If you walk along London’s South Bank, past the Royal Festival Hall and the National Theatre, past ITV’s London Studios and the hip eateries of Gabriel’s Wharf, you eventually reach a small, modern yet turreted brick building on a corner. This is the surprisingly modest headquarters of Hello! magazine, the title which has documented the lives of the rich and famous for the past three decades.
I am here to meet the magazine’s editor-in-chief Rosie Nixon and business director Kevin Petley, who are both passionate about promoting the value of print magazines in the digital age. It looks like their enthusiasm is paying off. The last set of ABC circulation figures revealed that while other celebrity and women’s weekly titles are in decline, Hello! is bucking the trend. In the first six months of 2017, the family-owned magazine saw its circulation rise 2% compared to the previous six months, while its rivals all saw falls over the same period. Although year-on-year, Hello!’s sales were down 9%, this was much lower than the losses suffered by its competitors.
Petley sits on the board of the PPA, where he is involved with the Press Pause initiative to encourage people to see the value of taking time out to read a magazine, “because life is so crazy and finding five minutes is a good thing for your own wellbeing”. He believes the solution to the challenges faced by publishers lies in their own hands. “We’ve got to be more proactive because there is a sort of doomsayer attitude around the industry. If you talk negative, it will be negative. So, I think we need to get up and do something about it.”
In the case of Hello!, the energy which Kevin and Rosie and their team have put into promoting print has been helped by “the gift that keeps on giving”: the British royal family, in particular, the young royals. The boost in circulation between January and June was in no small part thanks to a glut of royal stories including the wedding of the Duchess of Cambridge’s sister Pippa Middleton to banker James Matthews, Princess Charlotte’s second birthday and Prince William remembering his mother, Princess Diana, twenty years after her death. With a third royal baby on the way and Prince Harry’s blossoming relationship, the well of royal stories shows no sign of drying up.
Nixon reveals: “Our readers have an insatiable appetite for everything that the Cambridges, in particular, do and now the popularity of Prince Harry and his relationship with Meghan Markle is becoming a big story for us, so we’re excitedly watching that unfold.”
Trusted by the Royals
While many other media outlets cover the royals, Nixon believes Hello!’s approach gives them the edge. She explains: “We have a very unique place in the marketplace. Nobody presents big glossy photographs in the way Hello! does. We let those images breathe and we show you every aspect of everything the royals do. I think that’s part of the reason we enjoy a really good relationship with their households, because they appreciate that we shine a spotlight on the great work they’re doing, as well as interest in their personal lives and everything the Duchess of Cambridge is wearing.”
In 2018, Hello! celebrates its 30th birthday and it is no coincidence that the very first issue, back in May 1988, featured an ‘at home’ in her apartments with Princess Anne. Nixon says: “That still stacks up today, that unique access. Hello! has played the long game in building our relationships with the stars and their PRs and managers so that we get that great access. Where other titles have bowed more to trends and people who are flavour of the moment, we’ve really kept our focus on the A-list.”
She adds: “That’s why we get invited into their weddings and into their homes and into those precious moments when they’ve had a new baby, because they trust us. Trust is inherent in everything that we do. We check out every story. We don’t print gossip. If the Palace tell us something is not true, we simply won’t run it. We sell good news, we are really proud and protective of our philosophy of positive reporting and I think that has stood us in good stead.”
But she insists: “That doesn’t mean we don’t ask the difficult questions, but that is why they look to us when times are difficult, then a star feels confident in the way that Hello! will treat a story working hand in hand with them.”
The magazine’s publishers have an equally positive approach to pushing print sales, by making sure Hello! has the right cover image and is placed at the front of supermarket shelves. More and more newsstand sales have been converted into subscriptions, which rose in the UK and Eire by 11% period-on-period and 6.5% year-on-year in the first six months of 2017.
“You’ve got to work hard at print,” says Petley. “That’s one of the things that we’ve been particularly strong at in the last twelve months. Where you could easily pull back on investment or change your distribution, we’ve stuck to it and tried to drive it further forward.” He believes that maintaining the base sale is crucial, so that when covers such as Pippa Middleton’s wedding come along, that is just the ‘icing on the cake’. Also important is injecting a bit of ‘retail theatre’. Petley says: “We get the covers right - a lot of time is spent on that - but we also make sure our product is well-presented on the front of the shelves. It’s about having a consistent approach right across the country, whether in London or Glasgow.”
The royal family’s international appeal means that Hello! has continued to sell well overseas. It is the top exported UK title in the women’s magazine sector, selling particularly well in Australia and South Africa, where it is printed locally. The magazine, which was originally founded as an offshoot of Spain’s iconic Hola! magazine, now also has syndication deals in 36 territories around the world.
Unlike some of its competitors, Hello! has never gone down the price cutting route. Nixon insists: “We’ve consistently sold at £2 and that is invested back into the product.” She believes: “Print is fast becoming a really luxury experience. To actually sit down and take yourself away from your phone or your screen is quite a rare thing to do now. To spend £2 doing that is a small amount.”
Despite print remaining the “kingpin” of the business, Hello! has a vibrant website and a strong social media presence, with digital advertising a real area of growth for the company. “It’s about brand Hello! and having a 360-degree approach,” says Nixon.
Video production is key to Hello!’s digital strategy; the magazine has just acquired an in-house studio complete with ‘top-notch’ broadcast-quality equipment. The focus is on bringing the pages to life by making full use of the access they are granted. While there are two dedicated video journalists as part of an overall team of about 50, all members of staff are being encouraged to think digital.
Facebook Live is also becoming an important tool for the magazine: “We’ve had some real success with Facebook Live video content,” reveals Nixon. “We’re doing them very regularly now and they’re really great because it’s a less polished feel.”
She adds: “The journalists have to think what would work in print, can we get video access with that and when should that run, is there an online story? Everything has to work really hard and the role of the journalist has changed significantly in the last few years.”
Petley agrees: “We are channel agnostic, the consumer will choose which channel they want to interact with us. What we are focused on is making sure each of those channels is fit for purpose.” But he adds: “Magazines are still the primary part of the business, and we try and keep the balance right, because the magazine is what brings people to us.”
Being a small family-owned company makes a huge difference to the way Hello! is run. Hello! was launched by the late Eduardo Sánchez Junco, whose parents created the Spanish Hola! back in 1944. His son Eduardo Sánchez Perez is still closely involved with the running of the magazine. Nixon confesses: “I think it gets under your skin, as a family business; it is incredibly freeing. I love the fact the owner is one phone call or WhatsApp message away and we speak to each other several times a day. If I have an idea, I’ll call him and he’ll generally like it and that’s it, I can run with it, which enables me to be really creative.”
Petley adds: “We have to pinch ourselves sometimes at just how much we can do in a very short time. To close the magazine about six o’clock on a Saturday morning, print in Europe and be on sale in London on Monday morning. We take it for granted, but if you stop and think about it, the team are phenomenal and they just take it in their stride.”
Nixon believes the intimate nature of Hello! which stems from being a family-run business is part of its appeal both to celebrities and readers: “The stars like working with us, because they get this personal service. You build up that cosy relationship and then they phone you up directly. That’s reflected on our pages and is probably why we’ve got such a loyal readership, because when there’s a lot of change going on in the world, we are comfortingly the same.”