Digital media founder seeks maximum return from Joe

Fitness fanatic Niall McGarry has invested heavily to grow Joe.ie owner in the UK

Maximum Media founder Niall McGarry at the company’s office in Fumbally Lane in Dublin.Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Maximum Media founder Niall McGarry at the company’s office in Fumbally Lane in Dublin.Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

When online publisher Joe released a mash-up in the UK this month of Tory Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg as Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker, the internet almost wet itself to a soundtrack of sniggers.

Here was the po-faced poshboy – the personification of English aristocracy, top-hatted eccentricity and political intransigence – appearing to sing remarkably good satirical lyrics to the tune of Pulp’s Britpop hit Common People: “I want to leave the Com-mon Mar-ket/I want to leave the Cust-oms Un-i-on . . . too.”

The BBC gushed it was the “best viral political video ever”. Even Moggy, probably after he’d eaten his boiled egg and admonished the butler, admitted it was a “clever spoof”. The world saw Brexit lampooned.

Mayoman and Joe founder Niall McGarry saw pound signs and influence. The video has had 2.4 million views.

“It took three weeks to make that,” he says. “Irish people looked at it and thought it was funny. I’m thinking: this is putting our brand in the door with UK decision-makers, government ministers, all of them.”

It is Friday lunchtime in Galway, and we’re in a bar booth at the Forster Court hotel – we were meant to meet in the Meyrick on Eyre Square, but the builders are in and the hammering was giving me a headache.

The Forster is calmer, apart from one group of young women at a neighbouring booth who occasionally erupt in riotous laughter – a hen party to be unleashed on the city of tribes later, perhaps.

In between sips of sparkling water, fitness fanatic McGarry outlines his plan to make his company the “most influential” media business in Ireland by 2022, and to conquer the UK. No pressure, then.

“When I say influence, I don’t mean by sending people subliminal messages. We’re a lifestyle publisher. I mean influence defined by the regularity with which they see, and interact with, our content on social media.”

McGarry, then, judges his publications – the young male-oriented publication Joe, Sportsjoe, female-focused Her.ie – through the prism of the success of their content on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. Are websites already old media?

“It is about being a distributed media business. We started by trying to drive traffic to our sites. Now we focus on content for people to consume natively elsewhere. The future is about how media brands can own the social channels.”

The 40-year old is among Ireland’s most prominent new media owners – only the Fallon brothers of the Journal and Daft are in a similar league. He is majority shareholder of Maximum Media, which owns Joe, founded in 2010, and the newer Her in Ireland.

McGarry is also majority shareholder of the separate structure that owns Joe in the UK – Her never caught the ferry, and has no plans to – where it is gaining attention, especially in sports and light political content.

Former rugby star Jerry Flannery is McGarry’s main business partner in both companies, which have different equity set-ups. McGarry owns 68 per cent of the Irish business and about 80 per cent in the UK.

The UK and Irish operations combined had sales last year of about €11.5 million, McGarry estimates, and have commercial relationships with many major consumer brands such as Cadbury and Paddy Power. The businesses employ 100 staff here and a further 75 in London and Manchester.

Media sniping

Maximum is tiny compared with traditional media companies, such as broadcasters RTÉ and Communicorp and newspaper groups such as Independent News & Media and The Irish Times.

But beyond the long-established players, McGarry’s digital outfit appears well positioned. It has invested heavily in the UK recently, where the greatest potential rewards lie.

McGarry has a something of a reputation in the Dublin media bubble. Some industry rivals dismiss his confidence as cockiness, his ambition as braggadocio. He isn’t shy, for sure. Does the needling bother him? He shrugs.

“I know certain media organisations love to snipe at us. They can’t stand that we came from nothing to become something fairly significant. I am a media entrepreneur. That bothers some people.”

Surely it isn’t down to Irish regionalism, the Dublin glitterati having a problem with the Mayo lad up from the country? McGarry sips his water and shrugs again.

“I know the UK media market really likes us. I have a lot of respect in the UK. The backdrop is different in Ireland. I don’t look that Irish as well.”

There are rumours he would like to sell the business, that he’s building it to flip. Is that true? A hat-trick of shrugs. McGarry sounds, to be fair, assured but not cocky. He knows what he means and is direct.

“It’s rumours. If we wanted to sell, we would have done it. We’ve had lots of offers from Irish media organisations. But we’re in the UK now, we’re on a journey. I get well paid. The business is doing well. There’s no pressure. Will I do something in time? Of course. But it’s down to us to decide when.”

McGarry hails from Castlebar, the son of “staunch Catholic” older parents – his mother was 44 when he was born, his father almost 50. Although his heritage is purely Irish, he agrees his foreign appearance made him stand out as a kid in the west of Ireland, and may help explain some of his edge, his self-assuredness.

“It was mentioned, it was obvious. But never a real problem. I used to get: ‘Are you Moroccan, Italian?’ But you can play such differences to your advantage over time. Even now, in the UK, people hear I’m not from Dublin, I’m from the west, and that’s interesting to them. You can use that.”

He studied marketing at college, and sold media ads after graduation, including at the Galway Independent. He later set up a west of Ireland media agency, although the company went into liquidation during the economic crisis.

McGarry founded Joe.ie soon afterwards, spotting a gap for a male-focused digital publication, with an emphasis on content such as sports and tech, and some social issues. “I had a global outlook from the start. It was never going to be Paddy.ie.”

Joe, he says, has always deliberately eschewed the “titillation factor” of some publications aimed at young men.

“Men’s magazines always had an emphasis on sex as the first thing blokes were interested in. It sets the wrong tone. We do content around lifestyle issues, but we can also do more serious stuff, opinion pieces, on sex and gender.

“If you’re too brutish and crude, too banter-fuelled, you’ll never monetise that. It was probably my west of Ireland upbringing that sent me down that route. I never wanted to be Ireland’s Larry Flint. ”

As the business began to do well at the outset of the recovery, he moved it to Dublin. It entered the UK in 2015. It produces some high-profile content and podcasts such as the interview series Unfiltered, with broadcaster James O’Brien in the UK, and Dion Fanning in Ireland. UK guests have included Gary Lineker, while Irish guests have included Eamon Dunphy.

Joe’s House of Rugby podcast is another ratings hit, while in the UK it has also caught attention with political spoofs and series such as Outside Westminster, in partnership with Snapchat, which interviews politicians in settings outside the usual bubble. Labour MP Rosena Allin-Khan was a recent guest, interviewed while training in a Balham boxing club.

Heavy investment

More than €4 million of revenues comes from the UK, and McGarry claims that will double annually for the next couple of years after heavy investment in staff and content. His €11.5 million estimation of total group revenues, however, is well down on what he has publicly predicted before. There were reports a year ago it could earn €14 million in 2018. Targets are hard to hit. Media is tough.

McGarry says Maximum has “always” been profitable in Ireland, but hints it may face choppier waters in its upcoming sets of accounts.

“We’re not as obsessed as much with profitability this year in Ireland – we’ve hired a lot of people. We’re going for profit again. We’re building long-term relationships [with brands] in Ireland.”

The capital-hungry UK business – it owes close to €5 million to the Irish company, accounts suggest – is “starting to get profitable, quarter on quarter . . . it’s taken a lot of investment, and a long time, for that”.

Joe.ie has 3.5 million unique website hits in Ireland, he says, and five million for Joe.co.uk. In Ireland, he says Her gets 3.5 million unique hits, with two million on its sports site, and 750,000 on Her offshoot, Herfamily.

The numbers McGarry prefers to discuss are its social media engagements. He lays them out: 2.8 million followers in Ireland for all Maximum Media brands across all social platforms, including 1.3 million for Joe and 600,000 for SportsJoe. In the UK, he claims 12 million across all channels.

“In our first week of Outside Westminster, we had six million views,” he says. “Own the social channels. That transcends to audio too, through the likes of iTunes. If we did an entrepreneurship series in the UK next week, we wouldn’t need to bring loads of entrepreneurs to our website. We’d launch the content on to a social platform, and it finds the entrepreneurs for you.

'Grease the wheels'

“A distributed media business doesn’t just drive people to a website. It goes to the platforms where people are, and it wants to be followed.”

You’ve got to “grease the wheels” of the social platforms with payments, he says: “That’s just the way it works. They won’t show your content otherwise.”

If McGarry’s grand plan is to pay off for him in time, he must maintain a large equity stake.

He says he has never taken cash off the table. Nor has he ever sold a stake to venture capital, to get funds to expand. McGarry’s strategy is to fund the business primarily out of advertising and partnership deals with brands.

In recent times, there have been a raft of layoffs and austerity measures at global digital media companies such as BuzzFeed and Huffington Post. Why? Is the media market simply broken, even for new digital operators?

“It’s all linked to VC funding, how they raised cash at the beginning and sought to get as high a valuation as they possibly could,” he says.

McGarry’s theory is that digital media businesses in the US raised huge amounts of equity based on stupid valuations and outlandish projections.

“They said they would be in this many countries in 10 years’ time, doing this, earning that, and therefore invest now at this ridiculous valuation. In the VC la-la land of Silicon Valley you can’t have a small, strategic plan. You have to take over the world.”

He says the recent restructurings were because the companies couldn’t meet their earlier projections: “They bought the best of everything, and now have to cut it back. They were drunk on VC funding. It’s a game. Irish and British companies should stay away from that. It’s too risky.”

Last year, Maximum secured a potential €6 million funding line from a “venture debt” boutique funder, BMS Finance. McGarry is adamant about holding on to his stake, to give him greater options.

But isn’t “venture debt” more-expensive-than-usual debt? Why not simply go to a bank?

“Traditional banks are becoming more open, so we’re having conversations around that. But venture debt suits us. It’s petrol for the fire, a loan to go and make the business bigger.”

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