The themes of transformation and innovation were high on the agenda on the first day of FIPP World Media Congress 2020, held online for the first time in its 43-year history. Despite one of the most difficult years in living memory, many media companies continue to go from strength to strength.
Among them is Future PLC. With soaring revenues and a strong performance on the stock market, it is one of the UK’s best-performing media companies. During the second session of the day, Chief Operating Officer Claire MacLellan gave some insights into what’s behind its success.
MacLellan began her presentation by acknowledging that five years ago things looked different, with the move to digital being especially hard.
Nonetheless, the company has developed a multifaceted yet relatively simple strategy that has ensured success. “We set out to become global and to have multiple revenue streams,” MacLellan explained. “We were pretty single-minded in our focus.”
Creating the right culture
Setting out a long-term strategy is not without challenges, but Future achieved significant audience growth fuelled by a successful expansion in the US and a slew of complementary acquisitions.
“One of the biggest difficulties is making sure the company culture is representative of what we want it to be, and that whether you’re in New York or in Bath, people understand why we’re doing what we’re doing,” said MacLellan. “Because of the challenges that Future had been through, people felt the weight of responsibility.”
Changing a culture can be very difficult. MacLellan highlighted the importance of having an overall strategy, which can then be simplified and adapted with time. “We have six core values now, and we spent a great deal of time making sure that those values are in everything we do – from recruitment to communicating with people,” she said. “It’s in our DNA. That’s how we get alignment.”
If you focus on the customer as much as we do, you find ways of developing something that means something to them.
The power of special interests in creating revenue streams
Future is perhaps best known for its specialisms, with dozens of niche titles. Yet despite this, MacLellan said, there isn’t a different approach for each brand when it comes to converting audiences into revenue. Even if you’ve got the biggest audience in the world, you still have to find a way of making money from it. Monetisation for Future comes in the forms of ad revenue, ecommerce, events – but also licensing opportunities that support the overall goals of the company.
“At the core of our strategy is content that connects,” MacLellan added. “Being specialists in many different types of content is really quite important to us, because we have a deep connection to those audiences.”
What’s more, Future identified potential revenue streams through paying attention to their audiences. “If you focus on the customer as much as we do, you find ways of developing something that means something to them,” MacLellan added. She used the example of Future’s own Hawk ecommerce model, which was brought into being as a way of supporting readers in making purchases relating to their passions (eg. PC Gamers, Tom’s Guide iPhone accessories). Future therefore developed their own technology platform: “It superpowers our content,” said MacLellan.
As for future revenue streams, with their well-known events portfolio in the US and the UK having pivoted to online with great success during the pandemic, she said they will continue to develop this. They are also considering going deeper with subscription models.
One of the main topics of discussion was Future’s recent range of acquisitions, such as business news brand SmartBrief (US) and, most notably, TI Media (UK), which is home to 41 brands including Decanter, Country Life, Wallpaper and Woman & Home. Acquisitions can famously slow companies down, taking up managerial bandwidth as they become part of the new company. Yet MacLellan insists that Future hasn’t had this problem.
That’s because Future actively ensures, when making each acquisition, that it has a clear idea about where that brand fits with the overall vision, explained MacLellan. “We look for ways of bringing in expertise that align with the strategy and really add to the business’s strengths,” she said. “SmartBrief is really good at newsletters and email marketing, for example. Barcroft at video content. And many of TI’s brands fit well with Future’s operating model of transferring from print to online.”
At Future, the brands get integrated quickly by following best-practice procedures. “It’s not easy, but we hope that it’s made easier by communicating clearly with teams and emphasising the things that Future is brilliant at.”
Creating an international brand
MacLellan commented on Future’s strategy for growth in other markets. At the moment, its physical teams are based in Australia, the US, and the UK, but they work closely with local writers and local commercial teams. “Using experienced individuals locally has helped us grow fast,” MacLellan said. “We really value individuals that can bridge that gap internationally.”
At the moment, Future is largely an English-language business, but has a portfolio of license products in print in about 26 countries, and there are emerging ecommerce opportunities in markets like India. One title, TechRadar, is now in several countries in several languages. “We basically franchise our technology and know-how,” said MacLellan. “The operating model is the same, but you can find TechRadar in Scandinavia, in the Netherlands, and other places. It’s not our plan at the moment to directly go for foreign-language markets, but never say never.”
The way that we recruit, advertise, write content: we want to have long-term solutions
Diversity at Future
Building on this, MacLellan highlighted that one of the reasons Future is such a dynamic place to work is its international outlook and team with a range of backgrounds. A rarity in the media world, it also has a female CEO, COO, and CFO. “Future is just shy of 50% female at its executive level, we’re very proud of that,” she said.
MacLellan also commented on socio-political changes at large. “Even before the most recent Black Lives Matter protests, Future already had a diversity committee,” she said. But the movement has had a strong impact: “In the US, it has been overwhelming and significant … people have felt so much pain.”
As a result, Future has invested half a million dollars in the Ad Council to make sure it is giving ads to the BLM movement, and is putting other solutions in place, too. “We meet on a monthly basis. The way that we recruit, advertise, write content: we want to have long-term solutions,” said MacLellan.
How Covid-19 has changed Future (and the media industry)
Asked about the elephant in the room, MacLellan talked about the challenges and opportunities of going remote and meeting new consumer needs during the pandemic.
“There have been real challenges with Covid-19, but the significant point is that our audiences required something different through this time, so we had to pivot quite quickly to create content that mattered to them during some of the most difficult times of their lives,” she said.
In the industry at large, MacLellan anticipates the continued evolution of office space, and the desire for people to have greater flexibility around work – as well as the shift to more virtual events. “I think virtual events are here to stay. Online events offer new, virtual ways of connecting with our audience.”
Despite the difficulties of the past six months, she expects Future to build on its successes going forward. The pandemic has brought in new audiences, “and scale brings opportunity,” she said.