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March 7, 2019updated 19 Apr 2022 2:57pm

Specialist mag publisher says growth and pay rises down to providing ‘right content to niche dedicated audience’

By Charlotte Tobitt

The chairman of a specialist magazine publisher which is on track to increase revenues by more than a third in just two years has put its growth down to providing “the right content to a niche dedicated audience”.

Mark Allen, who founded publishing and events company Mark Allen Group in 1985, also told Press Gazette that “some publishers went [online] too early and they made mistakes along the way”.

His staff are getting a minimum three per cent pay rise this year, he said, and have seen wages rise in previous years as well.

MAG publishes more than 80 titles, including B2B brands like Print Week, HR, The Optician and the British Journal of Nursing, with an increasing number of consumer titles covering music, including Gramophone (bought from Haymarket in 2013) and Jazzwise.

In December it acquired all of music publisher Rhinegold’s assets, including five publications and the Music and Drama Education Expo event.

The group recorded revenues of £43.4m in the year to 31 March 2018 according to accounts filed with Companies House in December, an increase of 16.8 per cent on the year before.

Earnings (EBITDA) rose by 30.5 per cent from £5.5m to £7.2m.

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Allen (pictured) told Press Gazette that for the next financial year to the end of March 2019, the group is on track to reach turnover of £51m and EBITDA of £9.3m.

“I think we are bucking many of the trends that are going on in publishing,” he said.

Allen put the group’s growth partly down to increasing its mix of revenue streams, including events and the number of sectors it has titles in.

“We’re involved in ten different sectors, so if one sector is doing badly, chances are that there’s another sector doing well,” he said.

“Some people might criticise us for being in so many sectors, but personally I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve actually done well.”

About 40 per cent of MAG’s overall revenue comes from advertising, another 40 per cent is from events and exhibitions, and 20 per cent comes from content revenue such as paid-for subscriptions.

Allen said: “Our content revenue is going up, although as a percentage of the whole it’s actually slightly gone down because we’ve bought a number of exhibitions…

“I’m a firm believer in subscriptions. I believe that the best form of capturing the support of your readers is by subscriptions.”

Print or digital? ‘I’m agnostic’

MAG has some added diversity with its online brands but Allen said most of its publications are still print-focused – although the company is “trying to add more magazines to the digital pot”.

“In terms of making that decision, as far as I’m concerned I believe in print but I’m completely agnostic as to whether it’s print or digital.

“What it is, is a delivery system. If your readers want it in print then I think it’s incumbent on us to deliver it in print. If they want it digitally, then again we’ll deliver it digitally.”

Allen acknowledged that younger audiences prefer to get a “quick fix” of information online and that “inevitably we will have to” develop better online offerings.

“But it’s quite a difficult transition, particularly if a magazine is doing quite well in terms of its subscription base. You’ve got to be very careful, you don’t want to ruin that.

“In my view the mistake that some publishers made many years ago [was] that they felt like the answer to all publishing problems was to go digital. What they then discovered was that monetising it was not as easy as they thought.”

MAG’s biggest newsbrand is Community Care, which is targeted at social workers. It is online-only and makes a “very decent profit of about 45 per cent profit to turnover,” said Allen.

But, he added that he “didn’t go too early” with the migration to digital and that publishers who did “made mistakes along the way”.

“We’ve deliberately refrained from going too early on some of these decisions and I think for us that was the right thing to do. But we will see more and more of our magazines, particularly our niche magazines, going digital.”

‘Content is king’

Otherwise, Allen claimed the secret of MAG’s growth was thanks to two timeless factors: the content and the staff.

Its 400 staff (30 to 35 per cent of which are editorial) are being rewarded again this year with a pay rise.

Allen said: “Like everything, getting the right team is crucial to success… We don’t micromanage them. We empower them. We have a very open culture and they seem to respond to our culture, they seem to enjoy working for us so I think that is the key to success.

“When we’ve taken over a number of different publications, sometimes they come from larger organisations and they’ve been siloed.

“We bring them across, we motivate them, we make them feel special, we give them a lot of support, we invest in the publications, and that triggers a very good response because they then start believing in the publications again if they haven’t believed in them beforehand.”

Allen, who started his journalism career on the Sheffield Star and Daily Express, added that “content is king”.

“If you get the content right – and we spend quite a lot of time trying to do that – then everything else, subscriptions and advertising, will follow it.

“I think key to success is getting the right staff, empowering them, putting content first and then seeing what happens.”

Asked his predictions for the next five years in magazine publishing, Allen said: “There’s a yearning still for people to read things, so if we provide the right content to a niche dedicated audience and you produce the right content, your brand will survive.

“If you don’t get the content right and honour journalism enough and you take a lot of short steps, then maybe you don’t deserve to survive.

“In my old fashioned way I still believe that journalism will trump anything if we do it right.”

Picture: NCTJ

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