What did we learn at Magfest?

Fraser Allen reports from another stimulating and colourful day at the annual Edinburgh International Magazine Festival

‘Ideas are everything but each spark of an idea needs encouragement and, today, Magfest will provide you with the bellows.’

With a flourish of metaphors, PPA Scotland’s charismatic chairman, Paul McNamee, set the scene for this year’s Magfest - with the theme of ‘Ideas Factory’ - held in the ecclesiastical surrounds of Edinburgh’s Central Hall.

Shortlist founder Mike Soutar kicked the day off in style with a review of his career to date that was as insightful as it was entertaining. Amid visual flashbacks to his time at Smash Hits and FHM, there were many nuggets of hard-earned wisdom. ‘Bring the orthodoxies of your workplace out into the sunlight and challenge why they are there,’ he urged. ‘If there’s no good reason for them, get rid of them.’

And reflecting on the success of his time in New York as editor of Maxim, he recalled crazy budgets that he believes stunted creativity. ‘Limited budgets are the mother of invention,’ he said. ‘Your imagination is priceless.’ A few hard-pressed magazine publishers may be rubbing their hands with glee at that revelation.

Soutar then went on to tell the extraordinary start-up tale of Shortlist. ‘There are only two positions worth having in a market - the incumbent and the insurgent, he said. ‘And the insurgent has more fun.’

Soutar’s early career was characterised by a freewheeling, instinctive approach to what works but, over the years, he has also recognised the value of research and process. And he shared his techniques for bringing the best ideas to life through a three-step sequence of ‘experiment, evaluate, iterate’.

Celebrating the industry

One of the great innovations of Magfest has been the way it showcases Scottish magazine start-ups and, this year, Lynda Hamilton Parker and Tony Foster took to the stage to discuss, respectively, Holistic Scotland (a natural health title) and the self-explanatory Comicscene UK. Both have sprung from the personal passions and experiences of the founders and have made bright starts in terms of profile and readership.

Next up, and all the way from New York, was Joanna Geary, Director of Curation at Twitter. She and her global team help Twitter customers discover and understand what’s happening in the world. ‘We are the algorithms that haven’t been invented yet,’ she said. She offered plenty of advice for publishers wishing to build their Twitter profile through the use of Moments ‘Make sure there is context to the content. Often the how and the why are missing,’ she said, echoing an adage of old-school production subs.

Watching the MediaVoices live podcast on stage it was easy to see why it’s been such a success. Chris Sutcliffe, Esther Thorpe and Peter Houston share a wonderful depth of knowledge and opinion but they”re also naturally funny and fire off each other so well. The topic of the discussion was ‘What’s the future for free?’, and Mike Soutar was enticed on stage again to join the debate.

‘Plus ca change’, argued Peter Houston, whether it’s free print or free digital. ‘It’s the oldest publishing model in the world,’ he said. ‘It’s the three-legged stool: content, audience, revenue. If you don’t have all three, the stool falls over.’

When Mark Frith told his careers teacher that he wanted to be a journalist, it caused astonishment. The young Frith was so shy that he barely spoke. Yet by the age of just 23, he had followed in the footsteps of Mike Soutar and PPA CEO Barry McIlheney by taking the helm at Smash Hits. An illustrious career has led him to the editorship of the Radio Times and, in his onstage interview with McIlheney he provided a fascinating insight into the challenges of the modern-day editor on a heritage brand. ‘We shouldn’t just be a magazine and a website,’ he said. ‘I want you to go through the Radio Times brand to access the whole world of TV and radio.’

Frith is already building up towards the big-selling Christmas issue. ‘I love Christmas,’ he said. ‘I’ve bought two packs of mince pies already this week.’

The MediaVoices guys do their thing on stage

The Indie Revolution

Next up was a third start-up - the brilliantly named feminist magazine Monstrous Regiment. Each issue is themed around a colour - starting with crimson - inspiring an array of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and art from Scottish creatives.

And now, as I type this, Jeremy Leslie of Magculture - the champion of indie magazine publishing - is explaining his enduring love for the power of print before handing over to four stars of the current wave of indie magazines: Grace Harrison from Foul Play, Sophie Kyle from The Skinny, Ben Mervis from Fare and Dan Sandison from Mundial.

Designers also devoured a keynote session from Marion Reilly, Art Director of HELLO! Fashion Monthly, while there were break out workshops on newsletters, live events, film-making, podcasting, freelancing and GDPR.

It was also great to see Leslie’s magCulture pop-up shop at the venue and an exhibition of modern Scottish magazines curated by Neil Braidwood and White Light’s very own Eric Campbell.

But in some ways, one of the most exciting spots was a brief session from Nikki Simpson unveiling the latest news in terms of establishing a highly ambitious International Magazine Centre in Edinburgh. First-phase funding is being sought from Creative Scotland for a global centre of excellence that would host major events, a start-up hub for new magazines, research projects and lots more. It’s the early steps for what is set to be a huge milestone in Scotland’s long magazine publishing history. PPA Scotland is the place to discover what happens next.

Magfest wrapped up with an incredibly candid interview with comic book legend Mark Millar by PPA Scotland Chair Paul McNamee. Mark was generous with his time and wasn't afraid to give the audience a snapshot of his personal and professional life. He detailed his rise to stardom, peppered with humorous anecdotes that had the crowd laughing hard.

His overarching message was one of tenacity – he recalled being sending a script to DC Comics at 13 years old. After submitting a hand-written story, Mark waited a week before calling DC Comics to follow-up. Unsurprisingly, his story wasn’t accepted. However, Mark did end up working with the team on Superman and Batman later in his career.

Mark admits freely that it took him a while to hone his skills but lives by the ethos that the early versions of new creations are always pretty crap. He assured the audience that true originality comes from your imagination and the minute you play it safe then you're done.

One of the most defining moments of Mark’s career was working with Marvel on comics, including Spiderman, Captain America, and The Avengers. It wasn’t until he sat down with his hero, Stan Lee who convinced Mark to pursue his own stories. From this, the likes of Kick Ass and Kingsman was born.

In 2017 Netflix entered into its first-ever acquisition to buy Mark's company, MillarWorld. Mark is currently working with Netflix on content and is using some of the money from the sale to give back to the community in his hometown of Coatbridge on the outskirts of Glasgow. He held a Comic-Con at his old primary school that featured the cast of Outlander, the Back to the Future Delorean, and a 100ft inflatable Spiderman that he shipped in from Japan. He has even more events planned for the community over the next few years – a brilliant gesture that shows he is as generous with his wealth as he is with his time that he shared with us at Magfest 2018.