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Solving the puzzle of business-to-business publishing

Submitted by on Thursday, 7 October 2010One Comment

GREG Hughes, the executive chairman of Infixion Media, was born in England, but at the age of five, along with his parents, made a lasting move to SA. When I ask the inevitable question as to which country he supports in sport in general, and in the 2010 World Cup in particular, his answer is not the patronising run-of-the-mill patriotic reply I expect.

“When I first came out to SA I supported the Springboks and the South African cricket team,” he says. “But I don’t think supporting a particular sports team is a logical thing – I think it is emotional. So a few years ago, when I found while watching SA play England I actually wanted England to win, I decided I had to come out of the closet and confess I am an England supporter.

“So of course for the World Cup my first choice is for England to win – thereafter I will root for Bafana Bafana.”

He does, however, stress that in every other respect he is dyed -in-the wool South African. “My kids are South African and I consider myself a South African,” he says.

Hughes further surprises me by not telling me he has an MBA. During my research I discovered he had one, but until I mention it, there is nary a hint he might be one of the clever few. (So much for my theory that you know people have an MBA because they tell you they have one….) “What I enjoyed about doing an MBA – and I did it part-time through Wits Business School in 2007 – is that you can very quickly apply what you are learning. Also, I did my dissertation on this business (Infixion) and I had some great minds assisting me.”

Schooled at Parktown Boys High, he then joined the South African Navy on a permanent basis to avoid a “terrifying” national service call-up to Upington – “There is absolutely nothing to do there” – and to undergo an officer’s course, which he did at Gordon’ s Bay.

“That was definitely one of the best experiences of my life.”

Later, Hughes served on a variety of ships and seems to have thoroughly enjoyed his time as a “real” sailor.

It was during this period he became exposed to the navy’s publicity and public relations department, which honed his nascent interest in media that had germinated at school.

After deciding not to extend his contract with the military, Hughes started out selling computer memory.

“It was the days when a 4MB upgrade was considered outrageously huge,” he laughs.

About seven months after that he was offered a job in Johannesburg on a magazine called Industrial Buyer, with the then Communications Group.

Hughes started in advertising sales; his next position was working as business manager when he helped launch a product called Business Equipment Buyer, and early on he initiated his own publication called Promotions Events Manager, which whetted his appetite for creating titles.

Fourteen years ago IHS , a private American company, purchased the Communications Group (including National Publishing, Specifle, Pulse Publications and Graphix Publications), a longstanding leader in South African business-to-business publishing.

When IHS listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 2005, Hughes was appointed the divisional executive officer for IHS SA. Four years later, he recognised opportunities that would enhance the potential and the power of the company and took ownership of IHS SA.

So Infixion Media came into being. “I thought of the name in the early hours one morning,” Hughes says. “I jumped out of bed and kept saying ‘Infixion, Infixion…’.

“I think my wife thought I had lost it. And it is a real word – it comes from the word ‘infix’, which means the act of securing something firmly in the mind, so ‘infixion’ is the act of doing that, which as a business, securing our advertiser’s message in a reader’s mind is what we endeavour to do.”

He continues: “The reason I bought the company was that we were quite a small part of the IHS group. Also, we were no longer core and we had evolved as a very different business to them. Becoming independent gives us the ability to make decisions that work best for the products we sell. We’ve become accustomed to working to incredibly high standards, especially through IHS, where the business demanded unwavering attention to exceptional standards.”

He believes their products are up to any international benchmark. “We’ve forged new relationships and we’re starting to see revenue flowing from the online product range that complements each of our hard- copy journals. No one else has the product offering we have.

“We’re not just about individual journals; we’re now providing tightly integrated websites, electronic newsletters, online catalogues, custom microsites for our clients, buyers’ guides, and more.”

Hughes is visibly passionate: he obviously enjoys his business.

Given that so many forms of media are taking strain at the moment, I ask Hughes if the business-to-business market has been affected. “Look, there is no doubt we have taken a serious knock over the last couple of years. Ironically, that helped when we wanted to purchase the business from IHS with regards to setting the price. So that worked in my favour. I also don’t think what we are going through is a long-term malaise that will take us out.”

He mentions that in the industry – business-to-business media – a lot of their competitors are one-man bands who produce only a single journal for a particular sector. The problem for these single- title businesses, he suggests, is that they are at the mercy of their advertisers with regard to editorial – which could tend toward advertorial.

“People are very aware when you are pushing a message that is not entirely objective,” he explains. “Because of the number of titles we publish, and the range of advertisers that support us, we are not dependent on any one of them, so we can retain complete independence and create opinion forming editorial. A lot of our customers are highly qualified, extremely intelligent, discerning people and obviously we must respect that.”

We digress briefly to discuss his fascination with crossword puzzles. I ask him how much is skill and how much is knowing the conventions. “In the cryptics (cryptic crosswords), once you get your head around the clues they use, it does become much easier. Like if they say ‘about’ you know there is going to be a ‘re’ in it somewhere. So if the clue is ‘about meat’ the word might be ‘reveal’.”

Back to business. Hughes says that although publishing has been taking strain in general, because they have such a range of titles – 39 – across so many industries, they find when one sector is having difficulty, others may not be.

“It definitely tends to balance itself out,” he says.

They also have a huge online product range they have launched. “And it doesn’t compete with the hard copy publishing we do,” he says, “they are complementary. Gone are the days when I just read, say, Food Review and that was all I had access to. Now if I read Food Review there are links I can go to, which give me information to whatever level of research I want. On our websites now, we can track how many people are visiting and what numbers go into the links for further information.”

All of their online platforms are linked to their buyer’s guides. Infixion has two models, one where customers subscribe and the other being what they call “controlled free material”.

Hughes claims the company reaches about half-a-million readers a month through its journals and online products. Its online platforms are hosted on servers in the US, “which is the most cost-effective way of doing it,” he says. “You also don’t lose any functionality because of the distance, and access is instant. The reasons for hosting there are simply because the costs of hosting it in SA are astronomical.”

In closing, Hughes says the company is launching advertising campaigns wherein it can accurately measure the response. “They actually generate leads, so advertisers can see how many leads they are getting for their advertising spend – which is the first time anyone has been able to offer that service in this country.

“Our biggest challenge, however, has been to get the market to understand the power of what we are offering even though the same technology is proving very successful in the US and in Europe.”

On a personal note, one of Hughes’s claims to fame is that he can order beer in five languages (French, German, Italian, English and Afrikaans). “That just came out of all the travelling I’ve done,” he laughs. “It is actually six languages, because I can now also order beer in Portuguese.”

He is married with two children, loves reading, doing crosswords , watching ballet and theatre productions, and plays golf when he finds the time.

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