As AsiaLIFE marks its 100th issue, managing editor Marissa Carruthers takes a walk down memory lane to find out how Cambodia’s number one lifestyle magazine came to be. Photography by Charles Fox.
“A lot of people laughed when I told them I was launching AsiaLIFE,” says publisher Mark Bibby Jackson as he sits back in a chair a few feet from the spot where the magazine was “born” in The Rising Sun on Street 178. However, as AsiaLIFE marks its 100th issue this month, those that laughed have been proved wrong with the magazine standing the test of time.
Like how many business brainwaves are born in the Kingdom of Wonder, AsiaLIFE Cambodia was pretty much the product of a drunken conversation in a Phnom Penh bar. A few sleepless weeks later, in December 2006, 2,000 copies of our debut issue were being bundled across the border in boxes on a bus from Vietnam before hitting the Cambodian capital for the first time.
The publication’s journey during the following 99 issues has been a rollercoaster ride as AsiaLIFE strives to maintain its ethos of producing high-quality content presented in a well-designed way that expats look forward to picking up each month.
“We’ve succeeded because of the quality and effort put in by people,” says Bibby Jackson. “Everyone who has worked for us has been devoted. We’ve always been a fun team, and we’ve always tried to be casual and relaxed. In Cambodia, a lot of people don’t understand the heart and essence of a product. It’s very easy to replicate a cover, but if you don’t understand what’s going on inside then you’re lost.”
AsiaLIFE Is Born
Bibby Jackson accidentally stumbled into a career in magazines while lecturing at the Institute for International Development in Hanoi as a VSO volunteer in 2004. He was invited to meet the editor of Vietnam Pathfinder, who, during their first meeting, asked him to edit the magazine. “He got me to proofread it, and then asked me what I was doing for the next year and if I’d take over the magazine,” says Bibby Jackson. “I didn’t expect that.” He had never worked on a magazine prior to that.
After 18 months, Bibby Jackson was asked to write a travel feature on Phnom Penh for Saigon Inside Out, a new publication launched by current AsiaLIFE HCMC publisher Jonny Edbrooke and two partners. They started including a small section on the Cambodian capital and secured a few advertisers off the back of it, then decided to change the name to AsiaLIFE, and set up in Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh. Bibby Jackson was tasked with heading the Cambodian operation.
“When we first came here, there seemed to be a different magazine for each nationality, but there were no lifestyle publications catering for women,” Bibby Jackson recalls. “We made it our focus to aim for 30-something-year-old female expats.”
Flying solo, Bibby Jackson was on the hunt for a team to bring the AsiaLIFE Cambodia dream to life. It was during a drink in The Rising Sun that he met American designer, Keith Kelly. After a few beers, the deal was done and Kelly was recruited to AsiaLIFE’s ranks as art director and designer. “I don’t know how I’d have done the magazine without Keith,” Bibby Jackson says. “This was a few weeks before the magazine was supposed to have been printed.” Kelly adds, “We really did it off the hoof.”
Despite having a designer and editor in place, vital ingredients were missing: photographers and writers. Australian photographer Peter Stuckings was sent from Vietnam for two days to shoot the entire issue.
Bibby Jackson recalls with a smile how the cover was shot on a boat, which Stuckings got on board before setting sail. “We were on the water and realised what we actually wanted was pictures of people standing on the boat. We had to hail over a small fishing boat and negotiate to hire it for $1 for 20 minutes so our Peter could get the photo. One of the great things about Cambodia is that you can do so many things you can’t normally do, that’s still the case today.”
The next step was finding a printer to produce a magazine of the quality the team was striving for – and that proved tricky. “In those days there was still only saddle stitch,” Kelly says, referring to the binding process. “The quality here wasn’t up to the standard of Vietnam at that time and that was our point, to produce and promote quality.”
To ensure these standards were met, the first issue, along with the following seven, were printed, undercover, in Vietnam. And as soon as the print run ended for AsiaLIFE HCMC, its Cambodian counterpart would hit the press.
Boxes packed full of copies were loaded onto a bus and sent across the border to Cambodia, where Bibby Jackson and Kelly would pick them up in a white Jeep and distribute them. “We went above and beyond the call of duty in the early days,” Bibby Jackson says, remembering the nailbiting wait for the first issue, which landed off the bus at 5pm – an hour before the launch party at Pontoon Lounge was set to start.
“Looking back, I don’t know how we managed it,” Bibby Jackson says. “We didn’t do anything properly. We didn’t set up a company or get a license. We didn’t promote it here; we didn’t have any sales or writers or photographers. There was just Keith and me.”
With issue one under the belt and well received by readers, the focus was on pushing the quality and finding the right team to take the magazine to the next level. A team was recruited, headed by Seiha Seang who continues to work as AsiaLIFE’s distribution and accounts manager. Photographer Nathan Horton and writers Liz Ledden and Charis Shaffer were also brought on board, as was Qudy Xu who managed sales.
But the road was to remain rocky while AsiaLIFE worked to establish itself in the market. “The difficulty was we didn’t know what we were doing legally,” Bibby Jackson says, recalling receiving a phone call while staying at Knai Bang Chatt, Kep from the Ministry of Information. “They rang to kindly point out I didn’t have a licence for the magazine. This delayed the third issue by a few weeks while we worked on getting one.”
Despite having a team in place, advertisers jumping on board and interest from readers gaining momentum, the hard work was far from over, with Bibby Jackson and Kelly regularly pulling all-nighters to get the magazine to print on time. “My living room and The Rising Sun basically became the AsiaLIFE office,” says Kelly. “It was routine that we’d stay up all night on deadline, send the disc with the magazine to Ho Chi Minh City at about 6am and head to the Woolly Rhino.”
After drinking a Black Panther and Beer Laos, they would go to The Rising Sun at about 11am and have a Bloody Mary before heading home to crash out. “That was the usual routine for about the first year,” Kelly adds.
The publication’s prosperity was given a further push by Phnom Penh’s rapid growth. As more businesses, boutiques, hotels and restaurants opened, and the fashion scene started to boom, this brought with it a wealth of opportunities providing more material to write about and more advertisers – many of whom remain loyal to the publication today.
By 2010, business was booming but Bibby Jackson and Kelly wanted to remain on top of the game so they decided to undergo a style change, revamping AsiaLIFE into more of the lifestyle magazine of today, with a selection of double page spreads coupled with stunning visuals on the pages.
“This opened up a whole new world to us,” says Kelly, who left AsiaLIFE after four years to have his son in Thailand. “We got to do things creatively and that wasn’t being done much here so it was pretty ground-breaking. It was fun.”
While the early days were tough, they brought with them many memorable moments for the AsiaLIFE team as the magazine quickly built up a strong reputation. Bibby Jackson and Kelly laugh as their walk down memory lane jolts open forgotten doors.
Bibby Jackson cites issue five, the architectural issue featuring revered Van Molyvann inside and the iconic domes of Central Market on the cover, as one of his favourites. His face lights up as he recounts the time they tracked down expats from countries in the 2007 Rugby World Cup, and photographed them. Kelly then digitally painted the national flag onto their faces. “That was a fun issue,” says sports mad Bibby Jackson.
For Kelly, it was when he was able to call on his creativity that he thrived the most. “For me, one of the most fun issues I did was designing a cover featuring a Khmer woman that was half apsara dancer and half modern girl,” he says referring to issue 33, which explored how the younger generation were embracing the contemporary world.
Arts has also featured heavily on AsiaLIFE’s pages. “We were one of the first people to write about the arts scene and were supported from day one by Dana Langlois at Java and Nico Mesterharm at Meta House,” Bibby Jackson says, adding the first issue featured an interview with now-established artist, Oeur Sokuntevy. “For me, the artists were important.”
As always, with the highs come the lows, and AsiaLIFE has caused controversy from time-to-time. The ‘Uncensored’, sex issue was one that caused a reaction from readers. “I think it was a little too risky for the time,” Bibby Jackson says, before adding with a laugh, “Thankfully, I was out of the country for that issue.”
Bibby Jackson also recalls the sixth edition of AsiaLIFE causing a stink with a certain reader. The magazine sponsored Refugee Film Week, which irked the promoter of a rival film festival. Although Bibby Jackson felt that the dispute had been put to bed after placing fliers for the other film festival in the magazine, he discovered a few months later that the still-disgruntled promoter had produced T-Shirts emblazoned with the slogan, “Mark Jackson: New Colonialist”. They went on sale across the capital for $10. “My sense of humour failed me then,” he recalls. “If any reader has a T-Shirt lurking round and wants to give it to me, I’m an extra-large.”
“AsiaLIFE, in effect, is my grandparents’ legacy,” Bibby Jackson says, recounting how his grandfather, Harold Nash, left him some money in his will when he died. This came at the same time Edbrooke was looking for investment to launch a Cambodian version of AsiaLIFE.
“It was almost coincidence because when Jonny asked me if I wanted to buy in, down to the last dollar, it was exactly the same amount my grandfather left me,” he adds.
As sales were progressing and things were looking good, the global credit crunch hit. In one month alone, AsiaLIFE witnessed a 40 percent downturn as advertisers lost money and confidence. The downward spiral that was sweeping across the globe left the magazine in jeopardy, with Bibby Jackson relying upon the support and generosity of his mother and late stepfather to keep it alive. “It was that, and some faithful advertisers, that kept us going.”
Thankfully, the magazine survived to tell the tale and today is running stronger than ever, with December 2014 being AsiaLIFE’s most profitable issue to date, and last month’s falling not far behind. “This is because we continue to produce quality and we have great customer loyalty,” Bibby Jackson says. “I admit that sometimes what we have done hasn’t worked. Sometimes I can come across as arrogant, but in Cambodia I’ve always felt we’re in a strong position. There’s still a market for quality here.”
As AsiaLIFE enters a new era, Bibby Jackson looks forward to the future and what it holds. He recently launched ASEAN Forum, a business publication covering and distributed across the 10 ASEAN countries, and he’s looking at growing the AsiaLIFE brand by entering Myanmar and possibly Laos.
“AsiaLIFE works well in developing markets, and we believe we can bring something quality to a market again, such as Myanmar,” he says. “For me, the interesting thing is setting up. I much prefer launching magazines, and hopefully by the end of next year there will be something else new.”