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“Engaging” A Global Audience With Quality Content & Creative Expertise – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Nick Singh, President, Engaged Media Inc.

June 30, 2015

“I believe magazines will always be there and being strong financially and being a decent size, but not too big gives some companies an advantage in the marketplace… I think trying to figure out this business and what works is challenging and exciting. Putting together a nice group of folks, along with some good strong content, whether it’s editorial or art, and finding out this really helps sales is exciting.” Nick Singh

Withstanding disruption and looking at innovative techniques to move print forward in a digital age is something that Engaged Media is proficient at, especially with Nick Singh at the helm. Nick is President of Engaged Media and his 20-plus years of publishing-industry experience, combined with exemplary leadership skills have driven EM’s continued expansion during unprecedented change in the print-magazine industry over the past decade.

Nick has led EM’s continued expansion globally, increasing EM’s presence in the United States, India and the Philippines over the past 3 years. His primary focuses on leadership development, operational excellence and providing his organization with a clear and concise vision have led to consistent market-share gains for EM.

I spoke with Nick recently about the ever-changing landscape of the magazine media world. From newsstand to distribution, his thoughts were concise and bulleted toward a profitable future for Engaged Media and spot-on advice for the magazine industry at large.

From the gamut of titles that his brand covers, we discussed where the ideas for all the different subject matter came from and if there were any topics Engaged Media shied away from. It was a very compelling conversation.

So, I hope you enjoy this revealing and interesting discussion as I picked the brain of yet another innovative and creative magazine maker of our time and learned quite a bit about the scope and reach of a brand that knows few boundaries as it strives for excellence and expertise in its continued success. Get ready for the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Nick Singh, President, Engaged Media Inc.

But first, the sound-bites:

2015-05-15 11.43.51 On the genesis of Engaged Media and how the company separated from its relative, Beckett Media: Long story short, this one owner stepped in and he owns about 30 other companies, non-publishing for the most part, insurance and healthcare, coding and other areas, and he acquired both Beckett and us, we were basically one company. In 2008, we learned how to turn it around as fast as we could because we had to, no more leverage from the banks. So, in 2012 we separated the companies into two different companies because the Beckett model is a very successful model, but it’s in sports collectables.

On whether he thinks the pendulum is swinging back toward making money at the newsstands: We’ve been doing OK; it’s just that last year when Source shut down was probably the biggest hit because there are inefficiencies. I think people are being optimists and I try to stay middle-of-the-road and as close to reality as possible.

On whether he believes the single-copy sales and distribution model should be reinvented: It isn’t a profitable business model for some publishers to be on newsstand, and yet for others like us and our competitors in our segment; we do rely heavily on newsstand. We also do high quality, high-priced items and that means a lot to us, but not everybody has the same business model, so something has to change, yes. And there has to be better efficiencies and a new model. What that is; we don’t know.

On his thoughts on the rising cover prices of bookazines and where he sees the trend heading: Right now we see some $12.99’s working, at least in our categories and from a competitive perspective, we see some folks doing some nice magazines at $9.99. We’re testing some $12.99’s and we’ve been doing $9.99’s for a while. The $12.99’s seem to work, even in Wal-Mart where they try to be the low price leader. I don’t know where this trend will go, what sort of price limitations or ceiling there will be, if any.

On the most pleasant moment he’s had during his career at Engaged Media Inc.: Growing newsstand has been very pleasant for us and growing profitability has also been very pleasant. Since 2012 to 2015 we’ve been able to grow, and not just newsstand, but also with a good editorial team and a good art design team. I think that’s been very pleasant for us, just this level of growth.

On the major stumbling block he’s had to face and how he overcame it: Changing our business model. I think working with our partners; working closely with a lot of our partners and meeting mutually on what works and what doesn’t. The old way that we used to do business was get copies out everywhere and anywhere, where now we kind of selectively pick and choose where we want to be, there are certain chains that we don’t pick or certain areas geographically because we don’t find them profitable.

On the gamut of topics Engaged Media publishes and if there’s one category they won’t touch: Probably the broader entertainment categories; we’ve tried. We’ve dipped into many categories and there are two or three that we might touch, but our secret sauce so to speak is getting quality people and quality editorial and we’ve done some things without quality editorial and we’ve learned. So we will not touch things that we don’t have the expertise in.

On whether or not he has a favorite title from his broad stable of magazines: That’s a great question. No favorites from my side. Our editors of course do and the newsstand team, I’m sure they do as well, and our ad sales team. Our digital online team probably does too, based on which ones are performing the best. But no, I don’t have any favorites in particular.

On what makes him click and tick and motivates him to get out of bed in the mornings: I believe magazines will always be there and being strong financially and being a decent size, but not too big gives some companies an advantage in the marketplace. It’s not easy; I think it’s challenging and that makes it fun. I think trying to figure out this business and what works is challenging and exciting. Putting together a nice group of folks, along with some good strong content, whether it’s editorial or art, and finding out this really helps sales is exciting.

On whether he can ever envision a day where Engaged Media has no print publications: No, I cannot.

On the future of print for Engaged Media: I think the future of print for us is if we’re 95% print today, I would love to see our print growing slightly in the new categories as needed, specific categories that we do have some expertise in and that we think we can do better, faster and cheaper than some other folks, it would be a market share flag and it would be surviving the newsstand.

On how involved he is with the actual ideas for the magazines’ subject matter: We have a very good team, it’s not just me or about me. We facilitate good thinkers, people who are always creative and out there and we get plenty of ideas from these folks. And we put it through the test; whether it’s from our customers, from advertising, from retailers or wholesalers or national distributors; we kick around a lot of ideas. There’s no “one” place where they come from; our advertising sales reps, our editorial team and our newsstand team are all very, very strong.

On what keeps him up at night: Declining margins. (Laughs) If our partners aren’t profitable, then we’re not going to be profitable. I’d love to see this industry turn around or at least stabilize somewhat. I think that’s what keeps me up at night.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Nick Singh, President, Engaged Media Inc.

Samir Husni: You’re one of the bigger players, especially on the newsstands when it comes to single-copy sales, yet you’re one of the best-kept secrets in the industry. Tell me a little about the genesis of Engaged Media and how you moved from Beckett Media and all the sports collecting magazines under that umbrella to the world of Engaged Media and the many titles that you have now.

Collectibles-13 Nick Singh: We do try to stay below the radar and fortunately we’re able to test a lot of issues and we do a lot of category analysis. We have an international team; we have roughly around 100 employees, 45 or so here in the U.S. and 45 abroad, from the Philippines to India, from our parent company. So we do have decent backing by a private owner who owns about 30 companies.

Engaged Media started roughly about 10 years ago, even though we didn’t use the name Engaged Media then. We purchased or acquired Beckett Media and about three other companies in southern California. Beckett was and still is in Dallas and we’re in southern California with the acquisition of a few small publishers.

A few of us came from Primedia or TEN – the Enthusiast Network or Source Publishing, whatever you might want to call them today; I still have a lot of friends there. So, about ten years ago we came into this company and it was in a lot of debt. We learned our lessons quite a bit and our new owner; I call him new, but he’s seven years new now, I’ve been here for 10 years running a couple of departments, production and circulation, with the new owner in 2008, because we were in high debt and heavily leveraged, when the market crashed we had to learn how to stand on our two feet and become cash flow positive and get rid of the debt somehow.

Long story short, this one owner stepped in and he owns about 30 other companies, non-publishing for the most part, insurance and healthcare, coding and other areas, and he acquired both Beckett and us, we were basically one company. In 2008, we learned how to turn it around as fast as we could because we had to, no more leverage from the banks.

So, in 2012 we separated the companies into two different companies because the Beckett model is a very successful model, but it’s in sports collectables. It was a great brand and still is and Beckett.com is a good revenue stream and a great business model. It’s a completely different business model from our enthusiast publication side where we have Diesel World, Gun World, hunting magazines with some survivalist elements that seem to be working right now, like American Survival Guide. And we have the Homes category, with Cottages & Bungalows, Romantic Homes and these niche titles that did not fit into the Beckett model, so we’re roughly 90 to 95% of the print business, that’s if we combine the two companies.

But as we separated, we learned quite a few lessons. We learned that using newsstands as 60% of our revenues and then ad sales, subscriptions and the very small digital, which has grown pretty fast, but it’s still only about 1 to 2 % of our total revenue, so we think that there’s a lot of upside in digital. We still learned that on newsstand, we can make a profit if it’s done correctly, but also, if not done correctly, we could lose a lot of money. It’s a high-risk, high-reward business for us. The good thing about newsstand is we can pull out whenever we want; there’s no sub-liability with long-term sub-liabilities or advertisers. It’s not advertising-based-strong like our core publications are in the automotive and outdoor segments. So, it allows us to test a lot of things.

Now we realize that there are many challenges. (Laughs) Last year we took the chance and decided to grow revenues and market shares in newsstand and we were able to fortunately move up to, I’m guessing the top 13 or 14 publishers in newsstand in the country or North America, but with that comes a huge price because when Source shut down our margins tightened up quite a bit. And then TNG (formerly The News Group) picked up a lot of businesses and we’re great partners with TNG, but it’s costing us a lot more. Our revenues are up again this year, hopefully the margins are getting better, but right now they’re tightened for sure. And that’s where we are today.

Samir Husni: Do you think the pendulum is swinging back towards not only hope for the newsstands, but also toward the thinking that there is actual money to be made there?

Nick Singh: We’ve been doing OK; it’s just that last year when Source shut down was probably the biggest hit because there are inefficiencies. I think people are being optimists and I try to stay middle-of-the-road and as close to reality as possible.

Many of the things that we did to grow our revenues, many of those specials, maybe if we did 100 specials; I would say that 50 of them didn’t work; it was probably our worse success rate. The good thing is we’ll never do those 50 again, the 50%.

We’re hearing everything with distribution has been fixed, but looking at Q4 and Q1, efficiencies are still low and the wholesaler wants to charge for efficiencies, but if we were to turn it around the other way and say, hey Mr. and Mrs. Wholesaler, why don’t you completely take over the distribution and increase the efficiencies, but if you lose sell or revenues or lose efficiencies, then maybe you should be responsible for it, right? I don’t see that happening and I don’t think anybody wants to be responsible for that efficiency, although the charges were inefficient. I still inefficiency so far; I haven’t seen any actual numbers that prove that it’s getting better.

Samir Husni: With all the changes that have taken place in our industry from the demise of the Mom and Pop wholesalers to the national distributors becoming just two or three major players and the wholesalers maybe two major players; do you think it’s time to reinvent the single-copy sales and distribution model? Do we need that multifaceted distribution channel?

Nick Singh: I don’t think so. I think yes, we need to change and become more efficient; 21 days to get on sale is a long time and that hasn’t changed since I started in the business in the 1990s. I’ve been doing this for 20-something years and I know you’ve been even longer, since the 1970s. And it still takes 21 days to get on sale.

It isn’t a profitable business model for some publishers to be on newsstand, and yet for others like us and our competitors in our segment; we do rely heavily on newsstand. We also do high quality, high-priced items and that means a lot to us, but not everybody has the same business model, so something has to change, yes. And there has to be better efficiencies and a new model. What that is; we don’t know.

Samir Husni: I’ve noticed also that the cover prices have risen, especially with the so-called bookazines. When we hit $7.99 we were sure people wouldn’t go for that. And then $9.99, now it’s $11.99 and recently I bought some for $13.99. Where do you see the red light being erected; the point where you decide people are just not going to pay $15 for a bookazine?

Small Spaces Big Ideas-12 Nick Singh: Right now we see some $12.99’s working, at least in our categories and from a competitive perspective, we see some folks doing some nice magazines at $9.99. We’re testing some $12.99’s and we’ve been doing $9.99’s for a while. The $12.99’s seem to work, even in Wal-Mart where they try to be the low price leader. I don’t know where this trend will go, what sort of price limitations or ceiling there will be, if any. We haven’t tested anything at $14.99 or $15.99. We think these work pretty well in the bookstores, but not in the other classes of trade so far.

Samir Husni: Since you became president of Engaged Media Inc., what has been the most pleasant moment that you’ve had in your career and why?

Nick Singh: Growing newsstand has been very pleasant for us and growing profitability has also been very pleasant. Since 2012 to 2015 we’ve been able to grow, and not just newsstand, but also with a good editorial team and a good art design team. I think that’s been very pleasant for us, just this level of growth.

So for us it’s a little bit of a different strategy than maybe other folks because of the growth we’ve seen three years in a row, roughly a 20 to 25% growth rate. Next year, let’s hope that we can sustain that. But what’s really going to make a big difference for us, and the pleasantry may be over, is if the same level of margins aren’t there. Then we’d have to look at other avenues like digital and all those things. But I’m not sure if anybody’s got that figured out yet. My most pleasant moment has been growing newsstand and growing a good company.

Samir Husni: What has been the major stumbling block that you’ve had to face and how did you overcome it?

Nick Singh: Changing our business model. I think working with our partners; working closely with a lot of our partners and meeting mutually on what works and what doesn’t. The old way that we used to do business was get copies out everywhere and anywhere, where now we kind of selectively pick and choose where we want to be, there are certain chains that we don’t pick or certain areas geographically because we don’t find them profitable.

I think that’s been the best change in our business model, even with our subscription base. We don’t go after new subscriptions if it doesn’t make any sense. We don’t do rate-based; we’re a direct response advertiser, so it’s all about if they’re getting direct responses and phone calls to increase our advertiser’s businesses. We like the return-on-investment strategy for us and for our customers at the same time.

Samir Husni: You have quite the stable of magazines. You can go from Flea Market Décor to Young for Kids to Knife Illustrated to Gun World to American Homesteader and then to Fantasy Football; you really run the gamut of topics. Is there one category where you said no, we won’t touch that one?

Nick Singh: Probably the broader entertainment categories; we’ve tried. We’ve dipped into many categories and there are two or three that we might touch, but our secret sauce so to speak is getting quality people and quality editorial and we’ve done some things without quality editorial and we’ve learned. So we will not touch things that we don’t have the expertise in.

Samir Husni: Do you have any favorites from all of the titles that you put out? Would you say this is my firstborn or that you treat all your children equally?

Nick Singh: (Laughs) That’s a great question. No favorites from my side. Our editors of course do and the newsstand team, I’m sure they do as well, and our ad sales team. Our digital online team probably does too, based on which ones are performing the best. But no, I don’t have any favorites in particular.

Samir Husni: If someone dropped in on you at home and you were sitting down with a magazine and relaxing, which one would it be?

Nick Singh: I just walked into an acquisition meeting recently with probably my favorite magazine right now and that’s Fantasy Football.

Samir Husni: I just finished a new book called Inside the Great Minds of Magazine Makers and now I want to get inside your mind, so what makes Nick click and tick and motivates you to get out of bed each morning and say this is going to be a great day?

Nick Singh: I think seeing a couple of new business models that I won’t go into detail about right now, but that we think could be a way out of this thing; it’s mixing in the print magazine, digital and some online assets, whether it’s e-commerce business or other content management businesses, is exciting and motivational.

I believe magazines will always be there and being strong financially and being a decent size, but not too big gives some companies an advantage in the marketplace. It’s not easy; I think it’s challenging and that makes it fun. I think trying to figure out this business and what works is challenging and exciting. Putting together a nice group of folks, along with some good strong content, whether it’s editorial or art, and finding out this really helps sales is exciting.

I don’t think this business will be the same in four or five years and that excites me every day because what do we do? Do we walk out and leave or do we keep improving and doing things better, faster and cheaper? And I think of course the latter is the answer. So that excites me every day, just trying to figure this thing out.

Samir Husni: Can you ever envision a day where Engaged Media has no print publications?

Nich Singh: No, I cannot.

Samir Husni: What do you believe is the future of print for your company?

Bugout-12 Nick Singh: I think the future of print for us is if we’re 95% print today, I would love to see our print growing slightly in the new categories as needed, specific categories that we do have some expertise in and that we think we can do better, faster and cheaper than some other folks, it would be a market share flag and it would be surviving the newsstand. I don’t think there will be as many players in five years, but I would like to see that revenue share be more mixed and diverse to probably 50% print.

Samir Husni: How involved are you with bringing in actual ideas to the team? For example, when I look at one of your newest magazines Bugout, or Go Gluten Free or Low Sugar Living; how involved are you in suggesting those trends or ideas? Do you wake up at night and say we should do a magazine about that?

Nick Singh: We have a very good team, it’s not just me or about me. We facilitate good thinkers, people who are always creative and out there and we get plenty of ideas from these folks. And we put it through the test; whether it’s from our customers, from advertising, from retailers or wholesalers or national distributors; we kick around a lot of ideas. There’s no “one” place where they come from; our advertising sales reps, our editorial team and our newsstand team are all very, very strong. We have somebody with 30 years of experience on our newsstand team, Gus Alonzo.

We have ideas coming from everywhere. And what we do is shut down a lot of the ideas or we keep them alive if we think they have legs. We have a few more of that hasn’t been done or somebody is doing it, but we don‘t think they’re doing it well enough in new categories.

So, we measure it and we look out. Bugout was a no-brainer that came from a lot of our advertisers; it’s kind of survivalist-meets-automotive, which makes a lot of sense. We’ll see where that one goes. We keep testing the ones that make a lot of sense to us, but there’s still a lot of risk involved, if we’re able to take the risk and currently we are able to manage risk OK, I would say.

Samir Husni: If I wanted to describe you in one word, would it be Victorian, Romantic or American; I’m just looking at some of the different titles of the magazines that you have. Or would it be Maximum Drive? What word defines Nick?

Nick Singh: Enthusiast.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Nick Singh: Declining margins. (Laughs) If our partners aren’t profitable, then we’re not going to be profitable. I’d love to see this industry turn around or at least stabilize somewhat. I think that’s what keeps me up at night.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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