Interviewer: Peter Houston

Peter Houston: How did you come to be in this role at Future?

Aaron Asadi: So I joined Future in the back end of 2016, following an acquisition of a magazine publishing company based in Bournemouth. I ran the magazine division at Future for a bit. Then I was given the opportunity to run the online and print brands as Chief Content Officer, which was great.

It was a wonderful time to grow those markets in games and tech and music as we did and work with some brilliant people doing it. During that time, I probably became a bit, not obsessed, but certainly enthused by the affiliate side of the business and definitely became obsessed with SEO.

We then acquired TI and had a restructure, as you do with those massive integrations. So a new role was created for audience and ecommerce, which are two things I’m very, very interested in. I love the people that work in those areas at Future.

So yes, I am now the Chief Audience and Ecommerce Officer, which means I lead the audience dev team, working with editorial to design the content strategies and deliver SEO best practice, so our content ranks as well as it deserves to on Google. Then I also lead the ecommerce team, which is a separate team, to effectively optimise and monetise the shopping content we produce on our brands.

I work with editorial in audience and I work with editorial in ecommerce. But I lead the audience dev team in that and I lead the ecommerce team as well. So it’s actually not been a massive step away from Chief Content Officer where I was basically just the other side of the fence, I was leading the editorial team working with ecommerce and working with audience dev

Is the idea there to align the content closer to that affiliate revenue goal?

We don’t have one sole goal at Future, which is let’s become the best ecommerce publisher in the world. We have that goal, but that’s not the only goal. We recognise the importance of other content that we’re not going to monetise through ecommerce and we recognise that there’s a great deal of opportunity for us as a business and a great deal of desire from customers, most importantly, to not just read shopping content about the thing that they like.

So if they’re into Spider-Man, we have the brands to do that, we’ve got Cinema Blend, we’ve got news from Games Radar, where they want to engage with Spider-Man and we see value in that. We’ve got the experts to engage that. There’s no plan to align around ‘let’s just do shopping content’ at all.

What I would say is we are incredibly collaborative at Future. The editorial teams will obviously work with the audience team, audience team works with ecommerce, ecommerce with editorial, we work closely with advertisting as well to make sure that the content we’re creating is the right sort of content obviously for our customers, and make sure they understand that so that they are doing the best sell to their clients.

We’re an incredibly collaborative business, I would say. There isn’t one sole business goal that we’re trying to gravitate around. We’re just trying to go ‘okay, how do we grow and engage an audience really, really well in these areas’, and then, after that, try and monetise it.

So the audience is a starting point, in that sense?

100%. Ecommerce isn’t an isolated hub at Future at all. We work across all the functions together, as we do in any area. Future is as you’d expect for a large business now, 2,500 employees or thereabouts, there is complexity. We have an ecommerce division, we’ve got brilliant tech engineers, we’ve got really super hard-working finance team, we’ve got HR.

There are different people doing different things, but in my head, it all orbits what is a very simple business, which is around delivering content to audiences that want to learn or engage with their particular passion in a certain way. That whole complex business has to orbit that one simple thing, which is let’s grow the audience, let’s engage with them, and then let’s do our best to monetise that in a way that doesn’t affect those first two things.

The most important thing is reaching an audience and engaging with them. Without that, we don’t have a business.

Is it difficult that you’re trying to do that across such a broad range of subjects? I went on the website earlier and you’ve got 60-something brands there.

Yeah, we’ve got way more, it’s well over 100 in terms of brands. I don’t want to say it’s not difficult because obviously there’s nothing in media that’s easy, right. There’s always challenges because all of those markets that we’re in our competitive markets, every single one of them.

As I said, we are extremely collaborative as a media business. What we strive to do, and what I think we do well, is we all congregate around very clear goals. And we’re very disciplined, I think, about who is doing what, so we’re very defined on what the responsibility is. Even though the tasks might be massive and complex and have lots of things to do, so long as you’re clear on who is doing what thing, it generally gets achieved.

Now, with as many brands as we have and in as many ways to create value both for the customer and for our business as we do, there is inherent complexity that needs to be carefully navigated. But fundamentally, we’ve got the same simple goals: grow the audience, engage with them, and monetise that engagement. That can be in cycling, it can be in music, it can be in tech, but it is a pretty simple goal.

I do like that about Future and, indeed, the same could be said of many media companies. But ultimately, it is a very simple business, which is let’s reach the audience, let’s engage with them. Let’s do that well and honestly, and then, if you can do that well, you will be able to monetise it.

Is there anything that ties together, a kind of brand stamp that this is a Future title, something that makes it Future rather than someone else?

I would say, look, we’re in competitive markets, so I cannot say that is true and then say we are entirely unique, because I don’t think that’s true. I would say the plethora of brands and the different markets that we’re in, and perhaps even the success we have in those markets, does make Future stand out.

But ultimately, a Future brand is always serving, I think, a very clear need. Often, that need is someone’s passion, so if it’s cycling, or playing the guitar, or building a PC, we strive to create content that helps that audience learn more about the thing they love to do.

We’ve got brilliant developers that help do that, they build their cutting edge tech, and we’ve got wonderful, wonderful writers. We’ve got a brilliant sales team across the globe, hard-working professionals in every corner of the business: events teams, print distributors, designers, marketing, all the different people, but we’re all this hive of energetic, smart people. But we all orbit the same thing, which is how can we help our customers.

So coming back to ecommerce, Future has been invested in affiliate ecommerce for a while, you’ve talked about how you got started in that world. Did the ecommerce infrastructure that you’ve had in place really come into play during the pandemic?

I think I’m answering this honestly. Outside of the acquisition of TI, which we can park because it was going to happen with or without a pandemic, I don’t think we made a single change to our ecommerce structure as a result of the pandemic at all. As I said, it’s not an island, ecommerce, it doesn’t exist on its own. It’s just one part of a connected entity.

We have, over the years as that market has grown, developed, better and better buying advice across more and more content areas. Our tech team has built brilliant tech for to match the prices to the pages. A terrific audience team is focused on helping the editorial team reach their goals. And as part of that, within the ecommerce team itself, we’ve got a brilliant commercial team that builds relationships with affiliate partners and merchants.

Obviously being as successful as we are, those relationships are strong and continue to be. We’ve got these ecommerce directors who helped build the strategies with the vertical leads. We’ve got amazing analysts and a brilliant product team to help sort of optimise and curate that content. As for how that worked during the pandemic, it was no different. We just did our jobs.

But you saw a significant uptick in terms of traffic and, I’m assuming, in terms of affiliate revenue?

We obviously did, but if you think from the Future side of things, we weren’t in control of people being in lockdown or not in lockdown. Now their needs might have changed, so people might have bought more laptops to work from home, for instance. We may have responded to our audience need by creating more content around that, but that’s no different from what happens in any kind of season, right?

We flex to the audience needs, we listen to them, we do our research, and then we’ll create content that we think best serves that need, whatever that need might be at the time. If you take, for instance, a massive site like TechRadar, which always has 60 or 70 million sessions a month or something.

The work that goes behind TechRadar…yes, you’ve got more writers on a brand that big, and that’s been going on for so long. But the work that actually happens is no different from a relatively new site such as Bike Perfect, which we launched a year or two ago, which is just a site about cycling. It’s absolutely the same setup, it’s the same infrastructure, it’s the same way of working, which we do across all the Future brands. The only difference is the audience demand.

So what happened in the pandemic was a version of that, where the only thing that really changed was the heightened audience demand, because people would have nothing to do but sit indoors. We didn’t have to change a great deal about how we worked it. It may have affected exactly what we worked on, in terms of topics and things that people were more interested in, but it didn’t change how we worked at all.

Was that how you were able to launch the gardening vertical, for example, really quickly?

Well, the gardening vertical is much more core Future strategy, really. That happened as we were in the final part of the TI acquisition, where we recognised that they had a large bank of print content that we thought would do really well online in a series of magazines that they had. We had thought that there’s an opportunity to put this in a website, which is exactly what we did.

That wasn’t a response in that the pandemic wasn’t even a catalyst to us doing that. We wanted to do it, because that is historically what Future has done. We would acquire publishers, and they may have some print content that we actually think could be used just as well online. That’s how the gardening sectopm launched was that it was a plan from the TI acquisition to do that.

Do you think you learned anything specifically about your audience through the pandemic? Did it give you any insights or anything that you would thought you should be doing more of?

One of the lessons is that their passion for their pastimes doesn’t change. I think perhaps it wasn’t a lesson but it’s almost just sweet. It’s a very romantic thing that their love for whatever it is doesn’t die. So when life got really tough, they turned to the things that they love the most. It was a privilege to be able to serve them.

I think my takeaway was feeling even more necessary than we usually are as a publisher in that time of need. I think there was a sense of privilege and responsibility to be involved in them because suddenly people couldn’t go outside and suddenly the advice you give them on how to play a Paul McCartney song on a guitar, or what the best bike to buy is for the one hour of exercise they’re allowed to do a day, or what telescope to buy and how to look at the stars at night – it augmented what we normally do in dealing in people’s things they do when they have free time to actually this is something they need right now.

For me, it gave working at Future a sense of being a real privilege and it’s a real responsibility to do these things that really, really genuinely matter to people. Because no matter what happens, these are things they’re going to love. Now, we saw great engagement across all of our sites and and they also have more time to do things and everything else.

But it honestly was brilliant to feel like actually we’ve increased the importance we have to our audience because they are now seeking comfort from developing their garden or making music or beating the end of level boss and that felt good.

So looking forward, Future acquired GoCompare and Mozu in Australia. What does that mean for the business? Is it you own a comparison site now, or is there a master plan? Is there an integration coming?

We’re always looking at new ways to expand our offering to users. If you park GoCompare for a second, it wasn’t much more than five years ago that we didn’t have any ecommerce offering to users, but we’re fundamentally doing the same thing, which is we’re engaging them and giving them how to’s, giving buying advice or whatever else.

We’re always looking at ways to expand our offering to users. I think we do that. we call it adding spokes to our wheel at Future and I don’t think this is different to that. We take our responsibility as trusted creators and brand owners very seriously. You can connect the GoCompare deal to this, so if customers are coming to us for advice on what phone to buy, and they’re doing that, because we have that proven expertise, then we also think we probably have a duty to them to give them advice around best gadget insurance. It’s the same for pet or homes or car.

We’ve got this user’s trust, we feel like we’ve got good offers and good information to share with them, so why not enhance that offering for them on those legacy brands. We want to help people with the things that really matter to them. I think GoCompare helps us do that, with its brilliant tech and a long history of working in sectors where we haven’t had the expertise. One of the things that we do at Future is where we recognise that we have a shortage of expertise, we either develop it or we look to acquire it. That’s definitely what we’ve done here.

I think it goes both ways as well, so not only does GoCompare enrich our legacy brands, but they can also enrich it. With our editorial expertise, we can help make GoCompare an even stronger offering for its users. There’s definitely some clear synergies.

Now, it may take a while for all of this to develop, because those integrations should be done slowly and carefully. But there’s no question in my mind that GoCompare will enhance the offering for our users and that’s ultimately what we’re all about.

The idea of marrying ecommerce with content creation or even traditional advertising, there’s space there to screw that up, right? How do you make sure you don’t screw it up, particularly for the audience?

There’s massive, massive potential to screw it up. There’s no question. But the answer is really simple. Like with most things, the answer is really simple, you just have to be very disciplined about it. We’re really clear that our audience interest is our commercial interest.

Over time, the way we make money will change. It used to be that we’d make a lot of money out of selling magazines in the 80s, and then subscriptions or whatever else, but the audience interest had to remain. The commercial ways of working have always orbited that one thing. Our editorial teams are entirely independent from any department.

Now, they clearly work with them. We do support each other in that sense. But if it’s been decided that actually we should, it would be great if we recommended laptops on TechRadar to our customers, the editorial team say ‘that’s a good idea, we’re gonna recommend laptops to buy’. They will do all of it, whatever they want, it’s entirely independent.

The job of ecommerce or the job of ads is not to get involved in that, it’s to stay the hell away. Because editorial want to help their audience make better buying decisions, because obviously they want to do that because the audience wants to make better buying decisions, once you have that engagement and that trust, which the editorial teams have won by creating good independent content, then it is the job of ecommerce or the job of ads and the job of tech and everyone else to then monetise that.

If you start having commercial lead the way, you just don’t have an audience and without an audience, you don’t have a business. It’s a pretty straightforward thing for me and for Future, which is editorial are the ones who connect with the audience. So get them to connect with the audience by creating content that is entirely independent, is really good, has a good reach, and ranks really well. Once you have that, then it’s the job of the rest of the business to try and get value out of that.

Is there an ideal revenue mix at Future?

We are very clear that we always want to diversify revenues and that’s part of the reason Future has been so successful the past few years. There’s been a clear appetite and there continues to be a clear appetite to diversify revenues.

Now, clearly, ecommerce has grown significantly over the past five years as being a large piece of that. Digital advertising has grown as well clearly, while other areas such as newsstand print have shrunk over time. Obviously, events have just had a difficult year. But that’s exactly why we always want to diversify is because it might not be the case that everything’s always there forever, because we understand the media haven’t been publishing since 1985.

There will always be changes to the revenue mixes. Now, what’s important to us is whether the revenue is healthy? Once you have a good mix, it’s a question ofis the margin good? Is there growth potential in this? What’s the effort versus reward? Those are clearly things that we need to talk about, but we also talk about the diversification of different territories. So if you’ve got the different revenue mix, it’s not just do you have advertising revenues? Is that advertising revenue coming from different territories, Australia, UK, US?

In answer to your question, I don’t think there’s an ideal mix. There might be one today, but it might well be different tomorrow. The important thing is to constantly keep trying to diversify with new healthy revenue streams, which requires innovation and requires a lot of tech development and a lot of work from lots of different departments to get to a new revenue stream.

But equally, it means you still have to find the time to be committed to those revenue streams that might not be as healthy as they were because there’s still an opportunity there and audiences are still engaging with it. We’re not departing print. We may well have been able to make that decision three or four years ago just to leave print.

But actually, there is value in that, we believe we can run it well, we see real value in print. So I think in terms of an ideal mix, I don’t think there is one that’s permanent. It will change over time, our job is to manage that revenue mix as well as we can.

Do you ever worry that Google throws some mad algorithm change in and ecommerce, the affiliate businesses, are impacted by that?

They’ve done about four algorithm changes in the past month, including two core ones, so we’re never worried about the algorithm. But we’re obviously very conscious of it. We do take it seriously. What I would say is that there’s always a lot of talk around Google’s algorithm as though it’s this alien thing that we have to obey, and it’s somehow a different master to the audience needs.

We obviously don’t see the source code for the algorithm, and no one does. I dare say, there’s not one person at Google that’s managed to see all of it. It’s a very complex thing. But what is clear is we look at the trend lines of that algorithm. We look at how that relates to what we’re doing and I think there’s a lot of companies out there that perhaps don’t give Google the credit.

What Google is trying to do is surface the best possible content and it’s creating a very complex algorithm in order to analyse and assess what they think is very good content. They have a clear direction, which is, is this good for the user? Does it solve the question? So if someone’s typed in ‘best mountain bike 2021’, that’s a question and Google wants to surface the best possible answer across the internet for that question. That’s a very human need and I think that algorithm is becoming complex so that is able to best serve that human need.

Our job, as content creators, is to serve that human need as best we can. We feel like if someone’s asking ‘what is the best mountain bike in 2021’, our job is to answer that really, really, really well. That means having a great article, it’s got a lot of information about everything you’d need to know about having a mountain bike in 2021, it would have lots of options at different price ranges.

We would also recognise the need for us to be an authority on that topic, which means, actually, for users coming to that article, maybe they want to read more than one page, and they’re going to want to read a whole slew of reviews on different mountain bikes. Maybe they’re going to want to see that there’s interviews with manufacturers, or there’s videos on these things being tested.

As long as we do our job really, really well, in answering that question, We have no fear about the algorithm. No fear at all.

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