Stevie Spring is trying hard to be passionate and dispassionate simultaneously about the 100-odd magazine titles under her control.
The key to retaining a useful neutrality, she believes, lies in the fact that, on a personal level, she and her customers don’t have a lot in common.
“I try very hard to make benefit of the fact that I am not the target market for any single one of our magazines,” the chief executive of Future, the niche magazine publisher, says.
“I am genuinely not. Probably because I am not male for a start. I am not a youngish, freeish, singleish male, which is who most of our magazines are aimed at.”
Ms Spring, at 48, is hardly old either, but she cannot include herself as a natural reader of other Future titles, such as Simply Knitting or Cross Stitcher.
“I used to, many moons ago when I was very young, knit and crochet, but to be honest I no longer have the time to indulge in those passions even if I wanted to and because I don’t have time to do them, I certainly don’t have time to read about them in the depth that our magazines cover them.”
Asked what magazines she would read, given the time, Ms Spring plumped for Vogue and The Week.
She claims that not being part of the target audience has given her an advantage in a time when tough decisions were needed to rescue a company that issued six profit warnings in under two years up to May 2007.
“It’s no good being neutral about the content,” the chief executive of Future says.
“I do care a lot that we produce a quality product. What it allows me to be is unemotional about some of the financial ebbs and flows of the magazines. All products have a lifecycle if they are not managed actively.
“When we are making investment decisions I don’t have the nostalgic view: ‘Oh this title was started on a table in Bath’ [where the company was founded]. I don’t have that personal attachment that can sometimes make you look through rosy-coloured specs.
“You do need to be able to be agnostic about some of the product,” she adds.
“When it comes to assessing which of the products you are going to invest in, which you are going to divest, which you are going to allow to run for their natural lifecycle and which you are going to change and adapt, it’s a much easier decision if you are not emotionally attached to it.”
Professional detachment would appear to be working. Although full-year revenues fell from £188m in the 12 months ending September 2006 to £166m this year, Future returned a pre-tax profit of £9.2m in 2007 compared to a loss of £36.7m in the earlier period.
But the share price remains doggedly low, last week reaching 27¼p, its lowest since the depths of 2001. Earlier in the year it had crept up to 51p.
Ms Spring points out that all media companies have come under pressure from investors.
After the purchase of Emap’s consumer magazines division by H Bauer is completed, Future, with a market capitalisation of just £95m, will be the largest business-to-consumer publisher listed in the UK.
Ms Spring says Future has become much better at “cashing in eyeballs” on the internet, where its sites are closely linked to the magazine titles and concentrate on “prosumers” – people in the computer and music industries particularly who need to know what is going on in other parts of their business.
“We are following our customers around the web space and turning visits into cash,” she says.
But despite heavy investment in the web, she remains convinced that magazines have a healthy future in spite of the obvious scepticism of the stock market.
“I think the huge difference between online and “offline” is that offline you have the experience of discovery, because it’s so easy to flip through a magazine. You can stop on something and read it in more depth and you discover things you wouldn’t otherwise dream of.
“In the same way as in the FT you will find yourself reading articles that catch your eye that you started off with no intention of searching for or finding.
“I think that sense of discovery is a very good protective coat for magazines and the reason why I believe print and online will carry on working together.”
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