Ink Global defies advertising gloom with best year ever: Interview with Michael Keating and Simon Leslie

 
Alys Key
Follow Alys
Chief executives Michael Keating (right) and Simon Leslie (Source: Ink Global)

In-flight magazines are taking off.

Gone are the days of dull brochures masquerading as reading material. Now these publications are fighting to outdo each other with celebrity coverstars, slick design and awards-grabbing writing.

The change is largely down to Ink Global, a company which changed the model of in-flight magazines forever. Rather than producing their magazines in-house, airlines outsource the content to an agency - usually Ink - who in turn make a profit by selling advertising.

There are a number of companies doing the same thing for a whole range of clients, but Ink has set itself up as the specialist of travel media, with clients including EasyJet, Etihad, American Airlines, and a recent contract win with Virgin.

“If you can focus on a particular niche, that’s when success comes,” says co-chief executive Michael Keating. Under the leadership of Keating and his co-chief Simon Leslie, Ink had its best financial year to date in 2017, pulling in more advertisers and gaining eight new clients, more than the company has ever signed in a single year. He believes Ink’s captive audience is crucial to its success.

“About 90 per cent of people do pick up the magazine,” he says. “I would love to think that is because of our sparkly engaging editorial. But sometimes, people pick it up because they want to look at the route map. Sometimes they want to see how much a muffin or a cup of tea is. Frankly, it doesn’t matter why they pick it up as long as they do pick it up, then they engage with it.”

It has been 24 years since Ink changed the game of travel publishing, but the most recent years of its history have been some of the most exhilarating for its co-founders.

“I see some good growth for us,” says Leslie. Brexit, global security concerns and a nervous advertising market pale in comparison to previous challenges: “We’ve already weathered ash clouds and SARS and 9/11.”

While the mood in the publishing industry may be gloomy, Ink’s stable of magazines are attracting advertisers from around the world. “We will have in a given year about 10,000 advertisers in 100 countries,” says Keating. “So if one market goes soft we’ve got plenty of other markets to sell the space in.”

Keating explains that the company woos its clients with the prospect of return on investment, based on the high level of knowledge the company has about its readers.

Thanks to technological advances, this kind of personalisation extends beyond the magazines; Ink now has the capabilities to print adverts onto boarding passes which are tailored to the passenger.

Read more: RIP Glamour magazine - the women's beauty bible is going digital

This year, a new agreement with Virgin Atlantic means Ink will not only produce the glossy magazine Vera, it will also take charge of promotions inside the airport lounges. Almost any part of the travel experience is a potential advertising opportunity.

“It even might be a pack of sweets, if we can find somebody who will sponsor that,” says Leslie. As both the head of Ink’s sales and a frequent Virgin Atlantic flyer, he was well-placed to tell the airline they were missing out on repeat booking opportunities.

“There are lots of times when I’m sitting next to someone who booked on Expedia, so they’re missing an opportunity to upsell. There’s a long time to do a lot of things, so it’s a long time to consume a lot of media.”

And with more people flying every year, there is an ever-widening base of customers for Ink to reach. The latest projections from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) predict that 4.3bn passengers will travel this year, while demand will double in the next two decades.

Even when the travel industry faces turbulence, Ink has often emerged victorious. The collapse of an airline just gives them more bums on seats.

“We are lucky as market leader that in those scenarios we’ve been on the right side of the merger,” explains Keating. Most recently, Ink was publishing magazines for both Easyjet and Lufthansa subsidiary Eurowings, the two companies which carved up the assets of defunct Air Berlin.

Read more: Lufthansa gets green light from EU Commission for Air Berlin assets

And while Brexit has many parts of the airline industry up in arms, Ink’s CEOs are confident they can steer through the storm.

“About 50 per cent of our staff are from the EU,” says Leslie. “So it will affect us if they don’t get it right, but I don’t see that being an issue.”

Read more: Ryanair is no longer Europe's biggest airline by passenger numbers

While it began in London, Ink now has an international presence, with offices in New York, Miami, Sao Paulo and Singapore. Huge screens in the London headquarters link up the 300 employees around the world via live feeds. It really is an empire.

So now that they have built this network, what’s next for the two men who started it? Could a new owner or an IPO be on the cards?

“We don’t have any plans to sell at present,” says Keating. “I’ve been doing it for 24 years and I’m more excited now than I’ve ever been.”

Related articles