Composing anthem for the future

Necessity is the mother of reinvention for Bath-based Anthem Publishing, which is still building for the future despite the toughest challenges all have faced this year, writes Meg Carter.

By Meg Carter

Composing anthem for the future
Lifestyle Magazine of the Year.

From its earliest days, a willingness and ability to reinvent has been a central part of Bath-based specialist consumer health and wellbeing publisher Anthem Publishing’s DNA. Which this year especially – in the Covid era – is not just fortunate, Co-Founder Jon Bickley says: it is serving them well.

Bickley, with his co-founders Simon Lewis and Paul Pettengale, launched Anthem in Bath back in 2002. And his decision, he admits, was underpinned by some self-interest.

After starting out working at Comag, Bickley had joined Bath-based Future – initially in circulation, subsequently in publishing. At Future, he worked across a wide array of different consumer titles over a number of years. Following Future’s re-organisation in the wake of the dot-com bubble bursting, however, he set about launching his own business – in part as a way to remain in the city he loved.

Jon Bickley: “The future is still strong for magazines.”

The founding aim of Anthem was “to create magazines in collaboration with our markets”, he explains – hence the doing-things-together theme of the company name. And though these days collaboration is not just standard practice but essential, this was quite forward-thinking back then.

Since launch, the company has grown in what Bickley calls “clusters”.

With its first two titles, MusicTech and Italia!, it had feet in two camps then built around each.

So, it used the former to build a music-making portfolio that also included acquisition The Guitar Magazine as well as music-listening titles such as Vintage Rock and Classic Pop. And it used the latter to branch into food, with an Italian food magazine followed by Vegan Food & Living and Gluten-Free Heaven.

In 2018, it acquired Women’s Running, winner of Lifestyle Magazine of the Year at the ACE Newspaper & Magazine Awards earlier this year, around which it has since grouped other health and well-being titles, such as Colouring Heaven and mindfulness magazine Planet Mindful, which it acquired last year.

Then later that same year, it sold its music-making titles along with associated websites, specials and events to fund a re-focusing of the business around magazines and websites, video training and events related to health and wellbeing (including music-listening).

The thing to never forget is that no-one can afford to rest on their laurels – this year especially.

Launch & experimentation

Throughout its lifetime, Anthem has exhibited what Bickley once described as “an insatiable appetite for launch and experimentation” (which over the years has led Anthem to dally in, among other things, burlesque).

It has been bold in its decision-making, too – periodically re-shuffling its portfolio to focus on those constituent parts it can best excel at.

This year, of course, there has been further reinvention – for obvious, pandemic-related reasons, including some closures of weaker titles and frequency changes for others.

Having continued publishing five monthlies – Colouring Heaven, Colouring Heaven Collection, Women’s Running, Vegan Food & Living and Ultimate Dot2Dot – throughout the pandemic, it returned Classic Pop, Planet Mindful, Italia! and Vintage Rock from short pauses.

It sold baking title Food Heaven and vegan fashion brand Bare Fashion and ceased publishing Long Live Vinyl and Gluten-Free Heaven as regular magazines.

But it committed to continuing Long Live Vinyl and Gluten-Free Heaven as digital brands – promising regular newsletters at the core of their reader interaction and additional benefits for existing print subscribers.

These moves are not just defensive, however, but also intended to reposition the company for its next stage of development, Bickley insists.

The pandemic has accelerated further a gradual move by Anthem away from the newsstand, for example.

It has sharpened its health and wellbeing strategy, too – and also its aim to play an ever-increasing role in the lives of the people it serves in accordance with its clearly stated mission on its website: “helping people lead happier healthier lives”.

One of Anthem’s aims now is to build Veganfoodandliving.com into the UK’s biggest website for vegan news and product information. Another is to significantly evolve Women’s Running’s already popular podcast.

For all the talk of how hard it now is to make money through media sales, if at all, Anthem’s experience this year has also been encouraging.

“As everything closed so rapidly (with lockdown), we thought advertising would be the first to go. But actually, partly because of the topics we are involved in – especially veganism and running – these were things people continued to embrace, and advertisers continued wanting to reach them,” Bickley explains.

“It’s about close collaborations, not selling through networks and the old sales offering.”

For these reasons, Bickley believes “the future is still strong for magazines” if the product and the moment is right. The thing to never forget is that no-one can afford to rest on their laurels – this year especially, he adds: “Almost every year we’ve been going since launch, we’ve had to reinvent, then reinvent again.”

You can hear Jon Bickley being interviewed by Ciar Byrne on a recent episode of The InPublishing Podcast, which was sponsored by Acorn Web Offset, the Yorkshire-based specialist A5 and A4 magazine printer.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.