New trade in magazines

English-language trade titles are being launched across the Middle East.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The Middle East is witnessing a rise in the number of Arab-published English-language trade magazines, geared specifically towards professionals operating in the region. The surge is being propelled by healthy annual growth in the Middle East’s $2.3 billion advertising sector but the lack of maturity in the market suggests that specialist titles may have to work just that much harder to survive on the newsstands.

Last month in Dubai, saw the launch of a Middle East version of Campaign, the 30-year-old British advertising magazine. It has since been joined in Beirut by Middle East Broadcasters, a bi-monthly subscription magazine covering the Arab world’s broadcast industry. Finally five months ago, Lebanon’s first recruitment periodical, Job, was distributed for free in Beirut with plans to eventually cover Jordan and Syria. All three join Arab Ad and Hospitality News which have been around for 20 and five years respectively, covering the media and the hospitality sectors.

“It’s a healthy sign,” said Walid Azzi, publisher of Arab Ad, the 20-year-old advertising and marketing magazine. “Trade magazines are mushrooming today in the Middle East because of the region’s prosperous advertising and marketing industry.” However, Azzi warned that there would never be a boom in English-language readership. “It’s a specific-content market limited to educated English-speaking people,” he said.

Industry insiders admit that while the Middle East market for serious, professional English-language trade magazines is unexploited, their concern is that financial rewards will not appear overnight. Be that as it may, according to Toni Eid – the publisher of the Beirut-based auto magazine Arab Wheels, which was launched three years ago – his publication sells close to 40,000 copies across the region. Eid claims that as long as you enter the market strong and flash the cash, advertisers will take heart.

Trumping the competition

At his Beirut office, Ramez Malouf, the editor-in-chief of Middle East Broadcaster, defended his media venture. “We see no serious trade magazine in the region,” he said. “There are others but either they don’t really have a Middle East focus – they are Middle Eastern only in the sense that they are a Middle East edition and sell ads for the Middle East but the articles are not focused on the Middle East – or they are promotional magazines through which companies can publish press releases.”

Although Middle East advertising expenditure has been growing by roughly 10% annually, only a fraction goes into print and only a fraction of that is slated for English-language magazines, while the trade titles come last in this small category. Many advertisers are put off by the limited readership – a consequence of their specialization. Even the veteran title Arab Ad has only 12,000 to 13,000 subscribers, according to Azzi. Following the distribution of the first issue of Middle East Broadcasters, Malouf said he had initially received around 4,000 subscription requests.

The trouble may lie in the abundance of titles that start up and die quickly. “The problem is that anyone with $10,000 or $15,000 can launch a magazine,” said Eid. “Around 40 titles in the region have folded within the first year.” Advertising revenues will only come, analysts say, if a publication endures for more than a year. Only then will advertisers regard the title as established. “Many papers start up and then close down, so that advertisers have no faith in new faces,” said Job publisher Ziad Jbara. Eid agreed, saying that publishers should be ready to spend, initially, at least $400,000 to convince advertisers that they are serious and are going to be around for a while. Middle East Broadcasters’ costs for the first year, according to Malouf, will run at more than $200,000, excluding the purchase price of offices in downtown Beirut.

One of the few genuine trade magazines that has lasted the course is Hospitality News. Managing director, Joumana Dammous-Salame, claimed that the magazine had benefited from her family’s experience in the catering and hospitality sector. The family owns Hospitality Services, a company that has been organizing exhibitions such as HORECA, offering marketing and consultancy services and managing events since 1993. “We didn’t start this magazine from nowhere,” Salameh said. “We’ve been in this industry for 15 years. One of the partners has been in the industry for 45 years. We know everyone.”

Image problems

Some publishers say that in the image-conscious Arab world the format of a trade publication is of paramount importance. In the region they say trade magazines are often treated as fashion accessories. “It’s on the CEO’s desk or under his arm,” said Azzi. Commenting on the new tabloid-style Middle East version of Campaign, he said: “It’s designed for the underground. But in this part of the world that won’t work. The readers it is geared towards want something luxurious, thick and glossy.”

But a member of the Campaign Middle East management team who asked not to be identified, said Azzi’s comment was applicable only to consumer titles. Campaign, he said, was a business publication. It was not pretending to be a consumer title. Instead, it was more akin to the IT Weekly Middle East, a technology title also distributed free of charge. And while some publications, he added, might seek only CEOs as readers, Campaign was striving for a broader professional readership, including, but certainly not limited to, CEOs.

Image has proved problematic for Job, said Jbara. He is having difficulty convincing advertisers that a journal can be both free and upmarket at the same time. In fact he finds himself in something of a catch-22 situation: Job is geared towards middle to upper management professionals – hardly a working class bunch. But because the paper is free he’s finding it difficult to interest the high-end advertisers he wants and indeed the kind who advertise in the glossier, more luxurious trade magazines. They’re all convinced that a free paper isn’t something that will be picked up by the so-called refined readers – their primary target. This preconception is compounded by the paper’s tabloid design. The only people who will advertise are cheap cigarette brands and sketchy breast enlargement companies for example, who are under the mistaken impression that the paper will be picked up by their primary target – the masses.

“I don’t want a reader interested in career advancement to find advertisements about enlarging breasts,” he said. “But the high-end advertisers prefer to go for the image and pay twice as much to advertise in a highly-priced magazine with a lower readership,” Jbara complained.

Azzi doesn’t have to worry about his image, he said. Twenty years of gloss and subscription fees for Arab Ad have taken care of that. “Free distribution has not been accepted socially in the Arab world yet,” he observed. “There is a certain exclusivity associated with paying $150 to get your magazine delivered to your desk by DHL.”

Like Job, Campaign is currently distributed free of charge and its management disputes the suggestion that this is bad for business. He argued instead that the paid model of a ‘business-to-business,’ specialist-audience magazine didn’t work. There was general agreement among specialist magazine publishers in more mature markets, like in the United States, that a publisher distributing free-of-charge would attract far more advertisers – and at higher rates – than someone selling a publication to a reduced readership. The gain in advertising revenue from clients enticed by a wider readership would far outweigh the cost of free distribution, he said.

Taking it regional

Most industry insiders advocate a regional readership. Local markets like Lebanon (where ad spending for these titles does not exceed $3 million) only have room for a handful of trade magazines at most. “Lebanon is a small market. Investing in a trade magazine only distributed here is not a wise decision,” said Eid.

Any Arab trade mag publisher who does go for the Lebanese market alone, and is prepared to invest heavily, although not necessarily doomed from the start may have to wait as long as five years, according to University of Kaslik marketing professor Mounir Torbay, before their reputation – provided they can establish one – pulls in serious advertising money. That’s because Lebanon’s economy and advertising market in particular, are depressed. Every year Lebanon’s current $35 million to $40 million annual ad expenditure – in painful contrast to that of the Middle East as a whole – is falling by as much as 20%, Torbay said, and advertisers are spending more and more on quick-fix below-the-line, in-store promotions to prop up unsatisfactory sales figures. So for a trade magazine to win a substantial share of leftover ad spend here in Lebanon, its undisputed impact must be all the more established.

Middle East Broadcasters is avoiding local Lebanese advertisers altogether. It is dealing only with regional advertising agencies. This is reflected in the magazine’s rates which are roughly three times higher than local ones. According to its rate card, a single A4 page ad can cost up to $6,200. A single page ad in Arab Ad costs $2,500, according Azzi. He said his magazine makes more than a million dollars a year from ad sales. Arab Wheels generated more than $600,000 a year, claimed Eid.

So the message it seems is to go regional. “Our economies are not that complex,” said Malouf. “They’re not large. [Trade magazines work well] in countries with thriving, large, well-off industries. Here, the money’s just not there for it. In the United States for example, not only do you have agriculture trade magazines, you have a potato-growers magazine. Alfafa growers will get the alfafa version and so on. An agriculture magazine may sell hundreds of covers. You’re not going to see that here.”

But still this is Lebanon and publishers are acutely aware of where their magazines will be seen. Trade or no trade, they don’t want their titles in dentists’ waiting rooms. “Never, never, never,” stated Azzi unequivocally. “The only waiting room table we will share is that of a CEO. On airlines, we are distributed only in first class, never in economy. In airports, we are in the VIP lounge, not the general waiting area. In hotels, we are in executive suites. Our readers are the elite.”