Interviewer: Esther Kezia Thorpe

Esther: What did those conversations look like behind Stylist doors to bring your digital subscription plans forward as the crisis unfolded?

Ella: Well, luckily, we were already in planning for early April. It was just the technology that we were working with; setting up templates from the publishing system, etc. So when it hit, it just was a mad scramble to get that done quicker.

I think the biggest change was, obviously, we stopped printing the magazine around the 23rd [of March]. Rather than translating everything from PDF, which you need when you’re printing, we actually got the print team to publish straight into the digital CMS, which then was like, well, this is the kind of new way of doing it. But we actually took out two or three publishing steps because we didn’t need them, which meant that we could get it out quicker.

So thankfully, we were all sort of set. I mean, it’s always a bit of a mad scramble when something so dramatic happens, I’m sure we weren’t the only business. I mean, there’s no way we would have got it up and running if we weren’t already four months down the line, so thankfully we were.

So the magazine itself is free to distribute and free to read. What was behind the decision to charge people for the app? Why not just offer as a as a free download?

So we had a magazine app a few years ago before I joined, and that was free to download. It was very, very complicated to produce at the time, and that was mostly the technology and the way that you transported the print stuff into digital. It took a lot of man hours and the workflow was particularly cumbersome. So that’s why that stopped.

When we bought it back, it was because people were saying, ‘I can’t get Stylist’. I mean we distribute 400,000 magazines, but quite often people can’t get one.

It is a scramble in London!

It is a scramble! So it was based on a consumer demand. But listen, we’re an ad-funded business and advertising did not cover all of our activities, even before Coronavirus. So we had a plan to create it as a service because when people are asking for something, it wasn’t just a by-product, it is a service they were asking for.

So we needed to just put a very reasonable subscription price on it. That was already part of the planning, because when we say the magazine’s free, it’s not free! It comes with a huge cost. It’s free for the consumer.

But the reality is, advertising can’t cover all of the expansion that we want to do at Stylist.

I noticed in the app, you can download, you can either pay for an issue of the magazine or you’ve got some quite short term subscription options as well as the longer term one. Is that designed with the fact in mind that people will be picking it up again in the capital, hopefully in a few months?

What we’ve got is, we’ve got a subscription option, or you can buy a single issue. Quite often, it might be that something on the issue makes people want to buy it, it might be a cover star or the treatment, or the subject. So you can buy a single issue or you can subscribe.

What’s the reader response been like so far?

Good! So, I mean, obviously everyone’s adapting to new roles anyway, so lots of things are changing. So there were a few people who – it’s mostly through social that we’ll get to hear anything – saying, ‘How come it’s not free if I can get the magazine for free?’ We just put out the response that I’ve said which is, “We’re an ad-funded business, but advertising doesn’t cover everything that we want to do, so we’ve got a very reasonable subscription price on it,’ and they go, ‘Oh okay, fine!’

I think once people understand, more and more consumers, particularly Stylist women, they understand the mechanics behind journalism and brands etc. So they were more, ‘Well actually I just want to be able to access it when I want to.’

The thing is with Stylist magazine, it’s not in their control. But people would rather pay to have something in their control. And then it’s an absolute treat if you happen to be around when Stylist has been handed out.

And I think this is the first time Stylist has gone from just free distribution to a real digital consumer revenue push. So when people do get back out in cities, are things about your workflow you’re going to have to change, is it going to be quite a complicated workflow again to get the print and the digital product out? Or are you going to focus a bit more on the digital now?

No, well that was the whole point to what we’ve been doing over the last few years is to uncomplicate that workflow, so when you’re publishing from print to digital, that bit specifically, that we could automate as much of that as possible. There’s a lot of upfront work in how you do the templates, etc.

But we had to avoid what happened with the previous app which was too labour intensive, too time consuming to get it done. It’s almost like reproducing it all over again.

So now we’ve smoothed that out, because obviously the volume of content that Stylist produces is huge, right? There’s only a certain amount of hours in the day, so we can’t layer in another whole workflow just for the digital magazine.

So that’s the work that’s been done, and we’re really comfortable that once we’ve created the content, we then can publish to multiple platforms, and it’s optimised for those platforms, and actually there’s a lot of automation in there now.

Why focus on the digital app; why not look at broadening out a print readership subscription, or is that just a cost consideration?

Well it’s both, it’s cost and revenue. I could double the circulation of Stylist from consumer point of view, easily, but I’m not going to double the advertising.

Print advertising, as we know, has been severely challenged over the years. We do very well, but we’re a bit of a print unicorn, as I call it, but it’s not growing. And so we have to fight very hard for the revenues in print because if less of it is being produced. So it really is an economics thing.

From a consumer side, up yeah, no problem at all. From the advertising revenue side, that’s where it’s problematic. I’d love to do it, honestly. If the advertising was booming in print, we really would be pushing a million copies.

It’ll be interesting to see if the advertisers see the value in the digital as well, won’t it.

Yeah, absolutely. I think it is part of our circulation then, isn’t it.

You were bought on to Stylist and they’ve seen some quite big changes; I think it was just last year that Shortlist closed, and there was a big rebrand of the wider group. So what was your role in that, and what changes have you brought to the brand over the past few years?

Yes, it was just over a year ago when we recentered the whole business around the Stylist brand. And really that was because there was so much opportunity and strength in Stylist. And Shortlist was an amazing proposition, but it had sort of run out of road, whereas Stylist still had so much to develop.

So it was really about focusing on the strength, and it’s never an easy decision to make. But that’s what we did so that we could then accelerate the opportunity around Stylist.

The focus has really been over the last three years, building our digital audience, that’s outside of the digital magazine, but our and the free web audience. I’ve been particularly focused on scaling that, but with UK women, and scaling it organically through content.

We’re not just interested in headline numbers, which are global which are bought-in numbers…there’s no clickbait, it’s all our opinion, it’s all through the Stylist lens. That takes a little bit longer to scale up, but when you do, then you haven’t very good quality. We basically talk to what, three and a half million women on the site, and they are UK Stylist women.

And now we’re starting to see the value in that audience, so they respond very, very well to content to advertising that we produce with our brands. So that’s been one of the major focuses.

And then also moving our events business, which is obviously in the freezer at the moment. Stylist is such an experiential, participative brand. We had one big event with Stylist Live, what we have moved to is running a calendar of events all through the year. So you might be at an event for 200 people like a live podcast, or it can be an event for 2000 people during the day.

Stylist is sort of running through the calendar, running through the seasons on every channel. Those have been the major changes.

Did I see the other day – pre Coronavirus – you’d launched a gym membership as well, it was like a gym in London?

Yeah, so we actually have had a fitness studio for the last year and this is part of our future strategy, which is about building vertical adjacencies on the Stylist brands in subject areas which are particularly relevant to Stylist women.

So we have a vertical called Strong Women, which was a trend that we identified last year, which is more and more women moving into strength training, not just aerobics and running, or the stereotypical things that you think women might do. And we had a studio for a year where we developed a strength programme for women like lifting weights and doing all of those core strength exercises. And that programme has become content, so now we have a channel on the site.

But I think what you probably saw is, we did a virtual event where we had a Strong Weekender. And we got all of the really cool fitness boutique studios which had closed to give us their head trainers and we did a live Instagram over the weekend. We had Barry’s boot camp…and that’s probably what you saw. That’s a vertical that obviously now, the link between physical fitness and mental health is so intrinsic and is going to be there forevermore. This is a really important subject area for us.

I suppose one of the other advantages, you were saying you were very, very focused on UK readers and UK women, is there going to be room at some point for Stylist to kind of take that out to the US, Europe or other geographies if you’re completely – or not completely free of the print – but less reliant on the print?

So when I talked about the focus on the UK audience that’s that it was good quality Stylist audience. We publish internationally as well, and actually America is very strong for us. We’ve got a couple of million people in America, which has been growing.

And then obviously we publish our content, a lot of it through the social platforms and particularly with Apple. We do have a big digital international audience, and that’s part of what we do. But the major focus for us on the commercial side has been that quality UK audience.

I wanted to ask about Apple actually, because you were an early publisher on Apple News+, which is their premium product. How’s that going?

It’s going well, I mean we’re literally just on there, I haven’t got much to report at the moment, as in we literally at the same time as producing our app, we went on to Apple News+. So it’s been an active kind of April!

But I think Apple has been a brilliant partner to Stylist. And I think the whole concept of Apple News+, rewarding publishers for the time spent on content. Stylist does very, very well on Apple. It’s one of those you know, relatively compared to like New York Times or something, it’s much smaller brand, but they see that our content resonates with their audience, and they really respect quality journalism and content, and they really do get behind people who are doing that.

What I can say is because our audience is only 50% Apple 50% Android in terms of devices, as the app launched, the uptake from Apple was like 70 or 80% from Apple users. And I think that’s because of Apple News+ and seeing us there. So within the Apple ecosystem, it’s doing very well.

Yes, I heard lots of anecdotal evidence that Apple users tend to want to pay for stuff a bit better as well, rather than Android users.

Well that’s good. Are you an Apple user?

I’m not, I’m a paying Android user. I’m a rare breed! I’m quite curious about how your teams are coping, because you said that they’ve gone from these very print-focused workflows to suddenly having to shift into digital, and they’ve also presumably got the shift of having to work from home as well and deal with all the complications around that. How have they done that?

They’ve been absolutely brilliant. Working remotely is, some days it’s fine, some days it’s a challenge. I think the creative process is particularly challenging via Zoom or Slack or whatever, because sometimes those ideas for features are generated by how people spark off each other. And that’s much harder behind a screen.

I think the creative side of the business is a bit tired, because you have to work twice as hard trying to read the room, and create the features and then translate that into what the visuals are. I don’t know how they’re doing it, but the end result is brilliant.

I mean, this week’s cover that I’ve signed off, it’s so on point and brilliantly done, but I saw it and I was like, you know, it’s quite a moving cover. And then I went off into the kitchen to make a cup of tea and I kept thinking about it and I actually got quite emotional just thinking about it. It’s out on this week’s [edition], you’ll see what I mean! It talks about the power of a hug and why hugging is so important and why we might miss it.

I don’t know how they’re managing to do it, but somehow the work and the content they’re producing is even a touch better than they were doing before. But it takes it out of people personally being behind the screen all the time. I’m sure you’re feeling the same way, you sort of miss the buzz and the energy from other people.

I don’t know how they’re doing things like covers and photoshoots, and just getting the content or stuff that you can’t actually see people.

The interesting thing is, Stylist is actually more famous for its concept covers. And they’ve gone into really what the brand strength is, which is reading the room and then playing that back to people through…I mean, as I always say, pictures make you stop and then words make you stay, and they’ve really shown how to do that in this…I mean, it is an entirely digital world, isn’t it?

They really, really have done brilliantly, and I just think they have, like we all do, days when you go, this is totally fine, and days when you think, this is not okay! But they’ve been getting through it really well.

What’s on your agenda in terms of getting Stylist ready for the next, I don’t want to say 10 years, but the next couple of years?

Next month would be good, let alone the next 10 years I think! I’m really interested in how Stylist can continue to build verticals from the main brand, and whether that’s digital, experiential, new product, and those verticals and adjacencies can be thematic.

So what are people feeling? What are they doing and how can we create a specific product for those areas? So building out from the main brand strength, I do feel that our events business, when it becomes more physical and however long that takes, it’s going to have a new dimension to it now.

And I think the power of virtual events and being able to really amplify the stuff that we do in a room with a few people, to many people, is super interesting. And then just actually, because of what’s happened with the pandemic, it’s a global experience.

We are seeing – to your point – that Stylist is translating globally, very, very well. And that will always be in our kind of eyeline and how we expand that internationally. So yes, we’ve got lots of plans.

I mean, obviously, everything got thrown up in the air a little bit this year, but we’ve got the brand that people want. So they actually say, how do I get it? And I think if you have that, you will find your way forward.

Yes, I’ve been guilty of stalking somebody on the train just in the hope that they put their copy down!

Listen, print is so important to us, and just for those reasons, and we’ve got to find a way to be able to distribute it, and also advertising is going to take a really big hit this year. So how do we fund it? How do we distribute it? But it will play a big role for Stylist.

Stylist, as I said, it’s physical and experiential, and people want to participate in it. And I think the print product does all of that. So yeah, it’s in the freezer as I say, the events and magazine are in the freezer!

The last thing I’d like to get your thoughts on is, you look around – and I don’t want to trash talk any other brands – but you look around at a lot of the women’s magazine market, print and otherwise and they seem to be really really struggling, they’ve got these battles with circulation. Why is Stylist, even with a huge print run, you’re still really, really in demand, and you’ve got people literally fighting over copies. What sets Stylist apart from perhaps some of the other women’s magazines in the market that has created that demand for it?

I think it’s that Stylist is positioned to reflect what women are feeling, not just what they’re thinking, but how do we feel? It’s the flexibility we’ve got in our model, because obviously we’re a fast paced weekly, our distribution allowed us to be able to be free of the shackles of trying to sell on a dusty shelf in Tesco.

We are able to translate – and that’s the whole point of it – we’re translating what women are feeling and thinking, but most often people go, ‘Oh, God, yeah, that’s exactly what I was going to say, or that’s how I feel.’

But also it launched 10 years ago, so 10 years is 10 years, but it’s not a heritage brand. It launched with feminism and purpose at its heart, it didn’t then try to adopt it. Now this is what Stylist does.

And also it’s got a brilliant editorial team, a brilliant editor in chief who’s just always been on point with how women are feeling. I mean, I’ve worked on many publishing brands and it is the most powerful connection with the audience that I’ve ever seen. And constantly adapting, constantly learning, being very close to her. And that’s all I can say on it. I think it’s done its job brilliantly, and I think it will continue to do so.

During this crisis we set up a Facebook group really like the first time they announced a lockdown was coming, which is a private Facebook group. Working from home with Stylist, how you’re feeling. Now we’ve got two or three thousand people in that room commenting all the time. And we take what they say, and reflect it back, and use it in features, so that it always feels like something that is relevant to them.

I mean, there’s a podcast off the back of that as well, right?

Yeah, there’s a podcast as well. So we’ve been phoning up people, we get the odd celebrities on there, but actually just, what I thought was really interesting about the podcast is it’s how Stylist works. So the conversations that Lisa and Alix are having with your team is how they develop features, how the conversation becomes the content, and sort of being inside the Stylist offices.

People always love it when – when you could get into the office – people always used to love coming into the Stylist office and just listening to the conversations that people were having, because they knew that next week, they’d see that reflected on the magazine cover.

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