Promising Future?

If company reception areas are meant to make good first impressions then the foyer of Future's sleek central London offices, lined with more than 150 titles spanning technology, gaming, crafts, entertainment, music and motors, suggest a business built on ambition.

It is ambition, some suggest, that's got the specialist magazines publisher into a whole heap of trouble since the turn of the millennium. The dotcom crash of 2000 hit Future's heartland of computer and gaming titles, and was followed by a string of profit warnings, which came to a head in March when the company's interim results disclosed a pre-tax loss of £12.1 million.

Chief executive Greg Ingram, who in 2004 had made public the company's hope to double in size and profits by 2008, departed the day the results were announced.

Step into the breach Stevie Spring, former chief executive of outdoor media giant Clear Channel and MD of Young & Rubicam Advertising, with 20 years of experience on the other side of the media fence, but no publishing experience.

If that lack of specialist knowledge is worrying Spring, it doesn't show. She is brash and charismatic, and the first to admit that she is going into this "completely unencumbered by knowledge".

So it's totally fair she should start an interview after only three weeks in the job by announcing: "I reserve the right to change my mind about anything we talk about today."

Spring is patently no innocent abroad, though she would have done well to hide the copies of The Word and Mixmag sitting on her glass-top table where we settle down to talk. Before I arrived there had been a meeting with publishers Development Hell. The speed at which she whisks their magazines from my view suggests it was more than just a cosy tete-a-tete with David Hepworth and Jerry Perkins.

Hepworth figures in the story of Spring's conversion to magazines. He beat her into second place in a Battle of the Mediums event at the Media 360 conference last year, where he won the argument that magazines conquered outdoor media as the better form.

Evidently Spring was as convinced as the conference audience.

Commercially, Spring is likely to be a welcome addition at Future, familiar and comforting to shareholders and advertisers alarmed by recent developments.

Publicly, the company is focusing on a period of consolidation and has closed or sold 11 titles in the first half of this year, repeating the pattern of rethinking its expansion plans as it did as the dotcom bubble burst.

Until then, Future looked like the little company with big plans. It began in Bath with the launch of Amstrad Action by journalist and entrepreneur Chris Anderson in 1985, on the strength of a £15,000 bank loan. Within a year, the company was in profit and despite selling the business in 1994, Anderson backed a management buyout in 1998 after a sale to IPC fell through. In 1999 Future was floated on the London stock exchange.

Spring is frank about the mistakes made since then and says the company should not have made its ambitions public as it did in 2004.

"There's absolutely nothing wrong with that as a statement of ambition.

The mistake was to say it in public to a City audience that then measures you every quarter on how you're doing against that benchmark," she says.

Future, at the forefront of internet investment in the late '90s, is now playing catch-up with net launches.

"But arguably if you get your fingers burnt as Future did in 1999/2000,"

Spring says, "I can absolutely see why there was resistance — once bitten, twice shy in that arena."

Intensive care Spring knocks back any suggestion of print's demise, but Future's confidence in magazines must be somewhat shaken.

This year its big launches are online, with two technology websites and an entertainment one in the pipeline.

There is talk of a consumer print weekly for next year, but Spring won't confirm any more than to say that it's something the company is looking into.

For the moment, Future must concentrate on the Highbury titles it acquired after the latter's demise last year. At the time Future wanted all of them, which would have made it the third largest magazine publisher in the country, but the Office of Fair Trading ruled against it and Future got 38 titles instead, some of which have not lived up to expectations and are, as Spring delicately puts it, "in intensive care".

Was the Highbury purchase a mistake?

"In hindsight I think we were bloody lucky not to get clearance from the OFT to buy the entire portfolio,"

says Spring. "Have the titles underperformed?

Yes, to our expectations. Can we make something of them? I really hope so, [but] not all of them."

Despite these problems, the mooted move into the weekly market has once again suggested Future still has ambition to move beyond its specialist niche. Its biggest UK titles are Official PlayStation 2 Magazine, Fast Car, Total Film, Cross Stitcher and Official Xbox Magazine, of which Official PlayStation 2 Magazine, with sales of 123,971, is the only Future publication to figure in the most recent ABCs top 100 of actively purchased magazines.

But million selling big brands may not be the way forward for Future, according to its new chief executive.

Spring says: "Almost by definition, if you are a multiple micro publisher, huge brands don't fit with that strategy, because you are unlikely to have a million circulation in the UK which has the depth and passion of the area Future is in.

"Do we want to be a general publisher?

Again I take the Fifth Amendment, but I suspect not, because it takes us outside of the stuff that we do extraordinarily well."

Spring is based in Future's London offices, not Bath, where the company is still one of the city's largest employers.

Spring says Bath remains important, even though London now houses just under half the publisher's UK staff.

"Without tying myself up in knots, I would find it almost inconceivable that Bath wasn't part of Future's future."

If she had to choose a growth area? "It depends entirely on the talent pool."

For Spring, working in London means proximity to commercial interests, talent pools and her home in Notting Hill. It makes sense that both she and the business reside here.

"It's not just a token presence of me sitting in an ivory tower all on my own, even though that's how people perceive it and think ‘Stevie's got a large reception, hasn't she?' So no, I'm not just rattling around on my own here, there are 450 of my closest friends also wandering around the building."

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