On vacay from London, Penny McDonald is having a thoroughly Jamaican moment as she sips Blue Mountain coffee and extols her pride at being a child of Rock-born parents. McDonald, the ferociously whip-smart international managing director of Arise Media UK, is having afternoon tea in the boardroom of the Jamaica Observer, sharing the growth curve of Arise, the fashion and lifestyle mag in which she plays quite a substantial overseeing role. "My job is to supervise and oversee every aspect of the magazine from the content, right way through to the distribution and the advertising to ensure that it meets our benchmarks and check all these criteria boxes. Without that, we will be sunk in the water."
Arise has been shipshape under McDonald's watch. A veteran journalist who has worked at The Telegraph and Sky and was headhunted by media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, McDonald's two-year tenure with Arise has been impressive. She's shifted the mag from a quarterly publication with 20,000 readers to a bimonthly title that today has a circulation of 130,000 in 27 countries and counting.
"Without question, America is our biggest market and we have tremendous support from the Americans. In particular, Barnes & Noble has given us 601 stores to promote Arise in. In the United Kingdom, we are in 435 W H Smith High Street stores now; it's incredible." Ten thousand copies of each issue is also syndicated to Lagos, Nigeria and the title also has a massive reach in Dubai, Europe and even Australia. "We're right way through Sweden and Norway, believe it or not. Two subscribers in those districts just came on my radar last week," McDonald divulges to SO.
Headquartered in London with an editorial staff that includes a Jamaican fashion director and a Rock-connected online editor, Arise's credo is meant to be Afro-centric; an expected given that its chairman and CEO is Nduka Obaigbena, an oil baron and one of Nigeria's wealthiest men.
"We are upbeat and promote Afro-centric stories. If it doesn't fit the criteria of those, how can we justify a person being in the publication? It has to check the box, they have to have a relevancy and it has to be something that evokes the global, positive nature," she notes.
Arise, which bankrolls two large-scale fashion events annually -- one in February/March in Lagos, the other in September, in the Big Apple during New York Fashion Week -- is currently in expansion mode.
Quantum leaps are on the horizon and as the company's international managing director, McDonald is helping to steer ship. She oversaw the placement of a supplement in the 900-plus-page September issue of Vogue, the fashion bible's most-read annual edition. "The feedback has been incredible. We have already had a wonderful approach from Tyra Banks, who is going to be our cover model for the next issue, so it doesn't get any bigger than that. She's an iconic woman we have always tried to target so that in and of itself is tremendous. We had responses from Cartier and Rolex, and Freddie Lljunburg from Calvin Klein approached us, so we are very pleased with the outcome of the Vogue supplement," the still-on-cloud-nine McDonald shares.
Also on tap are the launch of not one, but two Arise television networks.
"The Arise brand has developed and organically grown. As a natural progression, we wanted to do broadcasting and we are thrilled and proud to know that we can launch two new channels -- one will be a dedicated, 24/7 news channel called Arise News and the other one will be Arise 360 which will be amazing. It will feature entertainment, sports, everything including our events and shows," she says.
The networks, she discloses, will have four main headquarters -- London, New York, Lagos and Johannesburg, as well as other bureaus around the world. "For the moment, I will retain my title as international managing director and ensure that the magazine dovetails with the broadcasting element. We got to promote the TV channel and there is no better vehicle than our own publication, so we will be making sure there is synergy there, looking at the brand and making sure nothing can damage the core mother brand, so that will be my role," McDonald tells SO.
As our convo winds up, Arise's tenacious and engaging director responds to a final question: what's her ultimate wish fulfillment for the now four-year-old mag?
"It would be that everyone who is of colour should feel they have a place in this publication. I would want Arise to self-generate finances from its advertising revenue and parents recommending it to their own children. I would want us to be seen as a Black Vogue or Vanity Fair."
Trust us, Ms McDonald, the mag's well on its way.