London calling for the ‘geeks' from Bath

Robert Price, managing director, Future Publishing Media recessions are not the only things to have emerged from the bath recently. Bath, as in the Roman city, is also home to one of the biggest magazine publishers in the country, the boss of which tells Ian Quinn that he is planning an invasion of London’s media agencies

As Robert Price looks out over the battlements of Future’s Londinium outpost, with its view of Baker Street station and the BT tower, he could be any anonymous office worker having a break from a hard day at his desk – perhaps minus the urge to jump.

For the past few years such anonymity has quite suited those from the publishing company in Bath, with magazines associated more with computer nerds and stitching fanatics than flashy young things from the capital.

As bigger companies, with far more glitzy titles, have stolen most of the glamour, and thrown millions at their products in the process, Future has been quietly coming back from the dead financially to build one of the most solid business empires in UK media.

It is the fifth-biggest consumer magazine publisher in the UK – the third-biggest specialist publisher – and it is getting bigger, with new launches and acquisitions in full flow. It seems a long time ago that the company found itself in the middle of the dotcom crash and saw many of its key markets fall through the floor, although maybe not if you were one of those that lost your job as Future slashed several titles.

Computer titles for spotty teenagers

But, as it goes on the offensive again, Future has found itself faced with a different problem.

For many, especially in the agency world, it has become tagged as “that company based down in Bath”, which runs lots of computer gaming titles for spotty teenagers. Future is the biggest business in Bath, where it will soon move in to swanky air-conditioned offices – something of a change for the ad team, whose cramped existing office could not be extended because of ancient planning laws.

In fact, when you wander its pretty Georgian streets, the chances of bumping into someone talking about their day at Playstation 2magazine, Digital Cameraor Guitar Player are pretty high.

But that doesn’t always mean very much to the Londoncentric media circus, many of whom may not have even realised that Future has a London office – home, until recently, to gadget mag T3and Total Film, among others.

Price, who spends a couple of days a week away from Bath in the bump and grind of the big smoke, won’t admit that that being based miles away from where the majority of the action goes on, is a problem. Sitting in a leafy restaurant garden over a cool glass of Bath’s finest ale, on the first of our two meetings for this interview, it’s easy to think the opposite.

But Price, who – unlike lots of the big names in magazines – was promoted from within his company ranks, is setting out to change perceptions.

“In my opinion we need to get our profile up and we’re working hard,” he says. “There’s a bit of a misunderstanding about what we do. There’s a pre-occupation that we are all about computer games.”

With titles like the official Playstation2 magazine, which, despite losing ground in the recent ABC’s, is still market leader with a circulation 50,000 copies higher than that of GQ, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

And Total Film is second only to the mighty Empire in the film sector and with potential – Price believes it can break through the 100,000 barrier soon.

Future is also growing titles in other areas, like motoring magazines. Flashy car title Redline (circulation 70,000+) is certainly not reserved for computer geeks only.

Not that Price’s future plans involve embarking on any major lifestyle magazine launches, even despite the signals sent out by his recent appointment of Andy Semple, formerly group publishing director at Dennis, as head of Future’s entertainment division.

Semple will oversee titles like Total Film and Redline and has openly come out and said he will be pressing the PLC which owns the company to put more resources into them.

“Andy’s arrival brings in a new set of skills,” says Price. “We tend to predominantly promote from within but occasionally it’s good to bring someone in.

“What it doesn’t signal is a change of strategy.

We’ve signalled very clearly that our intention is to remain a specialist interest publisher. We’ll leave it to Emap and IPC to spend £8m on launching new magazines.”

Shelf-life shorter than your average pop star

Price denies that this has anything to do with the ill-fated Bang, the music magazine that Future closed last year, which proved to have a shelf-life shorter than your average modernday pop star. Bangclosed after just 10 issues, but Price claims this was partly down to market conditions.

“Four weeks after we decided to close Bang, X-Raywas also closed,” he points out.

“It was a step out for us and unfortunately it didn’t work. We’ve made a few mistakes. But we have a very good success rate. 80% of our titles are a success.”

At our second meeting in London, Price reveals three of six new launches planned for the autumn, which reinforces the strategy.

The titles include Japanese Power– not a magazine harking back to the days of the empire of the land of the rising sun – but a car title specialising in Japanese vehicles.

And it might also be difficult to imagine agencies getting too hot under the collar about Hair Style and Beautyand Paper Craft Inspirations, which will do exactly what they say on the tin.

But the launches, which follow the recent £1.5m acquisition of the independent Spanish Homes Magazine, show that Future is very much intent on pursuing what Price calls “an aggressive period of launches and acquisitions”.

“We’re pushing the launches hard,” says Price. “We’re financially solid. We’re in a position to grow. We’ve got successful titles already and we want to build beachheads into new audiences.”

However, the audience Future really wants to grow is a market nearer to Baker Street than Bath – and it has been dong a bit of detective work to try to find out why advertising agencies have often ignored such specialist titles in the past, despite their booming readerships.

Jayne Caple, along with Semple one of a series of recent appointments by Price to a restructured Future board, as advertising director, set about the task by employing famous pollsters NOP to do some research into what people in the industry thought about Future’s magazines.

“We found there’s a perception that it’s just geeks who read them,” says Caple. “It was, ‘oh, Future, they’re very good but they’re very quiet down there in Bath. They like the quiet life’.”

More seriously, she adds: “The fundamental thing about this research, is that with clients and agencies who don’t have a games client, we don’t feature on the radar.”

The NOP research, which, on a far more positive note for Future, shows it has some of the most loyal readers in the magazine market – from the most highly-desirable demographic targets for advertisers – could, of course, have been presented on a flip chart.

But Future has decided to take a leaf out of the agency book, which it wants to figure in far more frequently in the future.

So it has turned to Naked, the trend-setting masters of strategic communications, to endorse the research with their own brand of agency magic.

If this does get it on the radar, Price will be a doubly happy man. Not only is his business thriving, when a few years ago it looked to be in real danger of disappearing altogether, but a whole new source of income from lifestyle advertisers could suddenly be coming his way.

“We sell two million magazines per month,” says Price. “And if you exclude the stitching titles we’re probably selling 1.7 million copies predominantly to men.

“Our readers are passionate about their interests, they’re loyal to their magazines. Our belief is that we’re operating in a narrowcast digital world and, as a specialist publisher, we have the audiences.

“In my opinion, our audiences are just as powerful for advertisers as the lifestyle magazines, if not more powerful.”

Agencies – you have been warned. The Romans are coming