15 Years of C! Magazine

A glorious race from the stands

C! Magazine achieved the impossible. It got and sustained the attention of a mature, affluent male audience in an industry dominated by women’s titles. It created a strong Filipino media brand. It proved that readers value content, and that advertisers will reach the market they want, if they pay attention to content. It showed that integrity wins in the end.

I’ve seen nothing else like the C! phenomenon in my thirty years in print media, both in editorial and on the business side. I have worked in books, newspapers, and magazines. This thing is a one-off.

When I first saw C! Magazine, around 2002, I thought, “Wow, great effort. These guys are serious. I wonder if they’ll last a year.” In the Philippines, many car magazines had come and gone. In fact, I had written a column for one, Automotion, edited by my friend Erle Sebastian. That, too, had come and gone in the mid-90’s. There were several others. Only C! has stood the test of time.

Carl Cunanan tells me it all began at the Miata Cup at the Subic International Raceway in 2001. Contrary to what many people in the industry think, the C! guys were not a “barkada”. Sure, they knew each other, but they weren’t close buddies, just a bit more than nodding acquaintances. I guess people think tisoys all know each other and hang out together.

At the time, Jay Aldeguer and Joel Jara from Cebu had approached Kenny Quintal to explore the idea of a local car magazine. Kenny and his brother Kirby are involved in industrial graphic design, and had done some work for Jay, which he thought was impressive. Jay and Joel asked Kenny to put together an editorial team and some projections.

Kenny broached the idea to some of the other guys who were hanging around the track. His cousin Miguel Bichara brought Kevin Limjoco over. By coincidence, Kevin had tried to get a local franchise for the American magazine Road & Track, but it didn’t pan out. Carl Cunanan was racing his Miata in the same series. Kookie, Georges, and the Ramirez brothers, who ran the track, were around. The conversation caught fire. Everyone was excited about the idea. None of them had had any serious publishing experience, but that was probably a good thing. Any publisher at the time (myself included) would have advised them not to do it.

The discussion turned into a plan, the plan was set in motion, and C! was born in June 2001, with Kenny Quintal and Kevin Limjoco as equal partners. The Cebu group ultimately decided not to participate. Carl Cunanan joined as a partner in August 2001, along with Paolo Martel. In 2008, Kenny sold his share to Michael Lhuillier (once again connecting C! to Cebu) and bowed out of the group.

I first got to meet the C! team around 2005. At the time, I was working for ABS-CBN Publishing, then the second-largest magazine group in the country, by volume. To ABS-CBN, C! was an anomaly, an independent that was bigger than some of our titles. At the time, we explored the idea of sharing distribution channels, they were big enough to help us form a consortium. ABS-CBN had built its own distribution, after paying too much to independent distributors. We ended up doing some business together. I remember my then boss, Thelma San Juan, in one meeting, when I was proposing the idea of cooperating with C!, asking me, “What is it about this magazine? Why is it so successful?” Thelma, of course, comes from a fashion orientation, she is very much the Anna Wintour of the Philippines. I said, “Thelma, cars are to men as fashion is to women. C! is like ‘Vogue’ for Filipino men.” She got it.

The one thing that struck me about C! was that there was way too much of it, from a corporate cost-control perspective. Well in excess of 200 pages an issue, C! was the magazine that wouldn’t shut up. In fact, it kept adding sections, like Tech and Tuner, Formula One, and the like. The publishing business is unique, because it involves both content and manufacturing. Because of the high cost of printing and distribution, you need to keep page counts— and thus, costs, down, especially in a small market like the Philippines.

I remember telling Kevin, Carl, and Tito, around that time, “This magazine has too much content. Yes, there is such a thing. You can’t sustain this big a book with these few people. The cost and effort are too high, and you will all burn out. You need to cut the number of pages, spread it out over more issues.”

They listened to me, but thank goodness, they didn’t take my advice. I’ve never been happier to be wrong. But, to this day, I still don’t know how they do it, and put me back on that same day, in that same meeting, and I’d still give the same advice.

15 years later, C! is still going strong, and still as bulky as it ever was. That bulk is not just ads and press releases. It’s solid, well-curated content, created by experts with a serious passion for their subject, and for perfection. C! not only has something to say, it has a lot to say, and the market has rewarded it with their loyalty.

It’s easy to forget that one of the very great things about C! is that it is 100% Filipino. That’s something to be celebrated, considering the tremendous stature that C! has established internationally. There is simply no other Filipino magazine that has achieved this.

Another great thing about C!, this time from a business perspective, is that it delivers the male audience, consistently and solidly. In 2001, the magazine industry in the Philippines, similar to the Western nations, was totally and decisively dominated by women’s titles, in terms of circulation and advertising revenue. The biggest men’s magazines in the world, GQ, Esquire, and the car magazines, Road and Track, Car, and the like, were considered niche titles, and commanded just a fraction of overall ad spend. It wasn’t until a few years later, when the “lad mags” like FHM and Maxim emerged, that the magazine industry realized that males were a vital audience as well. However, the lad mags were of interest mostly to males in the puberty and post-pubescent years, that is to say, boys. C! was for more mature consumers, in fact, men who could afford things like cars and watches.

One of the reasons C! has sustained its audience’s interest is integrity. The car industry is tricky, especially in a relatively small market like the Philippines. On the one hand, readers are very sensitive to “praise release” journalism, where anything even slightly negative is erased, because publishers don’t want to offend potential advertisers. On the other hand, you can go too far with criticism for criticism’s sake, just to prove your editorial independence. Car makers tend to be very sensitive about criticism, because they have so much at stake.

C!, from the outset, resolved to take the side of the consumer. In fact, Kenny, when I first met him, told me that the name C! was chosen to mean “consumer” just as much as “car”. Their guiding idea was that any observation, whether positive or negative, had to be based on, and backed up, by facts.

It is no secret that local auto journalists have tended to be very positive, even fawning, about their reviews. The circle of local motoring journos is small, and everyone knows each other. The C! guys themselves will never say this, or even talk about it, but there is a kind of “magic circle” within the circle, composed of those who write nothing but kind words, and are as a consequence favored with the cream of the dealers’ demo units, and invited to every event and junket. C! and its people have never been part of that circle, and I think they should be justifiably proud of that. What happened instead, was that C!, precisely because of its integrity, evolved into an authoritative platform that, eventually, the major manufacturers simply could not afford to ignore.

One core value that drives the C! machine was that they were never afraid of big ideas. Many were tried, and some failed or sputtered out. One of these big ideas, which has become integral to the identity of C!, is its international perspective. The magazine has had its share of world exclusives, including premier test drives and reviews of everything from supercars to hot hatchbacks. It has international stature, and what it writes is taken seriously.

Another core value is their relentless quest for perfection. C! was, and is, the only magazine who bothered to buy the expensive test equipment and instruments to test cars properly. Everyone else just accepts the manufacturer’s data, and, as shown by more than one scandal in recent years, that data has not always been totally accurate. More importantly, the equipment gets used. C! does not publish a review of a car without putting hundreds of kilometers on it. Kevin says the C! team now has over 4,000,000 cumulative test kilometers processed so far alone. So, these guys do a lot of driving, not a lot of rewording press releases.

C! has also been about people, as much as anything. I’d like to mention a few I came to know, and who were in one way or another, an important part of C! This is by no means a comprehensive list, just my own experiences.

It wouldn’t be right to discuss the C! phenomenon, for instance, without mentioning James Deakin, who arguably was the public face of C!, for a time, and served as its Editor-In-Chief, at least in title. The internal relationship between James and the magazine was sometimes rocky, but to many people, he was the avatar of the magazine, and he did build a friendly, charismatic and funny personality for it. It thus came as a shock to many when he left to form his own media operation, for he seemed inseparable from C!, and C! from him. Both, of course have done just fine without each other since, but their time together was a lot of fun for the readers.

That other great tisoy publishing success story, Rogue magazine, owes a lot to its origin as Manifesto, under the C! group. That too was a rocky relationship, but Manifesto will forever be the father of Rogue. In fact, the name Rogue comes from the way Jose Mari Ugarte and Miguel Mari “went rogue” and left the C! group to do their own book. They, too, achieved great things, but it must be said: C! lit the path.

To me, former Editor-In-Chief Tito Hermoso also was an integral part of the soul of the magazine. I remember arguing with Kevin that he needed to separate the editorial function from the business function. Tito ran both, and was grossly overworked, in my opinion. But actually, in hindsight, he did a pretty decent job, considering. He was a quiet but very steady leader.

The late Kookie Ramirez, to me, gave C! a lot of credibility not only in the racing world, but in the Philippine car scene in general. His was a balanced, measured view, and he added an important element of common sense to C!’s often impassioned writing.

Finally, there are quite a few others who learned their trade at C!, and have gone off to do other things; some of them come back and do a spot of writing from time to time. C! is a breeding ground for good writing about any topic.

I have every confidence that they will navigate future challenges expertly. At the end of the day, quality will be their strongest weapon. C! has been all about quality. On to the next 15!