Media Fortune Fame & Folly

Q&A: Kevin Costello – “leaders must understand the numbers”

Kevin Costello is CEO of the Haymarket Media Group (£143m revenue/ £8m EBITDA in 2019-20) which he joined 28 years ago. The 65-year-old Haymarket – which is owned by the family of leading UK political figure Lord (Michael) Heseltine – is best known for its Campaign advertising industry brand. The company now derives some 90% of its revenue equally from the US and UK. It also has operations in India, Germany, and South East Asia.

What’s the most valuable lesson you have learned in your executive career?

I’m not sure I can narrow it down to one lesson! Be self-aware. Don’t underestimate the impact you have on the teams around you. But at the same time, remain true to yourself. Recognise you can’t be good at everything and you shouldn’t have to be. Build and nurture brilliant, high-performing teams with complementary skills and strengths. Finally – and anyone who works with me knows this – focus on the financials. You can’t leave it to the accountants; it is your job, as a leader, to understand the numbers.

What’s your single proudest business achievement?

It has to be transitioning Haymarket from a UK-centric, traditional print publisher into an international media, data and information group. Our global revenues are now two-thirds digital, followed by FACE (festivals, awards, conferences and exhibitions), with just 12% from print. And, of course, paying down our debt; from almost £150m 12 years ago, to now being debt-free with cash reserves ready to invest.

What business failure, disappointment or setback has taught you most?

I look at life with a ‘glass half full’ – we tend only to talk about the good stuff, the unbridled successes! But the reality is, when you take risks, they don’t always work. The most important thing is how you respond when things don’t go your way and that you learn from the mistakes. We are a resilient bunch who, over the years, have endured failed launches, failed companies and scars from entering into new, uncharted geographies. There are also a few that got away; “The Week” being the most recent one to spring to mind. As an avid fan, how did we ever let that one pass? The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to always find the right partner who is an expert in their field or territory, and whose values and goals are aligned with your own.

How has the pandemic changed the media industry – and Haymarket?

That’s a big one! Social, technological, commercial and environmental advances have been underway for many years, but these have been accelerated dramatically by the pandemic.  This time has taught us (as with any crisis) that you must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you should never lose – with the discipline necessary to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality (whatever they might be) and act accordingly. Practically, we have learned how to get the most out of our technology, helping us to achieve greater efficiency and flexibility – and reducing our carbon footprint. Obviously, the pandemic had the biggest impact on the FACE area of the business, but we are now seeing encouraging signs of recovery. We have our Awards season back in full swing in the UK and our conferences have been making a comeback too. Seeing people come together, in-person again, is something I have personally really missed and it’s great to be back in the room.

Your company has made the transition from a combined consumer-business portfolio to (largely) B2B, with the exception of India and automotive in the UK. What advice would you offer to other companies making that change?

Above all, you need a clear plan. And then you need to ask yourself: how do I make sure we can achieve scale in the long-term? We recognised that Haymarket was spread too thinly, so we re-imagined the business to focus on fewer, bigger, smarter bets. Effectively, we have three clear business models: B2B, automotive media and third-party content. Each division works autonomously and has its own strategy under the wider corporate framework, ensuring we can act swiftly, locally and regionally, while retaining our common values and purpose.

What’s so special about Haymarket?

We are a family-owned business and we espouse family values – it is all about the people. We genuinely care about our employees and we recognise they are our lifeblood. We back people, we take a punt. We don’t have rigid jobs and structures – we play to people’s strengths and can take a long-term view. We have a diverse workforce, some of whom have built their careers with us and others who we’ve brought in with a new, mixed set of skills. More than 150 have joined us since the lock down in March 2020, and our Skills Academy and apprenticeship programmes are going from strength to strength.

What’s top of your agenda for 2022?

It’s all about growth. We have a solid foundation, underpinned by our remarkable content. This is what sets us apart. Specialist content that inspires, informs and empowers our clients, audiences and communities. We are proud of our heritage but more excited by what the future holds. We continue to invest and grow our business, while actively pursuing acquisition opportunities within our chosen markets.