Feature

BBC's favourite son returns to reinvigorate magazines

Peter Phippen thinks investment and expansion can restore growth to BBC, writes Ian Darby.

A smell of fatted calf would have been appropriate on the return of Peter Phippen to BBC Magazines 12 months ago after three years in the US. But instead he was greeted by leaner offerings.

After years of launching magazines in the 90s, the BBC had slowed down its dynamic growth to focus on a cross-media strategy uniting television, books, online, video and licensing. Some print brands seemed to stagnate and last year it re-injected some dynamism by recreating BBC Magazines as a standalone division.

Phippen, 42, previously the chief executive of BBC Worldwide Americas, returned to the UK to run Magazines, a division he initially joined back in 1987, as its marketing director.

Since his return, key BBC brands such as Radio Times and Top Gear have been redesigned. Phippen says: "For a period of four years as a cross-media business there were great dividends for BBC Worldwide and it continues to grow in double-digit figures, but we did feel a degree of focus was lost on fundamental business."

Every magazine's editorial has been changed to some degree, but there is work to do on circulation levels. Eve, the women's monthly and BBC Magazines' most recent major launch, lost close to 10 per cent of its readers over the year to July. BBC hopes reinvestment and a new editorial team will help to boost its circulation of 119,102. Its pre-school titles have been hit by falling circulation and Radio Times, in line with other TV listings titles, was down slightly in the last circulation period.

However, Phippen still has a number of successes on his hands. Gardeners' World continues to bloom, while Good Food remains healthy and, despite slight circulation falls, Radio Times is still a cash cow that proves the TV listings sector can still bring in large revenues.

Phippen's future strategy is twofold. Reinvestment in the portfolio coupled with an aggressive period of new launches over the next two years, some through acquisition. Phippen is reluctant to divulge launch details but says: "Our objective, and my personal objective, is to re-establish the pace of growth we had during the 90s."

This refocus and reinvestment in magazines is an outcome of the BBC's commercial review in 2001 that considered whether BBC Worldwide should be floated off. This was rejected in favour of an expansion programme, with outside funding and partnerships, designed to generate more than £200 million in annual profit by 2006.

Earlier this year, reports linked BBC Magazines with a joint venture with The National Magazine Company. Phippen refuses to confirm or deny if talks took place but says: "If, in addition [to launches and acquisitions], a joint venture opportunity arose that would accelerate growth, then we would consider it. This is not the top priority and we would only consider a deal that would very clearly add to the growth of our business."

In addition to editorial quality, Phippen also has a keen eye on the commercial delivery of BBC Magazines. It has recently restructured its advertising department to create one centralised team, which still sells on individual magazines but is able to provide deals across the portfolio. "We don't pretend we have done anything revolutionary; in some ways we are catching up with what our competitors have done but I think, and hope, that we have got this right first time," Phippen says.

Despite staying for just three years, Phippen says his time in the US was enjoyable -- more of an oasis than a wilderness. "I had a fantastic time. It was a complete change of marketplace because I spent most of my time on TV with the launch of BBC America and a joint venture with Discovery. But I was never going to emigrate. I have four children and we always knew where we wanted them to be educated. There was also the excitement of coming back to this."

There might still be work to do but the signs are that Phippen has made an impact since his return. Steve Goodman, the group press director at MediaCom, says:"Our impression is that BBC is trying to raise its game, profile and level of service. It has a great portfolio of business that may have gone a little astray recently but I think it is pulling it back again. It has a unique proposition in all kinds of different markets and the support it can offer in terms of video and websites is very impressive."

This week, BBC announced that it is entering into a deal with NTL to provide the cable company with a dedicated version of Radio Times for its subscribers. This kind of tie-up provides an insight into the types of ventures BBC Magazines is moving into, as does the launch of a Daily Telegraph-branded gardening magazine next year. For the time being at least, Phippen has justified his return.

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