The demise of Emap: The empire strikes out

The demise of Emap, with the sale of its consumer, radio and B2B divisions, due to complete by March this year, will see the end of a 60-year British publishing phenomenon and the break up of the largest wholly UK-owned magazines company.

The company, which started out as a small East Anglian regional newspaper group in 1947 began its adventures in magazines six years later with the launch of Angling Times.

Here, as in other lifestyle genres from music to motorcycles, Emap’s unique strength in specialist publishing markets manifested itself as the company attempted to corner every conceivable niche in each of its chosen markets, creating magazines like Trout & Salmon, All Sea Fishing and Course Fishing.

‘It was absolutely fantastic at publishing specialist magazines, at carving up markets and going on to dominate them.

‘There was a model there which was unique and which has become a business model for other companies after that,’said Kevin Hand, Emap CEO from 1998 to 2001 and now chairman of Hachette. ‘When you have domination of an area, you can premium price and really start to push your margins up.

‘In business terms, that’s what they will be remembered for.”

The other key to Emap’s success in its heyday of the 1980s/90s was the ability to inspire talent, according to Hand. ‘It was fortunate or clever to organise the very best talent around. Everyone from the editorial to the marketing people challenged the status quo and questioned why everything should be done the way it was before. Nobody else in publishing was pushing the barriers back like that.”

Big editorial names went on to work for the competition, like former FHM editor Mike Soutar, now chief executive at men’s weekly Shortlist, by way of a stint as editorial director at Emap’s biggest rival, IPC.

Soutar said Emap was ‘unparalleled’in its willingness to take risks on young talent in the Eighties and Nineties. Experimentation and creativity blossomed because in almost every market Emap was not the market leader. Young editorial and marketing teams meant the youth market was targeted in a way unseen in the British publishing industry – with titles from Smash Hits, Just Seventeen to Heat.

‘It was always thinking about innovative ways to become the market leader,’said Soutar. ‘It didn’t have a lot to protect which didn’t make it very defensive.

But it had huge amounts to gain, just by acting in new, innovative ways, and that kind of thing seeped its way through the company.”

All of which, said Soutar, forced other publishing companies to become responsive and more aggressive. But which also inevitably brought success and the trappings of a large company to Emap.

‘Afterwards, when there was collateral to lose, I suspect they did what every company does when they have something to lose, they start to become conservative,’said Soutar.

But the demise of the overall brand ultimately should be attributed to the difficulties of being a large, publicly traded media company and the pressure from the markets to see continued, strong growth, according to both Soutar and Hand.

David Hepworth, former Emap editorial director, agreed that Emap was at its strongest when it was ‘the upstart provincial publisher’taking on the established players.

‘It did this by getting up earlier in the morning, trying harder, publishing more cheaply and hiring people who couldn’t get hired by the big companies,’he said.

Emap’s underdog status could not stick as its ambitions became global and multi platform. ‘The problems come when you wake up one morning and think that just because you are one of the country’s biggest publishers, you have to behave like one,’said Hepworth, now editorial director of The Word magazine.

‘Then you start trying to behave like ‘a media company’, and I still don’t

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