PPA chair Barry McIlheney proclaimed a new “golden age” for the publishing industry at a closing Publishing Expo keynote which saw leading figures in bullish mood. New research drawn from inside the industry indicates it has much to be confident about, but only if it gets its thinking right – the ABC council got a kicking for not moving with the times.
The session started with Jim Bilton of Wessenden Marketing presenting the results of the big Publishing Futures survey. This asks industry insiders what their view of the business is and where they see themselves in two years – so that a more accurate picture of what is actually happening can be gained. Some 101 companies representing 3,902 brands contributed and the results come as a surprise for a trade which has seemed obsessed with its own demise.
Across the survey, publishers predicted turnover would be up an average of 6.8 per cent. Headcount is rising again. The focus has moved to developing new revenue streams and away from cutting costs. Confidence is growing. And print is still, in Bilton’s words, “massively important – the engine room of the business, providing 68 per cent of revenue overall”.
The mood, he said, seemed to be changing from impending doom to one of “fear that digital will slip through our fingers because there are so many opportunities.” Publishers were now asking ‘have we got the resources to manage and develop the available revenue streams?’ he said, and highlighted one comment in the survey which said: “We need to be more positive and bold and stop the corporate dithering.”
Bilton opened the panel discussion by asking: “Are we in the middle of something, and if so what is it?” McIlheney responded by calling the survey “fantastically encouraging” and saying that it showed “if you have the assets you are on the verge of a golden age”. That may seem an entirely predictable point of view for a PPA chair, but Dennis CEO James Tye put some flesh on the bones:
“We are not on the verge of change, ” he said. “We are 10 years in.” He added that at Dennis: “We don’t talk about print or digital any more – we’ve moved to a brand model. We think about total revenue and total profit from the brand.”
Spectator chief Ben Greenish echoed the back-to-basics theme of the two-day gathering when he said: “I haven’t thought of myself as a publishing person for 10 years. It’s about media. It’s always been like this.” And Shortlist Media’s Mike Soutar talked of being “on the brink of an exciting moment because we have a set of businesses which are not declining at the rate we thought they would”. He said Shortlist, which has made a success of the print freemium model, was “gearing up digitally and internationally because we are convinced we have to do it now – the moment can be fleeting”.
Bilton posed the question “Is digital a business for large players only?” and both Greenish and Soutar argued not.
Greenish said: “Being able to be fleet of foot is key. Being small means you can try things. We are making much of what we do up as we go along and we are relaxed about it. If you fail in a big business you lose your job.” Soutar drew on his experience at IPC to say: “We succeeded when we could operate small, move fast and try things out, then use big muscle to maximise what works.” He said “being small is critical to creativity”.
This led to some discussion of staff, recruitment and skill sets. Greenish said: “We kidded ourselves that we can all do digital as well. You have to employ people who have the focus and expertise to do the job.” He warned of seeing digital as “the thing you do after print”. And James Tye worried about “living in denial”, saying that his concern was “the lack of knowledge of systems skills and systems deployment at senior level”.
As the session seemed to be drawing to a close, a question from the floor sparked some strong criticism of the ABC council. Panel members complained of not being able to include iPad subscriptions in circulation figures and the ABC Council was accused of “dragging its feet” and being “shamefully behind”.
The clear message was that the industry needed a clear metric for measuring circulation in these changed times, and the ABC itself was under threat if it didn’t come up with one.
It was an explosive end to a session which surprised and stimulated and showed, to shamelessly plunder a cliché, that rumours of the publishing industry’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.