Other than fine wines, James Tye and Felix Dennis share a love for keeping Koi fish. "Maybe that’s why we get on so well?" says Tye, who has entrusted Dennis with his own Koi since he moved house and can no longer accommodate them.
Good to know that behind all the straight-laced headlines of ‘digital developments’, an air of extravagant eccentricity still underpins the house of Dennis Publishing.
It seems Dennis can afford such exoticisms at the dawn of 2011. Whereas UK turnover in 2008 was a robust £72m (a pre-tax profit of £4.1m), in 2009, turnover dropped to £66.7m and pre-tax profit slumped by nearly half to £2.4m.
Yet Tye says projected turnover for 2010 is £73m which, if it comes to fruition, will be a healthy growth of 9.5% year on year. And he predicts a similar increase again for 2011. "I think we’ve had a brilliant 2010," says the mild-mannered Tye, who is currently squatting in a colleague’s office while his own is being renovated.
"It was very hard to predict what 2010 was going to be like, but I always had a private hope we’d get our company turnover back to where we were in 2008." If Tye’s near double-digit forecast proves correct, the publisher will have returned to 2008’s turnover, plus a pleasant pocket lift of one million.
Such a performance places it well ahead of expectations for most consumer and business magazine publishers, and represent sectors which WPP’s GroupM does not expect to see return to 2008 growth at all.
But then Dennis is far from just a magazine publisher today. The publisher claimed an industry first when it pioneered the launch of men’s brand Monkey in 2006. And in the last year has continued its foray into both print and digital products, with the acquisition of Burda’s Health & Fitness magazine, IPC’s specialist title Web User and three app launches for men's mag Monkey, gadget mag iGizmo and car title Evo.
Tye doesn’t want to stop there, revealing that Dennis is plotting brand new launches this year. "We’re always looking to add to the portfolio if it makes sense," he says softly. "I think we’ll step up our launch activity quite strongly in the next twelve months."
He adds, more audibly: "We’ve got about a £2m war chest for new launches, so we’re going to reinvest some of the money we’ve made in 2010 right back into the business."
So which Dennis brands have done well in the past 12 months? "In 2010 The Week has been fantastic for us," Tye says instantly. "Its ABC has consistently gone up and it posted its record ABC this year (176,680 January to June 2010). It’s a very strong brand with advertisers."
Indeed, Dennis’s weekly news digest, which Felix Dennis describes as "perhaps the best-read magazine on the planet", is arguably the publisher’s flagship brand. The title already has a US version, launched in 2001, and an Australian version, which launched in 2008 and is distributed in Singapore, Hong Kong and New Zealand.
Tye also reveals Dennis is gearing up to launch an "enhanced" tablet version for The Week, which he hopes will be available from next month.
Enhanced apps are coming
So what exactly does Tye mean by enhanced? He explains that all 18 print titles were converted to the Zinio platform by Q4 2010, enabling the consumer to view an exact digital replica of the printed pages and to turn each leaf virtually. But more interesting are the "type two" products: enhanced versions of the magazines, such as monthly motoring magazine Evo, which launched on the iPad last December "full of video".
When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad in San Francisco 12 months ago, the device was met by traditional print publishers as an opportunity that came hand-in-hand with a considerable challenge. But Dennis was unfazed. When gadget title iGizmo was adapted to the iPad in October last year, Tye told Media Week: "We’ve been doing digital magazines for four years, so it’s not a huge mindset change for us; it’s a natural evolution."
Back in November 2006 Monkey claimed to be the first men’s weekly to appear exclusively online. The big-breasted title was positioned to rival Bauer’s Nuts and IPC’s Zoo at a time when both magazines were losing readers to the web.
The free magazine, which claims to have 285,000 users, had its reincarnation on the iPad in October. Not surprisingly, there had to be some critical editorial changes: significantly, no nipples. "There’s never been more than nipple nudity before," explains Tye. "That was our editorial choice. But we’ve taken that out and used the opportunity to refocus the product a bit more on comedy, fashion, travel and lifestyle."
When pressed, however, Tye admits Dennis could have pushed for nipple exposure. Despite Apple effectively having a no-nudity policy [nothing "obscene, pornographic, offensive or defamatory" is permitted on the company’s products] Murdoch’s The Sun managed to swing it so the tabloid’s app didn’t lose its page-three beauty. "I think if you have a very special relationship with Apple…" Tye trails off, but his point is clear.
Dennis has another key advantage in the apps race. In Spring 2010, Adobe signed two publishers – Dennis and Condé Nast – to be part of a programme to assist in the development of digital publishing tools at the dawn of tablet development.
This meant Dennis and Condé Nast were in a prime position to exploit the tablet race; in Tye’s words, to "shape the development of app production and how we see the future requirements for both ourselves and other publishers". Dennis already uses Adobe InDesign, so it wasn’t a "huge leap" to use the InDesign tool for the iPad. "We’ve already produced three issues on the iPad for iGizmo", says Tye. "We’ve made [tablet publishing] part of our workflow, and we’re four or five months ahead of the game."
Digital and international launches in 2011
So which cards does Dennis have up its sleeve for 2011? Tye expands on his launch plans, revealing Dennis plans to launch an "enhanced" app for Men’s Fitness, as well as up to 30 "native" apps for the title [brand-specific spin-offs such as an Abdominal Work-Out Guide]. Pricing such apps "depends on the complexity of the app, but I don’t think we can be too shy", suggesting a range from a dollar (59p) to £5.
Digital has long been an essential pillar for Dennis Publishing, bringing in nearly half its advertising revenue. In 2009, the ratio of digital to print advertising at Dennis was 40% to 60%. In 2005, Tye predicted Dennis would become majority digital in 2011. Does he still believe this will come true by the end of the year? "I don’t think the portfolio will ever be all digital," he muses, "but I wouldn’t be surprised if we crossed that 50% boundary in two or three years. Because that’s where our investment is going."
Dennis is also digitally ambitious internationally, with overseas launch activity scheduled for this year. India is a key market and one that is growing rapidly under Media Week’s Rising Star of the Year 2010 Andrew Nichols. Dennis already publishes Sports Illustrated in India under licence from Time Warner, as well as the practical mobile phone website Know Your Mobile and the purely digital title IT Pro, which launched in late 2010.
Dennis is now looking to launch into the car market in India, following the success of its digital title Car Buyer in the UK. "The way people buy cars is changing." he says. "The research process starts online, so we’re following a change in the market."
Likewise, the success of Know Your Mobile - "traffic in the UK is in excess of a million per month" - has given rise to the US version Know Your Cell and the Indian version of Know Your Mobile (launched in January 2009), which Tye says will take off once the 3G phone arrives in India this year. Dennis also plans to launch a Spanish version for "the Hispanic American and Mexican population" early this year.
But is it wise for a publisher to launch straight to digital with a new brand? "I don’t think it’s brave because the barriers to entry with digital are a lot lower than print in some ways," Tye says. "Why wouldn’t you launch a digital brand if the market is right?"
For all the talk about digital opportunity, Tye is surprisingly balanced when asked if digital is the future of publishing. "I think it’s each publisher’s choice" he shrugs. "Print is still a very important part of our portfolio, and I still love print magazines, there are plenty of people who do. The global opportunities for digital are amazing. But as long as people still want to consume print, we’ll be there."
Family: Married to Avril with three children: Bethan (five), Lottie, (three) and William (seven months).
Hobby: Keeping fish - Tye has a marine aquarium with live corals, sea anemones and clownfish.
Favourite media: The iPad, iGizmo and IPC’s Decanter magazine.
Makes him proud to be British: "I’m a massive fan of the cycling scheme. I haven’t used a single taxi in the last three months. It’s a brilliant system; you can even use your tablet to check bike availability at the nearest spot."
The iPad and the Kindle: "The iPad is the centre of my media consumption now, and I love what Amazon has done with the Kindle - I read five times as many books as I used to because of the technology. I also read iGizmo religiously.
The potential for video advertising: "This year you’ll see us develop much stronger partnerships with advertisers. We recently picked up a fantastic pure brand campaign for Disney’s Tron— which we bought across all our websites including iGizmo and Monkey. Video is a growing ad category for the market and we’ve seen good growth this year."
Digital growth for Dennis in India: "There’s a huge groundswell of digital interest coming to India. In the UK we spent years building up a digital infrastructure where everyone’s got broadband at home, but in India only half the population has a TV. So the new digital devices are really important - you can watch TV on them. There’s a massive change coming in India, and we want to be a part of it."