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May 19, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:20am

B2B publisher Mark Allen says early bet on subscriptions and rewarding staff both key to success

By Charlotte Tobitt

B2B publisher Mark Allen Group is among the media companies that proved remarkably resilient throughout the Covid-19 pandemic – even though, pre-2020, a third of its revenue came from live events.

But Mark Allen, who founded the company in 1985 with a management buyout of two Thompson Media Group medical titles he had been leading for a year, said the business is “only as good as we are now. Yesterday is forgotten about.”

Allen told Press Gazette’s first Future of Media Explained podcast he was careful not to become complacent – and said he was aware there are difficult times ahead.

Mark Allen Group (MAG), which now publishes (mostly) B2B titles in 12 sectors, recently reported pre-tax profit up 20% to £6.1m in the financial year ending 31 March 2021, despite the hit from the Covid-19 pandemic to events, although this did mean turnover fell by 20% to £43.7m.

Allen revealed the unaudited results for the year ending 31 March 2022 show turnover up by around 37% to about £60m and earnings before interest, taxation, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) up by 30% to £13.3m. He said he “couldn’t be more pleased than I am at the moment”.

Despite this positive outlook, Allen said: “That’s the past. That’s over with. We’ve got to the top of the mountain, we’ve cheered ourselves and we’ve paused for a second – then we’ve moved on.

“We’re only really as good as we are now – there’s no point in looking back and saying what a great company we are or have been – we’re only as good as we are today so we’re never, never complacent. I’m very conscious of the fact that… we can fall as rapidly as we go up.”

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MAG is currently budgeting for small growth in 2022/23 but Allen said the year is set to be a “hard slog”.

He noted that his company is entering “some pretty uncharted waters”, as are many others both in the media sector and elsewhere. Consumers are battling a cost of living crisis while businesses such as MAG are seeing “rocketing” print, production, distribution and energy costs as well as potential as-yet unknown impacts from the war in Ukraine.

Allen said: “We’re living in extremely difficult times, very problematic times, and things can go very easily topsy turvy if we don’t watch it. So we’re in the era of ensuring even more discipline to what we do, ensuring that the costs don’t get away with us.”

Despite this Allen is proud to have put higher ongoing costs into staff salaries with pay reviews carried out in April.

He said he had learned how the company is “dependent on ensuring that we motivate and reward our teams sufficiently because if you get people leaving you you’re stymied”.

All MAG staff earning under £30,000 received a pay rise of at least 5% while those above £30,000 got a minimum boost of 3%. Merit increases were given in addition where they were deserved, which Allen said applied to many staff.

He added: “Our salary bills are much higher than they’ve ever been and absolutely rightly so because it’s absolutely fundamental that we reward the staff that have been doing so much good work for us.

“We have to be as generous as we possibly can and at the same time we need to ensure that we have a sustainable company.”

Allen also spoke about why he has “always believed in subscriptions” and why he introduced them at MAG in the 1980s and 1990s when many other B2B companies still focused on controlled circulation.

He said: “It’s even more important now because I think that a lot of our business is through advertising, but advertising has proved to be much more vulnerable and much more up and down than content.”

He added: “I think one of the reasons why I believe that we’ve been successful is as far as I’m concerned content is absolute king and if you put the emphasis on getting the content right, everything else falls into place.”

Allen, who after a successful first year running his business “thought I could walk on water”, also revealed a valuable lesson due to an entanglement he described as “hell on earth in business terms”. It involved the purchase of a business and science magazine called Link Up which left him with numerous legal battles, all of which he won, as a result of the former owner’s arrangement with the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

The learning he took into the rest of his career was: “I don’t very easily or very seldom do I do any joint ventures or anything involving other parties. I try to make my own decisions or our own decisions and that I think has stood me in pretty good stead over the years.”

MAG has also made regular acquisitions in recent years, including the prominent purchase of Farmers Weekly magazine at the end of 2019 – although Allen said there is also further the company can go by organically growing its existing brands and exhibitions as well.

Asked how he decides what to buy, Allen said the group is “relatively opportunistic” when it sees “something that we believe that we can get for a decent sum that we don’t overpay, that we can develop and get some value from” and then develop synergies by building brands into each of its specialist portfolios with a strategy around them.

He said: “We haven’t been too prescriptive about what we buy. Sometimes people can be critical of this. As far as I’m concerned, I like to believe that we are publishers, I’m a publisher. When most of our magazines were in healthcare people identified it as being a healthcare publisher, but I never considered myself a healthcare publisher. We just happened to be in healthcare publishing because there’s lots of different niches in healthcare publishing. But the skills in publishing are pretty transferable.”

Allen also touched on the future of MAG, which is a family business currently led by his son Ben as chief executive with family as the only shareholders.

He revealed “not a week goes by when I don’t get about three, four, five different inquiries from private equity” and that there have been “overtures” of trade sales.

Shortly before the pandemic MAG began the journey to become a PLC and hired Rothschild to help, but Allen said “the timing was wrong. There were lots of concerns about Brexit so there were very few IPOs being done and right at the end of the day I decided we weren’t going to go ahead with it… I think at the time that was the right decision.”

Currently there remain four options: Allen would be “perfectly happy” for the company to stay in the family. They could return to the idea of an IPO. A private equity deal could happen. Or a trade deal could take place, although Allen said: ” I’m not certain whether there are any companies in the UK that would really want us these days – we’re no longer a minnow but we’re certainly not a whale”.

“We’re having a meeting in the next few months where we will talk about the future of the company and what journey we really want to go on. At the moment we’re going along very happily and that’s what our primary focus should be.”

For more from Press Gazette’s interview with Mark Allen, listen to the first episode of our new Future of Media Explained podcast. Find out more here.

Picture: NCTJ

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