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How VDS brought Top Gear magazine to The Netherlands - and expanded

VDS Publishers in Amsterdam introduced the Top Gear magazine brand to the Dutch speaking market 13 years ago. Last year they expanded with their own brand, JFK magazine. Roland van der Spek, joint founder and managing director of VDS, told delegates at the recent FIPP Insider event in Amsterdam more about the challenges of launching a licensed brand in a market that was on the brink of digitalisation. 

Roland van der Spek, along with his brother, Martijn van der Spek, jointly found VDS Publishers in 2005 after successfully negotiating an international licensing deal with the BBC to publish Top Gear magazine in Dutch. The growth of the brand has been rapid with James Hewes, CEO and president of FIPP, the network for global media, describing VDS as “one of the best examples of a small, successful and independent publisher in Europe”. 


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Van der Spek explained that part of their early success was to start with a well recognised brand and to wake up - and respond to - the challenges of digital disruption fairly early.  

He said that when they were looking to launch their own business, they knew very well that the Top Gear brand was well-known in The Netherlands. “People watched the TV programme but there was no Dutch Top Gear magazine.” This presented an opportunity. With Roland coming from a technical background and Martijn from a finance background, they needed to do extensive research about editorial procedures, printing and distribution before they convinced the BBC to issue the rights to publish Top Gear.” 

Their initial challenge was to penetrate a well established existing market. “You have to fight to find your place in the distribution channel. Your magazine needs to be available everywhere. You need to continue knocking on doors and have conversations with literally everybody in the business.” 

It was also difficult to get large advertisers on board from inception. “The attitude of most advertisers was: ‘first show us what you can do.’ After some time we managed to kick in some doors and then we convinced them (to advertise).” 

Despite their initial success and growth, they became aware of the need for digital innovation early on. “We were looking at our competitors and we could see what they were up to. We knew we needed to figure out how to change as well. Luckily the BBC, as a huge media group, assisted us to prepare for digital transformation. We also realised it would be wise to invest more money into a digital platform, which culminated in the launch of and we started to try to monetise it in the same way that we monetised the magazine.” 


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Van der Spek welcomes the transparency that’s needed to be successful in selling advertising in a the digital sphere. “If you sell a magazine you tell the advertiser how many readers you have, they believe you, and that’s it… If you are advertising on a website you can measure each visitor and how long he or she is reading the ad. This brings with it a different approach. With so many companies out there that can assist you with this, you need to find a mix of what the best solution is. Luckily we are now at the point where our ad department is selling (digital) ads themselves mixed with an agency doing the same. I think the transparency of sharing (engagement) information with advertises is a good thing. They pay and need to get what they get.”

Another important aspect of managing a magazine under licence is to be sure you manage the brand in the best way for the local market. “The BBC does not know the local market. The same goes for any other large international publisher. They are all good in their own territory but we are good in our territory.”

Last year’s acquirement of JFK magazine not only expanded VDS’s portfolio of magazines by 100 per cent, it also made a lot of sense “because the mens magazine market remains strong in the Dutch market and VDS can find lots of synergy between Top Gear and JFK. On the sales side we wanted to own our own brand so that we can use some of our own advertisers in Top Gear also in JFK. And vice versa - some advertisers in JFK can be used in Top Gear as well. This gives us more spread.”

Another reason they wanted to expand their brand reach is because not everyone is interested in cars. In fact, says Van der Spek, “cars are getting less interesting these days. So the lifestyle part (of the men’s magazine market) is growing more important.”

JFK has also opened up the opportunity for events, starting with the JFK Greatest Man Award, an annual event strongly supported by advertisers. 



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