As Idealog celebrates a decade in the ideas business, co-founder Vincent Heeringa explains how it intends to last a few more

This month Idealog magazine published its 60th edition. That makes us ten years old, according to my journalist maths. A decade in publishing is an achievement worth celebrating—especially this decade—and we’ll certainly stop to smell the rosé.

There’s a lot to be proud of. We were the first to bring to the mainstream such cool people as Sir Ray Avery, Rod Drury (Xero), Peter Beck (RocketLab), Tanya Thompson (Misery) and Vaughn Roswell (Vend). We’ve poked the borax at plenty of sub-par performers, often before they became familiar targets: Callaghan Innovation (for its mind-boggling bureaucracy), the architectural industry (for leaky homes) and the dairy industry (for its pollution). I recall once getting an angry letter from Lion about our story ‘Who killed Steinlager?’ only to be told later that photocopies had been passed around the office and that it formed part of the rationale behind the launch of Steinlager Pure. They even advertised. So did Callaghan (note to ed: must piss off more people).

We’ve always had a good website, we’ve got a good social media following and we run popular events, never once believing that a print magazine is enough in a multichannel world.

I’m incredibly proud that we’ve always paid our writers and photographers, that we survived the GFC and that we’ve maintained and renewed our partnership with AUT, an organisation that’s similarly defied the odds to find its place in the world.

One of our original aims was to use Idealog to build our creative publishing capacity and I think it’s worked. Off the back of it we launched Good and bought NZ Marketing, launched StopPress and breathed some new life into the TVNZ-NZ Marketing Awards. I reckon that Tangible now is one of the most innovative media companies in New Zealand and our parent company, ICG, one of the most exciting marketing/comms businesses in Australasia. And yet … 

The ten-year milestone also feels like just another step along struggle street. The media business is hard work and it’s not getting any easier. If Idealog is to celebrate another ten years we have to move—and fast—because we have many failings.

Here’s what I reckon needs to happen. And I suspect this applies to media in general too.

  1. Narrow the focus: There’s riches in niches, as the Americans say. Mass media, such as women’s titles and newspapers, is the fastest declining media category and predictions are that free-to-air TV will follow the same trajectory. By contrast, the most successful titles in the Tangible stable have an incredibly narrow focus, StopPress being the best example. Here’s a little test we ask: can you meaningfully describe your audience in three words? Over the last decade Idealog has been delightfully broad in its appeal, featuring artists, scientists, captains and capitalists. That has to change. From now on we must settle one audience: entrepreneurs and business innovators. Everyone else, I’m afraid, must find their own magazine
  2. Feel the depth: Narrow doesn’t mean shallow, in fact the opposite. We have to do more for this defined group: providing apps, tools, events, videos, websites, research, heck, maybe even a magazine. Actually Idealog always has been multi-channel and I think we’ve pioneered some great brand extensions like our website, Pitch Circus and The Briefing. Where we’ve really failed is the next bit. 
  3. Create customers, not readers: We must find a way to have readers pay and we must measure our revenue in terms of average revenue per user. This implies three things: knowing who your customers are, giving them what they want and making it easy for them to pay. Parts of Tangible are superb at this. Our consumer brands such as Dish, Good and NZ Fishing World have got a strong and growing paid print circulation. And we’re pedalling—and peddling—fast to extend that across all platforms. In the last few months Tangible has spent plenty of time and cash building a state-of-art customer management system. This will allow us to have a single view of our customers and set up paywalls, ticketing systems, online shops and, importantly, auto-renewals. Our ambition is to turn our ‘readers’ into ‘customers’ who can buy subs for one or 24 months, across digital, apps and print; buy one-off products like research reports or tickets to events or merchandise like recommended wines or fishing rods. They can control all their dealings with us with one customer login (including Facebook) and give us much greater permission to discover what they actually want. I get dozens of comments to the effect of “oh Idealog, I love that magazine!” But when I ask if they’ve bought one recently or find it useful enough to steal, most confess not. We haven’t turned our readers into customers, or thieves. Our bad.
  4. Utility, not news: The news media is stuffed. There’s just too much of it. So where we used to think that words and pictures was our business, it’s actually something else: recipes that lead to great dinner parties; fishing advice that leads to catches; business intelligence and connections that leads to deals. Or whatever. I’ll never forget what my old mate Howard Russell said: “Are you in the hot water bottle business or the warm bed business?”
  5. Marketing not advertising: We love advertising but there’s less of it around since the GFC and the rise of social suggests this trend will accelerate. Marketing, however, has never been more important, so our role as content producers and community builders has become highly sought after. Our job is to help our clients connect to customers in meaningful ways (warm beds!) not sell ads (hot water bottles).
  6. Stand for something: Partnerships are easier when you know your own mind. For Idealog this process has forced us to ask: what do we stand for? In some ways it’s always been there, but we’ve refined it and refined it till it’s as sharp as a freakin’ razor: our ambition is to create a community of 100,000 Kiwi entrepreneurs and business innovators and provide a suite of benefits from us and through our partners, including media, events, research, capital, mentoring, professional advice, ICT, telco and banking services.

We don’t know if Idealog will survive another ten years, but if it does, we know it will be a different from what you see now. Meanwhile, call me if you want to come along for the ride.

  • Vincent Heeringa is the co-founder of Idealog and StopPress. [email protected]
  • Subscribe to Idealog here

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