Changing times in the UAE

James shared his thoughts with Jon Watkins ahead of FIPP Middle East & Africa, taking place on 10 and 11 February 2016 in Dubai, where he will speak (discounted, early bird bookings are available until 15 December 2015. Secure your place today to save on your delegate tickets).

How has GN Media evolved in recent years?

We’re one of the region’s largest media groups, with interest spanning newspapers, magazines, digital media, radio, classified advertising, printing and distribution. Our flagship newspaper, Gulf News, launched in 1978 and, as you say, is now the largest newspaper in the UAE. Our primary website,, is the number one English-language newspaper site in the UAE & MENA region – with more than 28m page views per month. Over the past 35-plus years we’ve successfully positioned ourselves as the leading title in the market through a combination of high quality, credible content and an efficient distribution business that allows us to deliver the paper direct to the customer’s door.

You also have magazine brands. Tell us about the business’s magazine division and the success you are seeing there…

GN Publishing is the specialist media arm of GN Media, operating a portfolio of brands across print, digital and live events. Our portfolio includes Friday magazine, the UAE’s largest title, as well as market-leading titles in sectors such as automotive and homes & interiors. Overall, we operate six consumer brands, as well as publishing around 100 newspaper supplements per year and providing publishing and content marketing services to a range of partners, including Air Arabia and Dubai Duty Free.

What’s the ethos that underpins your approach to magazine brands?

GN Publishing’s success stems from its ability to connect readers with their passions, creating communities of interest in our chosen genres. Our brands are largely homegrown and this has given us incredible strength in creating locally relevant content for our audiences in the region.

How is the magazine sector evolving there? Are you seeing the same disruptors and the same threats to the publishing model as in other regions, such as Western regions? Or, like many places, is the pace of change slower?

The magazine media industry is facing challenges similar to those in other parts of the world, although the shift from print to online is much slower and much less advanced than in markets such as the UK and the US. I wouldn’t say we’ve seen anything like that type of change here yet, but it hasn’t really kicked off yet. The underlying issue is that the digital market more generally is not as well developed in this region. So when you talk about digital advertising, of course the general purpose of that is to push a consumer off to transact or interact with you in some way. If you as a business don’t have any level of website for them to interact with you on, then you don’t have any incentive to move into digital advertising. So there is a missing link for consumer-facing businesses in terms of their digital presence. It’s starting to happen now but it’s not widespread and it’s not like the UK, where you can do anything online. 

That means we don’t quite have the same pressure at this point because the market isn’t ready for it yet, and also because it’s a cultural thing – this is still very much a cash-based society where credit cards are not as popular and there is no direct debit facility, for example.

That said, are we facing competition with digital players for audiences? Well absolutely. And even if there is no monetisation model, the eyeballs are flooding to places like Facebook and Google and we have to come up with ideas to address that.

So the challenge for publishers remains the same – to create multi-platform brands that can demonstrate their ability to reach selected audiences and which are able to provide true 360-degree solutions for advertisers.

What sets you apart?

I think our commitment to investing in content and journalism is key. Impartiality and honesty are part of our DNA and I think our audiences trust us to give them unbiased information and advice. We’re also very focused on avoiding becoming complacent. We’re always looking for new ways to engage with our readers. Whether it’s launching our long-established automotive title, Wheels, in Arabic, or creating monthly Mummy Mornings for our Aquarius readers, we’re trying to build that sense of community and engagement.

We’re also able to derive huge benefits from being part of a large and well-respected group like GN Media. The trusted reputation that the group has built up in the market opens lots of doors for us, as does access to the group’s world-class production and distribution capability.

How do you see the business evolving from here?

Currently, we are concentrating on digital growth. We have three areas of focus: content – where we’re trying to dramatically increase the volume of content we produce for digital and use analytics to inform what we produce; marketing – where we’re looking at how we increase our expertise in SEO, SEM and social; and technology – which is about making better use of technology to produce products tailored to consumer needs, as well as improving our speed to market.

Aside from those things, we’re always looking at new opportunities in terms of brands and regions, particularly where we feel we can bring something new to the market.

What is the news model like in the region overall? What trends are you seeing and how is your model evolving?

In news, newspapers remain the dominant medium. Interestingly, if you look at the latest ZenithOptimedia forecasts, they actually predict that newspaper advertising will grow in the next three years, a phenomenon that’s pretty unique to our region. Nevertheless, consumption of news on digital platforms, particularly mobile, is already a well-established part of the market and, with one of the highest levels of smartphone penetration in the world, that is expected to continue growing rapidly.

Tell us a bit about yourself. How long have you been in the region and what took you there?

I’ve been here nearly three years now. Prior to this I was at the BBC for 12 years, originally in strategy and marketing and then I developed the international arm of the magazine business for a number of years. I was involved in the process of selling BBC Magazines to private equity and then I was the publishing director for Top Gear, BBC Good Food and Lonely Planet magazine. So I’ve had a fairly varied career, although mainly at the BBC and, once that process of selling the business off was complete I felt I’d come to a fairly natural end. So I came here because I was excited by the challenge and this is a market with a lot of opportunity and growth. And it is somewhere that you can really make a difference.

What excites you about the Dubai event?

FIPP Middle East and Africa is an incredibly exciting opportunity for the region’s publishing industry. It’s the first time we have had such an event in the region since 2009. I’m really looking forward to hearing from the incredible array of local and international speakers, and learning more about how our industry is addressing the opportunities it’s facing. In particular, there are some great case studies of local digital success stories that anyone with an interest in the industry will want to hear. It’s great to have an event like this on our doorstep, as it allows us to bring a much larger delegation than would be the case for an event overseas.

FIPP Middle East & Africa takes place on 10 and 11 February 2016 in Dubai (discounted, early bird bookings are available until 15 December 2015. Secure your place today to save on your delegate tickets).

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