrated.

So we’ve got Bauer and Pac Mags businesses coming together, and it takes a bit of time for those platforms to merge, those platforms to be calibrated under one system, one data management system, one sales client system, before we can move forward. And we’re working pretty tirelessly on that now, so our offer will be, over the coming weeks we’ll probably see a calibration adjustment before we move forward and start to see audiences pick back up after we’ve almost had to reset things with bringing together the technical aspects of these digital assets that I think everyone would understand takes a little bit of time. And as a result that’s another priority for me.

VK: With all the challenges you guys have had lately with the merger and with standing people down and with COVID, the voices about Australian magazines being dead probably got a bit louder again. So what would you say to that chorus of ‘Magazines are dead in Australia’?

AC: The death of magazines have been greatly over-exaggerated.

Well they have been.

I think that it’s wonderful that people talk about our brands and they’re obviously very passionate about them.

I believe in the bigger picture. I believe in the overall power of print, be it magazines or newspapers. I think that we have a deep connection with our audiences and we are loved and trusted brands. Every media at the moment is challenged in this environment – not just magazines. So that’s my view.

I don’t think a single media owner can say with confidence that they’re not challenged in these times, and yes magazines are one of them, but we are not the only one. We have both a cover price and advertising revenues that help with the profitability of our business. And you’ve seen those subscription surges, and we’ve seen pretty solid numbers within the sales on a week-to-week, month-to-month basis.

Bauer believes it has an unparalleled connection with women

So yes, I’m not sitting here saying – nobody I think can say at the moment they can predict the future of the ad economy, or even the economy, as we move forward into the months of September and October onwards, but I do believe in these brands and the life stages that they connect with people on.

And there’s something about the tangibility of magazines that I think will be around for a long time. Exactly what they were saying about the death of radio when television came along, and the internet and everything. There is a place for magazines. Yes, it’s a different world to where it was. But I’m still pretty confident that it’s not going to be smooth sailing with the economy and what’s coming with COVID, but I also believe in the power of these brands, and I think that’s part of the role that my team and I have to talk to the market about, that we are still very much a valid choice in the media landscape at the moment.

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