Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 February - 3 March 2004
Issue No. 679
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Ann Marie Harrison:

In a notoriously fickle market one magazine is now celebrating its 25th anniversary

When modesty pays

Profile by Yasmine El-Rashidi
Ann Marie Harrison


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'I'm not quite sure how I became the businesswoman people say I am. But sometimes in life you fall into things and you happen to find yourself there. I like what I'm doing, I like my staff, I like the idea of the magazines, and I love the idea of bringing something to Egypt that was not there before. It is satisfying to give Egyptians the quality they deserve'

It is hard to get hold of Ann Marie Harrison. She is busy, she is travelling, and she is reluctant to talk.

"Are you sure you really want to interview me?" she asks on one of numerous attempts to arrange an appointment by phone. "Perhaps you could call me in a few weeks?"

Over a month later Mrs Harrison, as she is known, picks up the phone.

"You still want to interview me?" she asks in seeming surprise. "Well, if you're sure."

The persona is what is expected. Quiet, calm, modest in demeanour, Mrs Harrison in person is an accurate reflection of that self-effacing voice on the phone.

The interview itself proves as hard as the granting of it. Mrs Harrison does not want to talk -- about herself, that is.

"Well I think part of the reason we have done so well is that we hire good staff," she says of the success of her publications. "It's not just someone who thinks they may want to write, or have an idea, or think it would be fun to do a magazine," she says. "We hire journalists, people who are genuinely interested in the field, in the profession. This is not a hobby, and it's not a profession you just happen to slide into because you happen to know a language or two."

The success Harrison speaks about spans not just one magazine, but the conglomeration of six -- part of the publishing house (IBA media) that comprises International Business Associates (IBA). Beneath the umbrella of IBA media are Egypt Today, and its sister publications Business Today, Travel Today, Carnival, la revue and, most recently, an Arabic Egypt Today published quarterly.

"We've certainly grown," Harrison laughs.

Sitting in her glass-enclosed room on the second floor of the IBA's new premises, Harrison attempts to reflect on the path that led to her present success.

"I arrived in Egypt on 6 October 1966," she says of her husband's Ford Foundation posting to Cairo. "And let me tell you," she laughs, "in the 1960s Cairo was very different to what it is now -- not so built up," she adds pausing, the corners of her mouth curling into a revealing half smile. "We stepped out of the airport, it was 100 degrees outside and nothing but desert. I just looked around me, looked at Bill, and thought 'I really have come to the end of the world'!"

Perspectives change, however, and the Harrisons' fondness of the country grew fast. The coming of the 1967 war brought with it the couple's evacuation to Uganda, where they were asked to stay for the next three years.

"We were already sure we wanted to come back though," she recalls. "Before we were evacuated we made it clear. We had fallen in love with Egypt."

Perhaps it was the similarities the Harrisons felt they shared with their neighbours.

"We're from Texas," she offers. "Egyptians are much like Texans in their warmth, their friendliness, the closeness of the community. It's the warmth though. Bill felt very much the same way."

It was something that didn't need concrete discussion, though it became clear to the Harrisons that the country felt like home. And perhaps the magazine and Bill's other business plans had at the bottom of their motive that feeling of belonging.

"It was about bringing to the community something that was missing and something that they deserved," Harrison says, reflecting on her husband's philosophy. "We started the magazine in 1979, and the idea originated simply because there wasn't anything to read at the time if people didn't read Arabic."

Politically, the scenario was apt -- 1977 had seen the national horizon evolve with the introduction of President Anwar El-Sadat's Open Door Policy, and the consequent influx of businessmen, investors and diplomats from around the world.

"There was nowhere to get information," Harrison recalls. "So when it started that was the idea in his mind -- a place where people can get information."

"When it began, we found that the readership was actually mainly Egyptian, and it was the Egyptians (comprising almost 60 per cent of the magazine's readers) that took to our magazine."

Issue one came out as a16-page black and white magazine with a masthead of two and sold for 25-piastres. The contents and circulation of that first edition Harrison cannot now recall.

Today's circulation of that publication, Egypt Today, now stands at 12,000, with subscribers in 27 countries, the largest numbers of overseas readers coming from the US, Canada and Japan.

"Don't ask me why Japan," she laughs. "I don't have a clue!"

It is probably one of the few things Mrs Harrison remains clueless about. Her husband's death some 10 years ago left her at the head of the IBA table. Under her wing were the by-then two publications of Egypt Today and its sister Business Today, the regional office of Federal Express, and Western Union's Egypt office -- for which Bill had recently signed a contract.

"Like with the magazine, my husband felt that courier services were needed," she backtracks. "And also a means of transferring funds. He felt it was something Egyptian businessmen needed as the country evolved. He was innovative in that way -- always looking ahead. But also very concerned for the bettering of the country. He was very proud to take over the post of vice- president of the American University in Cairo eventually."

"At the end of the 1980s we published our first colour cover," she explains. "At the time there was no colour separation, and so we sort of first started the whole publishing thing. There were no real private advertising agencies, and several advertising agency heads today tell us that we started the whole advertising agency phenomena in Egypt. We got ads for the magazine, and that too was a new concept. At first we had to design the ads for the advertisers ourselves -- there was no such thing as an advertising agency to conceptualise and design. Advertising is now the norm, but back then people would tell us 'we'll give you an ad if you write a story about us'. The concept of objective journalism was very foreign to them, and we didn't want to be that sort of publication."

Not that it was all plain sailing.

"We were struggling, and given that we do, and have always, survived off advertising, it was extremely hard at times to walk out of the door without an ad that we needed so badly."

Like most of life's struggles, however, the payoff came in due course.

"I like to think that we established our credibility early on. Advertisers know now what our approach is, and they know to deal with us purely on that level. If the company has a story that's interesting, and our editorial staff thinks it's interesting and worthy of covering, then we will go after that story, but not because the company may buy an ad."

Numbers pay testimony to the consistency -- this year marks the publication's 25th anniversary.

"Whether locally or abroad, that's a long time for any publication to survive," Harrison says. "I'm very proud of the fact that even within this bad economic climate, we have managed to maintain our editorial policies, that we've been able to open new magazines."

At a time when publications have been treading water furiously to stay afloat, IBA media launched two in the past year alone; Carnival and an Arabic quarterly Egypt Today.

"Together with my staff we've tried to assess what the market needs," she says, "Like I said, this profession is very much one that involves team work. Without a good team, you cannot possibly survive. You need people who work together, compliment each other, learn from each other, and care for the publication as a whole, not only where their names go."

The mastheads of the six publications reveals a lot. Each publication works with its own exclusive editorial staff -- the largest of which belongs to Egypt Today and comprises eight.

"It's small, but we manage!" Harrison laughs.

As we tour the second floor -- the main "newsroom" of all the publications -- there is a contained buzz in the air. The open space furnished with only desk partitions allows sound to travel far.

"A lot of people comment on that," she says of the quiet. "The people you see here are the editors," she points out. "You seldom see reporters. They are out reporting," she smiles.

We are accompanied on the tour by Bailey -- Harrison's tiny dog.

"When my husband passed away my daughter gave me Bailey," she smiles. "She said I needed to come home to company every day."

Harrison's daughter greets us on the third floor -- the home of Western Union Money Transfer, of which she is the country manager.

"Egypt is our home," Harrison elaborates in the stillness of her office. "For my son the United States is home, but for Madeleine and me, this is it."

She seems to be suggesting both the country and the business.

"We still have much work to do," Harrison says. "Take our Arabic magazine for example, we are still only quarterly. Our audience is anyone who is looking for good writing and good stories -- the kind we offer in English -- but whose English isn't quite good enough. We believe that those people deserve that same quality in their mother-tongue. That's just one of the things we aim to focus on in the next quarter century."

Harrison pauses, opens her mouth to speak, then hesitates momentarily.

"Well you know," she enthuses abruptly, "one has to stay fresh. In this industry, and any really, if you don't stay fresh you fall behind. About every four to five years we sit down and take a good look at what we need to do, to upgrade, to give a new look, fresh ideas. You simply can't stay the same. I've seen many publications open and close, open and close. Times change and things evolve, and things need to be updated accordingly. And that," she adds, "is why one needs to be working with people who are genuinely interested in the field.".

She laughs, tilts her head, and laughs some more when she is prodded about her background.

"My background was in fine arts," she says, "I was a voice major," she continues. "It seems like a lifetime away now, but I was very involved in the field."

The timely pauses create momentum.

"I had a wonderful career, I sang and soloed with some major orchestras in the United States," she says. "I was a soloist for the Philadelphia Orchestra."

Until her husband announced that they "needed" to come to Egypt. And, as she says, here she is.

"I'm not quite sure how I became the businesswoman people say I am," she reflects. "But sometimes in life you fall into things and you happen to find yourself there. I like what I'm doing, I like my staff, I like the idea of the magazines, and I love the idea of bringing something to Egypt that was not there before. It is satisfying to give Egyptians the quality they deserve. And that's not to say that we are the only ones offering that," she hurriedly and apologetically adds. "But it's nice to be amongst those offering that type of quality publication."

Mrs Harrison takes a moment to chatter to her dog. When she looks up it is with a knowing smile.

"I forget that Western Union is actually the main part of our business (IBA)," she smiles. "The magazines are 'mine', so-to-speak. On every level I've seen things come a very long way. When we first launched we were the first English language publication and we were the first private publication since the revolution. And now there are so many, which is a wonderful sign. To see other magazines come into the market means it's a vibrant society, that people are hungry for knowledge, for choices," she says. "And of course in terms of journalism things have evolved. There's definitely more of a recognition of what good journalism is and should be."

The obstacles along the way have been numerous and trying, "but as you can see nothing has been insurmountable," she smiles. "My staff have been willing to work through it all."

Be it her staff, or her own drive, along the way Mrs Harrison introduced the English-language consumer magazine to Egypt, and continues to publish one of its highest profile examples. But that, of course, is something she is reluctant to see.

"Like I said," she laughs openly, "I fell into this, but I happened to have found myself in it. I had a fine arts background, my husband was an economist. I tell people that the magazine grew not because of us, but more accurately, in spite of us."

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