Tim Slee, founder and chief executive of Square Up Media
Tim Slee, founder and chief executive of Square Up Media
A view from Tim Slee

Square Up Media still growing after 10 years

Once a bunch of misfits cluelessly handing out glossy magazines, ten years on Square Up Media continues to grow in the freemium space. Founder Tim Slee reports.

Today is a good day. I'm writing this piece an hour before the latest ABC results are due to be released. By the time this article is published, it will be common knowledge that all of the titles across our portfolio have risen in circulation.

This is not just good news for Square Up Media, but good news for the publishing industry as a whole – it proves that it is still possible to grow.

Square Up Media specialises in the controlled circulation model. When we launched our first magazine, Square Mile, almost exactly a decade ago, readers were bemused and advertisers were confused. It was practically impossible to engage in decent dialogue with advertising agencies, for example – and understandably so.

Ten years ago, the London print landscape looked like this: Metro – free in the mornings; Evening Standard – paid for in the afternoons. That was it.

After a battle between London Lite and the The London Paper – both free titles – ultimately, it was actually the Standard that won – going big and going free, making the others redundant in the process. City AM joined in with the morning commute, and the age of the freesheets had officially begun.

Then along came Shortlist, set up by folk from a newsstand background. That raised a few eyebrows. As did the launch of sister title Stylist – another huge success. Sport also arrived on the scene, achieving circulation numbers far outstripping any competitors on the newsstand. Timeout was dropping circulation year on year. What was the answer? Go big and go free.

Don’t get me wrong – going free is not a catchall solution. For example, trying to revive the fortunes of Mackerel Fisherman Monthly (there is no such title to my knowledge) by turning it into a weekly and giving it a circulation of 600,000, is unlikely to be a shrewd move – although, who doesn’t need more mackerel in their lives? Publishers need to be smart about how their readers want to receive content.

In many cases it’s crucial to publish on a multitude of platforms, but in others, is it not better to be the master of one, than the jack of all?

On the 23 July, Campaign announced that Dennis is looking to launch a new weekly magazine for men - and guess what? It’s going to be free.

On the same day, 11 years earlier, Campaign announced that Dennis was closing its relatively new launch, paid-for title, Jack, after an investment of more than £3m - certainly a demonstration of a turnaround in thinking. NME are joining the party next month, too – and in no small way.

Back in 2005, when we started handing out copies of Square Mile at City Tube stations, we were looked at with a mixture of pity and scorn by the Evening Standard vendors – and we couldn’t blame them.

We seemed like a bunch of misfits cluelessly handing out glossy magazines, grinning at the novelty of doing so. What idiots giveaway a premium product for free? We asked ourselves the same question, to be honest. People responded by thanking us, and asking us if there was a catch.

Fortunately, the market has changed, and so has the perception of quality free titles. We have since launched London's biggest food and drink title, Foodism with an ABC of 109,210, and Escapism, the UK's largest independent travel title with an ABC up 18% from the last year to 100,613.

We enjoy mutually beneficial relationships with all the major advertising agencies as well as their clients – and are proud to work with companies such as Rolex, British Airways, Virgin Holidays, Marks & Spencer, Starbucks, and Apple, along with many others who have all embraced the free print revolution.

Would they have spoken to us ten years ago? Definitely not. But unlike so many naysayers, that’s why we’re happy that print is changing.

Clients and readers are more open to new ideas than ever before. Today is indeed a good day.

Tim Slee is the founder and chief executive of Square Up Media.