Interviewer: Peter Houston

Peter Houston: How did you start out in media?

Paul Cheal: My story in media started after I came out of university. I went to Manchester University at the right time, in terms of the music scene, I was always obsessed with music. I went back to my hometown of Brighton convinced that I was going to be a true renaissance man.

I was a promoter, I was managing a band, and I was also freelancing on the local newspaper. I was managing this and staving off the bank manager and my student loan for as long as I possibly could. Then the bank manager caught up with me and I needed to get a ‘proper’ job, and I ended up a bit of an outpost of United Newspapers, as it was called at the time, working in marketing.

Then I moved on to a couple of other smaller publishers, did some interesting things, and then ended up at IPC. I was the publisher of the rather glamorous outdoor and hobbies portfolio. For younger people, IPC became Time Inc, which became TI Media.

But at the time, IPC was a beacon of hope for all young publishers, because it was known as the Ministry of Magazines. If you got to publish at IPC, you’ve made it. It was a real badge. I then spent 18 years at IPC and I ran several portfolios.

Then I went to work in the centre of the business, principally on digital projects, so looking at how across the piece, we could start to scale things like digital magazines, about how we could actually build better web properties across everything that we did.

When was that?

This would have been seven years ago now. I’m terrible on time.

Even more so now.

Exactly right, because time has no meaning. Before that, I’d been the publishing director of NME. So the early full circle for me was that I was obsessed with music, coming out of university, working media, getting to IPC, and ending up running the NME.

At that time, there was this major onus on the NME. Print circulation was actually doing really well, had a great editor, Conor McNicholas but we were just starting to feel that impact to digital. It was the first time when, by dint of the audience, a young audience that were very quick to engage with digital and rapidly moving platforms, we had that existential threat about what’s the NME going to be going forward.

There had already been work on digital, but it hadn’t actually needed that central thrust. When I moved to a more central role at IPC/Time Inc, it was to take some of that digital learning and trying to apply it across the rest of the business. The end result of that was that I ended up on the main board at Time Inc.

My focus was looking at what you might call distressed markets, so markets where we were really feeling the impact of digital. This would have been celebrity, young fashion, and music and how we can take quite well-established brands, and actually do something more relevant to them, so that they weren’t just bound up in a print world.

There was a chance for those brands to cross over onto different platforms and actually have a chance to survive. I exited Time Inc, when Time Inc was bought by private equity. I was quite happily doing some consultancy. I was consulting for the likes of Eurostar, Citizen’s Advice, Bandlab Technologies, who ended up buying NME.

Then I started consulting for the Big Issue. It was on a voluntary basis, I was Chair of the media side of Big Issue and then I was consulting to the main board, one day a week, just about what can a future media business look like. Then came the 18th of March, which was lockdown.

That became a much more real question: what is the future of this media business going to look like? I then moved from one day a week to three days a week, although I was actually spending a lot more than the three days a week, if I’m honest, thinking about this problem.

It wasn’t just a question of thinking about it, it was actually that there was no time to think, we just need to do. In lieu of no street sales, how are we going to get money to vendors. In lieu of no street sales, how are we actually going to run a sustainable business?

There were two facets to that. One is, in order to get money to vendors, we will need to raise money, corporate money, consumer money, and we’ll need to reinvent our media business as well. There was a quick migration to subscriptions. Obviously, in the role that I was in, there’s a big focus on cash flow, too.

Our initial take on subscriptions was three months. That’s probably the time that this whole thing is going to last because who really knew at the time how long this thing was going to last. People who normally buy from a vendor will use the subscription as a proxy for that weekly transaction.

Within four weeks, we had 9000 subscribers, which was really fantastic, because that was a great sanity check on us continuing to publish the magazine. Because we could have easily pulled the plug, we could have said ‘it’s crazy to publish at this time, we can’t get the magazine out on the streets. Let’s furlough the whole editorial team, let’s mothball this thing, and let’s come back in six months’.

The great shame of that would have been the fact that the Big Issue is really about impact. It’s about impact on people’s lives and we would have lost that route to market.

From this end of the telescope, that looks like a very sensible decision. What was the conversation around that?

The conversation around it was asking what’s a way to generate cash flow. Selling three months subscriptions up front was definitely a way to generate cash flow. What’s a way to try and generate an immediate circulation for this so we can, to some extent, keep selling advertising, we can still still keep trading.

As I said before, what is a way for us to show that the Big Issue is not going to go away. Because actually the impact of COVID is an accelerator, in terms of the issues that vulnerable people face. It was absolutely integral to us that vendors could see that our intention was to keep going and that we will come out this. And as we came out of this, we’d be there for them and we’d still be producing a magazine for them to sell.

That’s one of the things that gets forgotten that people rightly take their subscriptions, I think, to make sure that the vendors are getting an income, but it was also about keeping the operation going.

Yeah, and that’s why subscriptions really are only one part of the puzzle, because as we’re developing our subscriptions business, we’re looking around us and thinking about other routes to market. The Big Issue has never been sold at retail before. It’s never been on the newsstand.

A bigger part of this is when you’re in a crisis, you realise just how good your network is and who your friends are. We immediately called upon Marketforce, an ex-colleague of mine, Adrian Hughes, who helped us get to market with the major supermarkets as quickly as possible.

With the supermarkets, there was almost a corporate social responsibility perspective, to say ‘come on, you’ve got to help us out. We need promotional space, we need listings, we need preferential terms’. Pretty much each supermarket did that and we got listings pretty quickly. Within four to six weeks, we’re up to eight or nine thousand subscriptions, and we’re putting 10,000 copies into newsagents.

Then, the next favour in terms of the blagging hierarchy was to think about what other ways can we get the magazine to market. There was no app. There was a digital edition via Zinio, but there was nothing that really felt like a meaningful digital experience of the Big Issue. So I called in a favour from Jonny Kaldor at Pugpig. J

ohnny got his team to rapidly build us, not just a bog-standard app, but a really good readable experience, something that really lends itself to the device. So again, we’ve got another tool in our armor and we can start offering consumers a variety of ways in which they can access the Big Issue.

All of that, though, is still skewed to the fact that 50% of the net proceeds went directly to vendors. We’re always creating this connection between the fact that we’re doing all of this because we want to help you keep helping your local vendor. That was a really important thing for us.

Then behind that is obviously the fact that the Big Issue website was averaging 150,000, uniques in a good month. I’ve come from a background where cleverer people than me have got brands like NME.com up to 14 or 15 million uniques a month. So I’m looking at this thinking, this is just not enough scale.

In very simple terms, we focused on content optimization, we made sure that we’re writing up things that people were really searching for. We got our SEO strategy right. Now, when you look at the BigIssue.com, we’re talking about 350-400,000 uniques a month.

What that does is obviously give us a much greater pool for selling subscriptions. It gives us some incremental ad revenue. We all know the perils of digital when it comes to ad revenue, so it’s not really about that. What it really does, which is so important, is actually drive more impact.

Because what we found during COVID is that we are very good at providing a business solution for vendors. There’s a lot more vulnerable people in the UK now that have been impacted by COVID, that have been badly impacted by the recession. The Big Issue’s mission is to dismantle poverty. It’s absolutely our job to make sure that the cause of those people is being recognized as well. One way we can do that is by having a bigger digital presence and amplifying exactly what we’re doing.

Do you think this is going to change the Big Issue in terms of how it does business? It always had that campaigning aspect to it, that was the whole point. But now, there’s a commercial spin there that, I don’t know if it was there before, but it certainly wasn’t talked about.

It should certainly be within the DNA of the Big Issue. The Big Issue is a social enterprise, it’s not a charity. The relationship that the Big Issue has with its vendors is as a social enterprise. We do not employ vendors. They buy the magazine at one pound 50 and they sell it for three quid. Now we then provide wraparound care and welfare provision, mental health provision, etc, for vendors, but that’s fundamentally a transactional relationship.

I’m very keen to double down on ensuring that the Big Issue is seen as a social enterprise. It is about finding innovative ways to address poverty and help vulnerable people in the UK. Now, you don’t want to run that at a loss, obviously, so you may end up generating incremental revenue and even profit from that.

But because we’re a social enterprise, we’re asset locked and dividend locked. Anything we do goes back into funding the mission. That’s the really important thing for me. I think you can be commercial, but you can also be social.

And the result of that was that, over the course of lockdown, you’ve distributed over £1,000,000 to over 2000 vendors?

That’s right, and that doesn’t take into account about £150,000 worth of PPE that we’ve distributed as well. Then you should take into account the Big Issue Foundation, which is the charitable entity aligned with the Big Issue, they’ve then directed vendors towards other sources of support, such as fuel vouchers, etc. I think the impact is even greater than the million. You’re right, we have directly provided financial support for over 2000 vendors.

You look at the furlough scheme where people got 80%, is that the same sort of deal?

It’s a difficult one that, because when you look at the profile of vendors, you have some vendors that only want to sell a few magazines every fortnight. Then you’ve got some vendors who are much more commercial, and they’re selling 300 magazines a week.

There are two key things: one is some level of guaranteed financial support for any vendor that was selling for us in the run-up to lockdown. Secondly is just that emotional support. Literally thousands of calls have taken place across the lockdowns between our frontline staff and vendors, just to make sure they’re okay.

The real beauty of the Big Issue when it’s back on the street, for a vendor, it’s a commercial transaction, but it’s also an emotional, visceral thing. It’s your customers, it’s the people you see every week, they are almost like your extended family. That’s something that’s incredibly unique within media, that I can see, and something that we’ve been very, very minded to try and protect and ensure that vendors have someone to talk to, because they’re definitely going to be missing that.

Was that like a helpline, or is it guys in the office actually calling vendors?

Actually calling vendors. This is an area that we think we can also improve on going forward.

That’s interesting, because you’ve got publishers talking about how they’re supporting their staff throughout this sort of thing, with Tom Bureau talking in the Press Gazette the other day. This is like that problem amplified 10 times over because they’re all over the country and you have a different kind of relationship.

And a different type of vulnerability for a lot of those people too. The people who tend to sell the Big Issue tend to come from a disadvantaged background, who may have physical health issues, mental health issues. The job that the Big Issue team, the frontline team, has done over the last 12 months of A) facing lockdown, B) not being able to get anywhere themselves, and C) facing concerns about their own health. To stay in contact with those people and provide some kind of link has been amazing.

So out of all the innovations that have been made through this period, what’s your favorite, or what’s the one that’s been the biggest unexpected success?

I think, obviously, that rapid growth in subs has set a template for us that we will continue going forward. Getting to 9000 subs within that space of time just shows the public and corporate support that the Big Issue enjoys, and rightly so, given the reputation it’s had over 30 years.

I think that outpouring of public support and corporate support, not just via subscriptions, but just funding per se. People have rallied around the Big Issue at a time when their own futures weren’t secure. They didn’t have as much cash on the hip as they might possibly have had.

That’s been financially absolutely necessary, but also a great vindication of just what an amazing brand the Big Issue is and a great reason for why we should keep looking at new ways to engage with consumers, with vendors, with other vulnerable groups of people, as we go forward.

One of the questions I had for you was, do you think this spirit of innovation is going to continue? Then I got the press release about your video-on-demand channel. So yes, the innovation is definitely continuing. What’s the thinking behind the video channel?

It’s no more sophisticated than the fact that things that were happening before have accelerated and amplified. People’s use of streaming services was already going gangbusters. Netflix culture is part of all of our lives now. As you get greater consumer engagement with a platform, it makes sense that other publishers will be able to follow and adapt to that platform.

Because what publishers are really good at is segmenting audiences, but also curating really, really appropriate content for that audience. One of the perils of mass consumption streaming sites, which is a bit clunky, but you know what I mean, is the tyranny of choice. There’s so much to choose from.

The idea of Big Issue TV is that we’re providing the most relevant content. We ask you to take out a subscription on the basis that, when you do so, you know that some of that money will come back to the Big Issue and will be used to fuel our mission.

It’s another contact point, another point of engagement that we can offer, and I think really links into what we’re trying to do digitally as well. It’s really important that the Big Issue brand, also from a demographic perspective, becomes much more audio-led. video-led, much more conversing with the younger audience.

I think what’s interesting is the idea that the Big Issue team is curating those videos, obviously, against that kind of social justice ethos, and in that sense, it’s not Netflix, it’s something completely different.

Completely different, and also, as we scale what we’re doing digitally, not least because this is our 30th year this year of the Big Issue, our ambition is to do produce a lot more short-form and long-form content. That becomes another great opportunity for us to bring that content to market,

Anything else in the pipeline, anything else you can talk about?

In terms of innovation, like lots of people, lots of people have looked at that their businesses or organizations during lockdown and thought ‘we always said that we were going to do this, now’s the time to do it’. There’s been talk about how one makes that amazing frontline service even better for vendors, and also for our frontline team, to make it feel like a more engaging, almost less stressful career choice.

If you work in a frontline office at the Big Issue, you face some challenges. One of the big things that I championed in my time at Time Inc was that we built a product lab. We built a new product development lab that would enable us to rapidly test new ideas. The idea being that you build a proposition, you build a minimum viable product, you test that, and if you get a good market read on that, then you build the next iteration on it, etc, etc.

We’re taking some of that thinking, the service design thinking, and we’re actually applying it to the whole of the frontline. The way that we’re doing it is saying: this is the service that we currently provide the vendors nationwide. These are the bits we do really well. These are the bits that we don’t currently do. How do we build a better service to meet those gaps? Are we as digitised on the frontline as we possibly can be? Are we enabling vendors to have access to technology as much as they can be?

But the really, really important thing is that the service design is actually run by by the frontline and the vendors themselves. We’re actually saying to them, you shape the future business. It’s not a diktat from on high. You have the real-life experiences, you understand the frustrations and the positive elements of what we currently do, so we’re asking you to shape it for us.

If I can ask you a more personal question, what’s the difference between working for a company like Time Inc and working for a social enterprise, like the Big Issue?

One doesn’t end up at the Big Issue with the same mindset that one might have if you’re working for a corporate like TI Media that’s about to be acquired by a VC. The human metrics are very different and what you’ll find universally at the Big Issue is a bunch of people that aren’t there because they think they’re going to get rich. It sounds rather grandiose, but they’re putting other people first by being there.

That’s obviously people who work in editorial, people who work in the frontline, in commercial. If you come from the outside and if you do come from a relatively rapacious capitalist environment, then you can bring something to that, because there are good bits of that as well.

The good bits of that are pace, the good bits of that are learning and innovation, the good bits of that are discipline and being able to very clearly articulate ‘we are here, we need to be here, here’s a route to doing that’. This is the journey that everyone needs to go on, you need to own the journey, the journey is going to be the Big Issue’s journey, it’s not going to be NME’s journey, or any other brand.

What the Big Issue does is incredibly special and important, but let’s just make sure that we can drive that impact in lots of different ways, ultimately to some form of profit, that then gets reinvested back into our mission.

I think that’s kind of my point. It’s partly what do you bring to it, but also it’s what do you get from it?

Absolutely, and there’s the headline way of doing that, which is obviously you start to look at, you look at your media proposition, you start to diversify your revenue streams, you make sure that you have as good a frontline team as possible, who are really super-serving vendors. Then there’s the more behind-the-curtain stuff, which is that the Big Issue, from an organizational perspective, isn’t as good as it could be.

Being candid, all organizations can improve and the Big Issue can definitely improve. Part of my role as Group CEO has absolutely been around looking at the different entities. It’s not just the Big Issue. It’s the Big Issue Invest, which is a lending and funding platform for social enterprises. It’s the Big Issue Foundation, which, as we discussed, provides wraparound services for vendors.

How do you actually take those three elements and, from a process perspective, from HR, finance, etc, get all of those working more efficiently, but also how do you develop trademark behaviors across an organization? So regardless of which bit of the organization you work for, everyone understands that they are working to that mission.

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