Time Inc UK’s chief executive, Marcus Rich, is in his office sitting next to Mike Williams, the editor-in-chief of NME, poring over a dummy edition of the newly free music title.
This is the blueprint for a new future, not just for the 63-year-old rock bible but for Time Inc UK and perhaps the whole magazine industry as it grapples with a world of changing media habits.
NME begins its new life as a freesheet on Friday. The once mighty weekly has seen sales dwindle to just 15,000 copies but, as a free magazine, its distribution will be boosted to 300,000. Copies will be handed out in 85 towns and 46 cities at stations, universities, Topman and HMV stores, Academy venues and independent music shops.
The relaunch is not just a huge investment but Rich’s first big launch since he took the reins in March 2014. It is a plunge into a market that is already crowded.
Rich joined the publisher, then known as IPC Media, from DMG Media, where he was the commercial managing director.
Time Inc UK claims to be the largest publisher in the country in terms of revenues and reaches more than 20 million adults. Rich is on a mission to transform the company, which is facing declining circulation across almost all of its main titles.
He caused controversy soon after taking over Time Inc UK with a speech to the PPA calling the magazine industry a "burning platform" – comments Rich now says he regrets. But he was challenging the company to evolve. "We are not a magazine company," he contends. Rather, Time Inc UK is a content business that taps into people’s passions through apps, e-commerce, websites, video, social media and, of course, print – whether paid for or free. He accepts that ad revenues from paid-for print titles will be the major source of income for some time yet but he is looking for alternatives.
The success of the free NME will be an indicator of whether Rich’s strategy is in tune with the times. Some think it may be too little too late. But if ShortList can be a hit with male commuters and Time Out can entice those into entertainment, NME should surely be able to do the same for music fans? It needs to become essential reading for teens and those in their early twenties again. Can young people be torn away from their mobiles for half-an-hour by a quality, free title?
Williams believes NME will retain its edginess. "Our influence has never waned," he says. This should help secure a major global star on the front cover every week.
There will be features by the Popjustice founder, Peter Robinson, and a column by the comedian Katherine Ryan. There is also the Under The Radar section devoted to new acts, as well as content on film, TV and games. As part of the relaunch, NME unveiled an app last month.
The first free NME has already taken more ad revenue than any other edition in the past 15 years, with five times more advertising than the equivalent issue last year. Advertisers featured include Hunter, eBay, Procter & Gamble, L’Oréal and BMW.
Rich is aware of the irony of running a magazine company facing declining circulations but with huge digital audiences: "We’ve never reached more people, even in the 70s when we were selling 100,000-plus copies. We now reach more people with our music content than ever." He points to 3.5 million monthly unique visits to NME.com, making it one of the biggest music websites in the world.
Steve Goodman, the managing director of print at Group M, says: "Maybe this heralds the new dawn for Time Inc UK; a new way of doing things." He also senses a more positive mood among its sales teams.
With a stable of some 60 titles that tap into passions as diverse as fashion, horse-riding and wine, Rich is aiming to take the editorial power of those publications and deliver it in new ways.
He has reorganised the business into five "verticals": equestrian, cycling, interiors, craft and beauty. Each will be a focus of activity beyond magazines. Time Inc UK has already bought a cycling events company, is forging an e-commerce deal between Marie Claire and Ocado, and has acquired the equestrian event booking site Equo.
But there are no easy wins, and the areas Time Inc UK is moving into are already well-served. But Rich believes the company’s expertise and access to data about readers offer an advantage.
"By freeing ourselves up and saying we are not a magazine company, we are a content company, each of those platforms is an opportunity to us," he says.
Rich began his media career at Emap after flunking his A levels (except art). He has had stints at FHM, Q, Mojo and surfing titles in Australia, led launches in the US and also worked at McCann.
"I was always ambitious but I’ve been lucky. People give their right arm to work in media," Rich says. "You look back and think: what a great job." Time will tell whether he has done a great job reviving Time Inc UK.