“I think the jury is still out… there is no final ruling on whether print [media will] disappear completely or not.” It’s not a statement one might expect from a man who runs one of Dubai’s largest publishing houses.
Yet Julien Hawari, the co-CEO of Mediaquest Corp – a title he shares with his brother Alexandre – believes his business, which produces 12 magazines and 16 websites, can survive the possible impending death of print, in an increasingly digital age.
Last year, Mediaquest’s digital media brands made up around 30 percent of total company revenues. “This year, we should be close to 40 percent,” Hawari says. But while more types of publications are switching to an online format – mostly business-to-business publications in Hawari’s portfolio – the shift in dynamics is not always to the detriment of print, the executive says.
“You have some traditional print brands that are still growing, and still growing strong,” says Hawari, citing women’s fashion and lifestyle titles.
We meet for lunch in Certo, an Italian restaurant in a hotel located close to Hawari’s headquarters in Dubai Media City, one of the city’s numerous shiny office parks. Hawari wears business casual: the combination of shirt, jeans and suit jacket, an ensemble commonly employed by Dubai’s media types.
The restaurant was Hawari’s choice – he eats here regularly both for the sake of convenience and to employ what he calls the “essential element” of face-to-face meetings.
Burrata and Beirut
“Food is important, even though I am trying to cut down on my food,” he says. The starters arrive – a parmigiana, heavy on the tomato sauce, and a burrata puglise, which comes in the form of a wooden board laden with cheese and a salad.
Running Mediaquest – which apart from its Dubai headquarters has offices in Algiers, Beirut, Jeddah, Riyadh and Paris – requires Hawari to travel frequently. When in Dubai, Hawari reaches his office at around 8 or 9 in the morning, depending on meetings. He finishes at any time between 7 to 9 in the evening.
He works five days a week, keeping weekends for time with his family, which includes four boys. They are “long days, or some Europeans might perceive it as being a long day,” he says. But Hawari claims that Dubai’s environment – both in terms of climate and business environment – is far more conducive for productivity.
“I am half French but Paris, unfortunately, is a city that drains energy out of you,” he says. Hawari’s accent has simultaneous hints of English, French and Arabic – perhaps fitting due to Mediaquest’s publishing in all three languages.
Although Lebanese by birth, Hawari says his home city Beirut creates “aggressive” behavior in its inhabitants. Hawari’s father Yasser, who passed away last year, was himself a publisher and journalist.
Two years after the older Hawari narrowly avoided an assassination attempt in his Beirut office, where 20 kg of explosives had been planted, the family moved to Paris. Hawari was just six years old at the time.
“Our father had at the time a very bad habit of saying the truth, and saying very much,” says Hawari. Both before and during the Lebanese civil war, many journalists and publishers were threatened and killed, including Kamel Mrowa, the founding publisher of Al Hayat who was assassinated in his office in Beirut in 1966.
Hawari says that, while not a journalist, he feels a certain pressure to carry on his fathers’ legacy.
The seeds of Mediaquest began in Paris in 1987, when the older Hawari founded Arabies, a prominent French-language magazine with a focus on North Africa. A decade later, Hawari and his brother Alexandre founded the firm, which still publishes the magazine their father set up. Aside from publishing in print and digital, Mediaquest has grown its events business. It organizes the Arab Luxury World conference, now in its second year, as well as the long-running Effie MENA Awards, which recognizes marketing effectiveness, along with the Marketing to Women Conference, Top CEO Awards, and Festival of Media.
Hawari divides up the burrata with keen precision. His tips for professional success are brief, but said with a certain quiet conviction.
“In the short-term, you have people that might ride faster because they cut many corners and are not really putting the same ethics that you put in your work… there is no shortcut for work,” he says.
Tuna and takeovers
The main courses arrive. This reporter’s choice, a braised lamb shank with a bed of creamy, thyme-flavored mashed potato, looks considerably more appetizing than Hawari's cooked vegetables and tuna steak – pink in the middle with an anemic grey-beige exterior. He is a courteous diner, graciously piling food onto his lunch companion’s plate – although his equally kind offer to taste his own food is turned down.
“I don’t like much fish. But I tend to eat things that I do not like because I tend not to like vegetables and fish - which are good for me,” Hawari muses.
On to the publishing business. As with many sectors in Dubai this year, market growth and revenues in publishing are tepid.
“The market is not growing; it is potentially shrinking a little bit this year. So any company that is recording growth this year, is recording it on the back of gaining market share from competitors.”
Solutions, he says, come from flexibility and growth – and from being keen to not “sell out” your product.
One way magazines and websites can create buzz and attract audiences is handing out industry awards, complete with special-edition publications and glitzy ceremonies for winners. In keeping with industry tradition, Mediaquest has its own awards program that seeks to highlight the region’s top CEOs. But Hawari says his program stands out from some of his rivals’.
“I do not want to throw the baby out with the bath water but many of the awards in [this] part of the world are about how much money you are ready to pay, [and] how close you are to the person who is that is managing the award,” says Hawari.
Hawari added that a nomination fee is not levied on entrants to the Top CEO awards, and that the company has introduced measures to ensure its status above some similar events in the region. The event is organized by Mediaquest’s TRENDS magazine and INSEAD business school, in association with Hawkama, the regional institute for corporate governance, adding to its credibility.
Not all awards events in the region are run like this. According to Arabian Business – owned ITP, by one of Mediaquest’s competitors – one UAE-based institute charges entrants around $20,000 just to be considered for an industry award.
Mediaquest’s recent acquisitions are also indicative of its own quest for a competitive advantage.
In 2013, Mediaquest bought the UAE-based business portal AME Info, together with its sister site SME Info. Seven years previously, AME Info had been acquired, along with another regional media business called MEED, by London-based publisher EMAP for $29 million.
Mediaquest never disclosed how much it paid for the site. One report suggested the firm had paid as little as $1 million, although Hawari declines to confirm what the real figure was.
“It was a very smart acquisition that we did, we were lucky that at the time the previous owner has decided to part from this media. We paid the right price.”
Some of Mediaquest’s other prominent publications include industry publications Gulf Marketing Review and Communicate, the business title TRENDS, as well as women’s fashion mag Marie Claire Arabia.
In 2009, the private equity firm Abraaj Capital bought a minority stake in Mediaquest – with Hawari and his brother maintaining majority control. Hawari did not go into detail as to the size of Abraaj’s stake. Is Abraaj planning more investment? Hawari looks apologetic. “Obviously there are certain topics that I cannot disclose,” he says.
Cappuccino and competitors
We order coffee. Hawari orders an espresso - no sugar - while this reporter chooses a cappuccino.
“Sometime, print publication will die for sure,” he says. Even so, “the fact that radio started did not make newspapers disappear; the fact that TV started but did not make radio disappear.”
Despite the importance of changing formats, Hawari says that his firm’s path towards the future depends on quality content. “We know how to create content that is relevant,” he says.
On future acquisitions, Hawari said that Mediaquest has finalized a deal with a prominent woman’s digital title. “It is one of the leading global brands on fashion news online,” he said, although he declined to go into further detail.
The coffee is almost finished. Is Hawari worried about ever-more aggressive competition from rival publishers, perhaps from the likes of ITP or Motivate Publishing?
“We tend not to see that we have rivals because, in reality, if you look at the audience, any media is competing with cinemas and is now competing with restaurants.”
Explaining further, he adds: “The time a person is spending a nice meal and watching a movie is the time they are not looking at the internet or that they are not reading a magazine or watching a movie on their TV screen.
“So we are all competing with each other in time.”