FIPP Congress: The pioneers

We talk to two former presidents of FIPP to capture their reminiscences of FIPP World Magazine Congresses from the ‘70s to the ‘90s

‘I could do business with someone for 25 years without a contract being signed’
– Per Mortensen

‘Broaden horizons, exchange information and do deals – that’s what the Congress helps publishers to do’ – Robin Wharmby

It’s every conference organiser’s nightmare. The months, maybe years, of detailed planning have paid off, and the show is ready to roll – but a key speaker is suddenly forced to pull out at the last minute. But what do you do if you learn, the night before the opening, that no less than five presenters can’t make it?
That’s what the former FIPP president Per Mortensen was faced with one year during his tenure as host of the FIPP World Magazine Conference. “I don’t want to hang anyone, so I’m not mentioning names or even saying which conference it was,” says Mortensen, who was president and CEO of FIPP for much of the 1990s, to 2001. “I arrived the evening before a conference and found that five speakers hadn’t turned up.

“But I plugged every gap by walking the floor and finding replacements. The audience hardly knew what had happened. In those days everything was done orally, and PowerPoint hadn’t arrived. FIPP is like a big family, and we got everything done in the end.”

Mortensen, a Norwegian who was the editorial director of his family’s publishing business, had to count on a big dose of the flexible thinking that characterises the media world on that critical weekend. But creativity and a willingness to take risks have always been a part of the WMC’s development, as it has grown from a Europe-centric event at its launch in Paris in 1925, and now approaches its 39th edition in Rome in September this year.

“You learn to improvise,” Per says. “At times you have to deal with that kind of challenge.”

Mortensen played a major part in the WMC’s growth as a global event, taking the conference to Japan in 1997. “That was the first time the conference had been outside Europe and the USA,” he remembers. “We worked on that one for nearly five years, and in the year leading up to it we probably went to Japan four times. When you travel to a completely different part of the world, the cultural challenges are immense.”

He also presided over a period in which FIPP’s growth was spectacular. “FIPP was a really small community in the early days,” he says. “In 1992, when I went to my first World Magazine Conference in Orlando as president of FIPP, there were just under 300 delegates. But there were more than 1,000 at the last one that I organised.”

It’s only natural that he should look back on the magazine world of the 1970s with some nostalgia. “The seventies was the height of the magazine era, and a beautiful time to be in the business,” he says. “We had fun – life has become so serious now. Through playing and having fun, you build relationships.
“In those days I could do a deal with someone and be in business with them for 25 years without a contract being signed. The advertising market was fantastic because there was very little competition to magazines. Commercial TV didn’t really exist. It was national broadcasting, and when a popular series like Family at War was running, we were able to serialise these stories in our magazines and put thousands on our circulation. It was a different world.”

Where does he see the difference between the World Magazine Conferences of his era and today’s epoch? “The brands are travelling more,” he says. “I was president of FIPP at a time when the globalization of magazines was really starting. Before that you had magazines such as Playboy and Cosmopolitan that had editions in other countries, but the more recent globalisation of magazines, often in new markets in new countries, has been a fantastic journey for me.

“Another thing that has changed is that competitors started to collaborate. They thought, ‘Why should I spend a lot of money to establish myself in a market where you are already established?’ FIPP has been a hub for everyone during these changes.”

Robin Wharmby, who was the president of FIPP from 1973-89, previously worked as the marketing director of PPA (Professional Publishers Association). “But the international scene seemed to be more interesting than the national one,” he says. “My first World Magazine Congress was in Stockholm in 1973.

“I always tried to encourage the participation of members in everything as much as possible, rather than having the permanent staff decide everything. The more you involve members, the stronger and more stable the organization becomes.”

One of his concerns was that he felt that politicians were trying to control press freedom, a controversy that continues today with the fall-out of the Leveson inquiry into media standards in the UK. “I spent a lot of time on activities in Paris at UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation). We were concerned that politicians around the world were very interested in trying to control the press. But our role is to criticize, and bring down occasionally.”

One thing that has not changed during all these decades is the role of the World Magazine Congress. “Broaden horizons, exchange information and do deals – that’s what the Congress helps publishers to do,” Robin says.

And as the Congress approaches its 39th edition in September, it’s a role that delegates will continue to fulfill.

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