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Beyond the Page: NZ Life & Leisure’s Kate Coughlan on shifting values, receptive audiences and how magazines build brands

In the first instalment of a series that showcases how some of the winners from this year’s Magazine Media Awards are adapting to the modern era and helping advertisers grow their businesses, Ben Fahy talks to Kate Coughlan, editor of the supreme magazine of the year, NZ Life & Leisure.

September 15, 2015 | features

Kate Coughlan, editor of NZ Life & Leisure and editorial director of Fairfax Magazines

Around ten years ago, Kate Coughlan was having her usual morning stroll along the Auckland waterfront with a friend when she saw a container ship chugging in to the harbour. And she had something of an epiphany.

“I said ‘look at that ship, it’s full of crap to go under the Christmas trees and it will be in the landfills tomorrow’. And I thought ‘we can’t keep living like this.’”

She felt like the attitude at the time was ‘I consume therefore I am’ and it was starting to make her really uncomfortable. So she left Fairfax (then owned by INL) and, with Australian media baron Ken Cowley's company RM Williams publishing, set up NZ Life & Leisure, a premium magazine that was focused on “people who added value to the whole sum of the country by what they do” and tapped into a desire for the baby boomers to end their working lives in a healthy, relatively wealthy state. She sold it back to Fairfax in 2008 and, in a tough market, it has gone on to become one of the best performing titles in the country, more than tripling its circulation since 2005 to 33,579 and increasing readership by 11 percent year on year to 150,000.

As a result of that performance, NZ Life & Leisure took out the supreme magazine of the year at the recent Magazine Media Awards. And as the judges said: “It’s a magazine that knows what it is, knows its market intimately, and represents the best commercial performance in the market."

  • Check out all the winners of the Magazine Media Awards here

So what does Coughlan put that success down to?  

“The people in it. The people we write about are very invigorating and engaging to get to know and I think coming from a long line of Irish storytellers I like stories about people. We try to make all our journalism of the ‘show, not tell’ variety, so I feel like I’m getting the insights myself, I’m having the relationship with the person and I’ve deduced this from the text, rather than being told.”

At its core, she says it’s an aspirational magazine and its aim is to bring better living standards, better value and better sustainable businesses to New Zealand by showcasing those who are doing just that, whether it’s a boutique tourism operation, an organic beef farm or a niche food producer.

“If you set out to write that, you’d say ‘that’s ridiculous, don’t be such a hypocrite’, but I think a lot of these people have been swimming against the big tide. A lot of them have struggled really hard to get to this point … Rather than ‘look at what Mrs so and so’s got, I want one of those too’, it was about shifting the focus back to ‘what are you creating?'”

Around five years ago, she says Fairfax conducted some research and the general consensus among the focus group was that the magazine was for posh people and you needed to have a lot of money to get into it. She admits there's an element of truth to that. Its audience is older and wealthier than most (32 percent of its readers have a household income of $120,000, and only the readers of the NBR Rich List have a higher average per capita income, she says), and that's a good selling point. But the research showed it needed to be more accessible so she set about creating “a combination of teasers, snippets, come hithers and then your deep engagement reads”. And that’s when it really started to take off, she says.

“People could flick through and they might just read one little box that says ‘for five years this man lived on Weetbix in order to buy his first bull’. And that might be someone they’ll be interested in reading about.” 

So are the wealthy readers living vicariously through the subjects, and does the editorial philosophy conflict with the premium brands advertising their wares?  

“I think we have a lot of well-heeled readers who like to see other people having a go. They don’t want to buy this magazine to see who’s got the latest sofa. They’re buying it because they want to see what people are doing and who’s inspiring and who they might know … That’s another really strong aspect of our journalism. Who is that person? How will I get my reader to know they were the neighbour of their cousin? That makes people feel more interested in the story and their lives if they know something that connects them with.” 

New frontiers

The rise of digital media has thrown the cat amongst the pigeons for many traditional publishers, and the general consensus is that young audiences are moving away from print (although a study from the MPA in the US showed that wasn't true and brands like Airbnb, Net a Porter, Grantland, Pitchfork and Rookie have invested in print products). But, like political affiliations, or car brands, or any number of consumer items, preferences can sometimes change as you get older. So do people of a certain age start reading magazines in print? And is there a certain lifestage when people click in to NZ Life & Leisure specifically?

“Yes, but you really have to give them one or two fantastic reads to get them to spend $11 on that next issue. Because there is so much beautiful stuff on the internet that you really have to get them something they didn’t know they wanted but are so pleased when they get it.”

She believes the magazine is attracting a younger audience of women who tell her they want to replicate the success of those featured. And this can be put down partially to “pretty much all” of its content, as well as that of most of its other mastheads, recently being made available on stuff.co.nz.

“We have had this enormous increase in audience. They’re really big audiences now.”

She says embracing the online realm has been an exciting, educational experience for her and the team. For example, a story about the Vinbrux family who live very simply and sustainably near Oamaru has had 112,000 pageviews and has been shared over 17,000 times.

“In print we take really great care of our subjects and present them in a way that’s realistic and authentic, but we’d never take a risk with them ... But the mindset online is a little bit more relaxed, a little bit more fun.”

It also has grown its Facebook following to 4,205 and its monthly newsletter is received by more than 20,000 people and has an open rate of 42 percent, which is amongst the highest in the industry.

So are print and digital living together comfortably now? 

“We love it. Who doesn’t want their story to be read by that many people. You watch that ticker going and you think, ‘my goodness, that’s really exciting’. And I think the idea that the quality can’t be replicated online is wrong. Our stories have wonderful galleries of photos and we’re very strong in that realm. We’re just beginning in there and that’s where we’re bringing our great stories to the attention of more and more people, and therefore the mastheads.”

She believes there are two aspects to a magazine: as a tool and as a treat. Tools work really well digitally. And if you can keep your print products being 70 percent treat, where they didn’t know they wanted it but are thrilled to get it, “then it remains a good partner to the digital tool”.

And while she believes print products still stand up on their own, all the augmented reality possibilities, like holding your phone over the cover to see how it was shot, or maybe a video of somebody making something featured inside, are going to make things more interesting.

Other publishers have partnered with mainstream broadcasters to offer more in-depth content about popular TV shows. And while Coughlan, who also serves as editorial director of Fairfax Magazines, says its NZ Gardener team works with Choice TV for Get Growing, “Stuff is our TV because we’ve got the massive audience and they seem to be really loving the magazine content, so that’s where we want to go”. 

Photographer Jane Ussher, Fairfax Media Northern Region Manager, David Penny, NZ Life & Leisure staff writer and social editor Cheree Phillips, art director Yolanta Woldendorp (who was named art director of the year, lifestyle), NZ Life & Leisure editor Kate Coughlan, Fairfax Media distribution manager Lynley Belton and NZ Life & Leisure freelance writer Jane Warwick (who was named journalist of the year, lifestyle.

Success by association

Historically, revenue for magazine publishers has come from circulation and advertising, so there has been an understandably reluctance to give their content away for free online. And despite the excitement of the new digital toys, it’s clear Coughlan still backs the power of ink on high quality satin matt paper and she talks about the emotional response readers tell her they have when they get their favourite magazine. And that, she believes, is a feeling that gets transferred to the advertisers.

“It’s about ‘Go away world, get out of my hair, I’m having this time for myself.’ If I had a dollar for every time I received a letter from someone saying they take the magazine to their favourite chair with a glass of wine and they absorb it, and they sink into this world and take it in as part of the overall experience. And every brand that makes it into this magazine is part of that.”

She says readers' minds are open and that is not something you can easily replicate elsewhere. It’s almost like a microcosm of the summer holiday.

“All the great magazines that hit their audience do the same thing … I think people get very excited when they read this magazine. They see hope, opportunity, how other people have done things differently and maybe having a different life because of it. They might ask themselves ‘what if we sold up and moved to Gisborne and sold oranges?’ They become very optimistic and it makes them very open to advertising. And even if they can’t move to Gisborne, perhaps they decide to buy the bath instead.”

She says magazines are still an extremely effective way of getting a brand out to a select audience and because readers often see the ads as part of the experience, she says it’s like getting instant, subconscious brand acceptance. 

“And a really great experience might even be learning about that website where you buy all your clothes.”

Momentum shift

The internet, as comedian Aziz Ansari recently said, can feel like you’ve read a million pages of the world’s worst book. The mobile phone is a cube of pure distraction. And when you see all the stats about the use of mobile phones while watching TV or the rise of ad blocking software, the simplicity of print does seem to be quite appealing. Some see this as print media fetishism; an unrealistic, anachronistic attitude to changing media consumption habits. But Coughlan believes print is becoming a really strong part of a basket of opportunities.

“I think it’s just moving into what will be its strongest ever phase. We’re not being replaced by [the internet]. There is no way. In fact, I think it’s making us more valuable because of that factor of being the single focus. I’m not being yelled at, I’m not being pursued, I’m choosing all of it to be in my life.”

So could the rise of mindfulness, concern about too much time spent with screens and skepticism from some about the effectiveness of online advertising be working in magazines’ favour?

“I don’t think it’s because the other one isn’t effective. You can do things online that you can’t in print. But the flight from print to digital and thinking they could replicate the results hasn’t happened. That’s why I think we are sailing into really good waters now with really good print products. Our place in the sun is just coming. We’re going to provide a really strong experience for readers and for the right brands.”

And despite the general perception that magazines are struggling, she says NZ Life & Leisure has increased advertising revenue overall in the past year (although “not massively”) and it is now the third most profitable magazine in the Fairfax portfolio. 

“[The current issue] is the biggest yielding magazine we’ve had in seven years. I believe we are really coming out of what’s been our hardest time for display advertising. The irony of having a digital-only company [Church Lane] launch in a magazine is not lost on me.”

Advertising inventory is also sold out on the newsletter for the year ahead. 

For her, there is no doubt advertising in magazines works. And she can prove it. She has a property near St Bathans, which she advertises in only one place, NZ Life & Leisure. She didn’t set out to build a brand, but it has happened over time and it’s now a pretty good business (with an inbuilt filter for the type of guests who want to stay). And in case you’re wondering, she still has to pay.

“I might get a bit of a distressed rate, but I don’t get a deal. This is Fairfax honey!”

Auckland cosmetics company Nellie Tier is another advertiser she points to that has grown its brand through magazines. And NZ Life & Leisure is the only place it advertises.

“And you know what their clients tell them? ‘We see you in all the best magazines. And they’re laughing, because they say they’re only in one. But that’s the perception we’ve built. Anthea’s, the jewellers, they’ve also built their brand alongside us … We have a lot of very consistent advertisers, often high-end jewellery. It’s not uncommon for me to get a phonecall from Anthea’s to say they’ve sold a $75,000 ring, and they can completely track it down.”

She says an ad in the magazine was also responsible for selling one of Auckland’s most expensive sections. And she also points to a campaign for Sleepyhead that's running again where the activations were online and the motivations were in print.

Special treatment?  

The power of an editorial endorsement has long been viewed as more powerful than an ad. And, increasingly, clients seem to want that in the form of branded content. NZ Life & Leisure does some reader promotions and “what we used to call advertorials". But she says you need to protect the credibility of the product to keep delivering readers to your advertisers.

“I think it’s the trickiest thing we’re facing at the moment. How will we do this really well so our products remain viable so our advertisers get what they want? If we really do fantastic stories and they do fantastic ads, that’s the perfect solution. Because everything along that continuum is kind of compromised.”

A lot of the advertisers have also been covered editorially. So is there potential for reader confusion? With Nellie Tier, she says it did a story when it launched and then they realised the power of the magazine, so they decided to advertise. Christchurch-based Trenzeater, a third generation furniture manufacturing business, is another example of a business that was deserving of coverage and then started advertising.  

“And that’s where as an editor you’ve got to be so sure you’re doing it for all the right reasons. In the end all you have is your own integrity. Your advertising staff are obliged to come to you and say ‘come on, can’t you write about these people, you could get a campaign’. And you have to say ‘no', or 'let me think about it' and you have to trust your credibility to make the right decision.”

So will this lovingly-produced, much-loved print product still be around in ten years? Her crystal ball doesn’t stretch that far. But in five years she believes the treat part of the portfolio will still be really big, “as long as it has high production values and great journalism and is connecting with the audience”. In fact, she thinks print products might even be higher quality than they are now and, as the brands/books/magazines we buy always say something about us, she thinks we will still need something to put on the coffee table.

“Part of the experience is the feel. [Our readers] talk about clasping it, and stroking the pages and smelling it. You’d be surprised how many people smell magazines and write to the editors about it … We’ve been thinking about getting our printer to put some perfume in the ink.”

And with the reader constantly at the centre of Coughlan and her team’s thoughts—and with an ongoing desire to create an emotional response with its products—don’t be surprised if they do.

The best in the business 

Here's what the judges of the Magazine Media Awards said about the titles that topped their respective categories. 

CONSUMER SPECIAL INTEREST

New Zealand Weddings - Tangible Media 

The diversity of entrants, as evidenced by the finalists, in this category made it incredibly difficult to judge. New Zealand Weddings stood out through is growth in market share within its category, the growth of platforms beyond print and its demonstrably successful year commercially. The magazine's photographic and creative output is truly world class.

CURRENT AFFAIRS & BUSINESS

Metro - Bauer Media 

2014 felt like the year Metro really got its mojo back. With an air of arrogance and big city swagger, Metro rolled back the years and demanded attention. Metro is once again the voice of sophisticated Auckland and a successful media brand across multiple platforms.  

Highly Commended: New Zealand Geographic - Kowhai Media 

HOME & FOOD

Dish- Tangible Media 

This category was the most difficult to judge and overwhelmingly the most competitive. Dish edged the competition as a result of having a clearly defined strategic direction combined with the creative and commercial firepower to deliver. The magazine team’s attention to detail and clear vision is obvious and has paid handsome dividends.

Highly Commended: NZ House and Garden - Fairfax Magazines 

INDUSTRY & TRADE

NZ Marketing/StopPress - Tangible Media 

This product really is 'what good looks like' in Industry and trade publishing. StopPress is at the centre of its community and plays the print/digital combination with dexterity and commercial nous. It is an example to the rest of the industry that a commitment to good independent journalism is crucial irrespective of what category you are in. 

LIFESTYLE

NZ Life & Leisure - Fairfax Magazines 

A clear winner in this category and an absolute class act. NZ Life & Leisure has demonstrated both paid circulation and readership growth off the back of an absolute commitment to the craft of magazine creative and aspirational story telling.

MASS MARKET WOMEN'S

Woman’s Day - Bauer Media 

The Woman’s Day versus NZ Woman’s Weekly battle is reminiscent of the “rumble in the jungle” – the famous heavyweight battle between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. Woman’s Day won the battle, but unlike last year, it was not a knockout but a points decision. A more compelling overall proposition across all the aspects of publishing gave Woman’s Day the edge. But it was close.

Highly Commended: NZ Woman's Weekly - Bauer Media 

This story is part of a content partnership with the Magazine Publishers Association. 

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