Last week's Periodical Publishers Association conference threw up a few controversial moments. Intended, no doubt, by its new chief executive, Barry McIlheney. The subject was "Inspiration and Innovation" and leading speakers, such as Future Publishing's chief executive, Stevie Spring, and Guardian News & Media's managing director, Tim Brooks, left the audience in little doubt that magazines need to evolve to survive.
The picture painted was not necessarily one of alarming gloom but one of an industry obsessed by the impending impact of the iPad, and Brooks argued that in the future there "will be fewer magazines" and the brands that survive will be multi-platform. Spring said print titles will become "collectable, keepable, artefacts", while stronger digital solutions will emerge.
So, with all this going on, who'd be the boss of the magazine's marketing body? The answer, quite possibly, is someone a bit like McIlheney. A one-time punk rocker who's done a bit of time drinking whiskey with Shane McGowan of The Pogues and who now unwinds by watching Arsenal or by sitting in his caravan at Southwold, listening to Johnny Cash albums.
Faceless and banal, he is not. If force of personality is an issue, he has it in spades. But he has a challenging brief. Possibly the most challenging in the whole media business. Since 1 February, he has been the PPA's chief executive.
The PPA has been through a tough old time of late - and last week's conference at the Park Plaza was clearly an opportunity to take stock.
As, indeed, you could have gauged from one of the opening sessions. It was set up to stimulate debate about the bigger picture - but its title could equally well have been read as a heartfelt plea for guidance for the PPA itself. It was headlined: "Where Do We Go From Here?"
1. The PPA entered a turbulent period when Ian Locks, who'd been the chief executive for 19 years, was succeeded, on 1 April 2008, by Jonathan Shephard. Shephard, a former barrister who'd also had managerial experience in the publishing business (most notably at Newsquest), had more recently been the chief executive of the Independent Schools Council. According to insiders, his abrasive approach came as a marked contrast to the collegiate style cultivated by Locks - and he soon came into conflict with PPA staffers and the representatives of PPA members.
2. In May 2008, Nick Mazur, the PPA's deputy chief executive of some eight years' standing, departed without a new job to go to. Following a restructure, Shephard appointed a new second-in-command, his former colleague Sarah Tunstall, who was given the title of chief operating officer. Shephard also scrapped the PPA's marketing research division, which had been run for more than 15 years by Phil Cutts. In January 2009, Bauer Consumer Media's chief executive, Paul Keenan, stepped down from his role as the chairman of the PPA marketing board.
3. During 2009, two affiliate organisations, the Association of Publishing Agencies (representing the publishers of customer magazines) and the Association of Online Publishers, began making moves to dissolve their ties with the PPA. The APA, for instance, became an independent legal entity on 1 January 2010.
4. Shephard departed the PPA in September 2009. Tunstall tendered her resignation the following month.
5. McIlheney, a former editor of Smash Hits and the editor-in-chief of Emap Consumer Media, was appointed with a brief to "restore the reputation" of the PPA. On the day he started, Charles Reed, the group managing director of William Reed Business Media, succeeded Peter Phippen, the managing director of BBC Magazines, as the PPA chairman.
6. McIlheney has pledged to build on the basic PPA membership functions - training, conferences and awards - and to market the medium more effectively to advertisers. He has also drawn up a list of issues that he considers central to the future of PPA members. This includes digital topics such as how to make the most of new platforms like the iPad, plus more conventional lobbying initiatives such as ensuring that the Government maintains a zero rate of VAT on printed magazines.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
- Stevie Spring, the chief executive of Future Publishing, is unequivocal: "Having someone who understands publishing as Barry (McIlheney) does, from both a commercial and a journalistic point of view, is terrific. He is an interesting and charismatic Irishman - and he's a healing force. He's what we need after some time of internal trauma at the PPA. He handles both the external and internal roles expected of the PPA chief executive exceptionally well. The PPA has always had fantastic people and I think we can now face the challenges of the future with more of a spring in our step."
ADVERTISERS AND AGENCIES
- Some agencies say they're disappointed that McIlheney hasn't made contact as yet - but most are broadly supportive of his appointment. The consensus is that if it wants to be more effective in the advertising market, the PPA should take a look at what the Newspaper Marketing Agency has been doing in producing case studies of effective campaigns.
- Dominic Williams, the press director of Carat, says that he's not heard from the PPA for more than a year: "We obviously see magazine publishers regularly - and they do a fantastic job in promoting the medium. Barry has only been in office a few months and has made some promising comments to the effect that he wants to remind media agencies why magazines are, as he puts it, so bloody brilliant. What media agencies want from the PPA is less talk and more action."