Interviewer: Peter Houston

So who are the Chelsea Magazine Company, and what do you publish?

The Chelsea Magazine Company is one of those undiscovered gems, really. And when I was looking for my next role, it came up a couple of times. If I’m being really honest, I didn’t know much about it. I’m a north London boy, I’ve always worked in the West End, and Chelsea Magazines unsurprisingly is based in Chelsea, based on the King’s Road, and just doesn’t have a huge media profile. But when you do a bit more digging, you’ll find there’s 15 websites, 20 plus print brands. It’s a family-run business and actually the opportunity here is huge. We’re in a great market, lots of AB titles, lots of really heavily-subscribed print titles that aren’t beholden to the newsstand.

So actually, when I did some more digging and I looked into it I was thinking, what can be done digitally here, which is how I ended up getting the job, because I came in and presented what I thought the digital opportunity was, because this is a business that’s been built on print historically.

So there are three segments in the company. There’s travel and leisure, special sports, lifestyle and parenting bit. Is there anything that ties all of them together, because there’s a diverse group of magazines there?

Well it is, and it isn’t. And actually if you look at it, and you slightly reverse engineer it, there’s kind of a cradle to the grave element of what we do here. For affluent AB, quite London-centric for the print point of view, we’re covering right the way through from wedding ideas, so that’s quite mainstream, quite mass market and it’s by far our biggest site. Then after that the natural progression is into something like Baby magazine, and then actually brilliantly we also cover education as well with Independent School Parent. So, there’s quite a nice narrative and creative arc there.

And actually if you carry on after that, as people grow up, we would also be covering potentially their first or second home, we’ve got English Home and English Garden. And we also cover what you’ll be doing in your spare time, when you’re pushing on towards having a bit more spare time after the kids have grown up. So we have quite a few marine titles, Classic Boats, Sailing Today, Yachts and Yachting.

So, I think there is actually quite a nice arc, it’s maybe something we don’t make enough of, and I shouldn’t think there’s many publishers with that wide a range.

And the company describes itself as a boutique publisher. What does that mean? Is it because it is London-centric and there’s a narrow geographic area, or is it the titles themselves?

So I looked this up. What is a boutique publisher? And it says it’s a relatively small firm that provides a limited range of brackets, usually very specialised goods or services. Then something that I want to put away here, it says ‘often at premium prices’. I want to get away from that completely. But actually my take on that is that, okay from someone looking from the outside in into publishing yes, well maybe we are a boutique business.

But in reality, in media we offer a very wide range of services. As I alluded to earlier, the 20+ print products and 15 digital sites, and then obviously all of their additional social. And we also do creative content. We’re very big in data, we’ve got huge data lists. And I think personally that we are, if we’re a boutique publisher, we’re right at the very top of that size.

So you got 15-20 titles but you’ve got about 100 staff. Is that right?

Yeah just under that. We are in two premises here on the King’s Road and then we’re also in Cheltenham as well, a smaller office there.

Your career…you’ve maybe got the trajectory running the opposite way than some might expect. You’ve got group publisher with Dennis, and then you were with LadBible, and you’ve gone to this boutique publisher. What’s that like, what’s the changes and the challenges of working at a smaller outfit now?

To be honest with you I feel extremely lucky. I was at Dennis during a fantastic period of massive growth on titles that were just hugely successful, and actually from that group of people, it was really nice to see where everyone is now and how well everyone’s doing. But when I left Dennis, I wanted to do something slightly different. I’ve been at Dennis 15 years, and when the opportunity to go to LadBible, to head up SportBible came up, I just knew I couldn’t turn that down.

After leaving there, I was kind of looking to try and recreate some of that entrepreneurial spirit maybe that we had at Dennis in those earlier years of my career. And Chelsea really felt like a good fit for that. It’s a business where, because the owner, Paul, is so hands on, it feels a little bit like Felix used to be at Dennis, and I was looking for that again really, where you had a direct line to the owner and actually could get things done quickly.

And I think what we’ve shown here since I’ve been here and over the last couple of years, is that if we think a project is good, we will just do it. And with the polarization of a lot of the bigger media companies, projects there are taking longer and longer to get out the gate. Whereas somewhere like Chelsea, if we see an opportunity, and I can prove that there is going to be an ROI on that at some stage down the line, we will just go ahead and do it.

One of the downsides of that from a personal point of view I suppose, is that the success or failure of that project is entirely on my head if I’m the one that’s put it forward. Whereas at a bigger publisher, success has many fathers, and failure only has one, and at the bigger publishers I can see this time and time again for some of the projects that I’m aware of, people claiming that success, and then shrinking away from the potential failure. Whereas here it’s very obvious who’s project it is.

So in a small business like that, does that mean that you become also responsible not just for implementation – because we think sometimes a digital publishing director is the guy that gets something done in terms of plugging the cables in – in a smaller business, are you much more responsible for actual creative ideas, strategic thinking?

The great thing about this role and us being a slightly smaller business is that I’ve got an opportunity to do a huge number of things within the business, primarily because we don’t have people with that dedicated job function. So, I’ve really been trying to fill quite a few roles right through from SEO and content creation, to as you mentioned plugging in cables occasionally, but have also got digital monetisation attached to my name, and I’ve brought in both programmatic and affiliate revenue since I started here.

But then also looking at some of the wider strategic plays on some of our brands, and actually what it’s turned out to be really is the prioritisation of that, because there’s just no way we can do everything that we need to.

So, the big piece that we’ve done over the last couple of months is getting buy in from the board and from the rest of the company into what our priorities are going to be from a digital point of view. So, it’s a great role in the sense that I can really get involved from every element of the brand. The difficulty of that is, just how do I manage my time?

It’s part of the challenge. I mean I know Chelsea Magazine Company bought or launched 10 titles in the last five years. When you’re buying, when there’s an acquisition involved, you could be buying something that really really advanced digital. Or you could be buying something that’s got nothing going on digitally.

Yes absolutely.

Is that part of the challenge, that you’re working at both ends of the spectrum?

Yes it is. It’s never been a better time to acquire publishing titles. There’s loads of products out there that we get a sniff of or generally approached about. Even at Dennis we bought titles that didn’t fit with how we built our websites then, and actually ended up remaining a problem throughout their lifespan. So I think ongoing from here, if there is an acquisition available, then we’re going to look very carefully about how that fits, because we just don’t have the resource really to manage something that isn’t built the same way as the rest of our sites, or isn’t an easy transfer project onto the way that we want our sites built.

And that idea, you talked about launch experience going back to Dennis… I mean Dennis is still actually one of the few publishing companies that is still launching titles – we had Kerin O’Connor on for our 100th episode talking about The Week Junior. So Dennis has always been quite forward thinking in that, and you were obviously at Dennis for 15 years, you must have seen a lot of launches. How’s that whole process changed?

Dennis have always launched lots of titles. And actually, I was part of the launch team for the original children’s titles because there was no experience of children’s publishing at all at Dennis. And we launched a couple of products a few years before The Week Junior, and I think with where they are now, I can’t imagine that they would take the risk that we did when we launched something like Minecraft. It was kind of an interesting process and we got that done within probably three months, if I’m honest with you.

And that started with me seeing Minecraft for the first time – I’d never heard of it – at the London Book Fair, and ended up with us selling 100,000 mag books at £10 each. And the end of that was, we actually doubled down and then went into a regular monthly, basically a comic and it was huge. The first couple of issues that we did were absolutely enormous. And this is built on a couple of previous children’s titles that were done.

What we probably hadn’t done, is forecast what might happen if the publisher of the game changed ownership, which is exactly what happened when Microsoft bought Mojang further down the line. But prior to this, Mojang had actually ended up sending us a letter saying we couldn’t use any screenshots of the game! That’s quite hard to publish a product about one game when you can’t use any screenshots from it. And it actually ended that I left during this period, but they had to cease publishing.

But further down the line Microsoft bought Mojang, and then apparently got back in touch and said “No go ahead! There’s no such thing as bad publicity”.

I can’t imagine that many publishers would not try and foresee something like that in the future. There were lots of launches that we did at Dennis that were basically developed out of existing products. And I think that that’s really the opportunity here at Chelsea as well.

Yes, we’d like to launch a pureplay digital product. But it’s more likely that we’re going to develop out of one of our existing markets, or one of our existing brands.

The great thing now that I think that wasn’t there 10-15 years ago was that it’s much easier to assess the site’s traffic, and therefore its revenue potential, because that information, that data is just more readily available. When there were acquisitions coming into Dennis a while ago, some of the traffic figures that we were given as part of the due diligence just turned out to be pie in the sky. I don’t think we will get caught with that again.

So if you’ve got a brand that you think is not quite what you thought it was going to be, particularly in the print aspect of it, how do you then go about either reviving it or at least sustaining it and getting some value back?

I think my biggest frustration really in media is to see a brand close when I know that there is another way to have kept that brand going. And one of the things we had to do Dennis is to look at, could we reduce the cost base but keep that product going? The original plan with some of them was that they would end up being turnover projects rather than profit projects, but actually it ended up with a couple of them turning in a couple of years a really decent profit.

So, what we essentially established, is what we ended up calling the franchise business model. We would look at all of the cost base of a product, and it was normally those that were strong in print and weak digitally, and just see if there was a way that we could reduce that cost base and keep the product going.

So products such as Micro Mart, MacUser, Fortean Times and Bizarre had all reached a point with their in-house print production teams, editorial teams and all the other associated costs of a big West End publisher, that it just wasn’t worth us continuing to do them. So we put together a model where we essentially franchise out the entirety of the content to a single person, and we will pay them on a monthly retainer and they would have to provide us with print ready PDFs.

And it worked spectacularly well, and it meant that from a business point of view we were able to buy that brand some time, and in a couple of cases to then further develop the digital offering, so that when the time came on print, where even the franchise model couldn’t keep it going, we then had a significant digital project. Or it meant that we could just keep that turnover coming, keep it into the business, and keep that skill set within the business of the people that were involved in making that happen.

So with something like MacUser, we ended up re-employing a previous editor who took it on, set up his own business and did it that way. And actually the MacUser product was the best it had been in probably five or six years when we moved it out of house and just said to Adam, go for it. Create the product that you want to. We are completely trusting you. We are giving you this product, make it what you want. Get back to basics, concentrate on that, and provide us something spectacular. And actually that’s exactly what happened with MacUser.

With Fortean Times, I think it’s fair to say that the editorial team probably were happier working from home than they were in that West End environment anyway. And they didn’t have to get involved in all the corporate stuff that you do at a big company, they could just create and concentrate on writing about the kind of subjects that Fortean Times readers wanted.

And that product is still going and still doing well. And it’s probably never been more focused. Whereas there was a time where it lost a little bit of focus because some of the production guys were working on other titles, the editor was getting dragged into internal meetings, all of that stuff that comes with a big publishing house and a big office.

So it was a great way, and there’s nothing that annoys me more when I see another print title close and then I look at the flannel panel at the front of it, I see a huge number of staff, and I think, well if they looked at that from another angle, they could potentially of at least given some of those guys that they may have had to make redundant, some form of income for another couple of years, and kept that title going and then looked at how to build that title from the ground up digitally and socially. It’s a frustration that is repeated over and over again.

Yeah definitely. I mean we love Fortean Times. Chris and I talk about it all the time. It just is what it is. I’ve got this mental image of the editors of Fortean Times sat in a boardroom listening to some corporate meeting and it just really funny and bizarre.

Yeah absolutely. And it just didn’t work. And what’s brilliant about that franchise model is that enabled the title to carry on. Because if we hadn’t done that, that title would have closed. And there are loads and loads of brands out there, particularly really niche brands, that should look at that as a model for continuation. Particularly if they are incurring a huge amount of cost that really isn’t the brand’s team fault, bust by sitting in that West End office. I keep saying West End, obviously it’s any publisher wherever they may be. But when we broke down the figures on Fortean Times, then it clearly didn’t work.

It’s halving historic fixed costs. It’s fixed costs maybe you don’t need that anymore. So before you came to Chelsea, you were at LadBible. I don’t want to get into the the ins and outs of what went on there. But just in terms of, what was that experience like, coming from legacy brands, established brands and then going on to something like LadBible…what did you learn from that?

Yeah. To be honest it was a completely different environment and that’s something that I wanted. I learned that to be beholden to a single platform is not a good thing. LadBible was completely beholden to Facebook, and I was aware of that from the moment I joined, and tried to build out the website to sort of combat that reliance on Facebook.

And now at Chelsea, I’m pleased that we’re not beholden to a single platform whether that is the newsstand or subscriptions or digital revenue or social platform or whatever, because it’s a very difficult place to be.

Whilst you may think that you’re friends with Facebook, or whichever platform that you are getting most of your incoming traffic from, they have no obligation to keep you in the loop of when a huge change is coming, as per the one that came in March of last year that saw traffic from that referral source absolutely plummet and never recover. And if anything it crystallized in my mind that diversification within reason of both your revenue and your traffic is absolutely imperative.

I think one of the things at Chelsea that we need to be careful of, is that we haven’t diversified too far in the sense of the amount of different platforms that we are trying to maintain. And what I’m conscious of, is that we are probably, in fact definitely, working putting too much effort into some sources because there are members of the team that like that platform, and that I see repeated time and time again. I did some consultancy and I saw that.

And it’s something that we need to iron out, because I tried to look at Top Buzz as a source of traffic, but do we have the team to maintain that? No. Would we like to do Snapchat on some of our brands here? Yes we would. Do we have the teams do that? No. And it’s just about striking that right balance. LadBible were all in on Facebook, and have now had to look at Instagram at least as a secondary source of that traffic, although I appreciate the complications there. Whereas at Chelsea we are spread too thin and we need to narrow it a little bit.

So if I learned anything there, it was just to make sure that effort is focused in the right areas.


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