Imagine Publishing - Meg Carter interviews MD

Imagine Publishing launched eight years ago, with six magazine titles. Now, the company publishes twenty magazines, 275 bookazines alongside numerous website and apps, and it is highly profitable. Meg Carter talks to Group Managing Director Damian Butt about their successful publishing strategy.

By Meg Carter

'Everything, everywhere' isn't just the name of Britain's biggest mobile network operator. It's also a strategy that has enabled Imagine Publishing to achieve significant growth since its launch just eight years ago - both in the UK and overseas where, much to the Bournemouth-based multimedia content producer's credit, it has achieved particular success in the US.

"It's the essence of the long tail," observes Imagine Publishing's Group Managing Director Damian Butt who founded the company with fellow former Paragon Publishing directors Steven Boyd and Mark Kendrick back in 2005. He is referring to the phrase popularised by former Wired Editor-In-Chief, Chris Anderson, concerning the ability of businesses in the digital age to sell not just the latest, most popular items in large quantities but smaller numbers in niche markets at little additional distribution cost.

"Our strategy is to put all our content everywhere. We make no changes or amendments for content going into different markets. Instead, everything is written from the outset for a potential worldwide audience to be read at any time," he explains. "So we publish everything, everywhere - and we've just developed a new iOS platform for iPads and iPhones we've called Martini to underline that - because we know that once we get our content into people's hands they love it."

Profits growth

Allied with an unashamedly premium pricing strategy, Imagine's is undoubtedly a bold approach but one that clearly demonstrates the company's confidence in its products. And it has served the business well despite the publishing sector's past few turbulent years. For proof, look no further than the fact that in April, Imagine Publishing secured a place in the Sunday Times PwC Profit Track 100, an annual league table ranking British companies according to profit growth over the preceding three years, thanks to a growth in its profits between 2009 and 2012 of 63%.

To set both this and the speed of Imagine's expansion in context, when the company launched in May 2005, it had just a core set of six gaming and creative computing print titles. Within six months, it had acquired a seventh. Within six years, this modest launch portfolio had provided sufficient critical mass to build a cross platform, multimedia content business that, by October 2012, comprised 19 magazines, 240 bookazines, 50 apps and / or digital editions and 29 websites.

Imagine's approach demonstrates its founders' aspirations for the business at launch and their willingness to adapt and evolve their aspirations once the business began to grow. For the transition to multimedia content production was the result of an early and rapid change of mindset post-launch.

"All three of us had been in the publishing business previously and had some success historically so knew what we liked and didn't like - we took time to consider what other publishing companies had done well and not so well to be able to build the ultimate publishing business," Butt recalls. "We began with a blank sheet, our own money - private funds. Our approach was informed by the lessons of others - we saw companies that launched with one product as vulnerable, forever on the back foot, so we took the portfolio approach to build scale. One of our key skills is launching more quickly and better and more profitably than others."

From the outset, Imagine was committed to serving only target markets it knew well and prioritising enthusiastic, technology-literate content consumers.

"We started out as a technology magazine publisher competing against competitors we already knew with little emphasis on web publishing. But we quickly dominated luxury digital bookazines and soon became a content publisher, more than just a magazine business," he adds. "This was driven by the firm belief that quality content should be our first priority: that if you get the content right, people will love it. So it seemed best practice to control all rights to our content, digitise it and archive it properly from the outset - even before we knew what digital format or platforms we could use."

Premium pricing

The company was determined throughout to pursue premium pricing as part of a multiple revenue model, too. "We set out to rely on more than just advertising plus a bit of subscription revenue," Butt explains. "It was about ensuring a mixed economy of copy sales, subs, international licensing and export copy sales. Exports would be high quality to justify their premium price. Quality would shift product and so satisfy newsagents, ensuring our products a good place on the newsstand."

Not being ad-reliant proved a clear advantage when recession hit, of course. And when tablets came along in 2010, Imagine's further advantage become clear as other publishers which did not control their content or could not access it so easily struggled to effectively digitise. That said, Butt insists Imagine remains committed to multimedia rather than digital-only content production. "I'm a big believer in print - it won't die because there is still massive value in it and there will still be for many years strong demand for tangible, premium products people cherish," he reveals. "I may now read most magazines on a tablet, but I continue to read certain titles only in print and am buying more books than ever."

Today, Imagine publishes content in four core areas - technology, photography, knowledge and video games. With key brands including Play, Games, How It Works, Digital Photographer and (the latest addition, launched this July) All About History, company revenues are rising - to £19m in 2012/3. Though revenue split varies by brand, overall the bulk is generated by copy sales then subscriptions, with advertising and licensing revenue equal but far smaller.

"We've been able to enjoy this level of success by being fast-moving, lean and mean and efficient operationally," Butt claims. A flat organisational structure and a team of staff journalists close to and regularly reporting about - and so feeding back on - latest technology developments allows the company to quickly respond to market change and seize new opportunities, he explains. Meanwhile, the 'everything, everywhere' strategy means Imagine content can be fed into new formats or onto new platforms quickly and cost efficiently.

Imagine was the first publisher to put its entire portfolio onto iPad and having established itself early on Google Play, has rapidly extended across smaller platforms including, in recent months, Zinio and Barnes & Noble. "For us, digital consumers are predominantly new consumers not already reading our print products - most likely because they are remote from where those products are stocked," he continues. "This is why we have never really feared the march of digital - because we've never experienced any cannibalisation of print."

International expansion

Throughout the economic downturn, Imagine has continued to launch rather than close titles and has been determined not to reduce paper quality to save costs for fear of compromising quality. Meanwhile, overseas sales helped offset the potential impact of recession and today further international expansion sits high on the agenda as a priority for Imagine's future growth.

"We are strong in the US on the newsstand, but there is still much, much more we could do," Butt believes, describing as "fascinating" the US market which has proven so tough for so many internationally ambitious British publishers. "The traditional US publishing model is busted because it is an ad-driven model where subs are heavily loss-making and newsstand sales only there to drive ad revenue. But this has opened up new opportunities, however, as US publishers have been forced to change. Talk there now is of 'adopting the British model' as it is seen as the only viable way forward."

Imagine's US business is built on high quality, targeted newsstand titles because even if the cover price is higher than the norm - which it is when you factor in export costs - people will still pay, Butt claims. "This is because our products are high quality - and look all the more so alongside thinner, flimsier, ad-rammed US products," he says. "Even though our titles cost three to four times as much, they sell because it's quality that counts."

Further expanding Imagine's activities in the US will be a major priority moving forward - though pace of growth will be dictated by the company's ability to bring in the right talent. "Finding the right people is the biggest challenge at the moment because of how fast we move and our highly entrepreneurial company culture," Butt admits. "The challenge lies in the fact that while many people can talk strategy what we need is hands-on ability to actually get things done which is harder to find. That's why a lot of our major successes have come from training and bringing up our own talent from within."

Unperturbed, he claims there's never been a more exciting time to be in the content publishing business. "To be honest, I see nothing but opportunities - for ourselves and for the publishing business as a whole," Butt observes. "Those other publishing companies who find they are not well-positioned to exploit this will end up being acquired - by companies like Imagine. And this can only be good news for employees and content brands. Because our goal here is to keep putting more great content into the Imagine model to get that great content out there and take it worldwide."