From the Magazine: Hints to Mania – How the Nigerian magazine industry has evolved

by Gbenga Awomodu and Ifeanyi Dike JR

The past decade has brought to Nigerians delightsome magazine standards – and we trace the exciting story of newness.

 There was Hints and there was Ovation, and then from about ten years, as Nigeria labored under the dictatorship of General Sani Abachi, there was only darkness. 

True Love was perhaps singularly responsible for making other magazines step up their game, content and quality. 

“Promoters of new magazines tend to underrate the challenges, especially the financial outlay that would be necessary to keep the magazine going before the sales and ad revenue kick in.”

Red Sheet, PaceSetters, Exceed, Golden Icons, Ice, Hints Family, Wedding Planner, Motherhood, Vogue Afrique, Exquisite, Ultimate Fitness, Bloke, Glam Fashion, Ecclectic, Leadership & Lifestyle, Zone, Posh … still counting, and just in case you haven’t had enough, there’s Charly Boy.

They are everywhere. From roads to airports, shops to hotels, interwoven in culture and lifestyle. Suddenly, Nigerian magazines have earned a prime place in our hearts – as it should be.

But was it really sudden?

Ladies first

Naturally, the majority the first magazines in the market catered to women. The reason is obvious – women buy magazines.

You remember of course, Hints; perhaps the first major lifestyle magazine for today’s young people. Hints might have been embraced by that demographic, but its target was the female. As was Classique, which has been identified by the reigning queen of the rack, Genevieve, as its inspiration targeted at that demographic (Classique was rested after the demise of its founder and publisher, May Ellen Ezekiel, a foremost Nigerian journalist popularly known as MEE). And with the amount of weddings that Ovation eventually turned into covering, it is safe to say that the society photo album had the girls in mind.

These magazines, at least three of them, have spanned between eight years to two decades; from the brown interior and low quality paper print of the late eighties and nineties to their glossed out versions.

You see, there was Hints and there was Ovation, and then from about ten years, as Nigeria labored under the dictatorship of General Sani Abachi, there was only darkness. The only magazines that really thrived were those focused on politics – TELL, TheNEWS, Newswatch and others ready to brave the prison cells to speak truth to power – and perhaps those for sports, which never seems to go out of fashion.

Perhaps, it was a time for the ‘softer’ magazines in fact to have blossomed; sadly that was not the case for many years.

Morning Dew

Then just after the turn from the 90s, Betty Irabor took a break from her Flakes column in Sunday Vanguard and, with her first Editor’s Letter in her now popular Morning Dew column, took on a challenge no one else was prepared to – set up Genevieve as a lifestyle magazine in a publishing industry that had already claimed so many casualties.

It not only was the berth for a new beginning that a generation can be grateful for, but it set up a whole new standard for the industry – with professional photography, extensive shoots, extravagant covers, delightful design, and refreshing writing.

Not long after, the South Africans heard of the revolution – and Media 24 came calling, sometime around 2005, with True Love West Africa. With Bola Atta (who had once published a magazine called Flair before leaving to join Mnet) as editor, True Love was a true game changer.

The regional spin-off of the South African franchise took off from where Genevieve had stopped and brought to the market a whole new standard content, design, and finishing that had hitherto been unseen in the Nigerian market.

In 2010, True Love West Africa was rested and Flair was presented in its steadSadly, even Flair was issued only twice before it was rested. But no matter, a dream had been born.

Whatever the reasons for its defunct, True Love was perhaps singularly responsible for making other magazines step up their game, content and quality. A standard had been set that you could only go lower down at the peril of your own prestige.

A matter of Style

In 2005, Thisday’s Sunday newspaper introduced an insert called Style. It was supposedly a simple idea – cover events, interview people, and report fashion. But it wasn’t the what that set it apart – it was the how.

Style explored lifestyle in a refreshing way, led by a world-class design team, a world class photographer and an editor, Ruth Osime, who stepped into the game with the aggression of two Anna Wintours. It was a genius idea that immediately transformed Thisday into the Sunday paper of record.

The critics have railed that Style isn’t strong enough to stand on its own – but no matter it had done four things: on the one hand, it caught the entire countries attention; on the other hand, it had created several copy-cats including The Guardian’s Life (transformed, tellingly, from an arts and culture section to a lifestyle pullout), Vanguard’s Allure, NEXT’s élan and Sunday Trust’s Tambari, and even more remarkably, TY Bello’s spectacular photography changed the way celebrities and the rich have been photographed ever since, Photoshop or not.

But its richest contribution lay in a more subtle achievement – what Genevieve and True Love had done for a segment, Thisday Style had now taken to the mainstream.

Vanity Fair

Not that everyone’s happy though. There’s a lot to criticise, of course, despite the phenomenal growth in the industry. Some have declaimed the evils of the Photoshop that once turned Professor Dora Akunyili to a flawless image on the cover of Style; others have decried the quality of content.

But above all, perhaps the strongest criticism, in a nation still defined by debilitating poverty, a striking income inequality and falling standards for all indices to measure development, is the focus on the flashy and the beautiful. It’s the classic argument of globalisation in a vacuum – where the tall buildings and the pretty shops hide the slums and the insecurity. Red carpet events have become the new must do – from religious gatherings to birthdays. Suddenly, people became famous by merely attending events, getting photographed, and appearing in magazines.

Is there an argument to be made in favour? Let’s take a detour and look beyond the glossy surface. There’s information that Nigerians would otherwise not find – on sports, health, sex, relationships, finance and business.Then there’s a network of jobs for young people whose eyes are on the media, fashion and entertainment. A whole new career path has evolved – for photographers, stylists, make-up artistes, designers (both graphics and clothes), editors, art directors, proofreaders, all trickling down the line up onto vendors.  As spin-off there has emerged a whole new and strong subculture of the online magazine. It was just after the turn from Genevieve and True Love that a certain blog called BellaNaija.Blogspot.com emerged, covering fashion, style, weddings, entertainment and all things glitzy.

Today – everyone, it seems, has a website or a blog reaching this same market. Putting up events, interviews and gossip before it even has a chance to make it to print.

Bella Naija gained international recognition when its CEO Uche Eze was interviewed via satellite on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Acknowledging that they got their inspiration from Nigeria’s exploding magazine culture, Uduak Oduok, publisher of online family magazine LadybrilleNigeria.com, suspects it will go full circle. “Omoyemi Akerele (SHF), Uche Eze (Bella Naija), and my portal, Ladybrille, will down the line encourage more knowledgeable industry persons to go into publishing, both offline and online,” she says.

This might in fact have been borne out already by the facts. It is altogether possible to imagine fashion and style magazines like WOW!, Complete Fashion and FAB as gaining inspiration, interestingly, from the format of the Nigerian online blog

Hello, Mister. 

The women had and still have more than enough choices, so the men stepped in.

Not that it’s anything new. Afterall, Richard Mofe-Damijo who was husband to MEE and also on the editorial team of Classique, had been a reporter for Concord Newspapers and Metro Magazine prior to starting his own publication wholly targeted at men, Mister.

“Yeah, Mister was definitely a trend setter for men’s magazines in Nigeria. It was well written and produced,” says Paul Nwabuikwu, who was editor with Classique and is now a strategic communication consultant. “I’m proud, as are many who worked with both magazines, to have been a contributor.”

Mister magazine eventually stopped publishing. But it remains the inspiration for male-targeted magazines like MADE and MODE Men.

Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, publisher of MODE Men and avid reader of GQ and Esquire, conceived the idea for the magazine in late 2005 after seeing a copy of Mister Magazine. The bulk of MODE Men’s readers are men above 45. “I thought to myself, there is no reason why this cannot be done now,” he says.

Something FABulous!

Over that same period since Genevieve magazine changed the world, a lot of other magazines had emerged that had broken through into the mainstream, including Simply Woman, HOT, Reality, Celebration, Farafina, Takaii, Joy, Gem (Man & Woman), TW, Acada, Dynamix, Applause; the last three targeted at young people in campuses.

They all, together, seemed only to circulate around the standards set by Genevieve.

Then in 2010, Nigerians were introduced to FAB magazine, a magazine, with single-minded focus on international standards, without a nod to local challenges with capacity or talent. It hasn’t been a game changer, but FAB immediately became a signpost for how far Nigerian magazines have come. Focused on fashion, FAB is relentlessly Afrocentric, unabashedly global in outlook, and focused on taking its unique Nigerian brand far beyond our shores, doing something no one else in the magazine industry had thought even necessary.

If anything, it has usually worked in an inverse way – international brands spreading their wings into our local markets. Forbes Africa presently has its offices in Nigeria, Time Out Nigeria has been here for about two years. It’s the reason why a certain UK magazine is about to say Hello! to Nigeria.

FAB, with the lavishness of its work, and the expansiveness of its vision, seemed to make a case that the magazine industry in Nigeria can only grow bigger; and is here to stay without apologies.

Or is that all gloss?

Reality check

Unfortunately, the mortality rate for magazines in Nigeria is enough to scare mere mortals. More magazines – Tour Nigeria, Joy, HOT, Simply Woman, Hearts, Reality, SLEEK, Just U amongst others – have died than have lived.

It is in fact a running joke in publishing circles about the Bermuda triangle of third editions. What can the problem be?

“Publishers do not make enough effort to find out what the market – which is very dynamic – wants. They produce for themselves and their friends and the market not surprisingly gives a verdict of ‘back to sender’ every week or every month,” offers Balewa, who has remarkably survived with a segment of the market many had written out.

“Promoters of new magazines tend to underrate the challenges, especially the financial outlay that would be necessary to keep the magazine going before the sales and ad revenue kick in.  Distribution and circulation problems prevent the magazines from reaching targets in an efficient way, thus those who want to buy often cannot find them.” 

“I have seen a lot of magazines come and go. Last year, one of the magazines I loved and respected packed up and it was a rude awakening for me,” Balewa says. “The Nigerian environment is one of the hardest to sustain a business. People need to go into publishing for the right reason – to put a quality product out there that informs and educates, not to gain popularity or fame.”

“Like any other business, you have to have a solid business plan that will see you through the first year with NO income and the second with minimal income and, lastly, a fighting spirit. The market is big, so there is room for everybody, but you must carve a niche for yourself and do something no-one else is doing or do it better than them and sustain it.”

“The key challenge has been sustaining funding and the structure of advertising and promotions which has been very poor. If these two problems were more aggressively taken on by publishers,”  Toks David former editor of Blast Magazine submits candidly, “We would have had a larger print-run, greater exposure in various media and expanded. It ultimately became a losing venture as expenditure far outstripped revenue, despite the ad monies we sometimes got.”

Blast magazine published 10 editions between 2006 and 2009 with Bayo Omisore as Editor, then five editions under Toks David. Then it went out of the market.

“The majorchallenge is what Nigerian businessmen or entrepreneurs are facing – the erratic power supply,” said Biodun Caston-Dada, publisher of Acada. “You have to burn fuel almost every day to keep your business running and most of the overhead is on fuel. Funding is another huge challenge because it’s difficult to get a bank loan and not to talk of the high interest rates they charge. Some advertising agencies don’t pay ingood time and this could run into several months.”

True Tales

Some magazines have turned around their fortunes by paying attention to some of these suggestions. For instance, Complete Fashion (which, under True Tales, is owner of imprints including Hints, Simply Woman and Family) magazine recently underwent a major turnaround after existing three years as Hints Complete Fashion as a stand-alone brand to celebrate African fashion and style by creating a fashion catalogue for fashion lovers in Africa. Everything changed along with it – including design, photography and distribution.

“I would prefer to say, we have sort of expanded our scope to help us step the brand up a notch. Sales and advertising are constants,” Franka Asindi, the editor says. “The other supplementary ways are mostly special projects handled for companies whose businesses have a close relationship with what we do; then, paid publicity stunts and interviews, events, and promotional partnerships with strongbrands. With the former look, we found out the magazine only attracted a small fraction and class of our target audience and this limited our scope and room for expansion.

“To combat this, we looked at the basic things that impeded our success. We organised brainstorming sessions and research. It became obvious that the quality of photography, print and content direction needed a lot of work. In revamping the magazine, we took into cognisance the importance of the cover page; and, like my boss would always say, the battle of the magazine is usually won on the cover.”

Indeed, Nigerians have learnt over the past year the power of the cover. WOW! magazine completely rejuvenated its brand with a striking Tonto Dike cover that got the blogosphere talking for months; a trend it has continued alongside Complete Fashion, and now BLOKE, a men’s magazine targeted at women, launched by fashion entrepreneur Omena Daniels in September.

Count it all Joy

“The Nigerian magazine industry is about to explode like the movie and music industry. Nigeria is the next hotspot in Africa after South Africa, so we will soon have the big names like D&G and Dior advertising with us,” Abubakar says. “Shops like Mango are here and more are coming, so we need to be ready. People have been saying GQ iscoming to Nigeria for years, but it’s not that easy, which gives home grown brands like ours a chance.”

“We must key into the advantage of population,” Asindi says. “I wish we could form a union to address the issues that impede the success of the magazine business as we all encounter the same problems. I know we have a great potential to explode.”

Let’s do a quick roll call of magazines that seem to agree with this, judging from the Nigerian magazine stand at The Hub: Red Sheet, PaceSetters, Exceed, Golden Icons, Ice, Hints Family, Wedding Planner, Motherhood, Vogue Afrique, Exquisite, Ultimate Fitness, Bloke, Glam Fashion, Ecclectic, Leadership & Lifestyle, Zone, Posh… still counting, and just in case you haven’t had enough, there’s Charly Boy.

And the space continues to expand. There might not be enough buyers, but in an industry defined by its huge pass-on rates, there are certainly more than enough readers – pulled on by that ‘something’ about the magazine that’s hard to resist, no matter how jaded you are.

Just when you thought we had reached saturation, in May 2011, Kelechi Amadi-Obi, the photographer of a thousand magazine covers, finally joined the race – publishing Style Mania, which, with three daring covers, has quickly found its front seat on the vendor racks. It’s easy to understand why – even he couldn’t resist the allure. Y!

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