Reasons to be Cheerful: Tom Bureau, CEO of Immediate Media Co

As the coronavirus pandemic has quickly become the new normal, NDA wants to celebrate the positives of our current situation.

We spoke to Tom Bureau, CEO of Immediate Media Co, to find out what he found to be cheerful about.

What, if any, positive long-term impact on the industry will coronavirus have?

Perhaps the biggest challenge psychologically is that we just don’t know how prolonged or ultimately how damaging this experience will be. Will there be a vaccine, or antivirals, or will we have to adjust long term? The new unlock plan is taking baby steps.

What seems clear is that we are all spending a bit more time working out what’s important to us, and what we want in our lives, and what brings meaning.

For the media industry, although trends towards an ever-more digital economy will accelerate, consumers will focus more on trust, quality and values. People will put more emphasis on media brands they can really believe.

It’s great to see government ministers back on the Today Programme, for example, after their post-Brexit hiatus and a widespread acknowledgement that the BBC is peerless around trust when reporting and commenting on a crisis. Some news brands are having a very good crisis, with proportionate reporting, some less so IMHO.

For magazine media, recent studies by Magnetic, the magazine marketing organisation, have shown that mag brands across print, digital, video and voice, are a highly trusted environment, where advertising is seen as part of the content rather than irritating and interruptive, and consumers are deeply engaged around their area of special interest.

What positive impacts on long-term consumer behaviour shifts will it have?

Following this theme of trust and values, the Immediate portfolio is focused on deep engagement around special interests and the things that people love. In lockdown, we have been working hard to help people to get through this remarkable time.

Although print circ is down (but slowly recovering), overall consumption of brands is hugely up.

Our digital traffic numbers since lockdown have been incredible, reaching over 80m unique browsers in April, and we are starting to see the commercial model tentatively return, especially in markets where we have substantial scale.

BBCGoodFood.com reached a remarkable 56m unique browsers in April, with record numbers also for RadioTimes.com, GardenersWorld.com, and BikeRadar. We feel a great sense of responsibility to our customers, to help them through this period, tailoring our content to enable them to get the very most out of cooking, consuming entertainment, gardening, cycling and the rest of our special interest brands.

People are changing habits in this period which may stay forever – my 12 year old can now make bread, pizza dough, dal, and chicken curry as well as play FIFA20 for 12 hours straight.

What have you been most heartened about in how your staff, partners, customers or clients have reacted to the new normal?

The team at Immediate has been remarkable, and I am huge impressed and appreciative. I hear similar stories across most businesses.

Seeing teams who may have members isolating with small kids, or shielding vulnerable family members or colleagues with not-conducive WFH conditions find workarounds, get up in middle of the night to edit and send large files, coming up with new innovations and solutions, has been inspirational and a testament to their professionalism.

We’ve also seen a real sense of the togetherness through increased collaboration from our teams to share knowledge, best practice and content to the benefit of the business and our audiences.

I don’t think any of us knew how quickly we could pivot on a major scale, and its food for thought as we look ahead. It reminds me of a scene in Highlander when Ramirez say to MacLeod “you have no idea of your own potential”. (aging myself there).

We’ve also seen a huge uplift in our subscription numbers, both in print and digital, adding close to 100k new subscribers since mid March. We took very early action to create the right plans to make sure everyone could get our products in the easiest way with no interruption.

Radio Times, our most important brand, has proved itself a trusted guide and lifeline in these difficult times, particularly for many who are obviously the most vulnerable and isolated. The RT team has done a great job to get 50k copies on time to former newsstand buyers. This is approx 10% of RT circulation, and is an essential service for those who have been unable to shop for themselves.

Beyond that in my role as Chair of PPA, the magazine industry trade body, I’m delighted to report a real openness and collegiate-ness with the other CEO’s around sharing best practise, protecting the supply chain, and offering each other support.

What technologies have you been most impressed with during this new situation?

Obviously the mass experiment around video conferencing and how you run organisations on digital messaging, has been remarkable. This is now here to stay and must be sending a chill down the spines of commercial property investors.

Running an All-hands on MS Teams for 1000+ people is not the same as the real thing, but although lacking the energy of the crowd obviously, is remarkably effective. Now that literally everyone above 8 years old is set up to VC, events businesses like ours (currently with no business model or revenue) will be sprinting to re-imagine their model. And new businesses will rise – apparently Joe Wicks video workout is in a sponsorship bidding war.

One innovation nod to our data team at Immediate is a new internal product called SlackBot that allows editorial, sales and product teams to ask questions of our data warehouse on customer behaviour as a natural language search. An early application from our investment in machine learning and AI.

What, if any, positive long-term impact on the digital industry will coronavirus have?

If you are a scaled digital player, a digital platform, an SVOD business, a strong ecommerce player in a valuable niche etc, its hard to see how you would make this crisis more attractive to accelerating your development.

Two billion people from the richest economies in the world locked down for 3 months or more. And even then, social distancing rules making the physical experience in many parts of the economy deeply unpleasant, or impossible. Expect a huge acceleration to an ever more powerful digital economy.

I guess the one area of concern right now in digital is the strength of the venture world and the cash requirements on early stage start-ups, such an important part of the eco system. But as we saw in the aftermath of the dotcom crash in the early 2000’s, on a longer term basis, that crisis was just a slight pause in the rise of a digital economy. It didn’t feel like it, living through it running a digital business, but zoom out on the growth charts and it’s was just a rounding error.

So if you are part of a mixed model media business, time to double or triple down on your digital business.

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