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Celebrating ten glamorous years of Enigma Magazine, one of the leading English Speaking Lifestyle magazines in the Arab region, Yasmine Shihata, founder and Editor-in-Chief, shares with us her success story, recalling how her career started on a rollercoaster ride a decade ago and how she’s always been a great advocate of ‘hard work’.
Tell us how did it all begin?
I graduated from the London School of Economics with a BSc in International Relations. Upon graduation, I attended an internship at British Vogue followed by Marie Claire Magazine in London, assisting in the Fashion Department. After these different experiences, I moved to New York and worked for Vogue as Senior Assistant to the Editor-in-Chief, Anna Wintour. It is a very tough job and a very intensive experience. Anna Wintour is an icon, she decides on trends. It’s a multi million dollar business and working with her is the best training anyone could get. At Vogue, we used to work from 6am till 10pm and I basically liked everything about the magazine business so I did everything from preparing fashion shoots to advertising and writing. It was very tough at Vogue and I did my time.
You decided to come to Egypt and begin your own magazine was it easy back then?
I came to start ‘Cleo Magazine’ targeting modern intellectual women. With a partner, I brought ‘Cleo’ to light, then I started having the ups and downs most entrepreneurs face and sold my shares to my partner after major differences. I then started Enigma with several different partners, I could have funded the magazine myself, but I preferred various partners with various connections and outlooks. When I left Cleo, it changed a lot and never became the vision we had when we first published it, so with Enigma we began with a heavy focus on women’s fashion. We focus on issues that are interesting for men as well as women and from what we see we have a lot of men who read Enigma. We also include men’s fashion and we have a section called ‘He Said, She Said’ which talks about relationships with different gender opinions.
People outside the magazine business, might think that it’s always glitz and glam for editors and that they hardly leave the office without designer heels, but what’s really behind the scenes?
A huge amount of work with stressful deadlines and hectic efforts. A magazine is a lot of hard work, we might not have the most glamorous office but it doesn’t matter how we look like in the office, what really matters is how we work. We’re here to work so you got to be comfortable, however, image is also important and I encourage my team to be fashionable when they go to meetings, but I care a lot more about what they deliver. At Vogue, Anna Wintour has a huge budget for clothes as her day is full of important meetings with designers and celebrities so it’s important for her. But in the office you roll your sleeves up and work without high heels.
How did you build up the Enigma team?
I still edit every page of the magazine. If someone came to me and told me I could do the job as I’m very good at styling, I tell them ok show me which photographer goes with what page, it shouldn’t be that easy to get on board and create a magazine. Sometimes we were surprised to have great interviews coming from junior editors. There are a lot of young people who just need the right training. Amy Mowafi, the Managing Editor and I edit every single article, the magazine is actually edited four times before it goes into print. Anyone can suggest an idea in the magazine and you never know where the next great idea is coming from.
Do you think that fresh minds with interesting ideas might also be successful in this bad economic situation?
If someone very talented went to an investor to ask for financial support and presented a proper business plan with proper market research I don’t think his idea would be rejected.
Why didn’t you expand with more publications?
Well, Teen Vogue came 60 years after Vogue and for us, a lot of young people aged 18-35 read Enigma. The magazine industry is different here. We try to have an international edge with top quality printing, top quality design and it’s a big project. We started new projects like Enigma TV and Enigma Mobile and we’re the first magazine that came out with a strong website and full content online. I set my standards very high, once Enigma is perfect, we could do the Arabic version of Enigma. If I’ll expand for print we will expand in audience. What some people might not know that we produce corporate magazines like the First Mall Magazine, we also did a newsletter for SODIC.
Tell us about the trend of ‘Society Pages’?
Enigma was the first to intoduce ‘Society Pages’ and after the success in grabbing the attention of readers and advertisers, most magazines started to do the same thing in the first ten pages of their publications. Magazines that weren’t lifestyle started to include such pages after the success of Enigma. The key is if you have too many society pages and they’re not interesting you lose credibility, so we choose events that are really worth it. This market wants to look at society, I’d rather look at fashion or interesting interviews. A lot of people tell me you have lots of society pages but I’d tell them this is what the advertisers want. At the end you have a product you need to sell. You have to understand the market, the client and to know what will sell. We now have the balance that makes the readers happy and the advertisers as well. We have a great percentage of advertisers and that’s not an easy task as we’re priced well above all magazines.
In February 2006, Enigma decided to bring sexy back and celebrate Valentine’s with a cover showing a lingerie model, that caused some negative feedback from some newsstands in Egypt. So what happened?
The issue had no problems with censorship, but some outlets displayed the magazine on its back cover like Metro Supermarket. You live and learn but we still believe in pushing the boundaries as things change. A lot of magazines include bikini models inside, but for some, the problem is the cover.
From shooting Hend Sabry with a tiger to making Egyptian footballer Mido wear couture, what’s the Enigma look?
The Enigma look is to show people in a modern, fresh, different view like when we did in the Mido fashion shoot he was the first football star in Egypt to have such a shoot. The stars are more likely to expect the new vision if it’s coming from ‘Aganeb’ (foreigners) (laughs). No one will refuse a free trip to London; we do a lot of our shoots there with professional models and photographers. Ruby was very professional in her photo shoot, she was fantastic, she worked early in the morning and late at night, the stylists had no trouble with her at all.
whenever you go shopping at newsstands, you come across a bunch of Egyptian English speaking magazines, where very few are really special, and the next summer, you don’t find half of them anymore on newsstands and they become replaced by others. In your opinion, what’s the reason behind this?
A lot of magazines won’t last after few issues and others are being funded by somebody who is paying the expenses and swallowing the loss. People might think it’s easy to create a magazine as they don’t realize the amount of work put into it. Even if you have the most beautiful magazine it could not be a success. A lot of magazine publishers haven’t been trained in professional magazines before they started on their own. If you talk to advertising agencies, they’re well aware of who has the biggest circulation. In any magazine all over the world the income is from advertising. Competition is healthy and anyone with a new idea should start if they really have a new idea. I like to encourage young people, but the problem is a lot of people lack training and passion. We didn’t reinvent the wheel but anywhere in the world you have to have some magazine experience or at least some training to start on your own. Even if your going to do the same try to have your own edge, you must ask why someone would buy your magazine and not that one and why would they advertise in yours and not that one.
How wide is the gap between English and Arabic magazines?
Arabic Magazines like ‘Kalam El Nas’ and ‘Flash’ make a lot of money. But for editorial content and style, we’re still waiting for someone to come out with a new idea.
So how did you get Egyptian politicians to do covershoots in a fashion magazine?
Egyptian politicians who we interviewed like Mr. Amr Moussa, H.E. Rachid M.Rachid and Mr. Ossama El Baz knew Enigma quite well and they were sure that they would be interviewed by a professional journalist and the article would be well written along with professional photography. Back in 2002, I met with the American Vice President Joseph Biden and he fairly spoke about the Middle East, although at that time things weren’t stable. I told myself that one day this man might become the next American President. I make sure to attend The World Economic Forum annually and there I meet the world’s top politicians. At Vogue, I met with Calvin Klein, John Galliano, Karl Lagerfield, Prada, these were brief meetings when I took them inside Anna Wintour’s office, the ones I meet now are in proper meetings but back then they didn’t think much about me which is fine everyone must start somewhere. (laughs)