Interview: John Menzies Reboots Its Digital Publishing Business

John Menzies is returning to digital publishing by launching a consultancy agency to jump aboard booming publisher interest in digital editions.

In 2008, the UK newspaper and magazine distributor launched John Menzies Digital, which, as a JV with Lagardere, tried to sell magazine e-editions on the web at its own newsstand and on a white-label basis for Asda, WH Smith and ITV (LSE: ITV). But it closed the operation 14 months later after low take-up.

Now Menzies’ digital MD Sarah Clegg, who was brought in for the initial launch and kept on despite the shutdown, is launching Menzies Digital Marketing.

What’s different? “We are looking at multiplatform offerings,” Clegg tells paidContent:UK. “We’re more of an agency and consultancy, as opposed to a newsstand for page-turning offerings, as we were last time.”

Clegg is pitching publishers with distribution opportunities, for which Menzies is enlisting external producers – RoundPoint for mobile, Citadella for e-editions, Kodak and Newsfax for digital printing, and Newspaper Direct and PressDisplay for digital delivery. In-house, Menzies will double the team from two to four for the operation. So far, e-edition clients are Redwood Publishing, Velo Marketing, White Stuff, Superbrands, Cambridge University Press, West Ham Utd and Skills For Logistics.

What went wrong last time? For one, MagazinesOnDemand tried selling print replicas to a web audience – a tough sell. Now tablets provide a more realistic avenue. “Tens of thousands downloaded a (taster) issue, but they weren’t prepared to pay for it – those numbers were very low for prepared to those who are happy to pay for a magazine.

“The business model was a revenue share basis – but you have to have high volume levels (digital download sales) for that. I would question whether the volume is there, even now. It’s developing, but the volume is still relatively small.

It was slightly ahead of its time. We’ve seen digital change hugely over the last 12 months; Apple (NSDQ: AAPL), in particular, has made a huge impact on an audience levels. There aren’t many companies now who haven’t got an app or aren’t thinking of getting an app.”

Menzies hopes to serve this interest by connecting publishers with development houses and advising on managing the multiplatform strategy. Outputs could include micro-websites, mobile apps, page-turner editions for multiple platforms or custom iPad apps.

Publishers are excited about delivering to tablets in the post-print, possibly post-web world. But little of this excitement seems borne out by measurable evidence iPad buyers are purchasing the gadget to read newspapers and magazines.

“There is huge interest in digital,” Clegg says. “I don’t think it’s being driven by the consumer. But it’s right for any publishing company to offer the opportunity to read on multiple platforms.

“The Times is an example of doing it well. There are numerous examples of companies who have rushed to market simply to have a presence. The opportunity we have is to make it right. A lot of people are going to be questioning what they have done in digital; they have lacked direction and strategy. A lot of people have simply tagged it on to their existing strategy.”