PUBLISHER PROFILE 

Anthem Publishing

Last December, Anthem Publishing won the PPA Independent Publishing Company of the Year award. As Jon Bickley tells Jo Bowman, Anthem has small company versatility and big company ambitions, and it’s this winning mix that has enabled it to punch well above its weight.

By Jo Bowman

To say that Anthem Publishing works across a range of niche areas of consumer interests would be something of an understatement. This is the organisation that divides its time between music on one hand, and cooking and craft on the other, with a smattering of Italian travel and culture into the mix for good measure. Managing director Jon Bickley explains that the diversity of content and, therefore, the breadth of the market that Anthem’s titles are targeting, is entirely deliberate – the result of efforts to capture new growth areas as they emerge and at the same time develop existing areas of expertise.

“Right from the start, we didn’t want to have all our eggs in one basket,” he says. “Over time, we’ve tried lots of different ideas, backing ourselves to be able to publish in any sector – and frequently succeeding. It’s only in the last twelve to eighteen months that we’ve really refined our mission to focus on our biggest core markets and to serve them in depth. With such complexity these days around publishing in any one market, with the multitude of digital channels as well as print, we’ve concluded that we have to cover fewer sectors extremely well rather than many adequately.”

The early years

Anthem was established in 2002 by Bickley, a veteran of magazine publishing and former group publisher at Future Publishing, and two other senior publishing executives. Anthem’s first title, MusicTech, launched in 2003, uniting both the computer software and traditional hardware elements of music recording and production. The launch was an immediate hit. A year later, Anthem launched in a very different direction with Italia! magazine, a property and travel title that caught the mood of the ‘Place in the Sun’ phenomenon gripping the UK at the time. Although it was competing against an established player in the field, Italy magazine, and another specialist Italy title, Italia! became the best-selling title in the sector. Having celebrated its tenth anniversary, it has outlived both of its early rivals.

As the business grew, Anthem developed a MusicTech extension, MusicTech Focus, and expanded its Italian presence with the football title Calcio Italia and food magazine Taste Italia. The company also began experimentation with bookazines, publishing specials on George Best, Bobby Moore and the football World Cup; the 2014 edition of World Cup Superstars was its best seller to date. Bickley says a key turning point for the business came in 2010, when Anthem bought Guitar & Bass magazine from IPC, giving the company scale, consistent profitability and presented new opportunities for related launches. Guitar & Bass Classics, Vintage Rock and Classic Pop quickly followed within two years, making Anthem the only UK publisher to publish both music-making and listening magazines.

The icing on the cake

The other big game-changer for Anthem came in 2011, when the company skipped publishing an issue of Taste Italia Collection and instead launched Cupcake Heaven as a one-shot. Bickley says the experience of working on Italia! projects had helped the company understand how to do food magazines without breaking the bank, and the rise of interest in home baking meant the time seemed right for an experimental foray into a new area. “WHSmith called us after two weeks in September and said they needed more copies to cover Christmas – we knew we were on a winner then,” says Bickley.

On the back of that success, in 2012, Anthem quickly rolled out Baking Heaven and then Cake Decoration Heaven to form a highly successful three-title magazine series under the label Food Heaven. In 2013, the company launched World of Food, which has now become Free-From Heaven – the UK’s only free-from monthly. On the craft side, a monthly upcycling magazine, Reloved, launched in 2013.

While cupcakes are no longer on the rise, interest in baking is still strong. Anthem is now feeding a new growth area in food, that of gluten-free and sugar-free cooking. That one-shot with Cupcake Heaven in September 2011 has led to food being a hugely significant part of the portfolio; food now accounts for a third of the company. Anthem now boasts that it’s Britain’s second-largest independent food magazine publisher and the fastest-growing. Food Heaven is Britain’s best-selling baking magazine series, and Free-From Heaven is the country’s first and best-selling free-from title.

Other Anthem titles to have been launched over the years have included the Burlesque Bible, which was sold to Latour Publishing, and History of War, which has recently been sold to Imagine Publishing. Anthem now publishes ten consumer magazines and says it’s the fastest growing publisher in the UK as measured by copy sale revenue.

Lessons learned

The road hasn’t always been smooth, however. When the company first launched Italia!, it doubled its head count without, Bickley says, fully appreciating the financial strain that would impose – resulting in a painful correction a year later. “We also launched a German-language version of MusicTech around 2006 which initially worked well, but quickly became a victim of the recession in 2008 when advertisers retrenched to their own,” he says. “But whenever we’ve encountered problems, we’ve either been able to ride them out through growth elsewhere in the company, or we’ve cut our cloth, sat tight, and then come out fighting with new launches and activity. We tend to be optimistic, take chances and go for growth.”

Bickley says the company still has something of the start-up feel about it. “I think what sets us apart is that we have big company ambitions with small company versatility,” he says. “It’s a source of great pride that we have a music magazine in Classic Pop that comfortably rubs shoulders with the likes of Mojo and Uncut; a baking magazine series in Food Heaven that makes more money at newsstand than Olive and Jamie, and saw off launches from Future and Immediate; and MusicTech.net with 2.5 million visits in a year and more reader and visitor engagement than any other recording magazine brand.”

Digital-first

Anthem’s biggest and most important website, musictechmag.co.uk, launched and expanded in the noughties. Now a web and social media platform relaunched in 2013 as MusicTech.net, the title has a digital-first approach to publishing, which Bickley says has transformed a declining UK print magazine into a global digital brand. MusicTech, he says, has the UK’s largest multi-platform audience of any music-making magazine.

Bickley says digital is, naturally, changing the entire portfolio. “Our mature, special-interest titles are increasingly looking towards web and mobile as the way forward,” he says. “MusicTech.net has always been a prosumer title and it most closely resembles a B2B brand in our portfolio. It connects brands with high-value customers and that happens online more than anywhere else these days. Italia! and Guitar & Bass will go down that route as well. On the food side, there’s more of a mass market, entertainment character to the brands, with social media and web maintaining links to our readers, but the core value residing in the magazines themselves. We have apps for all of our titles and they’re a core part of profitability for some.”

The past year at Anthem has been especially strong. Magazine sales have grown by 31 per cent, newsletter subscribers are up 36 per cent, web visitors up 57 per cent, and measures of social media engagement up 310 per cent.

Award winning

In December, Anthem Publishing won the prestigious PPA Independent Publishing Company of the Year 2014 award, a prize that recognises the best of British magazine publishing companies with a turnover of up to £10 million. The PPA commended Anthem for “amazing growth, focus on new areas and channels, strong profits (and a) team that clearly understands its niche audiences, innovating across all platforms”.

Overall, copy-sale revenues account for just over half of total revenues, Bickley explains, with the balance split between advertising and subscriptions, including apps. “There isn’t really a ‘one size fits all’ picture, but the music side has an increasingly high proportion of digital and print advertising revenue as we develop new ways for our advertisers to reach that target market; whilst on the food side, it’s predominantly about giving readers great quality products that they’re happy to pay a premium price for every month. But we won’t rest on our laurels and we’re expanding our digital offering on the food side this year as well as supporting the music mags at newsstand.”

Bickley is somewhat secretive about exactly what the future holds for Anthem, but is bullish about the prospects for growth.

“Right now, we’re committed to driving forward the food and music brands in print, digital and, at some point soon, experiential,” he says. “Our current rising star is Free-From Heaven, which is perhaps our healthy antidote to all the baking magazines we’ve done, covering food intolerances, diets and the whole free-from sector. We’re experiencing the kind of rapid growth on this one that was the case with baking three years ago. We’re alive to acquisition opportunities, but history tells us we’re much more likely to launch – it’s in your own control after all. But certainly you should expect further growth from us and we’d expect to at least double in size and more than match that in profit over the next five years.”

Company launched in: 2002

Managing director: Jon Bickley

Publications include: Food Heaven, MusicTech, Guitar & Bass, Italia!, Classic Pop

Most recent title launch: Free-From Heaven

Number of staff: 24

Annual turnover: £3.3m

www.anthem-publishing.com