This week, Kafkadesk spoke with Claire Dognini, Leigh Woods and Benny Water, respectively marketing director, chief-editor and art director of Oko! Magazine, a Prague-based English-language print magazine who has set out on a mission to bridge the gap between Czechs and expats.
Hi Oko team! You all have completely different backgrounds. Tell us a bit about yourselves, and how you eventually all converged in Prague?
Leigh: My brother had been living in the Czech Republic for several years before I finally came to visit him in 2008. The trip was originally planned as a quick stop on the way home to the U.K. after spending six months in Greece. To my surprise, I was offered a great job opportunity at McKinsey and ended up staying in Prague until 2013. I then spent several years studying and working in Africa. I first ventured to South Africa, where I gained a professional field guiding licence and later lead safaris across southern and eastern Africa. In 2014, I began working at a humanitarian project based in rural Rwanda for a few years before eventually returning to Prague in 2017.
Claire: I’m a British national, however lived in Amsterdam for a big chunk of my life, more than 17 years. It was a job opportunity that brought me to Prague for the first time in 2008. In 2011, I came back after missing the city tremendously and started an events company and a rugby travel company. My husband and I haven’t looked back since.
Benny: As for me, I originally came to Prague for an Erasmus exchange year, but ended up liking the city and the country and decided to stay.
And how did you all come together to create Oko? What’s the founding story?
Benny: Claire and I met in the park through our dogs becoming friends. Over coffee we both expressed our wish to help the expat community and the local community to work together rather than simply coexist as two separate communities. Through a series of brainstorming sessions, the founding of Oko! Magazine was laid out. I met Leigh a year or so before at my previous job, where he was one of my colleagues.
Leigh: Benny has already answered how we met, but I would like to add to his point that from the moment each of us met one another, things just seemed to click. We have a great relationship with one another, but also challenge each other in ways that help us to develop both personally and professionally. I think it’s for this reason that we are all able to manage the magazine as such a small team and with lots of other responsibilities.
Claire: All of the above… It all started with dogs. As for the team, everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses and somehow, we just complement each other. I’m not going to lie: it is hard at times to try and get everything down on schedule, but we just make it happen. Great team effort!
I’m guessing it’s not just the three of you running the magazine? Who else is behind Oko?
Leigh: Oko! wouldn’t be possible without the incredible team we’ve managed to assemble over the past year. Since the magazine’s inception, we’ve had the privilege to work with some very talented people, from our amazing writers and photographers to our trusty editors and proof-readers. Without their contributions, Oko! wouldn’t be possible and we’re incredibly grateful for all of their hard work and dedication.
What goals are you seeking to achieve with Oko! Magazine?
Claire: Benny and I love reading books and magazines. We just felt there wasn’t any good quality free magazines in Prague written in English and what was available was very much just focused on expats and tourists. We wanted to create something that is for just local people living in the Czech Republic hoping to bridge the gap between Czech nationals and foreigners residing in the country. We wanted to create a magazine that people want to collect, so not overloading it with advertising. We focus more on PR articles, sponsorship and donations. We support artists, photographers and designers by providing them a platform to showcase their work. Oko! is all about the community.
Tell us a bit about your readers: Are they expats living in the Czech Republic? Czechs? A bit of both?
Benny: Oko! Magazine is first and foremost a Czech lifestyle magazine and focuses on stories we hope local people will enjoy. At Oko! we define “locals” as people having their primary life in Czechia, both Czech natives and foreigners. Last month, we had a Czech readers base of 38% which we are really proud of and this number is increasing. We are aiming for a 50/50 balance throughout 2020.
I’ve already asked this to the folks at Prague Resident Magazine: We read everywhere that print media is dead and done for. What’s your take on the issue?
Benny: We at Oko! believe that good quality print is not dead, on the contrary a quality paper (eco-friendly of course) with quality photographs and articles make for a valuable piece of art and information. The durable materials, quality design and relative timeless content make Oko! Magazine a perfect collectible and will always give a glimpse into life in Czechia from the perspective of our current time.
Claire: Print is not dead, certainly not. I just think the reader is changing. There is so much fake going around and everything is so commercialised. People want something real and honest. Hence why we decided to take this project on in a different manner as I previously mentioned. It takes more time and patience though, but as we say in England, “slow and steady wins the race”.
Based on your experience, what are the upsides/downsides of running a magazine in Prague and the Czech Republic?
Benny: I think the downside of running a magazine in 2019/2020 in general is that people have the misconception that print is dead, and a lot of focus seems to be on social media these days. Convincing people that a nice review still has great impact and value is not always easy. Building trust takes time!
Leigh: From an editorial perspective, one of the greatest challenges has been providing content that is fresh for both Czechs and foreign locals. For example, last year our history category focused on some of the most famous Czechs in history such as Jan Hus and Wenceslas I. We needed to strike the right balance between introducing some of these characters and their stories to expats and providing fresh content and perspectives to Czechs, who have heard it all before.
Why did you think the foreign coverage of the country was insufficient?
Benny: We felt there was a gap and a need for a luxury, printed, leisure magazine focusing on the Czech Republic.
Claire: When you go to Berlin, London, Paris etc., you can go to any coffee-shop and pick a good quality free magazine up as there is ample choice. One and a half year ago you didn’t have that option in Prague. We wanted to fill that gap, It’s a unisex magazine and has an article for everyone. That’s how it has been designed so when you have 20 minutes to spare while you wait for your coffee or dentist appointment, you will pick that one article that interests you.
What’s next for Oko Magazine? More frequent issues, wider distribution, diversified topics? Tell us what are the next steps you’re considering!
Benny: We are always trying to improve and build on the magazine. A big part of 2020 will be to increase our web presence and hopefully become more of a community staple.
Claire: In 2019, we didn’t know who our readers base are, and one year on we have a much better understanding of who our readers are and where the interests lay. We have made adjustments for the new year based on those findings. We are adding new sections of interest and, even though we are keeping in with the design of Oko!, there will be some changes. However all will be revealed next year!
Let’s finish on a personal note: What do you like the most about Prague and/or the Czech Republic? What brought/what’s keeping you here?
Benny: For me, Prague offers all the benefits of a big city without feeling overwhelming. On top of that I enjoy Czech culture and the relative laid-back lifestyle, as soon as you leave the city centre you are offered a variety of beautiful landscapes and quaint villages with unique traditions.
Leigh: It’s hard to answer that question without using all the old clichés. Everyone knows by now about the beautiful architecture, cheap beer, and fantastic culture that make this country such a joy to live in. However, the one aspect that has kept me here more than anything else is the people. I’ve met so many inspiring individuals since moving to Prague who have helped me to become a much better version of myself. I’ve been fortunate enough to have made many new friends (both Czechs and expats) and learned valuable lessons from incredible people from all different backgrounds.
Claire: I have to agree with both Benny and Leigh. I fell in love with Prague for its architecture and history, I just love the medieval city and the traditions that go back to the Celts. What has kept me in Prague has been the community whom I have met while living in Zizkov. As for the Czech Republic, I am a country girl at heart and love the fact that within 15 minutes driving you can be completely engulfed in nature. And it is beautiful!
Disclaimer: The author of this interview is also a contributing writer for Oko! Magazine.