Marcus Rich, the chief executive of Marie Claire publisher Time Inc UK, has been spending a lot of time buried in the company’s vast archives looking through comics. His rummaging isn’t driven by nostalgia, but by a belief that the key to Time Inc’s future could lie at least partly in the past.
“Downstairs we have this unbelievable archive of titles, some dating back to the 1800s. I’ve been down there on numerous occasions,” he says, before chuckling and adding: “It’s not a case of going down and sitting in the dark reading comics.”
So it’s not big sellers such as Marie Claire or Woman and Home, or the venerable Country Life and Horse and Hound, or even beleaguered NME that we start discussing. Instead, somewhat oddly, the conversation centres on a clutch of classic titles from yesteryear that failed to survive in a print-only era, let alone the modern digital war of attrition. “We have a huge comic archive all the way through the war era of characters and licences no longer published,” he says.
“So Tiger and Jag, Valiant, characters like Sexton Blake and Billy Bunter. There is a lot of substance in that archive and I’ve been looking at opportunities with new technology to bring some of that content to market in different ways. I am fascinated about the value of content, new and old alike.”
Of course Rich, a fan of music mags with a penchant for “prog rock” who took over from 36-year Time Inc veteran Sylvia Auton 18 months ago, doesn’t just want to talk about magazines. “We are not a magazine company,” he says, which on the face of it sounds odd given that Time Inc is the UK’s largest magazine publisher. “We are a magazine brand business. The platform is irrelevant. We should start from the point of the audience, and the content, the platform is only the best mechanism at that point for that story.”
Perhaps we are not talking about magazines because Time Inc’s purely print-based figures show the typical industry trend; in 2005 the Audit Bureau of Circulations figure for total circulation across the group was 8m. Last year total circulation was just over 5m.
Since arriving from Daily Mail publisher DMGT, Rich has focused on splitting the star sectors of the Time Inc portfolio into five vertical areas: equestrian, cycling, interiors, craft and beauty. The idea is that each of the magazine brand sectors, or individual titles, will be built into cross-platform propositions designed to stretch well beyond the dependence on print sales and advertising.
Initiatives include launching equestrian event booking site Equo to tap Horse and Hound readers; Marie Claire’s foray into the retail beauty and wellbeing business with Ocado; and buying UK Cycling Events to add a live element to its stable of cycling magazines.
“From dogs through to television, yachting to golf, we sit at the heart of people’s passion areas,” he says. “At the heart people value authenticity, trust, something of substance. We are delivering against that strategy to take very deep relationships we have primarily in print and transferring them in to new areas like events, e-commerce and e-learning.”
By picking out verticals with promise, Rich appears to imply that there are other parts of the business without a similarly bright future. What happens to titles that do not fit those sectors? “They are not my five favourite verticals, they are the first verticals I am looking at,” he replies.
Music bible NME is the first of those “other” titles to be given a hopefully lifesaving strategic overhaul. With no end in sight to a 20 per cent sales decline that has seen the once-mighty magazine’s circulation dwindle to just 15,000, Rich has gambled on taking it free and boosting distribution to 300,000.
“We have been growing the digital audience to 3.3m weekly reach,” he says, citing a figure that includes social media. “The paid-for product has been reducing but there is a big demand from millennials. The freemium model offered the opportunity to deliver that in print form too.”
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