Let’s be nostalgic. Magazines were once the most innovative, dynamic medium. For 40 years, they enjoyed the tailwind of falling costs and barriers to entry, and growing consumer demand and advertising revenue. In the US, UK, Australia and many other countries, 1960-2000 was boomtime for a magazine industry bursting with choice, colour, daring thoughts, and fresh ideas
They were the blissful years before the internet diverted readers and advertisers, and shredded publishing profits. They were also the years when four oddball Brits made their mark on the magazine market and much else. Not because they were the largest publishers even in the UK (they weren’t) but because they were true innovators in the second-half of The Magazine Century.
Felix Dennis died in 2014 aged 67, leaving a £200m magazine business that had, among many other things, made The Week into a transatlantic success. But, for many Brits, he was defined by the high court judge who, 43 years before, had described him as “very much less intelligent” than his co-defendants in an obscenity trial over the short-lived Oz magazine.
The insult rankled and he mentioned it frequently over the years. Perhaps it fed his own self-image as a perpetual under-dog alongside a tough childhood with a single parent mother. It gave him an insatiable demand for comfort, extravagance and security. That may be where his entrepreneurial drive came from.
Time and again, he did things that other Brits would not have attempted: launching magazines in the US for a start.
There’s a long (and ever-lengthening) list of British companies which have tried and failed to apply the lessons from their small island to the world’s largest market. But Dennis had an extraordinarily high tolerance for risk, and the ability to attract and motivate people who had something to prove to themselves. He was brave, bold, competitive – and also lucky.
One former colleague says: “He was a voracious reader, people watcher (his first major success was inspired by watching a long line of fans queuing to see a Bruce Lee movie) and he listened to a surprising amount – given how much he liked to talk. He allied this with a razor sharp intelligence; in the heyday of magazines, that and his appetite for risk gave him the opportunity to launch quickly and capture a trend. His bravery and success in launching Maxim in the US was probably the pinnacle of this combination.”
But, when it went wrong, it could go spectacularly wrong. His over-reliance on instinct gave Dennis his disastrous launch of The Week in Australia. He insisted on the 2008 launch, despite never having even visited Australia, and with almost no research. Even when it was clearly failing (soon after launch), he didn’t want to hear it.
A small amount of research would have revealed the challenging logistics of a country where it was almost impossible to deliver a time-critical weekly to all parts of Australia within a day or two. And the country’s then ACP/Pacific magazine duopoly made advertising revenue difficult too. After four bruising years, he was finally persuaded (reportedly by his UK-based CEO James Tye) to close the Aussie magazine, having lost A$20m with copy sales of only 20k.
Part of the Dennis drive came from the speed with which he lived his life and approached his business. He was in a hurry and always presumed he would die young. He had a voracious appetite for life and his hedonistic lifestyle filled the newspaper columns. But his impressive discipline enabled him to complete so many things. Beyond publishing, he spent the last decade or so of his life writing widely-acclaimed poetry and – extraordinarily – conceiving, designing and funding his Heart of England Forest.
He wanted to be seen as a maverick and was described by one friend as “A happy pirate”. But – despite his sometimes wild spending on drugs, sex, fine wine, and luxury cars – he was fairly conservative in his business. He gave his word and honoured it.
He identified and nursed talent by encouraging a ‘do it now attitude’. He was kind, generous and loyal but would never ‘share’ the risks of the business because he did not want to share the return either. He simply did not want to be hostage to anyone and believed that ownership was everything. He was always his own boss.
Perhaps surprisingly, his people skills were superb – despite the loudness and language. He had never attended a single training course but could ‘read’ people and a room perfectly. As a result, he was a great motivator and his ‘fire and brimstone’ approach was seen by many as refreshingly honest and straightforward.
But he could be impatient. Dennis was always keen on doing something now and his hunger for action sometimes strained the finances of his companies over the years. He could drive the accountants mad. Deep down, though, he knew the limits and never gambled with the survival of his business. But, much as he loved his magazines, they were always the means to an end, not the end itself. That’s why he sold even some of his best brands when offered what he thought were crazy prices. Everything was for sale at the right price. He was always listening.
Felix Dennis sometimes seemed almost obsessed by what money could do for him (and even wrote a book about it). But his whole approach could, perhaps, be summed up by his typical “I will show you f…ers”. And he did.
Chris Anderson is the “curator” of TED and the man who gave the world TED Talks. He’s a quietly spoken Brit who made and lost a magazine publishing fortune before he was 45.
Born in a remote village in Pakistan, he spent his early years in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan where his father worked as a missionary eye surgeon. He attended boarding school and Oxford University in England. He turned to journalism where he became passionate about the emerging 1980s craze for computer games and technology.
Anderson launched his first magazine, Amstrad Action, from his kitchen table. By 1985, he had founded Future Publishing with a £15k bank loan. For the next seven years, the fledgling company doubled its turnover, profit and number of employees every single year.
In 1993, the mighty Pearson bought Future for £52m. Anderson banked the cheque and set about creating a similar business – in San Francisco. A few years on, Pearson sold Future to private equity firm APAX – and to Chris Anderson, who returned as chairman.
The US and UK companies were brought together for an IPO in 1999, just as media stocks were limbering up for the first dotcom boom. Future peaked at more than 100 tech-driven magazines in six countries selling 5m copies every month, with some 2,000 employees. Turnover hit £250m as the Playstation generation made Future and its founder rich. But it didn’t last.
Along, with hundreds of ‘new economy’ businesses, Future suddenly faced demands for short-term profits instead of promised longterm growth. Its share price collapsed, along with magazine sales, investor confidence, and bank covenants. Only debt was rising. The company whose market cap had scaled the heights of £1bn now struggled to reach £25m.
The techie Chris Anderson, who had regularly unnerved his publishing colleagues with seemingly wild predictions that magazines would be eclipsed by digital media, retreated to San Francisco to develop his not-for-profit vision for the TED conference.
His upbringing had always made him an outsider and he was painfully shy. But he was also nerdy. In the early days of Future, he played bridge by himself on his computer, had a calculator on his wristwatch, and would finger-peck work stuff during meetings, years before everyone was doing it.
The turning point for Anderson may have been his 1992-3 studies at Harvard Business School. He came back to the UK more confident and more articulate. Colleagues suspected he also had public speaking training because he had previously been pretty hesitant and stumbly. Harvard fostered his love of the US. It may, incidentally, also have enabled him to benefit from the tax breaks of being a foreign resident when he sold Future to Pearson on his return to the UK. That might be the only occasion on which he ever seemed remotely interested in money.
With today’s soaring worldwide audiences for TED Talks, nobody can doubt Anderson’s formidable intellect. But he wears it lightly. He is a profound and consistent thinker: everything connects and very little – if any – of his thoughts ever seem to be self-serving. Morality and values loom large. He is a man of deep integrity.
But business always seemed a challenge for Chris Anderson, a game to play well and ideally be better than others. He did not see his own business in a traditionally competitive way and would never, for example, cheer the failings of competitors. His team thought profit was just his way of keeping the score, almost like one of the computer games he enjoyed so much.
He always seemed to have a sense of there being a bigger play, a bigger context. It gave him boundless optimism which may have led to Future’s disastrous over-reach in its post-IPO international ambitions. Most insiders have long forgotten Anderson’s plans for FuturePlex, an astonishingly bold plan for a “tech city” off Route 101 outside San Francisco. The plan, which had once threatened to bankrupt both Future and its founder, was scrapped – just in time.
For all Anderson’s bold vision, his commercial success at Future was due to his ability to think small and develop “narrow but deep” media for tiny readership niches. It was a strategy ahead of its time.
The man who created the hugely-influential TED Talks and Future Plc (which has since become the UK’s largest magazine-media company) is the same quietly-spoken, self-effacing Chris Anderson who once loved producing magazines for just a few thousand followers of a computer game.
What is now the Haymarket Media Group was started, in 1957, as Cornmarket Press by Michael Heseltine and an Oxford University friend Clive Labovitch. Their first publication was the Directory of Opportunities for Graduates, followed much more ambitiously by Man about Town magazine which was influential in a chattering classes kind of way. But, like the even more ambitious Topic news weekly, it was never profitable. The company was on the edge and, in 1962, even came close to bankruptcy, because of what Heseltine later described as “inadequate book-keeping”.
The partners split in 1965, the company was renamed Haymarket, and launched Management Today. Heseltine was on his way.
The following year, he was elected to the UK Parliament and – in 1970 – became a minister in the new Conservative government. He handed over the reins at Haymarket to Lindsay Masters (who had been his first employee). With Simon Tindall, Masters led the company’s dramatic growth over the next 27 years during which Heseltine became Deputy Prime Minister. By 1997, when the Conservatives lost power and (the now) Lord Heseltine returned to the company, it had operating profit of £15m and revenue of £102m. It doubled that in the following 10 years.
Haymarket had made its mark on UK media by publishing high-quality specialist consumer magazines (notably automotive) and applying the same standards of journalism, design and photography to a raft of new-wave B2B publications, notably the trend-setting Campaign. No B2B magazine ever looked better than those newsy 1980s editions charting the growth of advertising agencies everywhere. But, for all the chutzpah, Haymarket was built on tight budgets and limited investment. In the owner’s absence, everything was self-funded and tightly-controlled: “It was Condé Nast without the flash offices and bank account” says one former director.
Although Haymarket had been struggling to survive before Heseltine left to go into government, newspaper profiles endlessly described the rising political star as a self-made millionaire publisher who had made his money so he could go into politics. In fact, Masters and Tindall made the company soundly profitable during the years the owner was away.
In that sense, the company certainly came to fund Heseltine’s ambition. And what ambition: he had reportedly told a friend, while at university, that he aimed to become the UK’s Prime Minister. His new political colleagues were sniffy about the naked ambition. He was a young man in a hurry to make his mark in a party where one sobbish colleague had sniped that Heseltine bought his own furniture (rather than inherited it. Yes).
That and his dyslexia made him feel like an outsider, battling against the odds, even though he had a comfortable childhood and a successful businessman father.
But nothing left its mark on the flamboyant Michael Heseltine more than his failure, ultimately, to become Prime Minister. After years of not-so-quietly opposing the imperious Margaret Thatcher, he successfully ousted her in 1990. But she managed to make sure he didn’t succeed her. He never got another chance.
In 1997, Tony Blair’s Labour Party swept the Conservatives from power and Heseltine is reported to have rung Lindsay Masters: “You may have noticed that I’m unemployed. I thought I might come back.” Masters was said to be happy to retire, and the founder returned to his old job as chairman.
Heseltine had become a frustrated and disappointed politician. And some of his “new” colleagues in Haymarket could feel it. But the returning boss was full of ideas and enthusiasm for the business. That’s his trademark.
Colleagues see his dyslexia in the way he speaks fast and clearly without deviation and offers little humour, and no asides. His experience in government makes him adroit at cutting through the verbiage. He always knows more than he says.
Lindsay Masters once said: “Michael has a charisma that makes people want to do well for him. That’s important. He’ll also take the long view, and has incredible stamina.” Another colleague noted: “Michael has the ability to ask the killer question. That comes from the years in politics.”
Heseltine’s global connections helped him to internationalise the business, although some of the expansion was lost in the cutbacks of recent years. He also continued investing in property which he had been doing alongside publishing ever since he left university. Just as well.
After his return to Haymarket, he bought the shares held by Masters and Simon Tindall for a reported £40 million. But the borrowings to pay the bill, at a time when magazines were beginning their painful post-digital slide, brought Haymarket almost to the point of collapse. In 2015, Heseltine pulled off a master-stroke with the £85 million sale of his Thames-side studio buildings (which had been partially occupied by Haymarket). That deal and a long list of painful magazine disposals saved the company.
Michael Heseltine has been described as “ludicrously self-assured and optimistic”. For all the waspish reminders that Lindsay Masters had transformed Haymarket, it was the founder who had recruited him, persuaded him not to IPO the company in what would have proved to be a disastrously timed move, and ultimately rescued the company by selling-off the property his company had acquired over almost 50 years.
Haymarket is now debt-free and, primarily, a B2B media company with growing operations in the UK and US under the chairmanship of his son Rupert. Michael is still there in the middle ground. The increasingly digital business might seem like mere consolation for the man who most wanted the keys to 10 Downing Street, but it has been a sensational second career.
Time Out was launched in 1968 by drop-out student Tony Elliott who died this month, aged 73. He had created one of the world’s best-known magazines.
The New Statesman noted this week that it “was once part of Britain’s alternative press, alongside the likes of Oz and Black Dwarf. In its early days, decisions were taken collectively and all staff got the same wage. Readers needed, as Mick Jagger put it, to cross a picket line of news about police harassment, racial discrimination and slum landlords before reaching the theatre, cinema and music listings.”
But it was the distinctive entertainment listings, attitude and passion for London life that survived. It inspired residents and visitors and became a global phenomenon, the cult of Time Out. The magazine and its city guide books scaled the heights of media success for almost four decades – before becoming a victim of all things digital.
From the start, Elliott concentrated on the minutiae, which made his magazine unfailingly accurate. But he never really let go of anything and there was no part of the business he wasn’t interested in. Time Out was always more than a mere magazine, both to its founder and his audience.
But it is now almost 10 years since Elliott lost control of his brainchild to investor Oakley Capital. That wasn’t how it was meant to be. But Tony, who had never really been interested in money, can now be seen to have under-estimated the task of turning Time Out into a global brand and, belatedly, a digital one too. It required a lot more investment – and skills – than he could give it. He was stuck.
He had spent months of his life fruitlessly negotiating possible deals with financiers and publishers. But all those putative investments would ultimately have led to him surrendering – at some point – ownership of the brand that was his purpose in life. He really couldn’t bear to consider it but carried on flirting with the money.
It is easy to believe that Elliott always loved his printed magazine best. When it came to digital media, the search for new revenue streams, and new investment, his heart just wasn’t in it. He wasn’t really interested in making money – so his company almost never had enough.
Some longterm friends (including the late Felix Dennis) reckoned Tony Elliott’s problem was his shyness and inability to confide in close colleagues and to share decision-making. He was always single-minded about Time Out but could no longer expect to conquer the world on his own.
Some think he was not all that interested in business people and that he, therefore, cut himself off from the challenging voices that might have helped him change and keep control of his company.
Perhaps that was why he failed to adapt in an unforgiving publishing market. But Tony Elliott’s legacy is clear: Time Out is a magazine that has been read, at some time, by almost everyone he met for the past 50 years.
The passion of outsiders
The UK’s four most celebrated magazine entrepreneurs are / were all outsiders. Two were interested in money for the independence it could give them. Two were hardly interested in money at all. They have all measured success in different ways but shared a burning passion to succeed during 40 years when magazines were the most creative, dynamic and sometimes even the most profitable of media. These four brilliant, oddball entrepreneurs were each bigger than the market itself. Now the spotlight has shifted.