Future’s £140m deal for TI Media could transform the magazine industry – but progress won’t be simple

Future’s £140m deal for TI Media could transform the magazine industry – but progress won’t be simple

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The publisher’s portfolio of magazines will extend to over 220 brands if the planned acquisition goes ahead

Sunday, 3rd November 2019, 2:14 pm

Updated Sunday, 3rd November 2019, 2:15 pm

The British media entrepreneur, Chris Anderson is best-known as head of TED, the world-renown platform for online talks and conferences that uses the slogan “ideas worth spreading”.

It was in the backwater of Somerton, Somerset, that Anderson had one of his own best ideas when in 1985 he founded a publishing house called Future with a single publication, Amstrad Action, a monthly title aimed at owners of Alan Sugar’s early personal computers.

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After 15 years of growth, Anderson was able to acquire TED in 2000. He left his publishing company the next year.

Future plans

Magazine reading is increasingly going digital (Photo: Getty)

Today Future is poised to grow its portfolio to over 220 brands with its planned £140m acquisition of another of the UK’s largest magazine publishing houses, TI Media.

The proposed deal would mean that a business which, from its inception, has evolved with its expert coverage of the advance of technology, will find itself the owner of some of Britain’s most historic periodicals. The TI Media roster of 41 titles includes Country Life, which began in 1897 with adverts for whiskies and raw hide riding whips, and Woman & Home, which dates to 1926.

And this is why the deal is such a significant one for British magazine publishing. It’s not simply a consolidation play that will enable Future to absorb a rival and benefit from efficiency savings. It’s also hopefully a pointer to how traditional UK magazine brands can enjoy long-term viability in a digital world, as global publications linked to marquee shows and events.

That won’t be simple. Reading a heavy glossy magazine in public these days seems almost as archaic as riding a penny-farthing. But British newspaper brands have demonstrated how English-language publications with strong heritage can travel the globe online.

Future’s own story is not one of inexorable growth. By 2014, for all the tech insight it enjoyed from producing tech and gadget titles such as T3 and Mac Format, it seemed no less immune to digital disruption than other publishers.  When Zillah Byng-Thorne became Future’s CEO that year, the company was running at a £35m annual loss and had cut more than 400 jobs.

But last year Future made revenues of £124.6m (up from £84.4m in 2017), and operating profits of £18.5m (up from £8.9m). That’s a remarkable performance in a sector where the tumbling trajectories of the circulation graphs depict an avalanche of lost revenues.

Industry challenges

TI Media’s story is a case study of the magazine industry’s challenges. Its revenues for 2018 declined to £209m from £221m the year before. Previously known as Time Inc UK (and before that as IPC), the once proud publishing house has sold its famous music titles NME and Uncut, shut down fashion brand InStyle UK, and moved Marie Claire and gossip title Now to online only.

Marie Claire dropped its print version in favour of a digital-only edition (Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty)

Future’s business has been based on the realisation that in an online world the mag brands that can thrive are those which serve interests that hold niche communities in thrall. Its titles are aimed at gamers (PC Gamer, X Box Magazine), musicians (Guitarist, Keyboard, Computer Music), photographers (Digital Photographer), shooters (Sporting Rifle, Airgun Shooter).

By ‘owning’ a whole subject area – or vertical – a company can generate major income through events, as Future does with such fixtures as The Photography Show, The Golden Joystick Awards and The London Bass Guitar Show.

Buying TI Media – subject to shareholder and regulatory approval – is bold because it will include the acquisition of generalist magazines, such as Chat and Pick Me Up.

But landing titles such as Wallpaper+, Ideal Home and Living Etc will allow Future – which has skewed heavily towards male audiences – to dominate in the home innovation vertical and drive new audiences towards its Homebuilding & Renovation Show.

Future retains a strong West Country flavour with an office in Bath but has expanded to major operations in the United States and Australia. It believes it can find new American readers and advertisers for the venerable Woman & Home, and for Good To Know, a tips-based website for “busy, mainstream women”. It plans to build out TI Media’s Decanter into a bible for wine lovers throughout the English-speaking world.

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There was a time when magazine companies relied on shops to sell their titles. But Byng-Thorne says she does not expect those days to return: “The retail environment is under pressure for revenues and magazines aren’t always the most cost-effective use of their space,” she explains.

Instead, her focus is on getting obsessive readers to subscribe, to come to events and to interact with highly specialist online content in formats from podcast to video.

“If you are going to be a publisher of content in today’s media landscape then it’s important to be a publisher of expert content,” she says. For the beleaguered magazine industry, that’s an idea worth spreading.

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