Many publishers have a dedicated brand content team or department. But it’s hard to think of any that share Shortlist Media’s bold ambitions. In the eighteen months or so since the publisher launched content studio Family in late 2016, commercial content has grown rapidly to account for half of its revenue. Now, as Family moves into creating content to run across third party-owned media, it is fast-becoming a fully-fledged agency.
“In just a year, Family’s contribution to Shortlist Media revenues has risen from around 30% to around 50%,” says Shortlist Media chief marketing officer Sophie Robinson, whose brief on joining the business in spring 2017 included raising Family’s profile.
Most of the content Family now makes uses Shortlist Media channels. A growing proportion, which includes a TV ad recently created for GAME and an outdoor campaign for H&M, is creative brand work that runs on other (non-Shortlist Media) platforms. And, moving forward, the plan is to do more.
Targeting the Met Set
“The aim now is to make Family the ultimate agency for ‘the Met Set’, and we’re almost there,” she adds.
The Met Set is Shortlist Media’s target audience – which it defines as affluent metropolitan consumers who are successful, sophisticated, dynamic and urban and for whom it publishes free magazines ShortList and Stylist and has built a portfolio of associated live events and digital brands, including Emerald Street and Mr Hyde.
At launch, Family was established to offer a full end-to-end service comprising video, print, events and social and engaging data analysts and web developers alongside editors, like Stylist’s Lisa Smosarski and ShortList editorial director Phil Hilton. The proposition was to offer brands full access to ‘the Shortlist Media Family’ for the creation and delivery of content that appeals to the Met Set.
From the get-go, Family did well but by the time Robinson arrived, she says it still felt like a creative solutions department.
“My immediate focus was on cultivating the right attitude and bringing in the right skills as well as building its name,” she explains.
“We are very strong on generating ideas and winning new business but less so when it came to retention. So, greater emphasis was placed on building project management and client servicing to cultivate and extend relationships once business was won.”
Throughout its short life, the rationale behind Family has been that a client gets the Shortlist Media family – editorial, digital, events – working on their brief, Robinson adds: “Everyone in this business knows Family is a shared responsibility, though it is run day-to-day by a skeleton crew of around 30. And it’s that, I think, that makes it unique.”
Almost eighteen months since launch, however, and the ambition has grown, well, even more ambitious.
What are we?
Robinson admits to having spent quite some time playing around with whether Family – now headed by executive director Sam Bird, who joined in February from OMD UK where he was head of social, content & influencer marketing – should be positioned as a ‘content agency’ or a ‘creative agency’ for Shortlist Media’s target demographic, before deciding the answer should be: neither.
“I concluded that the best thing is to view it simply as ‘an agency’,” she explains. The reason was the number of communications agencies – ad agencies, digital agencies, PR agencies included – now struggling because they are pigeon-holed, even though a growing number work across many different disciplines.
“Unlike other agencies, Family sits alongside media in the company portfolio, too, and the key is not to put us into any one box – which is where many agencies are now, and why so many are struggling,” Robinson continues.
“So, Family is an agency working within Shortlist Media, alongside a fantastic sales team and an amazing portfolio of media brands which, for an agency creating content, is a powerful USP. We are neither content nor creative – we are both, along with media and sales, analysis and strategy.”
Display & events
While the aim moving forward is to further build content partnerships, however, she reveals that for now, at least, Shortlist Media’s own media brands are doing rather well in display.
“In the present climate, you really wouldn’t expect this, but display is holding on and doing well,” Robinson says. “This is because our sales teams are more proactive than ever, and we’ve recently been out there in the marketplace talking about ourselves more because of Family, and because our own brands have been doing incredible work.”
She references Stylist, whose editor, Lisa Smosarski, last year drew up ‘Visible Women’ – a comprehensive year-long programme of content, activities and event ideas to celebrate the centenary of the first women getting the right to vote. The plan included many ways for brand partners to get involved and show their support, and the initiative – which kicked off with a Suffragette special issue of Stylist in February – has generated significant interest.
Robinson adds: “We’re now looking at applying a similar approach to ShortList, with a themed calendar of opportunities and events – it's a fantastic way to remind people what we stand for.”
Another focus in coming months will be on further growing Shortlist Media’s array of live events – both for its own brands, and for third parties – all of which are conceived and created by Family.
For own brands, these include Mr Hyde National Burger Day – an annual event, which last August was supported by 1,000 restaurants offering discounts and special menus to readers, now in its sixth year – and the recently-launched Mr Hyde National (Chicken) Wing Day. Then there is Stylist Live, which increased its audience by 33% – attracting 20,000 visitors – when it moved to Olympia last November. This event, now in its third year, has fast-become a powerful platform for third party brand participation.
For Shortlist Media’s brand partners, meanwhile, at least 40 events are already planned throughout 2018 – a clear indication of the rapidly growing demand amongst clients for all things experiential, Robinson adds.
The freedom of free
Viewed one way, Shortlist Media’s upscaling of its commercial partnerships activity over the past eighteen months is only to be expected, given brand owners’ growing interest in brand content. Viewed within the context of the recent demise of the free print edition of NME, however, the current state of the free model – and the current potential for its future health – is an obvious question.
Robinson, whose background is in free distribution – she was creative director for Metro UK until joining Shortlist Media in February 2017, is quick to respond.
“I have faith in (the free distribution model) because it sets you free,” she insists.
“I can’t comment on NME other than to say it’s very sad. But what I can say is that we could double the circulation of Stylist and still not have enough because there is such demand. The challenge isn’t lack of audience but the cost of print and distribution, and if you are solely print-focused as a business and those costs go up, then that is problematic.”
For this reason, moving forward, Shortlist Media’s goal isn’t simply to grow print circulation but to give people more of its brands in different ways.
“Look at the front covers of paid-for magazines and you will see how much more creative freedom there is in being free,” Robinson continues.
“We can create what people want, rather than spend all our time thinking of ways to make them want us. We are true to ourselves, and people respect that. Everything in our magazines is what the editors and writers are passionate about, rather than just being in there to sell (the magazine).
“Our priority is to create content the Met Set is proud of and want to be seen consuming – content that they enjoy.”
Despite being a relative newcomer to magazines, Robinson adds that she quickly became a passionate convert.
“I must admit I was really happy with the job I had and had worked (at Metro) for many years. But I went in for the initial cup of tea (with Ella Dolphin, Shortlist Media’s CEO) because I love Stylist – it’s a brilliant brand – and because I’d not met Ella before but had heard she was amazing,” she explains.
“I thought, I’d been in free media for a long time so if I leave Metro, it will be for something very different but that Shortlist Media would be too similar. Within five minutes, however, I realised there was no similarity between Metro and Shortlist Media at all.
“It sounded like it had great potential. And there was more excitement than in the newspaper industry, as well as investment. Then there was the focus on events and video as well as the magazines.”
She concludes: “And when I started work here, I was struck by the fact that despite Shortlist having been going almost ten years, the place had a buzzy, start-up feel. It was a real surprise and very exciting.”
While Robinson’s initial priorities were the expansion of Stylist Live with its move to Olympia and evolving Family, now, she says, the main focus – and challenge – is “getting it all done”.
“I’ve never worked in a place with so many ideas and so many people wanting them to happen. Since being here, one of the biggest problems has been finding a way to get these ideas done quickly enough not to miss the moment,” she says.
In this respect, Robinson – who readily admits to having joined Metro in part on a dare – seems well-positioned.
Around eighteen years ago, the then managing director offered her a job when she dealt with him in her previous role, selling sponsorship for marketing and design awards for The Drum, based in Scotland, she reveals.
“I said, I liked being in Glasgow. He said, maybe I just didn’t have the balls for working in London and dared me to try it – just for six months. So I did, and ended up staying sixteen years before coming here,” Robinson explains.
“If something good comes along you have to take it.”