Interviewer: Peter Houston

Roy Rowlands: My father started the business in 99. He’d been in advertising and publishing for a number of years prior to that, and he started with the first magazine, the first title, which is still with us today, Rail Technology magazine. And he did all that whilst I was a young recruitment consultant with no ambition or desire to get into this industry, didn’t even really understand it was an industry.

I joined the business about three years later, just as it was launching its second title, which is Public Sector Executive. That particular title is aimed at civil servants across local and central government. Rail Technology magazine is aimed, as the name would suggest, at the rail industry in the UK. And then quick to follow from Public Sector Executive was the third brand within the business, and we’ve got three brands still today, which is National Health Executive, and that services the NHS and the wider UK health sector, both public and private.

So where we sit 21 years on, is we’re multi-channel publisher, and event organiser with three brands. But the interesting part for me is that we’ve got an audience of close to 1 million leaders and influencers across all of those channels, across all of those brands, with an annual budget of over 1 trillion per annum.

Peter: That’s some serious money!

It’s a huge figure. But it’s what gets spent every year on running the UK’s health service, the rail industry, and the public services we take for granted every single day.

It was quite a fortuitous decision, I think, of my father’s to concentrate on those three sectors, because, as I’ve witnessed now for two recessions – I’m only 40 and a baby in relative terms to other people in the industry – it’s a it’s a bit of a stronghold for us, because for as long as there are lives to save, patients to make feel better, public services in a country to run, and people to move around by rail transportation, there’s always going to be a need for what we have to offer.

So what was your dad’s background? What led him to set the business up?

He’d been in business before, and done a variety of different things. And then he found himself working at a company in Manchester in the old Corn Exchange, that was a husband and wife team, they had a magazine for the rail industry, he was between businesses, I think he’d just sold a business. He just started working at this place called Tempus, and liked it and stayed, and stayed for a long time.

And then, what was I, I was 19, and unbeknownst to me, he was thinking about setting up his own magazine for the rail industry. There was a variety of different reasons for that, but the short version of the story is, it was a husband and wife team that owned that business, and they were selling off all of the assets because they were getting divorced.

The title that my father was working on was sold to a company down south, my father had no plans on relocating. So he saw an opportunity, a gap, to set up his own title because he’d worked there for a long, long time, him and a colleague, he’d built up such a reputation. They figured, ‘Well, let’s test the mettle of that reputation, and let’s see if some of the customers will follow us.’ And they did.

It’s quite a common story in niche B2B publishing as people come out of one magazine and going off and setting something up.

I think it’s a common story in business, you always get breakaway groups don’t you. You learn, you decide you can do it better, and you have a go. That’s how most industries evolve.

So a real family business?

Yeah, yeah, I guess so. I didn’t really think of it as that because when I joined in 2002, I joined in ad sales. And it was only by sheer chance because I was working in recruitment, the hours were long. I just got engaged to my now wife, we were looking at moving in together. I surmise that recruitment was an industry then where you either have a career or you have a wife.

So I just mentioned to my father that I was looking to do something different. And I’d seen what buzz he got out of advertising over the years. I knew that he’d set up his own business.

So I’d gone and got myself an interview over at what was then the Guardian Media Group, got an interview set up a company called McMillan-Scott, and he just said, ‘Well, do you not think that’s a bit ridiculous, because I just set up this company. And I’ve just launched a second title. First issue’s coming back from the printers as we speak, and we’re looking for people to sell advertising on that.’

And I thought, you know what, yeah, why not? What can go wrong? And if I don’t like it, I don’t have to stay. 18 years later…!

And two recessions! Obviously we’ve been living in some strange, strange times. How has the last six months been?

Challenging, exciting, very, very different. I think the biggest challenge was making the decision that yeah, we’ve got to go and work from home, and what’s that going to do for the business? And what do we need to do to facilitate that? Once we all sat down and brainstormed it, that was all really straightforward. We outsource a lot of IT, so we had great help from that organisation.

And then it was the setting up the systems and processes of communication and how we’re going to do things to set up the day, whilst some of us are in Olden, Trafford, Ashton, Bury, Bolton, West Orton.

But then the realisation of, well the whole country’s disappeared into lockdown, and everyone’s supposed to be working from home, but actually, you try and get people on the phone and sell them advertising, or worse still, you try and get them on the phone and sell them a ticket to attend an event. They thought it was a crank call, but you adapt.

So we looked at our product portfolio and we looked at the challenges our customers were faced with, and they were all faced with exactly the same problems. They couldn’t get in touch with their target customers, because people were working from home or really pulled out, and a big proportion of our audience was saving lives and making people better, or delivering vital public services to the vulnerable. So how do we communicate our client’s messages to them?

We’ve long been a really successful platform for email marketing and lead generation for our clients. So that was the offering that we really started to push more than anything else, because we knew that’s what would deliver results for our clients in a void period if you like.

That got the attention of people, and that got people spending again, because the message there was, ‘Well, we’re struggling to get hold of people just like you are, but this is how we’re innovating around that problem. This is how we’re managing to get traction with our customers. And this is how you can get engagement with your customers.’

So we saw, I wouldn’t say an increase in business; like most in the industry, revenues were down during that time, but they could have been down a hell of a lot more had we not thought properly and strategically about what we can offer our customers and what we can do for our audience.

So that email marketing was just something that you already had in place, and you just ramped it up, or was it new?

It’s something that we already had in place. We use dotmailer, they’re our service provider for the email marketing that we’ve done. I think our current tariff is 77 million emails a year, that it enables us to send out. So that’ll be a mixture of promoting our news and content that we produce, driving traffic to the websites, but as well, vendor-funded stuff, putting our customers in the inbox of the people that they’re looking to target.

Is that straight email sponsorship, or are you doing specific stuff for them, like different content packages?

Everything. So yes, email sponsorship, exclusive solus e-shots, we call them. But partnering with our customers on the production of content, because what we find works really well is if we bake our customers into what we’re doing, because that’s how advertising works best, right? And always has, always will, it’s the subliminal effect. It’s the consistency about hammering that message home to the people who it matters the most to.

We get high engagement rates because of that, because it’s not overtly advertising. That said, we do get customers who just want to brand the hell out of everything, and that’s their model. That’s what they do, and we try and to do that as sympathetically as we can.

Obviously, different times, there’s a big focus on digital. What else have you got going on in the digital side of things?

Well, this is where COVID really stole my thunder in more ways than one, because we’d already started a journey to look at, well, how does our audience want to engage with our media moving forward?

So we’d started the journey looking at providers of digital editions, like Issu, like PugPig, Blue Toad, Yudu, and others last year. Because if we take our public sector readers for instance, we were starting to get copies of the magazine returned because it’s in a plastic wrapper, or because it smells as though it’s got a high chemical content in the ink. And almost every week, you’ve got a council declaring a climate emergency.

So they’re looking at ways in which they can reduce their impact on them, not just from delivering public services from a transportation point of view, but I guess from the media that they’re consuming. Same in health care to a lesser degree, and rail. Rail transportation is all about moving the most amount of people you can in the most carbon efficient way possible. So they’re pushing that whole agenda.

We wanted to deliver for our advertisers a much more transparent offering. So there’s only so many times you can can look at WARC research, or research from the Advertising Association to say, ‘Well, print advertising works, but it’s very difficult to determine which element of it works.’ And advertisers were asking, ‘Well, you’ve got the print, you’ve got the digital edition. But the digital edition doesn’t tell us x, y, and z. It doesn’t give us transparency over what’s working and how people are engaging with our content.’

That was key for us as well, analytics and metrics, to be able to tell someone how their ad campaign is performing in a magazine that’s accessed digitally. And then also, to produce content in the magazine responsively, just like you consume it on a website was really important. Not everybody wants a page turner through the browser, people just want content stacked in the mobile device, so they can read it with ease.

So we went out to market, we looked at who was out there and we’d settled – well actually, we didn’t settle until I saw Blue Toad had done a leaflet drop at the conference I was that earlier this year where I saw you speak. It ticked all the boxes. So we contracted with them.

We said about staging, the roadmap was to launch I think, May, which is what we did. We stuck to that plan. What’s been great is looking at the data, because I don’t know if you know, Blue Toad uses Amazon’s Polly, which is text to voice. So people can listen to our magazine now like it’s a podcast.

No, I didn’t know that. And I think that’s interesting, because I think anywhere you can take existing content and repurpose it either in different platforms, or in that sense in different formats, one for voice, one for text, I think if you can build that into the process, and it works. It’s just such a win.

Exactly. And we’ve seen that play out in the data, in the statistics, we’ve seen people find us through our social channels and consuming the content, through our newsletters, or even just landing on the website and navigating to the digital edition that way. So it’s really good to see all the entry points and people’s journey.

And you’re getting revenue from it?

Yeah we are, we’re selling advertising in the digital edition in the same way as we did do with the print edition. But clearly, there’s been a saving, moving to a digital platform, because it’s more cost effective than it is to print and mail a physical magazine.

So what we’ve done is we’ve reduced all of our advertising rates by 15% across the board, because we’ve made a saving, and we’re passing that saving onto the customer.

Have you stopped printing completely?

That’s why I say, COVID has stolen my thunder on that front. Yeah, because whilst other publishers have stopped printing magazines, as a result, we’d already gone on this journey, and we’d already selected a provider and had an implementation date. But no one’s ever going to believe that.

Is that just on the Rail magazine or on the other ones, as well?

All three, it all started because of the feedback we were getting from the audience of public sector executive. So you’ve got local authorities, you’ve got central government departments, driving the carbon reduction agenda in the UK. You’ve got the UK being a pioneer and a leader on the carbon reduction agenda globally.

And we were feeling that, we were getting that feedback through that audience. People in healthcare are just getting busier and busier and busier as people are demanding more and more care because they’re living longer, or we’ve got different challenges, whether it be obesity or mental health. So they are consuming media, we found more and more visits to our website, rather than new subscriptions to the magazine.

But now we’ve gone completely digital with the magazine, we’re finding that actually we’re getting a lot more people visit the magazine and enjoy the longer read more than perhaps we were aware of than when we’re printing the magazine because we’ve got the data. And then in rail, a lot of our audience, well our audiences across all of them are leaders, influencers, decision makers, specifiers.

But out in rail, a lot of these people might be working on track or delivering projects remotely. So a magazine is dead useful because it doesn’t need to be connected to the internet. But even there, we’re finding more and more with all the Wi Fi hotspots everywhere, the demand to consume the media from the mobile device was just getting greater and greater.

So we’re always responding to that need as a publisher.

So you’ve now got your websites and newsletters, you’ve got your digital editions and you’ve got podcasts. Are you selling right across the board, or are you selling different pieces individually, is it a bundle?

So we have three teams, a rail team, a public sector team, and a health team. The health team sell everything on health, rail sell everything on rail, and the public sector team sell everything on public sector. But each brand, each news brand is set up the same for all intents and purposes. So we’ve got podcasts, we’ve got online, we’ve got email marketing, we’ve got the magazine, and we’ve got events as well.

Did you do virtual events during lockdown?

No. We didn’t need to worry about that, because our events were so far into into the future. So the first event we would have had to have delivered would have been July this year. And the next one would have been November. And the landscape was moving that quickly, every single day. It was like, well, let’s just let’s just talk to our customers. Let’s just sit tight and see what happens.

My worry, and this is playing out now in a lot of the conversations, my worry with virtualizing the event is, how do you charge for it? And if you don’t charge for it, you’ve made it free? So how do you gain the ground from that? And how do you start charging to monetize it in the future? And I didn’t see how that would work for any of the sectors that we’re in.

We don’t rely on the the revenue from events, because we’ve been able to keep our head above water, and do well during the lockdown period, because we’ve got all of these other channels that have been able to generate revenue for us. If we were just an events-only business, we would have been screwed.

I think the interesting thing about events is this balance that you get between, I can reach many, many more people, but like you’re saying, how do you charge for that?

There’s lots of really good platforms, lots of really good providers, and I’ve seen everything from a couple of thousand pounds to you know, 25, 30k to put on virtual events that have exhibitors, and stands and networking facilities. But it’s just not providing the same experience for me personally.

So we took it to our customers and we said, ‘Right, do you want a virtual event, because ultimately, you come to our events for the opportunity to network, to look someone in the eyes, to have a coffee, let’s have a beer in the evening, and sell them a train or, you know, help them with shared services delivered within the public sector, whatever it may be. Can you do that over the internet?’ And it was no. No, we can’t, or we don’t know how we can.

So we said internally, look, this is the feedback we’re getting from everybody, why don’t we just move our events to next year and not worry about them, because we’re not revenue dependent on them. Let’s move them to next year, gives everything plenty of time to settle down, it gives everyone time to get their confidence back to going out, and networking, and someone said, ‘Well, once the pubs are open and the sport’s back on the telly that’s it, everyone will be at the races.’

And that just gave our customers that had already signed up to sponsor some of our events, another 12 months worth of marketing on the lead up to it at no extra cost. So it was a win win.

We retained all of our revenue, and we moved all of our customers to next year. Sure we’re going to be down on revenue because there was a pause on the selling time on that, but ultimately it’s the right decision and we’ve not cannibalised the events in my view.

So you’re not losing revenue, you’re moving revenue?

That’s right. And we’re not cannibalising the future success of the events by, to use everyone’s phrase, pivoting and launching virtual events which we give away for free and then think, ‘Oh, how do we monetize this now? Because everyone’s consumed it the last 12 months for free, even at £99 a ticket, how do we add value, because there’s no tea, there’s no coffee, there’s no networking?’

So you launched podcasts at the end of last year, beginning of this year. How are they doing?

End of last year, yeah. They’re doing really well. We’re a small team in the editorial department so there’s a lot of work to be done. So podcasts aren’t our only priority. We’re commissioning for magazines, we’re writing our own content, and we’re producing news online every day, so it it has to fit in.

But yeah, we launched them, let’s just say it was at the beginning of this year. And the engagement that we’ve had has been really encouraging. We launched them just simply because I started consuming a lot of podcasts, your own being one of them. And it’s just a really great, convenient way of finding out about stuff, whether it’s a hobby, an interest, something that’s going on in your industry. And I just felt that as a media owner, we need to be doing this, this is the next big thing. That’s played out.

So we’ve got a decent audience, podcast get on average, a few thousand listens a time across the podcast channel, but we upload it to YouTube as well, and that helps, that helps massively. We’ve had some really good guests, we’ve had some really good conversations across all the three brands, but we’ve also had some good sponsors as well.

So we’ve been able to monetize them quite quickly, because there’s no point, I don’t see as a publisher, as a media owner, not having inventory that doesn’t, number one, engage the audience because that’s our product, that’s what we sell, and then to attract revenue.

And as long as we focus on the quality of the content, and being sympathetic to our audience’s needs, we can then always feather in our sponsors in a way that contributes to the conversation.

It’s interesting because I think some people just do podcasts just because exactly what you said you get interested, you think, I’m going to do a podcast, but I think there is a shift with publishers saying, I’m going to have a sponsor from day one. And I think that’s really healthy. Because otherwise, why are you doing it?

Well, absolutely. I mean, a lot of publishers were slow to adopt on the internet, and make the moves on that score. So I think it’s really important when there’s a new opportunity, a new technology, a new medium, we need to jump on it straight away.

And we need to understand how our audience engages with it, but how our clients can leverage it. Because ultimately, and we should never shy away from this, we’re a commercial organisation, and we’re in the business of returning a profit at the end of the year. And the only way we can do that in this business is if we offer engaging content that adds value and helps our audience do their job better.

If we do all of those things for us, the revenue follows. We have to go out, we have to go and get it, we have to fight for it like everybody else, of course, yeah, absolutely. But it’s amazing. It’s not so much of a stretch if all the other ducks are in a row.

So you’re based in Manchester, most of our publishing industry is not, it’s based in London. What’s the benefits of being in Manchester, what’s the challenges of being in Manchester?

The inclement weather, both a benefit and a challenge! It means I’m not a fair weather cyclist, or runner, or walker with a family. We’ll get out in any weather!

I don’t know. I think there’s there’s lots of publishers and media owners in and around the Northwest, in and around the north of England. And that seems to be just growing all the time. You’ve got the likes of yourselves. You’ve got the International Magazine Centre coming down here and doing talks now over in Yorkshire I think in November.

And it’s been recognised more. Clearly a catalyst for that will have been Media City. But when you think of the industry in Manchester, in Leeds, up in the northeast, and even as you’ll know, in Scotland, alright, it’s not as concentrated as in London, but there’s a lot happening up here.

Challenges? Most of the big events, the big conversations are in London, because that’s where I think event organisers lazily just decided to set up. They think, ‘Ah, we’ll go to London, to the most amount of people, we’ll sell it out.’ And I think actually, if you really think about the content that you’re trying to deliver and why, you can sell out anywhere.

So we do events in London, our strongest event is in Manchester. And we launched one in the Midlands last year, which was a sellout in year one. It’s not just about flocking to London and doing what everyone else is doing. And Manchester gives us the ability to have that freedom and flexibility because it’s relatively low overheads in comparison to London, although they’re getting higher all the time as the city is under the spotlight.

But you’re well placed to be able to go up to Scotland or nip to the Midlands and even get into London, it’s only two hours on the train.