Donna Hay: “It’s Impossible To Know Where Media Is Heading”

Donna Hay: “It’s Impossible To Know Where Media Is Heading”

Australia’s culinary queen, Donna Hay, talks to B&T about the 15th anniversary of her eponymous magazine, how to have a successful (multi) media career, and reveals some kitchen disasters, too…  

John Bastick
Posted by John Bastick

Firstly, congratulations on 15 years of Donna Hay magazine. It’s certainly a difficult time for print mags, what’s been the secret to its ongoing success?
It’s a combination of things. It’s a very solid brand, it’s very well trusted, the recipes work, but on the flip side to that it’s always very beautiful. There’s an incredible attention to detail and it proves that the premium food space is alive and well and its still very much in demand.

The magazine is indeed a thing of great beauty. Do people actually cook anything in it or merely leave it on their coffee tables to impress visitors?
I hope people cook from it. I think you may have been right saying that, say, 10 years ago, and that’s because we’ve seen such a change in society when it comes to food.

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There’s just so much competition in the food space now than, say, when you started out. How hard is it to say fresh and relevant?
Yes, there’s a lot of noise in the market. Being relevant is one of my strengths. I’ve always tried to make the shot further than the curve. I think I am a good judge on what people want to cook next. I also have a very creative team that keeps the brand relevant. Our focus has always been home cooks, we’re not about replicating restaurant recipes. We’re about home cooks and we know their skill level, what they want to do during the weekend and want they may want to attempt on the weekend.

In terms of Donna Hay as a ‘media brand’, you’ve got the magazine, the TV show, the cookbooks, the homewares. You’re the ultimate multi-media entrepreneur, really. What’s the lessons there for other media brands?
It’s not easy playing across lots of different mediums and then trying get them to all work together, I must admit. But it is fun and hopefully they intertwine seamlessly from the outside. They all work together. The show on Foxtel works with my online videos which work with the magazine. I don’t think I’d be in such a strong position now if I didn’t have all those other aspects of the brand. That constant reminder about the brand around people’s daily lives is a great thing for me.

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We’ve seen a lot of magazines close over the past five years, but particularly over the past 18 months. What do you think went wrong for them?
I don’t know. Magazines are a tough thing to do and then you branch out into video and websites, and all at a time when budgets are shrinking. These days you have to be rather nimble and cost effective. But some brands just aren’t suited to branching out as far as, say, I have.

I’m always intrigued how food magazines pick a cover. How an image of a chocolate gateaux beats an image of duck à l’orange? Is it guess work or science?
I guess, I don’t research anything. Research tells you what you have done and not what you should do, but that’s just my opinion. How do I pick a cover? If I was running past a newsagency, do I have 3.5 seconds to decide on a magazine? If you looked at that cover would you know what it was? Did your mouth start to water? Did it make you feel hungry?

We have a lot of overseas chefs on Aussie TV – your Jamie Olivers, Nigellas and Heston Blumenthals – why do they seem to resonate with audiences over, say, Australian ones?
All of those people have pure cooking shows. I think what we have in Australia are food reality shows and they’re two totally different things. They’re a similar genre but they’re not the same. Those overseas chefs also have huge budgets and huge international audiences, too.

Are we suffering a bit of food overload? Every new show on telly appears to have some sort of reality cooking angle? Have we reached ‘peak food’ or is it sill an easy ‘win’ for the networks?
I think people will be always interested in food. But yes, I think we may be getting fatigued by all these reality TV cooking shows. But I think a cooking show, showing beautiful food, showing you all the short cuts, the tips and the tricks, people will always want to watch that.

In this age of the foodie, do you find your audience is a lot smarter, a lot more food savvy? That forces you to take it up a notch each time? Home cooks are getting so good they almost don’t need advice?
Ha, ha! That’s a gloomy thought, but no I don’t really see that.

You’ve had your share of critics; probably the biggest criticism being that you’re not a chef. What do you say to them?
I did study and I did study a lot of food science and I do have a degree… but I don’t work in a commercial kitchen, I write recipes for home cooks.

One of the big industry issues we hear of a lot is the current supermarket wars, the marketing and advertising of supermarkets. Any advice to the Coles and Woolies of the world? You’re a shrewd marketer…
Ha, no I’m not. I don’t know what the supermarkets are going to do. To me, it all seems very cyclic and one of them will always be on top and the other will be seen as struggling. It’s a very difficult question. But take Woolies, they’re trying very hard in the fresh food space; but really I have no idea what they’re going to do.

A general media question – where do you see audiences, eyeballs heading?
I think the funny thing about media is it’s virtually impossible to plan where it’s heading. It’s changing quicker than any of us can predict. That’s the race – you just have to keep up. I haven’t made any long-term plans. But online video is going great for us. In terms of the food space it’s just so much quicker people watching it than writing it down.

Donna Hay magazine is part of News Corp. News bosses aren’t spurring you on in a new direction?
No, I think they’re so used to how I operate and the long term goals always stay the same. I like to be nimble, to change and react quickly. The media landscape is just moving so fast and food is just so much more fashionable than it used to be. The trends are moving so much quicker now, so many things now dictate what we’re going to eat.

We’ve talked about what works for Australian audiences, but what doesn’t work?
Not every recipe that may work in magazine will work as good television. A good TV recipe needs lots of tricks and tips for it to work. A TV recipe has to naturally flow for it to work and you want the viewer to go “wow, I never knew that, I want to try that”. You want to show how to do it simpler, better in half the time. You need to impress the viewer.

What’s the one thing you won’t eat?
Only one? People think because you’re a foodie there’s some secret document that you’ve signed that says you’re going to eat everything and that’s not true. That document doesn’t exist. I don’t eat oysters; I don’t eat offal… I have eaten it but only to confirm that I still hate it.

Do we live in a time where everything looks and tastes great? I live in Sydney and get to go to a number of fancy restaurants for my job, and they’re always, always incredible.
We are so, so spoilt in Australia. I travel a lot overseas and it just makes you appreciate how good we have it here in Australia.

You must get asked to put your name to a number of brands. Is there any sort of products, brands you’d reject?
I don’t really like doing that. I’ve always been mindful that we have a variety of advertisers in the magazine and you don’t want to sign-on to one for the sake of all the others. If I aligned myself to one electrical appliance then I’d take all the rest out. So you need to be very careful playing that game.

Are advertisers getting more demanding?
I think they are, but I tend to work with advertisers who like a more subtle approach. And that resonates more with my audience as well.

Lastly, everything we see you do is always delicious and pretty and perfect. But you must have had some right disasters over your career, too? Have you ever burned a kitchen to the ground or accidentally poisoned an entire dinner party?
Yeah, lots of them. How many do you want? If you take the test kitchen, then things go wrong all the time until you get it perfect. There was this one time when I had to set up this picnic scenario for this advertising shoot in a park. It was this massive shoot, 20 plates of food, it was ridiculous. I remember there was this big plate of terrine in the middle of the shoot and I suddenly heard this woman in the park yelling, “Teddy, Teddy come back”. And I turned around to see this big fat Labrador in the middle of the set eating the terrine. I had to put it back together with dog slobber all over it.

Hey, that could be the name of your memoirs – “I had to put it back together with dog slobber”!
Who’d want to read my memoirs? I’m not that interesting, ha, ha!