Soutar: 'Let me crash test your dummies'

Mike Soutar's garden has never looked so good. Not that the man who is technically still IPC's editorial director — until the end of the month — has that much enthusiasm for all things horticultural.

It's just that he's had to spend the summer twiddling his thumbs, on full pay, while the terms of his departure from the magazine giant have been thrashed out.

As is customary in such situations, neither side is going to say much about the details of the split. But I'd guess that the famously energetic Soutar would not have been planning for such a lengthy spell of green-fingered inactivity when he approached chief executive Sylvia Auton in June with news that he was planning to leave and set up his own research and development business.

But it's at least given him plenty of time to come up with a name for the venture, even if he hasn't been allowed to get out there and talk to prospective clients. Crash Test Media — because "we'll be testing things to destruction" — is a unique venture, Soutar believes, in that it encourages magazine publishers to think in a different way about their approach to new launches.

His plan is to offer publishers the opportunity to hand over all or some of the development work for new ventures they are considering — online as well as in print — to expert teams that he will put together specifically for each individual project.

His belief is that Crash Test Media can take some of the cost, and even some of the risk, out of the development process.

He describes it as "akin to a bootcamp for new magazines, allowing publishers to make mistakes before they launch", adding: "Some companies will have little or no in-house development resource. Others may be more lavishly tooled in that area. I will be able to go in, in a very intense, focused way, and enable them to get further, faster. There isn't anything like this company. It's unique as far as print publishing is concerned."

In the broadcast industry, for example, there's a long tradition of programme making being outsourced to independent production companies — not so in publishing.

"Hopefully we'll be seeing the advent of outsourced development in the magazine industry and people will start to change attitudes."

The new business begins trading on 2 October from tiny premises in King Street in London's Covent Garden. "You could call it a ‘characterful space'. We'll fill it with our charisma."

The "we" to start with is Soutar and a business partner he doesn't want to name yet, because the individual in question still has "people to tell".

Whoever he is, he's a strategist, says Soutar, with a "brain the size of Bulgaria", whose skills complement his own packed contacts book and knowledge of consumer publishing from a career that has taken him from Smash Hits! to Maxim in the US and the boardroom of IPC.

It's this latter role — from which vantage point he helped bring Nuts and Pick Me Up into the world, as well as running Wallpaper* — which has presumably sharpened his thirst for developing new projects. And it may well explain IPC's initial reluctance to cheerfully wave him on his way.

But what size of client is he after? If he was in BBC2's Dragon's Den, rather than chatting to me in a coffee house in Chancery Lane, how would he convince the miserable Scottish bloke that his proposition stands any chance of success?

For a start, he says, he's not raising any external funding. Not yet, anyway, although that may change once he has some contracts. The overheads will be very low and the start-up is based on a simple overdraft facility.

The Companies House register lists him as director and his wife Bev (née Hillier, former editor of Just Seventeen in its heyday, now a physical therapist) as secretary. He says: "It's not going to burn a large amount of cash."

At the moment, he says, there's no way of knowing what the final settledown size of the company  might be. "Five? 10? 20?", but he believes it can become a "scaleable, adaptable business" that will provide work for "people who thrive on lots of different challenges.

People who have very high standards and a very high threshold when it comes to saying ‘that will do'. I want to create an environment that those kind of people want to work for. This would be a very satisfying place for creative talent. I would love to blood new talent too. There are a lot of great freelance contributors out there."

As for the size of client and the size of the market Crash Test Media can serve, he thinks there's plenty of scope for opportunity, whether from existing players within the industry, or existing media players who are not yet in consumer magazines. There are also potential clients who are not in media.

"In 10 years there's been a multiplication of new entrants to the market, and there are more to come."

Ultra competitive UK market

Soutar also believes the ultra competitive UK magazine market is the ideal testing ground for projects with wider potential. "If you can create a great product in the UK, chances are it will come to dominate in an international market."

His company's involvement might be from first principles, starting with an analysis of the client's strategic needs, and following that with development work in the most fruitful areas, or it might be "strategic intervention to turbo-charge an existing piece of work".

But what of the secrecy that characterises consumer magazine publishing launches? Is that not likely to be a stumbling block for a consultancy that will have to have multiple clients who might be competitors?

"The business stands or falls by its integrity. We will never work in the same sector at the same time for two clients. But there are 35 different sectors just within consumer magazines, so there's plenty of scope to keep us busy.

I'm fully confident that I can build a thriving business and never compromise the confidentiality of any client."

From 2 October, Soutar will hit the road, presenting to potential clients. So far he's got a clear indication that there is a market out there for what he wants to do. But now begins the slog of turning that indication into contracts.

His charging structure will be "totally transparent", based on day rates. "I'm really up for this. For building something up. Finding out how far I can make it go. My wife's behind me 100 per cent. We know the scale of the sacrifices we will have to make. It's either a brilliant idea, or a terrible one, and I'll be back in six months begging for a job. There's only one way to find out which is true."

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