Interviewer: Peter Houston
Peter Houston: So tell me about your illustrious career in magazines.
Chris Maillard: Yes, my illustrious career in magazine publishing. If you find it, do let me know what it was. I started my career in publishing, in the very traditional way, in a local newspaper, a very old, established local newspaper, the Nottingham Evening Post.
At the time, it was run by a local nobility, as they often were, and the print plant was downstairs from the editorial offices. So at about 12 o’clock, you heard the presses start up. There were people wandering around with trays of hot lead. It was fully traditional. In fact, I had Graham Greene’s old typewriter because he worked at the Nottingham Evening Post, just ridiculous. A vanished world, I have to say.
Once I’d done the traditional local newspaper thing, I moved to London to work on magazines, musicians’ magazines, in fact, because I was in a series of increasingly terrible bands. I did that for a while, got into other magazine work, freelanced around the places, as you do. I worked on some of the nationals, and then sort of fell into doing what turned out to be the launch of Auto Express.
As a result of doing that, I ended up helping to launch Top Gear magazine for the BBC, which was fun because it was the BBC and the budgets were fairly bendy. That was a big success quite quickly. Funnily enough, when we started, the program was a traditional magazine program with lots of quite old-school presenters, among whom were Jeremy Clarkson and a couple of other people who went on later, but it was very traditional.
We launched the magazine and it was much more upmarket and conversational and a bit pointy. Then the TV series went off-air for quite a long time. The commissioner at the BBC hated it. She liked gardening programs and didn’t understand Top Gear. Eventually it came back with pretty much the format we’d invented in a magazine.
Another weird thing was that sales went up while it was off there. We thought our magazine was doomed. We thought that was it, but sales actually increased. Very strange. So I am in some small way responsible for Jeremy Clarkson. I’d like to apologise to the world for that, absolutely.
After that, I went on to Maxim, the men’s magazine. I went on there as editor. That was interesting, because it was right in the middle of the frenzy of the 90s and the whole men’s magazine boom. I must say, I wasn’t 100% comfortable with that type of thing at that point. It was all getting to the point where the editorial people were seeing the end of the tunnel approaching and the publishing people were just keen to get the nipple count up. That was sort of messy.
It’s a weird one. I mean, it was huge. You did one issue where you got half a million copies.
But I know you. You’re not an old school male, you’re not a Neanderthal, you’re fairly evolved. It must have been kind of weird?
It was, but at the same time, this was actually a bit before the moment when it all went truly bonkers with Zoo and Nuts and thing. Maxim, at the time, was sitting in the middle of that market. I went in with the idea of trying to pull it upmarket, towards the Squire and GQ, and trying to tone down some of the racier stuff and make it into an intelligent men’s magazine with quite a lot of gadgets and watches and whatever.
Because I could see the way the market was going at that point. It was clearly going to head in that direction and you either got into that particular lifeboat and tried to make it more lifestyle-y or you were going to go down in a blaze of nipples, as it were. It didn’t really work out because I think, as they do, the publishing director at the time had one eye on a fast exit so he wanted to get the sales figures up as much as possible and then run away, which he duly did and then the magazine duly folded eventually, some time after I left.
After that, I’ve done all sorts of other stuff. I went over to the contract publishing customer publishing side of things. I did the Sky magazine for John Brown for a while, which was absolutely gigantic in its day as well. It was doing something like 5 million copies a month. Just insane numbers.
Although it was a weird thing because nobody at Sky actually liked it very much. They added the magazine to your Sky subscription, there was nothing you could do about that, at quite a high fee and then clawed back the VAT because magazines were not VAT registered. Kind of cunning, but it did mean that we were doing something that nobody was particularly invested in creatively.
All the way through that time, from the early 2000s onwards, really, there’s been a feeling in the industry. The mood music has been vague panic, saying it’s a decline or that we’re all doomed. Not entirely unconnected to the fact that the other thing that was running around the industry was ‘let’s give all our content away on the internet for free’.
At times, it’s felt like that scene in a James Bond film where he hops from alligator to alligator across a river. You’re just keeping ahead of it some of the time.
That’s quite a nice segue to where you are at the moment. You’re at Decanter, you’re editor in chief at Decanter. Decanter was bought by Future Publishing in the middle of 2020 as part of that TI media acquisition. You were brought in at the beginning of this year, 2021, to sort it out. Is that right?
Well, yes. It had been editor in chief-less for quite a long time. Obviously, Future felt they needed somebody in that post, which was probably true. Sorting out isn’t necessarily the way I’d put it. Because, weirdly, although Decanter is a funny old beast, it’s a successful one. It’s almost accidentally built up what looks like the ideal modern publishing portfolio.
It’s got a very successful awards event, the World Wine Awards, which makes a fortune. It has very good other events. Some of them are virtual this year, of course. It has a paywalled website, which does very well, and also a non-paywall element of the website on top of that, which gets good traffic.
It has a magazine, a traditional print magazine, which has a very faithful subscriber base, and a very good set of clients. Advertisers still pay a fairly large amount of money to go in a magazine and it makes a profit, which is just weird in this day and age. It’s great. Decanter is a very strong brand.
One of the interesting things about it is that, obviously, it was IPC. It was originally launched independently, and then IPC bought it many years ago. IPC became Time UK and Time UK became TI Media and TI Media is now owned by Future. So it’s been through quite a lot of owners in a relatively short space of time.
We all know how that happens. The people who are selling don’t replace staff when they leave, they cut costs, they push quality down a bit to make the bottom line look good so they get more when they sell. Then the new owners come in and they go ‘oh, well, I think we can cut some costs here’, because they’ve told their investors that’s what they’re going to do. So they do more of the same.
They make a couple of people redundant and trim things a bit further. Then they sell out and the same process happens again and you get a death of a thousand cuts. That’s an absolutely classic problem.
Decanter has been through that process many times. In some ways, it’s like the last dog at Battersea Dogs’ Home. It’s lost an ear and is limping a bit and its tail is a bit scruffy, but it’s still going. I think that the job now is to build it back up, to give it some stability, and to really make the most of what is actually a really, really good brand.
I subscribe to Decanter and I love it. You’ve got that classic niche, an aspirational niche, where people will subscribe to the magazine because they want to belong. You want to feel part of that.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s an absolutely great brand in terms of loyalty. I was looking at some numbers the other day and our average length of subscriber is something like 11 years. I mean, that’s enormous.
I do regularly get letters from people who go ‘I’ve been subscribing ever since 1975’. I believe that’s when it started, they say ‘I’ve been subscribed since 1975, I’ve gotten them all leatherbound in my study’. And you think wow, that’s proper reader loyalty. That’s very impressive indeed. Admittedly, the reason they’re getting in touch is normally to moan about something we’ve done to modernise it, but it’s fascinating.
Well, that’s a massive challenge for where you are. You’ve taken this established, loved brand and Future’s a fairly innovative, fast-moving company. You’re trying to merge those two things together. I remember talking to Tim Arthur on a panel once and he was talking about a Time Out redesign and he got this email from a reader. It was quite formal, saying re. your recent redesign. Then when he opened the email, it was just the C-word in 40-point type. He’d just raised this anger in the audience by doing a redesign. Are you worried about that?
I have had some emails from people, the sort that would, in previous times, have been written in green ink and underlined three times. Some of them quite funny, I have to say, because the Decanter audience is well-educated, clever, and often quite witty, and some of them have been very well-worded. But yeah, some of the people who have been subscribing since 1975 are not desperately keen on change.
It has been a real balancing act to moderate the level of change that we do to fit that readership. We have just redesigned the magazine and it has been a balancing act, because while you want to redesign the look of the magazine, it badly needed refreshing, the overall tone of Decanter for a long time has been brown, verging on beige.
It needed bringing up to date and we’ve done that, but I’ve also been incredibly careful to try and keep the elements that long-term readers like, and make sure that they know that they’re looked after. I want to make sure there’s a sense of comfort, that it hasn’t been completely ruined.
Whether I’ve entirely done that is another question, but it’s always been at the back of my mind that you can’t just throw the baby out with the bathwater and make it into –D or something. It’s got to be quite measured.
Is part of your role to try and expand that audience?
The thing you can’t escape about the far end of the direction of travel for Decanter’s print subscribers is that, to be brutal, some of them are ageing out of the market. It’s what an old publisher of mine called biological leakage. They have been around for a long time and they’re a great readership base, but there are a lot of enthusiasts in wine who are in their 30s and who are interested in learning about wine in the same way that a lot of our long-term subscribers were 30 years ago.
I’ve tried to push the learning coverage up. I’ve tried to make it into somewhere you go to find out about wine if you’re not already equipped with a cellar and a pile of vintage claret. It’s got to be accessible to people who are on their way up the ladder, as well as people who are already very knowledgeable and have spent many years cultivating that.
Future is actually one of our pandemic publishing winners because of their ecommerce affiliate revenue plays. Is that something that you’re looking at for Decanter?
Wine doesn’t work like that, sadly. Wine is sold by an absolute gaggle of small producers and independent merchants. There certainly isn’t an Amazon equivalent. If you get huge traffic on a particular set of product reviews in, say, tech, and you’re thinking ecommerce, you go to Amazon, you go to maybe Sony or Samsung or Apple, one of the few big players in the market. It doesn’t work that way with wine at all.
January 2021 is when you started. I’m assuming you haven’t met anyone, you work with?
No. As it happens, the sales director is somebody I’ve worked with years ago, so I know her. Everybody else, I have no idea how tall they are, whether they have something growing out of the backs of their heads. I literally have no idea because I’ve only ever seen them on screen. It is quite weird.
What’s the hard part of that, in terms of actually getting the job done?
In terms of getting day-to-day stuff done, you don’t have the ability to have those short, casual conversations, you can’t wander past someone’s desk and go, ‘oh, what you’re doing?’ or ‘how’s it going?’, or ‘what’s happening with this thing?’ You have to book a call, which is probably half an hour minimum, in two days time to talk about something that would previously have taken you a couple of minutes. It just makes everything very cumbersome and slow.
It’s not been easy, I have to say, and doing a redesign where you can’t all sit in a room and look at things stuck to a wall and discuss them has been really quite a job. We’ve kind of scraped through it and things like the post mortem, which you would often have in the pub, as being yet another Zoom call.
It’s also difficult to get any of the more human terms of feedback. You can’t judge body language, you can’t judge the general vibe as it were from a Zoom call, it’s very difficult. So everything has to be slightly more formalised. It makes it quite difficult to do stuff that reads and looks interestingly informal. Everything tends to be a little bit too stilted.
But it’s where we are and, at some point, we will be going back to the office and they’ll find out that I’m three foot four inches tall, and it’ll be fine.
Do you think it’s harder doing that for a print title than for web stuff?
No, because it’s all people really. I have the same sorts of conversations with people doing the print work as I do with the people doing the websites. It is just that getting over what you mean is has to be a much more formalised process in any case, whatever you’re dealing with.
It’s like the old thing about email being the worst possible form of communication, because you don’t get nuance. It’s very much like. Nuance is something that you don’t really know you’re going to miss, until you miss it. It’s quite a big element of any creative process, so it’s all a little unsubtle.
Do you know when you’re going back into the office?
We’ve got our annual awards judging going on. It literally takes about a month, it’s enormous. It’s 20,000 odd wines coming in, just a bit every master of wine in the country, a load of sommeliers, tons of experts all piling in, to blind taste thousands and thousands of wines. It would normally happen at Excel, but we’ve stripped out our offices, and the whole thing is happening in there to allow a greater degree of separation and COVID-proofness and all that sort of thing.
So our office is actually out of bounds until the end of June at the earliest. We’ll probably be drifting back from July onwards, I think.There’s a plan to come in one day a week, and then two days a week, and then maybe three days a week, and so on. Whether it ever gets back to everybody in the office all the time is quite another question. One of our people has moved to Bordeaux, for instance, so the commute’s a bit tricky.
Those awards sound incredible. I’ve bought wine that’s got that sticker on it, the Decanter awards winner. How does that come together? Is it every year?
Is it separate from the magazine? Is it a whole separate organisation?
We’ve got a big events and awards team. They do events with the magazine, because we do fine wine encounters, as we call them, the virtual masterclasses this year, where it’s virtual wine tasting. But they also handle the awards and there’s a lot of them whose job it is just to make sure that this thing happens every year because it is so enormous.
Brexit has been an issue, obviously COVID has been a massive issue. It’s been a real head-scratcher. We’ve managed to get it together, we managed to get it together last year, rather amazingly, mid-pandemic. This year is slightly more relaxed on that front, but we’ve had Brexit-related customs hassles getting wine into the country. It’s a whole ball of fun and the team who run it are very good and they’re very on top of this stuff.