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Ensemble co-founders Zoe Walker Ahwa and Rebecca Wadey (Photo: Guy Coombes/supplied)
Ensemble co-founders Zoe Walker Ahwa and Rebecca Wadey (Photo: Guy Coombes/supplied)

MediaAugust 9, 2021

Stuff has bought startup fashion site Ensemble. Here’s why it matters

Ensemble co-founders Zoe Walker Ahwa and Rebecca Wadey (Photo: Guy Coombes/supplied)
Ensemble co-founders Zoe Walker Ahwa and Rebecca Wadey (Photo: Guy Coombes/supplied)

It’s a small deal which could signal a new era for Aotearoa media, says Duncan Greive.

This morning media giant Stuff announced its acquisition of one of New Zealand’s most boutique publishing operations, fashion and beauty startup Ensemble. The terms of the deal have not been disclosed, but beyond its scale – Ensemble is just a year old, and its two founders are its sole employees – it has the potential to signal a new era in Aotearoa media, a freshening of the rivalry between Stuff and the NZ Herald, and an acknowledgement that digital brands are harder work and have more value than the big players have acknowledged.

Ensemble (disclosure: I’m friends with the founders) was launched a year ago this week, with a vow from Zoe Walker Ahwa that “the aspirational age of fashion magazines is over”, in an essay that lifted the lid on experiences throughout her career as a fashion writer, and the racism and monocultural values that were riven through the industry. Ensemble was fresh and vital, championing different voices, values and areas of emphasis, and boasted a membership model that allowed its readers to support it in return for early access to new seasons from local designers.

Now it’s part of Stuff, publisher of dozens of newspapers like the Press and the Dominion Post, along with its wildly popular news site. For its money it gets Walker Ahwa and her co-founder Rebecca Wadey, to run the editorial and commercial sides of the brand, along with the site itself – a gorgeous piece of design, put together by Nicole Miller Wong. If properly executed, this will bring it into direct competition with Walker Ahwa’s former employer, the NZ Herald’s Viva (where her husband Dan Ahwa still works as creative director – our media remains a village).

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Viva has been something of a juggernaut for the NZ Herald, a newspaper-inserted magazine (or NIM, as they’re known in the industry) that managed to develop a distinct identity and dominate the fashion and beauty market over decades. Stuff has never had an appropriate vehicle to counter it, but it does now.

The big challenge for any new brand is building visibility and consistent traffic, which Ensemble has struggled for outside of some big scoops (most notably its report about Lonely lingerie’s embrace of Q Anon), but that can now be solved through the juggernaut that is the Stuff homepage, which receives hundreds of thousands of visitors each day. As the NZ Herald has shown through its increasingly deft interlinking between its homepage and its OneRoof real estate site, heavily trafficked homepages can easily be deployed to grow new brands.

With the exception of the OneRoof vertical and Stuff’s excellent climate change-centric The Forever Project, most new brands from the big publishers lately have felt like what they are: sales-driven vehicles to get new advertisers in the door. They struggle for penetration and traction because the public can feel the lack of inspiration and commitment from the institution and the editorial staff. The Ensemble acquisition points to an alternate path for the big publishers – acquire passion-driven projects from the outside, rather than trying to build them yourself.

This was the way publishing worked for decades: the big media companies scooped up smaller ones, buying talent, adding them into their extraordinary sales and distribution machines and reducing competition all at once. Stuff and the Herald were assembled that way, as was MediaWorks radio and the titles under Bauer, the German magazine publishing giant which abruptly collapsed at the start of the pandemic-induced lockdown. That event led directly to the founding of Ensemble, after Walker Ahwa was made redundant from her role at FQ.

A selection of stories from Ensemble’s first year

A new forest

For its staff, Bauer’s closure was brutal and shocking. It led to a great rush of publishing talent flooding onto the market all at once, along with the fire sale of dozens of important magazine titles. A year on, many of those titles have reappeared as independents, with some, like Metro and North & South, reinvigorated by the experience.

A number of those former staff took their talent and ideas and made new magazines, among them the former women’s magazines team who founded Capsule; ex-Home editor Simon Farrell-Green, who created architecture magazine Here; and Sido Kitchin, who put together a wildly ambitious portfolio of women-focused magazines at School Road Publishing. Others have continued much as they were before, like those employed by the Listener and Women’s Weekly, both of which are now part of Are Media, an Australian-owned publisher.

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While the Bauer collapse was shocking, New Zealand media finds itself in unexpectedly robust health 18 months on from the start of the pandemic. The buoyant domestic economy and backlash against relying solely on the global tech giants in digital has played a part, with the advertising market strong enough to see TVNZ signalling a record profit year.

For all that, some fundamental truths remain at the media giants:

  1. They have very strong cashflow through their legacy operations
  2. All are lean and efficient and have ferocious sales divisions
  3. Historically low interest rates mean debt is very cheap
  4. The long-term future remains bleak if they cannot figure out a bright digital future

All of which suggests that Ensemble might not be the last of the independents to be acquired by a big media company. This common practice slowed for some years, as the big houses largely looked after what they had or started their own. But building brands inside large operations is hard work. Stuff has acknowledged this not just in the Ensemble acquisition, but in its array of revenue share deals with outside media outlets like Newsroom, Māori TV and Capsule.

Taking its traffic monster homepage and brilliant sales operation and using it to buy up some interesting independents is the logical next move for Sinead Boucher, Stuff’s highly energised owner and CEO. The company has viewed Stuff as a master brand and platform for some time. It has huge brand penetration, and campaigns like Pou Tiaki and its pivot to trust have helped revive its power. But there is a limit to just how many sectors a brand as big and broad as Stuff can operate in. By pushing its traffic through the homepage into higher value sub-brands like Ensemble, it can make use of its scale while growing smaller, more curated verticals along the way.

Ensemble is the first title Boucher has bought since she acquired Stuff for $1 in those terrifying days of May 2020. It is unlikely to be the last. The big question, then, is what her rivals will do in response. The NZ Herald has been preoccupied with its paywall over the last couple of years, but will see the danger in the Ensemble acquisition, as well as in, from the other direction, TradeMe’s purchase of MediaWorks has been consumed by the incredibly damning Dew report into its culture, but with that released, at a certain point it is likely to make good on CEO Cam Wallace’s stated desire for acquisitions ahead of a planned IPO. Are Media, which took the most profitable pieces of Bauer, is seeking Commerce Commission approval to buy New Zealand’s biggest magazine distributor, Ovato.

New Zealand’s media has emerged from a decade preoccupied with shrinking and cost-cutting, but now finds itself about as lean as it can plausibly be. Today’s news marks the first aggressive move from Boucher and Stuff since its independence. It won’t be its last. The question for its rivals is: what will they do in response?

Keep going!