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How AgriBriefing built a £150m media business in a decade

AgriBriefing – formerly known as Briefing Media – was established in 2012 by Rory Brown and Neil Thackray following the acquisition of Farmers Guardian from UBM for £10m. Brown and Thackray were convinced that the wider media market was overlooking key opportunities in a rush to scale, and a reliance on platforms.

The company has grown rapidly over the past eight years, and now employs over 200 people in the UK, Netherlands, France and the US. AgriBriefing now delivers price reporting, news, analysis, events, data and market intelligence to over 500,000 professionals in 200 countries.

At Making Publishing Pay in February, co-founder and CEO Rory Brown talked about AgriBriefing’s journey, from the initial acquisition of Farmer’s Guardian to its growth into a divested media powerhouse worth £150m.

Shift to subscriptions

Farmers Guardian has been going for over 175 years after starting as a weekly title for farmers in the north. At the point the title was acquired by AgriBriefing, it had 2,500 commercial customers, and was selling 35,000 copies a week, with over 70% of those being sold on the newsstand.

“UBM was scared about what was going to happen,” Brown explained. “They’d seen the subscription market go, the classified and display advertising disappear…whereas we saw the opportunity to buy a great brand with a huge customer base, and all sorts of opportunities to monetise.”

But from day one, Brown knew that the newsstand model was not something they wanted to base a business around. “We had to start transitioning those customers into being subscribers,” he said. “We actively harvested the newsstand subscriptions…we gave them incentives to move across to being subscribers as they were already quite loyal.”

“We’re now at a stage where we have nearly 80% of our customers subscribing on a direct debit relationship, which is very powerful for the business.”

Creating value

Another key to Agribriefing’s success has been their focus on value. Brown outlined the drastic turnaround they implemented in the early days of owning Farmers Guardian. “We’ve always had this view about value in media,” he said. “ So rather than just understanding the profits from media, how do you create value?”

When they first went up to Preston, they met with the 60-strong team of journalists and salespeople. “We sat there and we said, ‘What’s your job? What are you here to do?’”

“‘That’s a stupid question,’ they said. ‘We’re here to produce Farmers Guardian every week.’”

Brown emphasised that they did a fine job, but that more was needed. “We’re going to stop publishing Farmers Guardian in two months time, we’re going to can it,” he told the team. “Our job is not to produce Farmers Guardian. Our job ultimately is to help farmers do their job better, and there are many ways in which we can do that.”

With the assurance of no redundancies, Brown sent the team off to think about what they were going to do without the magazine. “How are you going to add value to farmers?” he asked. “How are you going to find the thing that helps them do their job better?”

The teams went away in different working groups and came back with a wide range of insights and ideas, from farmers’ struggle with red tape to needing access to legal assistance, and small business help, whether in HR or procurement.

“We said, we can do those things. Let’s develop the tools, the services, the data solutions, the partnerships with other people,” said Brown, before adding that they were joking about cancelling the print magazine. “We have to think differently, so breaking the mindset from an industrial process of producing a physical artefact every week on a hamster wheel, into ‘how do we add value for customers?’”

AgriBriefing then focused on developing a number of tools to meet these needs, from a grant checker to see what subsidies were available for farmers, to partnering with legal and buying groups to offer a free legal helpline and buying advice. This allowed the publication to change the conversation around subscriptions.

“We could then start having a conversation with those customers not just as subscribers, but as members, with access to a whole range of other services,” Brown explained. “The magazine was still very powerful, but it was all of the surrounding stuff that allowed us to start presenting the membership proposition with digital services, tools etc.”

Adding value to the subscription has meant that not only can they charge more, but that the revenue per subscriber has increased. According to Flashes and Flames, Farmers Guardian pushed up revenue by 57% in the first four years.

“We started off with around 10,000 subscribers in the old newsstand days, but that’s now up to nearly 20,000.” said Brown. “Those customers pay double the amount for the whole package, and only a small proportion of people actually use all that, but there’s a perception of value in terms of all the other services.”

“It’s important that you understand the presentation of perception of value, as well as the reality.”

It’s a theme which has continued into the present day. Often when publishers launch new products or extensions, Brown has seen publishers, salespeople, marketers and journalists sitting in a room and saying, “What do people want next, what should we do?”

“Rarely do you have a proper voice of a customer in that discussion,” he cautioned. To combat this, AgriBriefing now has programmes of rolling research across their business. 

“We have dedicated people whose job is engagement,” he explained. “They just phone customers over and over again. What do you like? What don’t you like? What are your pain points? What can we do more of, what can we do less of…so internally, we’re gathering the voice of the people all the time.” 

Building out events

The value for Agribriefing’s customers go beyond print magazines and digital products. As part of their journey to building a profitable business, Brown and Thackray bought their first small show seven years ago to begin to build out their events portfolio.

“From day one, we have always been media owners who believe your actual product is your relationship with the end user community; your product isn’t a physical artifact that you send or sell to someone,” Brown explained. “So if you have a relationship with a community, there are many, many different ways of monetising.” 

The LAMMA machinery show, held in a field outside Peterborough, caught Brown’s attention as he saw the potential to bundle it together. “I just realised the potential of this small focused regional trade show,” he said.

AgriBriefing went on to launch trade show Croptech, and the British Farming Awards, as well as taking LAMMA from strength to strength. Brown emphasised the value that this growing pillar of events added to the original publishing business at that crucial time.

“In their own right, they’re very profitable. That small trade show that we bought seven years ago was doing about £650,000; it was outside, it was exposed to the weather. This year when we ran it, it took over half of the NEC, and was a £3.5 million trade show. It’s a very commercial operation and works very well,” he said.

“But actually, the bundling of relationships and depth with customers is really important,” Brown went on to explain. When approaching commercial partners, “in the old days we had a choice of you either advertise in Farmers Guardian or you don’t. Now we can have a much more diverse and nuanced conversation with them about marketing objectives.”

AgriBriefing has recently taken that commercial offering to a new level with their own in-house digital marketing agency. It now takes over £1m in revenue by offering social media campaigns, events and activities in the relevant sectors, providing a bridge between commercial partners, events, and publishing. 

Disclosure: The author worked for theMediaBriefing under Brown and Thackray’s tenure before its sale to Haymarket in 2017.