Ink - the publisher bucking the print trend
Carving out a niche has helped magazine publisher Ink to take flight. Joint CEO Michael Keating tells Michaela Jefferson how it all started with a chance encounter
Twenty-five years ago, in Beirut, a researcher for ITV's London Tonight got talking to a stranger in a bar.
Michael Keating was in the Lebanese capital to help put together a few lighthearted stories about British tourists flying to the region on package holidays - an odd phenomenon, when four years earlier the country had been embroiled in one of the most devastating civil wars of modern history.
Surprisingly, the stranger was thrilled. He was starting an airline, one plane flying between London Heathrow and Beirut each day, and he needed someone to sort the inflight entertainment. Instantly sold on Keating’s experience in TV and apparent knowledge of tourism (and despite him being only 23 years old at the time), he offered him the job on the spot.
So Keating found himself with an inflight entertainment contract for the smallest airline in the world – later named British Mediterranean Airways – and the beginnings of a global inflight media company.
Fast forward to 2019, and Keating is joint-CEO of Ink, a media company publishing 31 inflight magazines in 10 languages for more than 30 airlines and rail operators, with offices in London, Miami, Singapore, New York, Sao Paulo and Abu Dhabi.
However, he confesses that in 1994, he didn't know a thing about the inflight entertainment business. “I just kind of had the balls to run with it.”
At first, Keating used contacts in the radio industry to put together six bespoke channels of music and a talk show, hosted by his mum - who just happens to be the radio presenter and now regular Loose Women panellist, Gloria Hunniford, OBE.
He put a satellite dish on top of Heathrow to license and record Sky News, running the recording to the crew’s room before take off so the flight had the most up to date news of any airline.
He went to Cash and Carry and bought the headsets for the inaugural flight.
And he went to the only publisher he knew, where his now business partner Simon Leslie was publishing a freebie magazine from an office above McDonalds on Kings Road, and persuaded him to produce the inflight magazine.
“So to cut a long story short, by the time that flight took off from London Heathrow, it had amazing inflight entertainment. Audio channels bespoke for it…people were going, you’ve got the best talent in broadcasting! Plus a great inflight magazine and the latest Sky News recorded 20 minutes before take off.” Keating rolls his eyes as he laughs. “And they only had one plane!”
“So almost by not knowing any of the rules, we broke all the rules and disrupted everything… but made it work.”
From there the magazine business flourished, and within a few years Keating and Leslie had won inflight magazine contracts for Virgin Express, Alliance Air, easyJet, and later United Airlines and American Airways.
"As I always say, every good story should start in a Beirut bar," he says facetiously.
Keating credits Ink’s rapid expansion to its somewhat counter-intuitive business model.
“We create high quality, highly engaging magazines for the airlines that upsell their destinations, that drive their business and marketing objectives… and we write them a cheque,” he boasts, sitting across a magazine strewn table in Ink's London headquarters.
In paying the airlines for the right to produce their magazines – and to be clear, these are weighty magazines containing quality journalistic travel content - Keating insists that the business is actually buying each airline’s audience, distribution, and the right to use their brand.
Ink then makes its money through advertising.
It's something of a hidden industry success story. The golden days of print advertising have long since passed - last month social media finally surpassed it as the third largest ad channel.
Meanwhile, spend on magazine advertising across both digital and print in the UK is in continual decline, with recent figures suggesting investment in the medium was down -6.2% year-on-year during the second quarter of 2019.
As such, many magazine publishers have been forced to close iconic titles over the past two years – music magazine NME, freebie men’s mag Shortlist and, most recently, the print edition of Marie Claire are all among the casualties.
Others are rethinking their revenue streams to reduce their reliance on advertising altogether by investing in events businesses, e-commerce, creative services and consumer goods (some to great success).
But Keating is adamant that he believes in his products – and a quick scan through the September edition of easyJet Traveller reveals that it is absolutely packed with ads. Brands ranging from Nike to Ocado feature among its 180 pages, with some pages filled with as many as four ads at once.
Ink is set to bring in $100 million in advertising revenues this calendar year, Keating adds – the business’ most successful year so far, following a few years of double-digit growth.
“That goes back to the belief in the product, the fact that it really does work,” he says. “And the sales culture. That’s why I wanted you to witness the floor.”
Ink's sales culture feels unique for a publisher. With its London HQ housed in a former-warehouse - an aesthetic the company has embraced rather than covered - the office feels more like that of a tech start-up than a traditional magazine business.
The editorial room is large, open plan and quiet, with a sea of headphones siloed into their own magazine brand. Each brand has its own exclusive editorial team to keep it distinct, and the teams are extremely small - Ink sources the majority of its content from freelance journalists.
So the noise that hits you upon opening the soundproof door into the more compact but bustling sales room is a surprise. Headphones are swapped for headsets, multiple languages are on the go, and rows of sales people stand at computer screens - one, inexplicably, has his leg on the desk. Like the editorial teams, each sales person is dedicated to a single airline or rail operator.
For some brands, the draw of inflight advertising is obvious. Tourist attractions, hotels, language apps, and also luxury brands - travellers tend to have a more laissez-faire attitude to budgeting when on holiday.
For others, the appeal is in associating themselves with a specific airline’s brand and in reaching its audience. Some advertisers are keen to advertise in American Airline’s American Way magazine, while others prefer to be seen in easyJet Traveller.
Inflight magazines are also a cost effective way to conduct a nation-wide advertising campaign in the US, where the market is highly fragmented, Keating says – “and if you want to have a pan-European campaign, where else do you go and get that? In one buy, you get incredible penetration.”
Plus, Keating believes that audiences are more receptive at altitude – 50% more receptive, according to Ink’s own research. Passengers are in a unique state of mind on a flight, he argues, disconnected from the outside world (research has shown that less than 10% of people choose to pay for WiFi), and have the luxury of time to kill.
“Personally when I get on a plane, I don’t really want to be contacted. It’s one of the few places ever where you are completely disconnected. Your boss can’t get hold of you. You don’t have to do your emails. You don’t have to look at social media. People have a few glasses of wine, watch a movie, and reach forward and pick out the inflight magazine.”
“And especially if it’s a long-haul flight,” he adds. “Especially in a nice big seat.” I suspect that Keating hasn’t flown economy in a while.
However, Ink isn’t measured by PAMCo, the magazine industry’s cross-platform measurement system, and its circulation isn’t audited by the ABC. I’m curious, therefore, as to what numbers the publisher uses to sell its ad space.
“What we’re selling is less about the print run and more about the numbers that the airlines are carrying,” Keating says - and the nice thing about the travel space is that passenger numbers are growing year on year. Globally, airline passenger numbers are expected to have doubled between 2015 and 2034 to 7 billion.
Having passengers doesn’t necessarily mean they’re interested in reading an inflight magazine, however a recent HARRIS poll has said that 89% of leisure travellers and 94% of business travellers claim to do so.
“So we have a growing audience. They’re captive, and they’re receptive to the messaging,” Keating says.
Asked whether Ink is facing any challenges as a business, he says “genuinely” not. Unlike the traditional publisher model, Ink makes 70-80% of its sales direct to clients – though this hints that perhaps there is a tension with agencies. Keating – though adamant that Ink does work with agencies – admits that there’s truth in that, and that the business is not entirely immune to the challenges facing other magazine companies.
“It’s a frustration with certain ad agencies where you’re getting very young media buyers who have an obsession with digital that doesn’t work,” he says.
“And you know, because of the doom and gloom out there on the newsstands, they’re overlooking the power of inflight media and the fact that it does work.”
So, like other publishers, Ink is also working to expand – and though the business isn’t diverting from advertising as its main revenue stream, it is exploring opportunities in different types of media.
“What we’re doing is deepening our relationships with our allies, in the sense that they’re opening up more and more media touchpoints and channels to us,” Keating says.
“It would be a disservice to think we’re just producing print magazines.”
Ink shoots social media campaigns for the airlines; is building a travel “inspiration platform” for American Airways’ passengers; and puts together weekly social listening reports for airlines to keep them informed.
The company has also recently signed an investment deal with Reach TV, a business which creates tailored TV channels for screens in airport restaurants, bars and airline lounges. Currently, concessionaire businesses have to pay and license content for those screens.
“We’ve gone to these concessionaires and said, you’ve got all these channels running that are costing you money and you have no control over the content. So you can’t play out your own marketing messages,” Keating says.
In a similar model to Ink’s magazine business, Reach TV creates bespoke channels for those restaurants and bars – and pays them for the right to do so. Reach TV can then control content screen by screen, airport by airport, playing out marketing messages for the concessionaires amongst the video content while also selling space to advertisers.
And next time you print your easyJet, KLM or Wizz Air boarding pass ahead of time, you’ll see an ad taking up the bottom third of the page – an ad targeted specifically at you and sold by Ink.
In a nutshell, Ink wants to be there at every stage of the customer journey when it comes to air travel – from deciding where to fly, to the boarding pass, to the inflight entertainment system.
“We are way beyond these print products,” Keating says, though they have been the core of the business and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
Drawing the interview to a close, I ask whether Keating worries when he sees print struggling in the wider advertising industry – if he’s concerned that it might have a knock-on effect on the consumer perception of Ink’s products.
Without missing a beat, he shoots back: “Let me ask you a different question. Why have digital first brands like AirBnB and Facebook produced print products?”
Facebook launched a print business magazine, Grow, last year – which it distributes on British Airways and in business class lounges. Meanwhile, AirBnB has a print magazine it distributes in its hosts’ homes.
“So actually, I think it’s seen as premium and luxury. And therefore a good brand representation for airlines.”
Plus, he points out that recent months have seen niche, iconic print mags like The Face make a comeback. Magazine publishers shouldn’t be so quick to give up on print, he adds, branding it a short-sighted decision.
“So many people run down the digital avenue without having a clear strategy. They mustn’t abandon their core product,” he advises.
Publishers should instead start thinking differently about print – by rethinking editorial models to combine content and sales teams, or by thinking differently about where they distribute, perhaps by targeting travel outlets instead of newsstands.
But for Ink, Keating is clear that he has no concerns about the future of its products
“You know, I think a lot of that doom and gloom is self-perpetuating. We just don’t buy into it.”