The joy, and indeed the curse, of Africa is that we are developing so rapidly. In the last twenty years we have leapfrogged technology steps that took the rest of the world over a hundred years to evolve. From a relative handful of dodgy copper phone lines, to almost universal mobile coverage; from desktop IT to hand-held; from four significant motor maker brands to over a hundred and from three international airlines, to more than a dozen, this is a fast-moving continent.
The problem with moving fast is that you sometimes leave items of value behind. In marketing terms I think this is most significant in the media landscape. I fear that in our digital gallop, there are some media options we will fail to exploit fully. Some important cognitive and communications steps we will miss.
I fear for terrestrial TV in this regard. It’s a medium that African marketer has failed to embrace to its fullest extent. Citing the high cost of production and other entirely surmountable obstacles, they have prevented Africa’s content hungry people from enjoying audio-visual stimulus to the full. That’s a failure, and it is one that may impact on uptake of digital advertising content. Put simply, brands in Africa have made a halfhearted attempt to use TV, the medium proven to have the biggest and fastest impact on brand growth.
I fear also for our indigenous magazine marketplace. Even after 50 years, our magazine choices are limited. Production is expensive and erratic. And while there are some really stylish, well written and art directed publications on the Continent, there simply aren’t enough. And we have so few creators of interesting content, versus so many content-deprived readers.
Lest we abandon the published magazine too quickly, I wanted to share with you how magazines developed, and the role they performed in older societies.
The word magazine orginates with the Arabic word khazana, meaning storehouse. Its plural form is makhazin, which became adulterated in Italian as magazzino, French as magasin and thence to English as magazine. The meaning of storehouse was continued in military usage: a magazine was a building containing ammunition; and subsequently the metal box of bullets you click onto a repeating gun.
In the early 1700s an Englishman called Edward Cave decided to print something periodically which would be a storehouse of information for the literate classes. He called it The Gentleman’s Magazine. The first edition was printed in 1731 and from 1733 it was promoted as ‘Containing more in Quantity, and greater variety, than any Book of the Kind and Price.’
Not particularly catchy, but at least that sums up the purpose of the world’s first magazine.
Nearly three hundred years later, the strongest magazine brands in the world survive and prosper by delivering segmented offerings. Few of them appeal to everyone. They identify an audience and an area of editorial expertise, and they go for it. They intend to be relevant and appealing. They aim to be a storehouse of interesting information that attracts a loyal readership, and a loyal advertiser base. Without advertising support, your average magazine would scarcely run to a dozen pages. Ask any hoary publisher.
So, even as we transition the digital divide in Africa, I believe there’s a role for printed magazines to perform for perhaps another thirty years.
Those that survive and prosper will be doing Africa a great service, preparing coming generations to access content that answers their questions and feeds their interests, and to refer to that content repeatedly. An important step in the development of a knowledge-based society of the future.
The writer is a marketing and advertising based in Nairobi, where he leads a communications agency network that is active in
19 African markets