Greg MacNeil, Multi-Vision Publishing

Greg MacNeil surprised the magazine publishing world in November when he announced that his company, Multi-Vision Publishing, had purchased Shift Magazine....

Greg MacNeil surprised the magazine publishing world in November when he announced that his company, Multi-Vision Publishing, had purchased Shift Magazine.

The digital culture periodical has earned a reputation as a kind of publishing Bermuda Triangle, relaunching every few years only to flounder before a new backer comes in to pull it from the depths.

But MacNeil is nothing if not a shrewd businessman, and he recognizes, within Shift’s multiple branded tendrils, a sound core. He should know. MVP’s flagship publication Elm Street has grown in just over four years to become one of Canada’s premier publications, boasting a circulation of 630,000.

Shift becomes the second high-profile brand in a list that includes Owl Canadian Family and custom-published HealthWatch and Images magazines, both for Shoppers Drug Mart.

MacNeil, a former Telemedia executive who has racked up 30 years in Canadian magazine publishing, knows a thing or two about the business.

He has seen Canadian magazines enter the U.S. and fail. He has seen publications spin off Web sites, books and TV programs. He was also front and center last year when Bill C-55 came into play, allowing foreign-owned magazines to sell up to 12% of their advertising space to Canadian advertisers.

Strategy spoke with MacNeil a week after the Shift purchase about these issues and where his company’s newest acquisition falls in the spectrum of Canadian publishing.

Q. What prompted the purchase of Shift?

A. It became available. We knew the product was excellent and we saw it as ‘improving’ – meaning that it’s always had fabulous design, but they’ve actually started getting recognition for an improved editorial product. It’s in a sector in which we don’t have a lot of experience, which makes it a good match for what we do. And we think that we can contribute to some areas of its business.

Q. Throughout the years, Shift has faltered numerous times. What will Multi-Vision do differently?

A. If you had a look at what has been spent on this magazine – they’ve spent more in a few years than Multi-Vision Publishing has spent from day one. I don’t think they’ve been encouraged to be conservative on the spending side. We will encourage that. We require that.

Q. What are your plans for Shift?

A. Our plan is to interfere as little as possible. We’re going to be cutting back from the U.S. – that’s a very big part of the budget. We’re going to retain Shift TV, we’re going to retain an Internet presence – although not the e-commerce model.

Q. Shift has extended its brand to a range of media with a TV show, an online presence, even a store. Given the company’s instability, is this really the way to go?

A. It’s much bigger than Shift’s experience. Their primary business was the magazine business within the digital community. They expanded that. Then they got into this whole e-commerce model. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I do know it’s unaffordable. So we’re retreating to the core product. We will have a television show because it’s a good business – it’s not a great business, but it enhances visibility.

Q. Is this brand extension approach more viable for U.S. magazines?

A. One could argue there’s a critical mass that might make it workable. But not many magazine companies are making a ton of dough [online].

Q. Do you agree at all with the notion that a magazine must extend its brand to different platforms?

A. That depends on how one evaluates it. When I was at Telemedia, we thought, ‘Let’s have a Canadian Living television show. Let’s do Canadian Living cookbooks.’ And we did. Does it make a lot of money? No. Does it help enhance the visibility of the brand? Perhaps. Does it add to one’s total audience? If it does, then it’s a value because your ad rates go higher and your audience gets bigger. So these are things that are difficult to evaluate.

Q. You mentioned that Shift was pulling up stakes in the U.S. What’s wrong with going into the American market?

A. There’s so much competition and the major publishers have so much funding that they can fight any battle that requires investment over a long period of time. I don’t know of too many Canadian companies that can enter that fray and win.

Q. What’s your assessment of the Canadian magazine industry as an avenue for advertising?

A. I truly believe in the power of magazines as an effective vehicle for advertisers. But have we effectively communicated that to the ad community? I don’t think so. In the U.S., the Magazine Publishers of America is very active. We’re a member. Are we a member of Magazines Canada? No. In my view, [Magazines Canada] could be a whole lot more effective than it is at selling print to advertisers. The MPA does research, they’ve got case studies, they’re in your face. The share of advertising in the U.S. is [proportionately] a great deal more than it is in Canada.

Q. What’s the future of the magazine industry in Canada now that split-runs have entered the market? Was the hysteria unfounded?

A. What most people don’t know is that the Canadian circulation of most U.S. magazines is buried in the Northeast U.S. audit statement. In the U.S., that’s the most important market they have. By making Canada a separate magazine market, they lose the number in the U.S. and they gain it in Canada where the market share is half and where there is a currency that has substantially less value. But was it hysteria? As we stand today, it was exaggerated. But where will we stand in three years? That’s really the unknown.