I find the new media space fascinating, so it wasn’t going to be long before I got in touch with some of the people at the forefront of it in Ireland.
The idea behind this series is to pick the brains of a person I find interesting, someone who’s built their own businesses or brand and has some wisdom to share.
This week, I talk to Maximum Media’s Niall McGarry.
You get the feeling that Niall McGarry was always going to be an entrepreneur of some sort, and, well, isn’t afraid to back himself! A Mayo man, he founded founded Impact Media in the early 2000s, having spotted a gap in the market for an agency which could help smaller businesses on the western seaboard get to grips with digital.
I first encountered McGarry and his business nous at the foundation stage of Joe.ie. For quite a while, I’ve been of the opinion that there’s a huge opportunity for digitally native media brands to eat the lunch of the lumbering traditional newspapers. Joe, along with TheScore.ie was one of the first to spot this too, and to have the drive to take on the big boys.
The site was in essence the first which catered solely for a certain type of Irish man, a college goer perhaps of the ‘Uni Lad’ generation, with the desire for a certain type of short form sports, entertainment and irreverent stories. Joe has since grown into a media juggernaut, rivalling Electric Media, the Fallon brother’s Distilled Media (Boards.ie) and the other big media groups for page views and revenue.
Of course, given the nature of the businesses, the phrase ‘clickbait’ often gets brought up around this type of businesses, and it’s one which I would have quite strong views on. However, McGarry is pretty bullish, and indeed convincing about Joe’s stance.
“I kind of find the whole term bizarre. The newspaper industry who’ve tried to spin this term the most have been writing stories with headlines for years. The purpose of the headline is to get people to read the story. You write an alluring headline online and suddenly it’s clickbait, it’s double standards, it’s nonsense really. You want everything put up to be read, surely that’s the purpose of writing it.”
Unlike say an Upworthy or Buzzfeed, Joe doesn’t often stray into the area of ‘listicles’ and while stories might be short and often based around a video or image that’s embedded from elsewhere, there is an editorial integrity at play says Niall.
“If someone writes a headline that doesn’t accurately reflect the story or over eggs it then that’s wrong in its own way. There’s an obligation to find things people want to see, write things that people want to read, but lying or exaggerating is short term thinking and won’t work. Ultimately it’s about building trust with your audience. I think JOE & Her get the balance right overall. Journalists are incredibly ethical animals and won’t just write lurid and misleading grannies to suck people in.”
Without doubt, Niall and his team (which includes former Munster Rugby star Jerry Flannery and is constantly expanding) have certainly created a strong brand. That’s reflected in the 2.1million uniques per month which Joe receives (that figure is already 1.8 million for Her.ie and growing). They’re certainly doing something right, and the future is bright.
“The future of JOE & Her is very exciting. We see JOE becoming a much bigger influencer than it currently is. At the moment, it’s just a website, but it can become so much more and our long term strategy is to become the voice of Irish men. We know it can get so much better, it’s a 7 out of 10 product now, but as we grow, we are reinvesting and deeper, richer, more organic content will come to the fore. We can have a positive impact on the development of Irish men as a group and our huge advocacy at University level suggest that we will grow in the long term with incredibly loyal JOE users. When that really kicks in we will credibly able to influence at a far higher level.”
It could be argued that keeping that university cohort and helping the brand to ‘grow up’ will be essential to that strategy. Like major global media brands Conde Nast, ESPN and Vox, albeit on a smaller scale, the Maximum group seems to be following a detailed and optimistic expansion plan based around smart, related verticals.
“Her.ie is just a machine. After two years it’s flying. Commercially it and it’s future sub brands could outstrip JOE commercially long term as females are more brand aware, more response focused and more attractive to more global brands.”
Maximum is also just about ready to launch a new sports focused site, which will rival the likes of Balls.ie, TheScore.ie and perhaps more interestingly the likes of SB Nation, Deadspin and global brands for precious eyeballs. Typically, McGarry makes the plans sound exciting.
“The sports site will be the first of its kind, dedicated to sport 24 hours a day. Sports doesn’t sleep, digital doesn’t sleep, so should we? JOE has it’s remit of covering many subject matters, so can’t do sport properly. If you’re a sports nut like me, the tap can never run for long enough, so the opportunity to do sport and nothing but sport is too good to miss out on. Strategically, we see SportsJOE competing with JOE and we want the closest digital competition to be owned by ourselves. We’ve a seriously good editorial team lined up for this and will be headed up by Evan Fanning, brother of well known sports writer Dion and returns from 8 years in the UK with senior positions at The Telegraph & The Guardian.”
Still in his thirties, McGarry is one of a handful of Irish media tech entrepreneurs who can say they’ve built an indigenous, revenue generating company. So what would his advice be to college leavers looking to get into the business?
“The best advice I could give someone leaving college is that don’t waste 4 years hard graft studying and then underestimate the job application process. A well thought out cover letter, a well laid out CV from a candidate who has done their research can put a 2.1 degree student ahead of a 1.1 degree student on the basis that their interaction with the prospective new employee has been greater. It’s absolutely amazing how many people don’t see this.”
Along with an impending sport site, what does the future hold for the Joe brand?
“I certainly am an entrepreneurial type, however, the opportunity here is too big to be getting distracted. I like the buzz of building something from scratch but with two new Irish sites, a UK version of JOE & at least one other country in 2015, I’ve plenty building on my plate. We are building a massive media channel in Ireland and the opportunity exists to develop exciting global aspects to this. That’s what I am fully focused on, I have a 3-5 year plan.”
Short, gradual but progressive and innovative steps. I’m sure there are plenty of attracting glances from other, larger and more established media brands towards McGarry, and rightly so. If they’re not already, I expect Niall and Joe to become two familiar names in Irish media spheres very soon.