Interviewer: Peter Houston
Cathy Olmedillas: I started Anorak back in 2006. I had become a mum in 2002, and I had worked in the 90s at magazines like The Face and Sleazenation, and I always had a very special relationship with magazines. Obviously, I helped make them but also, they kind of followed me around when I was a child.
It’s when I became a mom – I always had an itch, I just wanted to launch my own, but I couldn’t figure out what to do, which market – and it’s really when I became a mom that the idea crystallised. I looked at the children’s magazine market and just thought, ‘Okay, things have become quite polarised since I read magazines as a kid.’ So it was very much the blue army versus the pink army, most magazines tended to be really attached to some kind of brand or some cartoon or some entity have that sort, there didn’t seem to be the sort of annuals that I used to read when I was a child, which were much more generic.
And so I just thought, ‘Okay, let’s give it a try.’ I had contacts with distributors, I had contacts in the printing world. And I just thought, let’s get started and see what happens.
So beyond that, beyond the idea, there was no strategy behind it or anything like this. It was very much, the concept had to be that it was a happy magazine, it was general in its approach, pop culture for children, and it was gender neutral, and that was it. That was literally what I wanted to do.
Peter: And that idea of being gender neutral, is that a difficult thing to do?
It really isn’t, I think it depends on how you’ve been brought up! But it just came naturally, to be honest.
And actually, when I launched it, I went to see a couple of distributors and they’re the ones who pointed out that the magazine was gender neutral, because at the time I hadn’t realised it was, it just felt like a natural thing to do, because to me, culture shouldn’t be gender based. It absolutely should be completely gender neutral.
So they pointed it out, they said, ‘That’s not goning to work, because you have to approach girls differently from boys,’ and I was just completely gobsmacked if I’m honest, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting!’
Obviously seeing the kids magazines over the years and that idea that they’re bagged up with different toys for different genders or whatever, that actually does seem like a lot of work! And I guess in some ways, you’ve got much more simple approach.
Yes, definitely. Also, I don’t have to think about what the toy should be! And how this toy is just, crap, isn’t it? That’s all it is, it’s just crap, because children tend to just take them and then they discard it very, very quickly.
So, I mean, this was 13 years ago, and it’s still sort of the same, although now obviously, we have got us as an alternative, which is really nice. But it’s still very much, if you look at the mainstream magazine market, it’s very, still very much based on those kind of values, which is gender, a commercial entity needs to drive it, whatever that is with this cartoon character, and then they have to be weekly and throw away, they’re not very substantial.
Do you think the point with that is that the marketing is driving those magazines rather than the content?
Yes, exactly. I think that’s what it is. It becomes very much a marketing tool for those big entities. But also they’re very focus grouped as well, people or brands will look at them and very specifically target content at a specific age and at a specific gender and specific tastes.
Whereas we just took a much more laid back approach and just said, ‘Okay, well, we’ll just do this magazine and see what happens.’
When you talk about the magazines Anorak and Dot, you talk about them being real. You’ve already said, not throw away. What’s so important about that kind of ethos, if you like?
Yes, I think already 13 years ago as I had to become a mom, well, actually, a bit before that, but when I launched a magazine, I was already bemoaning the state of throwaway culture or instant gratification culture, particularly when it came to magazines. They seem to just be these things that you have on a weekly basis and that you just use for maybe a day, a couple of hours in that set, and I mean, 13 years later, it’s still pretty much the same. And it’s actually probably worse, not so much magazines, but in terms of the culture being of throwaway things.
So, our role, I saw it as just bringing creativity, laughter, imagination, all this stuff defines childhood, and also a quiet space where kids can just have a really long time interacting with something. And for me, that’s massively important from that ethical point of view, but also from a responsibility as part of the rest of the world. I don’t really want to be adding to the wasteful consumerism that seems to be going on at the moment.
So I think, to me to see that editions were done on nice paper that kids could colour in and they could go back to, is such a reward, and to see that editions are passed on from one child to another, or they’re sold on eBay, or people have said, ‘I’ve given them to my nephew,’ that’s a massive reward to me.
And also, I think, because we were quite naive, actually, my inspiration wasn’t so much magazines, it was probably books, to be honest. And I have a huge respect for our audience, and I saw Anorak as having the same intrinsic value as a book, which is something that you keep forever, and you have a really special relationship.
So when you see people selling them on eBay, that must be quite a buzz!
It’s brilliant. Yeah, there’s some of them, the early editions rake in hundreds and hundreds of dollars!
I’d be trying to find a box somewhere in the loft and creating these little accounts that I can start selling them off on!
I mean, they are 13 years old. The first issue was launched 13 years ago, which is a lifetime away in magazine worlds.
So that was originally Anorak, but then you’ve launched Dot. What’s Dot? What’s the difference?
So Dot is kind of the same principle as Anorak, but it’s for much younger children, because Anorak is very much for the six plus.
We launched it about five years ago, and the reason I launched it is because a lot of parents, young parents, were saying, ‘Look, we love Anorak. But by the time our children reach the age of five, it would have become vintage Anorak. And we really love to have something that’s much younger.’
So that’s how I launched Dot really, but the principles are the same. It’s feeding kid’s imagination, but a preschooler’s age, and the same qualities in terms of the paper, the same qualities in terms of being something that you keep, and that inspires children, that gets them laughing, that gets creative, and that gets them using their imagination.
How do you distribute the magazines? Do you sell them in retail, is it subscriptions?
So we sell them mostly online. We have, obviously, good retail shops all over the world. But our main revenue stream comes from the online shop really, that would be about 80% of all our magazines are sold online, by subscriptions, but also single editions.
That’s direct to you, you take care of that yourself?
Yes. Which has been great during COVID, at the moment! And also I harnessed the powers of social media right earlier on and I think that’s the reason why we’ve become an online business really, because we use social media, and that instantly gives you an audience that’s international. So that’s why I think our business is pretty much, most of our sales come from online.
But you’ve never really put out a lot of digital content, have you?
So it’s purely a distribution marketing vehicle for you? I remember very early on, you would put little videos of you going to the printer, and there was a real life to the social media presence that you had.
I mean, it’s just, again, I don’t have a social media manager, I don’t have a social media strategy. Absolutely, I love what I do. I feel privileged to be doing what I’m doing, which is a dream, fundamentally, I have a lot of fun, and therefore I love to share what we do. And that’s why I see social media as this tool to share what we do.
Also, of course, it’s a marketing tool in this, asking people to buy the magazines, that but also when it comes to other stuff, it’s very much here’s what we do creatively, and all those things that inspire us, I just share it out, that’s how I use my social media, which is kind of pure and very organic.
What marketing people now call authentic?
Yeah. And they spend a lot of money trying to be authentic. Whereas I’m just authentic without spending any money!
Tell me about Studio Anorak.
So it’s the commercial arm of the publishing house, if you like, so this studio is the creative studio. So it launched properly, maybe three or four years ago, but throughout the last 13 years, we had brands that came to us and said, ‘Oh, we’d love to do a poster or some branding for a child event, or some workshops, or some magazines for children. Could you do these for us?’
And we’ve been extremely lucky that brands have come to us rather than us pitching out and spending a lot of time doing that.
So, over the last really two to three years, we’ve been doing a lot of work with brands such as the Scouts, Airbnb, the ADHD Foundation. And it’s all, again, taking the same principles of Anorak and Dot, and just applying that to create pieces of communication for families that have the same values of imagination, laughter and creativity.
We’ve just launched our website actually, which showcases all the work so you can have a look at that if you want.
And is that something that you want to grow?
I’d love to grow it, yes. I mean, Anorak is very small in terms of resources, so it’s fundamentally myself and then a designer, Ben, and a PR lady, Amy, and a bookkeeper, Jerry, who is amazing. So I definitely would love to grow it, but it’s a question of how we do that.
More generally, that idea of growth, I mean, it’s tough when you’re a small outfit, in terms of balancing your ambition and what you can actually achieve. Does that bother you? Or do you just deal with it?
I think I just take things as they come. I’m grateful for everything that comes along. I’ve had to redefine how I define success, because when I first launched Anorak, it was always a side hustle. And then I went into a phase where really I was chasing growth, I was chasing clients, I was chasing more subscribers, I was chasing etc. And I realised that actually, just for myself, it wasn’t very healthy.
As soon as I let go and redefined how I see success, which is fundamentally me being able to send out something that’s joyful, and that has a usefulness because children can develop their creativity and be inspired, then that’s how I define whether I’m successful or not, and I think we’ve definitely achieved that.
And also, we’ve broken all the rules when it comes to publishing. I know we’re not the only ones because obviously, there has been a massive boom in independent publishing. But I think we’ve broken all the rules when it came to children’s publishing. From an aesthetic point of view, from a distribution point of view, from an ethos point of view.
That makes me extremely proud. And that is definitely part of my success criteria, if you like.
I think that idea of breaking the rules has become really interesting, because you’ve seen some of the newsstand and major publishers picking up on that idea of magazines as books, the luxury approach to production. So I think maybe it wasn’t about breaking the rules, it was about setting a new benchmark, maybe.
Yeah, maybe. I mean, 13 years ago, that was not a concept at all. Magazines were throw away, that said, you may have kept your collection of The Face, it’s a monthly thing, of course you do collect it, because it reminds you of whatever moment in your life. But I think magazines were throw away, generally speaking 13 years ago, and now they are things that you just keep.
So I think we did break the rules, but it wasn’t intentional. It was just something that we wanted to have. I didn’t want it to be part of that sea of plastic magazines.
Do you think working on magazines like The Face and Sleazenation that people did keep, even if it was subconscious, do you think it set you on your path?
Yes, absolutely it did. I think The Face gave me the love for making magazines, because even though The Face was huge, the team’s were fairly small – I mean, bigger than the Anorak team – but they were fairly small. So there was a real sense of family, of working, well you worked for a family anyway, the Logans. And there was a real sense of craft as well. So I learned definitely that from that.
And there was also a sense that – I mean, this was pre internet – so there was a sense that you had a window onto other people doing the same things as you. So I think these have that kind of connection, which I think these have definitely fed into Anorak.
I think with Sleazenation, I learned how to not do things! Sleazenation was really small, and it was trying to take away The Face market a little bit, chip at The Face market. So it was really difficult, and I was a publishing director then. So I think it was a combination of me being new at this kind of role suddenly, but also learning that actually independent magazines don’t sell that much, you have to fight a lot. So all of that really informed Anorak in some ways.
But people also – sorry, I digress a little bit – but as you said, people also kept those magazines. So to me, subconsciously Anorak had to be one of them that people kept, whether on their coffee tables for 10 years or on their shelves for 10 years.
Is that one of the reasons you’ve never fully gone with digital content?
Yes. So I have to be completely frank with you. There was no plans to do any digital editions until COVID hit. It was very much, I always championed real paper and the relationship away from the screen really, a thing that you can do away from a screen. But if you don’t adapt, you stay behind!
Parents were asking me…basically what happened is the worldwide postal services have been slowing down for obvious reasons. There’s limited air freight. And so there was a practical thing, which is how do I send out to my overseas subscribers the latest edition?
And of course at first we did PDFs. And now we’ve actually got proper digital editions that we’re distributing through Zinio. And that’s the reason why we’ve done them.
They’ve gone down really well, and I think I had this kind of hang up about digitally if I’m honest, maybe because I belong to a world pre-digital, I grew up before before a digital world.
But I think actually, when you have really good – I’m loath to say content, but I guess the word is content – when you have really good things, it doesn’t matter, the medium. That’s what I’ve learned, because children get a really good experience through our digital apps and digital editions as much as as much as the paper editions.
Parents have been very positive with that move. So I’m just like, ‘That’s okay. That’s fine. We’ll just do it.’
Will you continue to do that after COVID?
Yes, absolutely. We’ll just carry on with them. Of course, we’re always pushing the paper editions but yes, we are planning to have every edition from now on will be a digital edition, as well as the paper.
So how else has the lockdown impacted the work that you do?
I spend more time WhatsApping and typing on my computer rather than going to museums and doing research days but you know, can’t complain!
And also, I mean, both magazines have done unbelievably well, which made me feel slightly conflicted at first, but I think parents recognise that Anorak and Dot are fun and also useful, and are helping with creativity and escaping the tyranny of homeschooling. I feel really, really grateful to those parents and it’s done extremely well.
We’ve also given away a lot of magazines to charities which I have to be honest, I didn’t do before COVID.
And then we opened a Slack channel as well, for illustrators to gather together every day, we just have a Slack channel where we just chat about anything. We have themes, we have guests, and that was definitely as a reaction to COVID, because I thought a lot of illustrators, even though they work from home, there’s an isolation that is very different with COVID.
So I just wanted to create a little community where we could just talk, and it’s very much an escape island. We don’t really talk about what’s going on in the real world. We just talk about what we wear, how much we love pencils, and pens, really it’s basically Anorak for grown ups! It’s been really fun.
We’ve had guests that have come in to talk to us, we had a child psychologist, we had a life coach talking to us about doubt and creativity. So it is Anorak for grown ups really, but it’s been fun.
Do you think you’ll keep these kind of things going?
Yes, absolutely. They’ve been really instrumental and they’ve just opened my eyes. Definitely, definitely, we will keep it going. Of course, we’re not going to meet every day at four o’clock like we’ve been doing in lockdown, that’s a little bit intense to keep up, so it’s a bit more casual now. But actually, yes, we still will log in, and we share things, and we still do that.
And I hope to go back to museums at one point as well, although it’s been brilliant, Google Arts have put a lot of museums online, which has been really great. So I can still browse through museums virtually, just to get inspired and stuff.
So, it’s a different world but it’s a new world and it’s just we have to adapt to that. There’s been some amazing opportunities and changes through those terrible times that I think we need to hang on to.
And I think also the outpouring of emotion and generosity and love almost, without sounding like an old hippie, but it’s been really, really good. And I think we’ve kind of become a bit more human again, which is really hopeful.