Interviewer: Peter Houston

Peter Houston: What range of publishing services is Think involved in?

Ian McAuliffe: That’s a really interesting question. We’re always being asked to get our elevator pitch ready to explain to potential client what we do as an agency. Essentially, any company or brand or membership organisation who is looking to communicate with an audience is a potential client.

I’m always taking pains to tell all of our team at Think to make sure they get their elevator pitch right. It’s actually quite difficult with Think because we’ve evolved hugely over the years from where we started, which was essentially as a contract publisher. That was the term that we used to use back in the day.

Funnily enough, that then turned into customer publishing agency, and then a content marketing agency. I actually think that, today, contract publishing really describes what we do. Whether that be for print, digital, live events, virtual events, book publishing, whatever the medium, as long as it involves content, you can contract us to deliver it for you.

I think you can talk to probably ten different people and ask them what they think you mean by the word publishing and they will all come back with different answers. What we mean by contract publishing is the whole gamut of publishing, from your publishing strategy through to your audience definition, through to print, paper distribution, subscriptions, newsstand, and then right the way through all of the digital platforms, including podcasts, audio on-demand, and video.

Then it’s really all about monetizing it as well, bringing in the advertising revenues and the sponsorship revenues to help offset at least some of the costs of putting the content out there.

You’re pretty much a commercial publisher. You do everything that a publisher would do, but you do it for other people. What’s the different skillset that you need? I’m thinking more in terms of the relationship with the client?

Whilst the experience, knowledge, and understanding of core publishing skills is the same, publishing on behalf of another organisation involves understanding how agencies work, and understanding how to extract from a client what their real aims and objectives are with their publishing programme. Sometimes, we can be a bit of a pain by really trying to get our clients to nail down exactly what their aims and objectives are, what their KPIs are, and to get it written down so that our teams know then what they’re expected to do.

I think, perhaps in some commercial publishers, aims and objectives can be a little bit lost in the passion for the subject, in the passion for the particular area you’re working in. Whereas, everyone in our teams from editorial, design, creatives, digital, the marketers, subscription specialists, all they are really trying to do is to deliver on what the client has briefed us in to deliver. That’s one of the key things that makes us different from a commercial publisher.

Also, people often set up magazines, because they love that particular subject matter. They want to own a magazine in the motoring space, or in the caravan space, or shooting, or whatever your particular hobby or interest may be. Whereas at Think, we’ve got a team of very skilled professional publishing experts, but we’re topic agnostic.

We’ve got about 40 clients at Think, 20 of those are in consumer, 20 of them are in the business and professional space. We cover everything from accountancy and automotive to engineering and legal. On the consumer side, we also cover tourism and travel, media, PR, conservation, wildlife, and arts and culture. It’s a hugely wide range of topics that the team has to deliver publishing programmes on, so everyone has to be incredibly flexible.

This is an impossible question, and I apologise for it. What does the perfect Think employee look like?

For me, they have to just have drive and ambition. We’ve been going for 20 years. We’ve gone through a lot of historic hiring of senior people within various different departments, bringing in sales directors, bringing in global digital directors, all sorts of people. Funnily enough, none of them have ever worked out, which may say more about us as a company than them.

We promote from within. We train, we develop, and we give people who want to succeed a chance to do so in an environment that can change year on year, as far as their career goes. I’ve got a team of three sales directors, each running their own teams. Each of those people has been with us for more than ten years. The reason they’ve stayed with us is that they have constantly changed their portfolio. We bring in new business, they add another product to their portfolio.

We move people around a lot as well. We give people opportunities in other departments. And so, in answer to the question of what’s the perfect employee, it’s someone who’s smart, intelligent, and bright, obviously, that’s a given. But it’s also people who think that perhaps they want a little bit more out of their career, and more flexibility, and more of a chance to experience lots of different markets, while staying at one publishing company, which often is pretty difficult to do.

If you could turn that on its head, what does the perfect Think client look like? I’m thinking particularly about the challenges of membership organisations or people that are very focused on a customer base, but not necessarily on a publishing outcome.

The ideal client for Think is someone who has a very clear purpose in why they want a publishing programme. They may not know what the publishing programme should be, but they know how important it is for them to keep in touch with their audiences.

Often for membership clients, the printed or digital communication they get is the only involvement they might have with that membership organisation. You might join the National Trust and never visit one of their properties, but you join because you want to support cultural heritage development, saving the environment, etc. A membership publishing programme is often the only way they’ll ever engage with that organisation.

So the perfect membership client is probably pretty much the same as in a commercial publishing world. It’s where the client hands over, in effect, the whole publishing process to us. We work with clients in loads of different ways. For some of our clients, we just sell the advertising. For some clients, we do everything apart from editorial because they have editorial expertise in house. Obviously, we’re never going to challenge that because often those internal editorial teams are the real specialist in that particular niche vertical sector.

Where we do our best work is where they allow us to really do our job well. Let us take a few risks. Let us push boundaries a little bit. As you can probably imagine, a lot of membership organisations are relatively conservative with a small C in terms of taking risks, not wanting to offend or cause too much controversy.

But funnily enough, our publishing teams often push our clients to say that there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have an editorial viewpoint that that might cause some discussion amongst your members. Because at the end of the day, you’re stimulating engagement in the topic for which you stand for. The perfect client is one who trusts us enough to let us get on and deliver for them what they’ve asked us to deliver.

Does that natural conservatism in these organisations hamper you when it comes to new media and introducing new things, like email newsletters or podcasts or some digital elements to their offering?

Interestingly, I think that you are probably correct in that up until now. Certainly, the pandemic has really turned things on its head with a lot of our clients. Prior to that, the membership sector is often made up of charities or not-for-profits. They have boards of trustees, they have very clear mandates by their members, they have AGMs.

Change is slow with some of the membership organisations we deal with, and that’s not a bad thing. It hasn’t been a bad thing because, over time, we’ve been watching the commercial publishers rush from one new, bright shiny button to another. I look back to the launch of digital editions, the Apple Newsstand and Future’s rush to get 50+ titles ready on its launch, only to see it close very quickly and find out that people don’t want digital page-turning editions.

The slower willingness to change hasn’t proven a bad thing in the past few years, because we’ve waited until we’ve got proof of concept for new digital products and new digital ways of working before going and spending our time or our client’s time and money on following them. So funnily enough, what perhaps could be seen as a negative side of working with membership organisations has proven to be positive, because it means we make much fewer mistakes.

Obviously, what has changed and accelerated a lot of these organisations is the necessity that the pandemic has effectively brought to a lot of those organisations. Lucy Kueng, in her transformation manifesto, summed it up really well where she said, the biggest opportunity offered by the COVID-19 crisis is the chance to re-sculpt corporate culture.

These cultures have been unfrozen now. In order to our job well as an agency, we are constantly pushing our clients with new ideas, new suggestions, new brand development, and new product development. Obviously, it’s entirely up to them, they’re the client, to either take them and run with them or to say, ‘Actually, no thanks at the moment, we’ll leave that for a year and we’ll see how we go.’

The pandemic has ensured that a lot of them have really made some very quick and very decisive decisions about their publishing programme and how to adapt to the pandemic. A lot of them now are not seeing their members at their venues. Take London Zoo, for example, people aren’t going to the zoo anymore. People aren’t going to Historic Scotland’s castles and treasures. People aren’t going to the annual Congress of the Association of Corporate Treasurers.

The publishing programme has become even more vital during this lockdown, since March last year. It’s enabled us to work really closely with clients who are very open to trying out new things. They’re not risk-takers, but more adventurous, certainly, is what I would say, post-Coronavirus.

Was it a switch there from print to digital or did they keep going with print?

Interestingly, we’ve had a mixture because we obviously use advertising and sponsorship revenues to help offset the cost of the programme. Advertising revenues have dropped significantly in print, interestingly, not as badly in membership organisations as in the commercial world, which is perhaps another a whole other conversation.

Some of the membership organisations have reduced their print frequency, but increased print quality and production values. Maybe they’ve gone down from 10 issues a year to a bi-monthly, but that bi-monthly has more pages, better production values, is a sexier product with a heavier thud factor, as we call it. That shows members better quality, better value for money, and a reason to be a member.

Whilst we’ve been reducing print frequency for some of these clients, we have been reinvesting the savings into digital programmes. I would say, in the last 12 months, we probably have increased the amount of digital work we do with our clients by about 20%, so really quite a big jump just in the last 12 months.

We’ve seen it all over the place, this idea of trend acceleration. Do you think that this was coming anyway, and it’s just speeded it up?

Yes, absolutely. We run research called Re:member. We’ve been doing it for about nine or ten years now. We survey the membership sector, on one side professional, on the other side consumer. We started it because we assumed, eight, nine years ago, that print would probably be dead by now, and we just wanted to make sure we were ahead of the curve.

We knew what members and membership organisations wanted from their publishing programme. We’ve just completed our latest research, which will be out very shortly, of over 200 membership organisations representing over 5 million members.

What is fascinating is that print is still seen as one of the most effective benefits of communicating with a member, because of course, you’re pushing content out to them. It’s a curated, set amount of content that’s being delivered to them, normally at their home address.

In terms of those numbers, they’ve dropped frequency, but it’s still there as part of the programme. All of the clients were moving towards digital before the pandemic, but at a very slow and steady, very conservative pace. What’s happened is that the pandemic has just accelerated what was going to happen.

However, I would say, fascinatingly during the pandemic, we had three clients who asked to stop printing the magazine. Obviously, one of the main reasons for that was they couldn’t distribute the magazines to their members at their office address because they’re often their members weren’t at the office. This was a couple of our professional clients.

They dropped the print and we replaced with digital content. All three of them have gone back to print now, because they said that members are just asking for it. Members still want a printed product as part of the publishing programme, not the whole and probably not the most important, but it still is important.

You’ve also recently formed a consultancy, Rethink, to offer publishing advice to other publishers. Is that right?

Over the last 20 years, we have put together commercially robust and sustainable publishing programmes for membership organisations and brands. Over the years, clients started coming to us asking for strategic publishing advice, rather than ongoing publishing services.

Some of them wanted to keep their publishing in-house, but had a team that perhaps wasn’t as skilled in all of the various publishing disciplines as they needed to be, so they wanted some external advice. Some of them want to use Think but using an external agency can be quite expensive depending on which market you’re in and if there isn’t the advertising to offset the costs.

Over the years, we’ve started doing consultancy for membership organisations. I sit on the Independent Publishers and Network Committee at the PPA and started coming across several publishers at events and networking, conferences, etc, who were often one-title-companies that just didn’t have the scale to do all the things a big publishing company can do. They can’t compete, so we were increasingly being asked for advice and asked for help.

We decided to formalise it as a consultancy arm of Think, which is called Rethink. Let’s put it out there and if organisations want any help or advice on publishing or on growing their business.

We get into publishing, because it’s fun, it’s interesting, and other people that we meet in it are people like us. We sometimes put our lives, our blood, sweat and tears into building businesses around a publishing concept. Often, those businesses die with the owner, because they haven’t managed to realise the true value of their publication by scaling it up, by preparing it for sale, by getting it out there and known amongst potential acquirers. So that’s also something that we do at Rethink.

A very good example of that is what we’ve done with Wanderlust over the last three years. Three years ago, we bought the majority shareholding in Wanderlust from the owner, Lynn, who had set the company up 25 years ago. She’s passionate about travel and hugely recognised in the travel industry. Her main skill set was editorial and content, which she is fantastic at. We went in and we’ve managed to completely transform the business over the last three years through bringing in the usual skill sets that we’re using for our membership.

Is there ever a point where you’re doing all these publications for other people and thinking ‘wow, I wish we owned this’?

We’ve always wanted to publish our own titles, our own brands and be in control of them. The Think business, the membership and branded content business, has taken up all of our time, up until a few years ago, and we are also hugely risk-averse.

I think that’s one of the reasons why membership organisations quite like us as an agency. We don’t take risks. Our clients don’t like taking risks. If we do take risks, they’ve got to be really well thought-through and be very low-risk. We appreciate you do have to take some risks in life to get things done.

Buying Wanderlust really started our journey into buying or setting up your own brands. In January of 2020, we formed Think Travel by bringing in an investor, Morris Communications in the US, who brought in their portfolio of inbound tourism titles, the Where portfolio, and all of their international licences outside the US and North America.

That then combined with Wanderlust to form Think Travel. What happened in March 2020 obviously completely took the wind out of any of our growth and expansion plans for 2020. Interestingly, what we have managed to do is, at the end of last year, sell the majority shareholding in Wanderlust to another company, a really talented digital publisher.

He is coming in with more investments and going to be driving the Wanderlust brand forward from now on, with Think Travel still there as a shareholder. It’s really exciting that, even during the pandemic, we’ve managed to turn Wanderlust into a product that is way more digital, as you can probably imagine.

We had fantastic digital traffic during the pandemic, because what everyone was asking for the last nine months is ‘when can I travel’ and ‘where can I travel’. We really used that as an opportunity to grow our digital offering. So Think Travel lives on. We have the Where portfolio in there, but we’ve done our job with Wanderlust.

It’s been a three-year journey. We’ve taken it on board, we’ve cleaned out the attics, as someone was saying the other day about going in and sorting out what a company needs to do. We turned it around and even in a pandemic, we’ve managed to deliver a sale of that business for the shareholders and we are moving forward.

We’ve got more time and more expertise now to take on new clients on the Think membership side, but also on the Rethink consultancy side.

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