Dennis Publishing is more than the print business which helped its late founder - Felix Dennis, who died in June - build a fortune. It's a powerful example of how an independent-minded media company with a lively spirit of entrepreneurialism in its DNA readily adapted to the challenges of a digital age - and continues to do so, according to managing director, advertising, Julian Lloyd-Evans.
"A major part of the philosophy here is to be good across all strands of the business, and that's the reason why we've been so commercially successful over the past couple of years - the last three have been our best ever, and hopefully 2014 will be even better," he says.
Founded in 1974, the company now publishes more than 70 magazines, digital magazines, magbooks, websites, apps and mobile sites. Group turnover exceeds £100m a year (excluding subsidiary companies), from brands including Auto Express, PC Pro, Men's Fitness, Viz and The Week. Publishing revenues are equally split between print and digital, and both - not just digital - are growing.
Dennis's success is driven by an entrepreneurial spirit and an equal emphasis across print and digital, it seems. And caring about both elements equally is one reason why the company is still launching magazines.
Room at the Top Right
Consider premium monthly title Cyclist which launched in September 2012, for example. Profitable within its first year, its success has prompted a new cycling title, BikesEtc, which hit newsstands in October. And the company's ongoing commitment to print is a demonstration of the firm belief "there's always room at the top right", Lloyd-Evans says, referring not to mainstream, mass market titles but the sub-niche within specialist interest categories catering for more affluent enthusiasts.
"Look at the publishing sector as a whole and a split is clear between market leaders and specialist premium brands, which are doing fine. However, with lots of competition, mid-market titles are really struggling," he explains. "Top right is where opportunity for new titles in many markets still exists."
Developments continue apace in digital, too. Also launching soon is a UK website for Mental Floss, the US trivia magazine bought by Dennis in 2011. Business at digital ad agency adnostic - a company set up by Dennis last year to produce platform-neutral tablet and mobile advertising - is growing, fast. As is Contentment, creator of the app publishing platform Padify, a business launched in 2012 which is part-owned by Dennis.
"Clients have always seen Dennis as fairly quirky, pretty easy to deal with, quite transparent - and this comes from a culture shaped by Felix who was not only passionate about media but bold, direct and plain spoken," Lloyd-Evans says. "Talking with and listening to the market is something he passionately believed in, and that's one reason why we collaborate with so many other companies and publishing groups - as a business and as individuals. In today's marketplace, you've just got to, because you don't have all the answers yourself."
On the magazines side of the business, commercial success is powered by a strong subscriptions base. As important, though, is a clear focus on quality and convenience. "We are very proud of our DM team, our use of data, our strong sales team, and fantastic brands. But as important is taking advantage of all opportunities - having a really good native advertising offering, working closely with the market on programmatic trading - and focusing on staff development and training, in other words: continuing to invest in softer skills," he believes.
"Companies survive and thrive by creating compelling client value and the equation for that is quality times convenience over value. Too often, people concentrate on quality and price, but you've also got to ask yourself: how transparent are you? How well do you deal with problems when they come up? Recently, we came third in an IPA study for service level - second only to AOL and the Daily Mail - and I am really proud of that."
Lloyd-Evans joined Dennis back in 1996 as display sales exec on PC Pro. An executive board member since 2007, he was worked across all areas of the group commercially and has a clear focus on how the sales function in publishing has changed and will need to change further moving forward.
In 2009, economic conditions forced Dennis to cut training budgets. But as a result, the company adopted new approaches which strengthened the business - for example, a mentoring programme which now covers every sales person. The company runs a training programme called Discover Digital. As important as keeping up with the ever-changing media landscape, however, is ensuring sales people understand what motivates the chief executive of client businesses, such as Samsung.
Five years on, training and development remains a shared responsibility. "Obviously we feed it (training) with people coming in to talk to our people from outside," Lloyd-Evans says, citing the company's Early Bird breakfast series of visiting speakers for its staff. "But by delegating less and being more open to finding new ways of doing things ourselves, that awful period of recession has made us a better company."
Every sales person at Dennis is taught - and commissioned - to sell digitally. Though the company still has specialist teams, the ideal is what Lloyd-Evans describes as "the T-shaped sales person" with the ability to sell across all brands and platforms with depth in a particular business sector, such as technology or motoring. Being T-shaped takes more than simply loving Dennis, or the media, however: it's about loving business.
Numbers still count
Core sales skills remain essential, though. "I'm still a numbers person - number of calls, meetings, frontline sales activity still matters: you've got to be out there in the market," he explains. "But what you now need on top of this is an ability to project manage; to think creatively to develop ideas for clients. It's about coming up with ideas yourself and taking ownership rather than delegating to someone else. Before, a sales person might say: 'So you want digital - speak to Karen'. Now it's: 'Let's start by dissecting what you want, how it might work, will this solution meet your objectives?'"
Dennis's sales department has changed, too. Five years ago, 90% of the operation's 115 people would have worked in frontline sales. Today the proportion is more like 70% with almost one third comprising developers, project managers, ad traffickers and researchers working side by side on a floor which is as integrated as it is open plan. "Today's sales department is a sales / production / creative agency hybrid. I never thought it would work, but what I've learned is how through collaboration people learn from and better understand one another," Lloyd-Evans admits.
“I recently judged the PPA advertising awards and the quality of entries was fantastic. But what was also clear was how companies are becoming good at advertising - two years ago, winners would have been from an individual ad person with a great idea. Today, winning ideas come about when ad, editorial and tech teams work together. The most commercially successful are those companies where the company is good at advertising, not just the sales team."
Looking ahead, Lloyd-Evans is optimistic - not just for the future of Dennis, but the UK publishing sector as a whole. "Knowing the numbers, the threat posed by the decline in press advertising has been over-estimated in some respects," he insists. Yes, print revenues are down - magazine advertising shrank from £1.6bn in 2004 to £598m in 2014, according to one Group M estimate - but the figures themselves are also part of the problem as they include only print spend and ignore spend on magazine brands' digital extensions.
Publishers have long struggled to effectively demonstrate the effectiveness of print advertising - an issue Lloyd-Evans, who is also chair of PPA Marketing, hopes the new, Newsworks-inspired magazine media marketing body - code-named Project Orange - will address under chief executive Sue Todd when she takes up her position in January 2015. The Week is read for an average of 72 minutes - a huge amount of time when you consider the average digital journey on a website is a couple of minutes, he points out. The challenge for all publishers moving forward is to find powerful and compelling ways to tell this story.
Arguably as great a challenge for all publishers in tomorrow's marketplace, however, will be remaining relevant in media, Lloyd-Evans adds. "It's not about survival of the biggest but of those best able to change and adapt so you've got to be entrepreneurial, collaborative, willing to listen and not protective of your ego when something really isn't working," he says.
"One thing Felix always did was talk directly to the youngsters at Dennis - those just starting out, to understand their different viewpoints. He might not always have fully bought into what was said, but he listened. And if you're happy to take on different feedback, you make better decisions. Sometimes we can over-dwell on the challenges. But I do believe we have enough talent in this industry to overcome them – and I don't mean just at the top but at all levels within the publishing business."