Esther Kezia-Thorpe

Esther Kezia Thorpe: How did the role of Chief Revenue Officer come about last year?

Duncan Tickell: First and foremost, it came about because, clearly, I’d worked in the business for a significant period before I was one of the original founding members of the leadership team of media. But I then took two years out consulting, so exposed myself to a number of different businesses, got a broad range of experiences, which was really interesting and helpful.

Then, in the middle of last year, as the business was coming back into growth, it was clear that the role of a CIO to think about accelerating revenue growth, be that in existing non-circulation revenues, which is my area of responsibility, was required. And Immediate’s a great business, I was very fortunate to spend the majority of the most recent years of my career there, I was also very lucky to get some new experiences, which actually built on all the experiences I’ve had in media.

As I mentioned, it’s a great business, the culture here is probably our biggest standout feature in terms of being a great place to work. So it really became an easy decision when Tom came to me and said, actually, I’ve been reflecting, we think we’ve missed some of what you bring to the business, could I persuade you to come back.

So that must be nice to know, sort of mid-pandemic.

It was. And when I reflect on that, the pandemic was a really interesting period to be a consultant. It won’t surprise you to say that the phone stopped ringing, particularly around the end of March last year, but what became clear to me was that there were things that I loved in consultancy, from the diversity of the businesses that you’re exposed to the different kinds of projects, and that unique opportunity to go in and use your experience to advise people.

But then on the flip side of that, I really miss teams. I missed working with a core group of people that you share your experiences with, that effectively they become close colleagues and friends. And so the opportunity to go back into that environment was very attractive in the middle of a pandemic, when you’d seen a lot of the inside of your own four walls.

Did Immediate have any sort of role that focused on this area before you rejoined?

What we have is lots of sector experts. So my role isn’t to replace all the sector experts.. I’ve got a lot of experience in advertising. Within each of those different areas, we have the operational practitioners, but my role is to take a more strategic view to think about where might there be opportunities, where are we now, where do we want to get to over a period of time.

So even by the time that I returned, when we were building out a really successful commerce business, our audio business was growing. The advertising business was starting to get back to being in good health. My role is very much about thinking, What do the next steps look like to accelerate that growth?

So apart from things like commerce and audio, and obviously I’d love you to tell me all your secrets here, what are the things you’ve got your eye on?

I think at the moment, if we’re thinking very, very strategically around where we’re making our investments or if you start, we’re certainly cognizant that we’re good at some stuff, but there are plenty more opportunities.

So I mentioned the audio already, and we can come back to that. But that’s been a surprisingly strong growth area for us, our History Extra podcasts, we have taken that on a journey where it’s now going to become a seven-figure revenue stream for us very shortly.

Wow.

That gets over four million listens a month. So it’s become a real area of growth. So what we’re looking to do is scale that business into the other verticals in which we operate, so be that food or gardening. Radio Times is the latest addition to that stable. Within advertising, we think there’s a big opportunity around the first-party data that we offer.

Other opportunities in video, we’ve got a whole suite of opportunities there. I think within our core brands, we also think there’s big opportunity around building out consumer revenue streams, so I mentioned commerce already. That business has significantly scaled for us.

We really benefited during lockdown as many others did, in terms of those deep connections that we have with our consumers, the fact they trust our brands, in a way that perhaps other publishers don’t get that enjoyment with the heritage that they bring as a business has grown by 10x since 2018. It’s now well over 10% of our digital revenue, and is still in that phase where we’re doubling revenue growth pretty much year over year for the last three years. So that’s been a really big area.

I think the third organic area that I will build out is thinking about paid content. Now, we’re going to be a lot bolder about that. So whilst we’re not in a position to say exactly what those moves will be, at this point, you will see in the months ahead, some significantly bolder moves around some of those brands where we feel the content is valuable enough to go behind paywalls, where the app strategy will evolve to a paid app strategy, as opposed to being completely free to where they’re ad-funded. So there are going to be a number of different areas of focus, but I will call those out as the primary ones.

Yeah. Are you considering events at all, or is that still taking a backseat, given the pandemic situation?

Well, it’s not taking a backseat. I think our events business has done an amazing job of navigating their way through the last year and a half, but it’s beginning to come back on stream. But however, the reality is, it’s not coming back just like that. It’s gonna take a little bit of time, I think, for people to really feel comfortable.

And so it won’t surprise you, that was the one bit of our business – when we look back to 2020, our business actually hit its budget, all bar the events business, which was interesting in and of itself, but the event business was completely shattered. More recently, we have had a number of events get off the ground. We’ve done a good food event and a Gardener’s World event in the NEC in August.

We’re doing some smaller-scale events, but it’s going to take a little bit of time for that to get fully up and running. But we’re quite optimistic about events in the sense that when you can put them on, there is a very, very significant level of demand for people to experience stuff again. And I think that’s really, really clear. From what we see, but also what you see across the market, people are really keen to be able to get back out and experience some level of normality again.

Yeah. You mentioned at the start that you’re looking to focus more on audio, is that going to evolve into launching more audio podcasts and products across other brands? Or is that going to be very much looking at what you’ve already got, and building out the audience and the advertising opportunity, or both?

Tick all of the above. So what we’ve seen in audio is, certainly in terms of subscribers, it takes time to build and so History Extra has been on a long journey of building subscribers to get to the incredibly strong position it finds itself in today. But equally within that, we found that the amount of content, ie the number of episodes that you put out, makes a big difference.

Through testing and learning, we’ve arrived at what we think is the optimal level for that product, which is four times a week, or four different episodes each week. And I think we go on that journey with our other brands now, which is to work out what formats work, what type of content works. It’ll be different in different markets.

We’ve started that journey with, as I mentioned earlier, Radio Times, BBC Good Food, and BBC Gardeners’ World. I’m sure there’ll be more to follow. And actually, when it comes to the advertising piece, what’s really interesting is that if you have a successful podcast, the demand is there from an advertising perspective, so within that History Extra podcast, we have a very strong, direct, sold sponsorship line, complemented by some network sales of an aggregated network, audio advertising that, as I mentioned, is building, this business that’s on the trajectory very shortly to hit a run rate of over seven figures a year.

So in that sense, if you can take that as a blueprint for the other podcasts, that’s some really low hanging fruit.

Absolutely. And you know that they will take some time to get to the point of History Extra, but equally, it’s one of those pockets where you see a real opportunity and growth. It comes back to that point, which is, I think, within Immediate’s DNA, to really focus on markets where you help people to get the most out of the things that they love to do every day.

Be that cooking, gardening, cycling, understanding entertainment, and actually, what we’re finding is that people want to consume that content and informed by their passions across multiple formats.

I mean, it’s sort of linked to that. Immediate, I suppose, has emerged over the last year and a half as one of the pandemic’s winners – I hate to use that term, but I can’t think of another way to describe it – I suppose when it comes to subscriptions, profitability, audience growth, things like that. So why do you think this is, when there are plenty of other publishers in the UK that really struggled?

I think that we found ourselves in markets, as I just mentioned a moment ago, which help people get the most out of doing the things that they love, and particularly during a period when people were confined to their homes, those passion points around home-based activities, like gardening, watching the TV, cooking food, it wasn’t surprising that we saw a significant increase in demand for that, what we were surprised about is quite how committed those consumers were, in terms of creating those incredibly loyal relationships such as subscriptions.

So it’s well documented that we’ve had two consecutive, or the last two ABC periods weren’t particularly strong from a growth perspective, that we’ve now got well over 1.1 million subscribers. And those aren’t relationships that just go away. So for us, the great thing around that is that those are relationships that we will maintain and continue to build on and think how we continue to fulfil their information needs.

That’s very different from some of those sectors, which are more generalist. It wasn’t just Immediate that benefited during those periods. As we know, news and current affairs were very strong. And so it was around that moment in time when we found ourselves in a position to really help people get through a very, very, very difficult time.

And the last thing I’ll say on all of that, this has always been, from day one of creating Immediate, which is almost 10 years ago, it’s been really, really important to us to be in those markets, where people are passionate about the subject that they’re consuming, and not to stray into generalist markets, which experience says have been more adversely affected through that disruption in media that’s been taking place for the last 20 years or so.

I think there were a couple of brands that closed quite early on in the pandemic, though weren’t they? I assume that would probably be before you re-joined?

Yeah, and I think the reality in the print media sector is that there’s still an incredibly long tail of magazines, some of which, regrettably, are a bit marginal. In those early days of the pandemic, particularly given that WHSmith was closed, which is one of the biggest single buying points for special interest magazines, those that were on the edges found it very difficult, and that clearly wasn’t just confined to Immediate. It was the experience of a number of other publishers as well. And they were clearly very difficult decisions.

But nonetheless, in those difficult times, I think we had to respond to where we found ourselves at that point. I think the one thing that we’ve consistently focused on, and actually became a real point of strength over the last 18 months, is the the real commitment to creating a fantastic culture and the focus that Immediate has on its people.

That was a big, big part of why I chose to return to the business last year. We actually really thought long and hard about how can we support people through those very difficult times. That manifested itself with way more regular communication to the business, both from the leadership team and cascading right through to managers.

It also manifested itself through the creation of a big network of communities, be that our LGBTQ+ community, be that our BAME community, be that our parenting community – there was a whole group where we really tried to replicate though that connectivity that existed before, as being part of a great culture and during that period of pandemic, when others were cutting back, we actually really invested in the support infrastructure that we put behind our people. We hired a DNI lead within the business, we’ve hired an L&D lead within the business.

So we really saw that this was the time to invest in our people. The one tiny anecdote that I would share, which I think tells you an awful lot about the business was that, like many, we found ourselves in that very, very difficult situation where, as an initial reaction, we thought things were going to be really tough.

We asked the business to share some of that pain in terms of making a modest salary sacrifice. But actually, quite shortly, when it became clear that the trading recovered faster than we thought, and that the out term for the year was going to be significantly better than we thought, we actually got to a place where we paid it back to everybody within the business as a mark of an acknowledgement of the tremendous work that they put in through what was a very difficult period.

On a slightly more positive note, are there any particular highlights from your brand?

Well, we started talking about some of them already. I think that the growth of our audio businesses is one. I’d also pull out digital advertising as a second for us last year, because as our audiences grew and as the market started to recover, there was very strong demand for digital advertising.

We ended the year up well ahead of market, well into double digits year over year, in what had been a very challenging year, that would be another highlight that I would unquestionably pull out. We’ve talked about commerce. We doubled that business last year.. I would also think about some of the new innovative ways that we responded.

One of the most interesting things actually, that came out of that pandemic situation, was that our teams who were previously working to budgets and thinking about targets and bonuses, when the world changed, and that all kind of went up in a puff of smoke. We actually said, let’s just think about how can we be entrepreneurial and innovative to get through this phase.

And we saw the development of a whole bunch of new business initiatives that have actually stood the test of time. So another one that I’d really call out was our webinar business. We didn’t have a webinar business. Webinar businesses were pretty much before that were confined to B2B businesses.

But we’ve now built a business that has had well over 30,000 paid attendees. We’re again on that run rate to make it another seven-figure business across our portfolio of brands. So we just felt we found some really interesting new ways to connect with people during that period.

And last but not least, I mentioned it before that whole thing around subscriptions. It felt a little bit like UK consumers fell in love with getting the content that they love delivered through their door on a regular basis. Last year alone, we grew our subscription file by 22%, so it was another real highlight.

That webinar business, are there any brands that it particularly does well on, or is that just across the board that’s expected to be seven figures?

The two really successful ones for that business have been – or the most scaled ones – have been on BBC Gardeners’ World and BBC Good Good.

Good Food webinars? Wow.

Absolutely. And the interesting thing, the one that really told us that was something there, believe it or not, it might not come as a surprise when I say, it was a sourdough masterclass that we did on BBC Good Good, of course, early in the pandemic. When everyone was talking about making sourdough, we did a webinar masterclass on how to make sourdough.

That really showed us that there’s an appetite for being able to get into that place where you’re showing really high-value, instructional content that’s more akin to a learning business than just a straight content business.

Were those sorts of things done live and people would join live, or is that something you produce as a webinar, and then it’s available on video?

So the initial broadcast, for want of a better phrase, is live. So there is initially a live event and clearly the advantage of attending these things live is that you get the interactivity. But we also make it available in an archive, where you lose some of that interactivity. By far and away, the majority of the paying attendees choose to attend the live event.

And from your perspective, as chief revenue officer, what are you doing to maintain these gains that you made, as normal life makes a return? I suppose when we don’t quite know what that’s going to look like?

Well, I think the first is just that point around recognising that we’re in an incredibly fortunate position to have some very trusted brands that have incredibly deep, deep relationships with the people who consume the content of those brands. Whilst all the different initiatives that we’ve described are incredibly important, first and foremost, it’s really important that we maintain the relationship with those consumers.

We continue to solve their problems to make them get the most out of their passions. And we very strongly believe that actually those enduring relationships can be maintained by ensuring that we continue to serve their needs. Clearly, subscription relationships by their nature tend to be very long-term, we’ll have absolutely no doubt of that.

Some of the heat will go out of the growth in consumption that we’ve seen in recent years. At present where we’re actually pleasantly surprised at how consumption rates are being maintained even as we go into a world where people are going back out and doing the things that aren’t necessarily completely focused on the home.

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