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Are design agencies the future of magazine publishing?

Following the launch of Poppy, a new magazine from the creators of Hot Rum Cow, we talk independent publishing with its creator, Fraser Allen.

Without doubt, the landscape of publishing has changed enormously in the last decade, and there's no better example of that than in the independent magazine sector. Whilst the major magazine publishers still work in a fairly traditional way, small, independent magazine makers are increasingly challenging the status quo. Stripped of internal processes, hierarchy and time-honoured ways of working, these magazines are able to produce compelling publications that deliver fresh perspectives and ideas, on budgets that are a fraction of the size.

One of the most interesting developments of the last few years is the increasing number of design and creative agencies that are publishing their own magazines. Challenging the received wisdom of what a magazine should be, these modern publishers are finding new ways of sourcing stories, new ways of distribution, and servicing readerships currently undernourished by the newsstand.

Some of the best examples that spring to mind include The Church of London who publish Little White Lies and Huck; Boat Studio who produce Boat Magazine; It's Nice That/INT Works with Printed Pages; Human After All who are gearing up to release Weapons of Reason; and White Light Media, the agency behind Hot Rum Cow and a brand new title called Poppy. Dubbing itself 'Brain food for comms and marketing people' with a particular emphasis on those in the financial world, we spoke to Fraser Allen, the CEO of White Light Media, to find out how the landscape of magazines has changed and why he wanted to launch Poppy. 

What exactly is Poppy?

Poppy is a quarterly journal for comms and marketing professionals working in financial services – but it has a broader agenda too. It’s designed to give the dull, unimaginative world of business magazines a massive kick up the backside. Most business mags have barely changed in 30 years; they’re boring, cluttered and macho, full of monochrome images of middle-aged men in boardrooms. The content is often predictable filler that nobody wants to read.

Poppy is very different. Each issue contains just five in-depth features put together by an expert working closely with one of our writers. We call it ‘collaborative journalism’. For issue one, this resulted in articles on the meaning of ‘trust’, the conflict between human emotion and technology, the power of storytelling, the art of personal branding and the VAT expert who chopped his toe off. The design is similarly bold – it’s a tabloid-sized magazine that truly stands out from the crowd. As for the name, Poppy is an old slang word for ‘money’.

Why did you feel the need to produce a magazine about comms and marketing professionals in the financial industry?

The content of Poppy appeals to a broad audience of intelligent people interested in technology, culture and psychology. Ultimately, we want to make it available to the wider business community, but we had to start somewhere. The reason we chose financial services is that we have worked with lots of decent, talented, hard-working people in banks and insurance companies who have had a rubbish time in recent years. They've faced redundancies, low morale and uncertainty – and suffered a backlash because of the mistakes of a few idiots such as Fred Goodwin. We felt they deserved a magazine like this more than anyone. And within financial services, the natural audience for us is the comms/marketing sector. As an agency, we work on a lot of print and digital projects with comms/marketing managers and understand what interests them.

How long did it take you to put together the first issue? 

Too long! I started seriously thinking about it in early 2013. I kept refining the concept and the philosophy behind it, and it was important to get that just right. We had gone through the same process when we launched our first independent magazine, the drinks journal Hot Rum Cow. It took ages to get the first issue out but only because we worked really hard on getting it absolutely right. At the beginning of this year, Eric Campbell – who had also designed Hot Rum Cow – came up with the design concept, and I visited several senior financial services to get their feedback, which was very positive. We started writing the copy in the spring, but now have a bank of great ideas for future issues. The content for issue two is well advanced.

How many copies did you print?

We only printed 2,000 copies of issue one. That’s partly because print is expensive but also because we wanted it to be a sought-after publication that will, hopefully, one day be a collector’s item. We will increase the print run as we develop but we’re in no mad rush. The main thing for us is to get our ideas and thinking out there. The people who appreciate it will coming looking for us.

Why did you decide to make it free?

We just wanted Poppy to get into the hands of people who wanted to read it. Making money from copy sales these days is very challenging and, with this particular project, we didn’t think it was worth it – not with issue one anyway. We may put copies of issue two in newsagents in the City of London, just for building profile, and build it from there. But there will be a core number of target readers who will continue to be sent the magazine for free.

What are you hoping the magazine will achieve?

Poppy will continue what Hot Rum Cow started in terms of changing perceptions of White Light Media. We used to waste hundreds of hours engaged in the soulless pursuit of public sector procurement tenders. We don’t waste any time on that now. Creating a product such as Poppy creates a buzz about the team here and makes us stand out from the crowd. We’re now in the position where clients come to us and we can be selective about which projects we work on. Having said that, I would also like to see Poppy develop into a highly successful and profitable media brand in its own right. It has a lot of potential, and the print magazine is just the start.

How does Poppy relate to your work on Hot Rum Cow and White Light Media more broadly?

Most creative agencies look around at what their competitors are doing and think ‘we should do that too’. We look around at what our competitors are doing and think ‘we should do something different’. The late, and deeply unfashionable writer, Malcolm Muggeridge, once wrote “only dead fish swim with the stream”, and that’s a useful mantra for agency heads. By launching Hot Rum Cow and Poppy, we're showing that we think differently and can offer clients something much more exciting and effective. Is Poppy a promotional tool? Damn right, but it only works because a) it’s a bloody good read, b) it looks great and c) it makes people think.

Why do you think increasing numbers of design and creative agencies are producing magazines of their own?

Because they’re seeing the value of throwing their passion, energy and expertise into something that shows clients what they're capable of. To be fair, part of our original inspiration came from another agency – The Church of London. They started life as a small bunch of magazine enthusiasts launching Little White Lies and then Huck. Then brands approached them offering them work and they rapidly grew into a large agency. We have gone about it the other way around. We started the agency, then launched our own magazines. There are some other good examples around. I really admire Boat Magazine published by Boat Studio, and Bristol-based Cereal, which has a design agency arm.

Poppy doesn't currently have a newsstand presence. Do you think the newsstand is important to independent publishers anymore?

Unless you are selling vast quantities, the revenue you get back is so insignificant and takes so long to arrive that it’s not worth the effort in its own right. However, getting your magazine in the right places is essential to building the kudos of a title – and to generate ad sales if that’s a priority. But publications such as Boat, Cereal, Hot Rum Cow, Little White Lies and many more are challenging the revenue models of mainstream publishers. Ad and copy sales need not be the main revenue generators.

How do you feel magazine publishing has changed in the last few years?

Financial directors of the publishing giants will not agree but for me it’s a really exciting time. The mainstream market is largely in decline because the model is bust but there are lots of niche, independent publishers creating wonderful work and – shock horror – making money. Look at Monocle. Look at the monster that is now Vice, which grew from a print magazine. There is loads of great stuff out there. I love Delayed Gratification, the champions of slow journalism. As a Turkophile, I also relish each issue of Cornucopia, a magazine about Turkish culture published in (strangely enough) Scotland. And I can’t wait for the new Weapons of Reason magazine being launched by Danny Miller of Human After All. It’s a magazine that aims to save the planet. It doesn’t get better than that.