Founders and CEOs of specialist, passion-led media are well accustomed to navigating the challenges of the publishing industry: the complex and dynamic operating environments of the platforms, the advertising ecosystem, data privacy, and not to mention the growing intensity of  competition for their audience’s time and attention.  But how well prepared are they to ride this storm of economic uncertainty and with it further acceleration in the structural decline of legacy models? From my recent conversations with representatives of this Founder group, the challenge of this current business environment feels greater than that of Covid for their businesses.
For this resilient and passionate group of Founders and CEOs, being prepared to dig deep, batten down the hatches and ride out a storm is nothing new.  They are propelled by their enduring purpose to connect their audience to their passion.  But with the cost of print, paper and distribution sky-rocketing, how much of their activity is profitable and sustainable?   Digging deep into legacy cost structures is one way to survive but not necessarily thrive.  Those businesses which emerge from the storm as winners will not have cut their way to greatness.
Back in April 2022, I hosted a webinar on the Future of Specialist Media, with two esteemed and well qualified guests:  Colin Morrison OBE, publisher of Flashes and Flames, and Elizabeth Deeming, SVP Group, at Future PLC.  We discussed with optimism the new publishing technologies, new formats to engage audiences and the opportunity of multiple revenue sources.  Having worked in the publishing industry for over 20 years, it felt like a really exciting time to be in publishing – where the focus was on building trust and loyalty with your audience. With a pendulum shift from advertising to reader revenues came a shift in focus on engagement, transparency and consent rather than scale and third party data strategies. It all sounded rather rosy for the niche, passion-led publisher, albeit many were and remain in the foothills of digital audience growth.
As both the opportunities and challenges ladder up for these businesses, founders should be asking what is the right playbook for my business, what is the right mix of revenues, and how do I adapt? There are many examples of successful, sustainable business models for publishers who serve well-defined consumer niches, and not all have been predicated on significant investment in acquisitions, technology, people and content.
Finding the time to work on your business rather than in your business is core to the Collingwood Advisory approach in helping media business founders scale and focus on value creation.  Whether you have an exit in mind or your goal is to build a sustainable legacy for future generations, working on your business plan will not only build resilience but also allow you to have confidence in, and commit to, a focussed path to value creation and sustainable growth.  Getting started can be difficult but there are some simple steps you can take by asking yourself:
  1. How can I strengthen my core business?
  2. How can I grow my share of revenues?
  3. How can my business work smarter?

1. How can I strengthen my core business?

a) Commit to customer insights While it may sound obvious, staying focussed on your niche(s) and centred on what value you promise to your audience, customer and commercial partners is a good place to start.  Brian Sherwood, Senior Insights Advisor for  Collingwood Advisory recently shared 5 ways to use customer insight to increase the value of your business. He wrote specifically about event businesses but the principles are the same for any media business. Brian writes, ‘as businesses evolve, customer understanding can often become less of a priority, or it can become diluted as the team below the founder are not educated to know the customer as well as they do’.
b) Design your value proposition When we meet a client for the first time, we ask them what value they give to their audience. Jenefer Thoroughgood, Chief Product Officer at Collingwood Advisory explains the importance of being rigorous with your value proposition to be able to create products, content, features and formats that are compelling to your audience, build engagement and advocacy, and deliver successful outcomes for your advertisers and commercial partners.
Getting serious about understanding your audience is an essential part of strengthening your core. It means committing to an audience insight process and getting cross-functional teams together to workshop value proposition design.  There are easily accessible value proposition design tools available and the outcome will help you ensure you have product market fit. When you have completed the task you will have a powerful and unique set of insights to take to clients, inform content strategy, marketing and product development.
c) Make revenue retention your leading success metric  Being brilliant at the basics is very powerful to galvanise your team into action. Revenue retention is often overlooked by Founders as a key success metric but it is a lead value indicator for investors.  Andy Baker, Collingwood Advisory Director and B2B Information Practice Lead hosts an on demand webinar on Making Revenue Retention  Your True North.  While Andy’s panelists are from the B2B sector, the principle of retaining revenues is just as important to the B2C sector.  Be it subscriptions or advertising revenues, strong retention rates are an indication that you are delivering value to your audience and clients and therefore it should be your leading success metric. If retention rates are falling you need to understand where you are going wrong through your customer insight process and value proposition design, and take action.

2. How can I grow my share of revenues?

a) Get ‘match fit’ for sales growth  One of the most impactful programmes we run at Collingwood for our scaleup clients is sales strategy development. In his webinar  ‘Get ‘match fit’  for sales growth in 2023’, Fergus Gregory, Collingwood Advisory Director, explains how the right sales strategy is critical to business success, especially during times of uncertainty.  Fergus advocates getting close to your highest value clients and prospects.  He writes, ‘by dividing the market into tiers, media businesses can see more clearly where to prioritise their time and resource.’  Making time to develop robust, forward looking account plans aligned to client needs for Tier 1 which are regularly reviewed can deliver significant results.
b) Take intentional steps to diversify  Keeping things simple but taking intentional steps to diversify has been a winning strategy for some publishers as we discussed in the Future of Specialist and Passion-led Media Businesses webinar.   The emergence of affiliate e-commerce revenues as a scale, multi-million pound revenue stream for leading publishers including Future PLC has encouraged many more publishers to experiment with extending their content into commerce, to stimulate demand and generate leads.
Sharing insight from ‘The Future of E-Commerce for Publishing’  panel discussion at the Publishing Show 2022, I explore how accessible this revenue stream is for publishers and some of the barriers to getting started.  The key thing to remember is understanding your audience and how you deliver value to them through commerce content.
c) Have the confidence to disrupt legacy models in search of new While print is not dead, it is challenged and it does need to adapt and change.  Publishers with a high legacy reliance on print should not be distracted from looking at new growth opportunities as the pace of change in consumer behaviour will continue to accelerate.  Committing to consumer insight and value proposition design can help the innovation process. Now is the time to really understand your competitors for your audience and where they have weaknesses to exploit.

3. How can my business work smarter?

a) Operational excellence matters Remove complicated and inefficient legacy ways of working by keeping things simple both internally and externally. Make matrix working work.  Focus on key products where you have audience strength rather than a portfolio approach.
Whether the operating model is driven by subscriptions, e-commerce or advertising (or a combination of all three), the most valuable business models will require new skillsets and mindsets, a greater awareness of product and a commitment to collaborative, cross-functional and product-led ways of working.
In his webinar ‘Moving beyond a Founder-led business, succession, progression and SMT capability development’, Piers Bearne, Founder of Collingwood Advisory, explores the challenges of relinquishing control as a Founder and building the right senior management team capability aligned to driving the businesses strategic goals.
b) The Role of Governance to drive strategic decision-making Helping Founders put processes in place to stop hand to mouth decisions is cornerstone to the Collingwood Advisory scaleup practice toolkit.  Many Founders build their business based on intuition but as your business scales or in uncertain times, governance is your friend. It is an essential step in growing your business and Collingwood Advisory ‘Three Year Value Leap’ approach to scaleup.
There is a wealth of information available on Collingwood Advisory Insights to support Founders with the challenges they face in building a great company, creating value and legacy and achieving life goals.  Please get in touch at if you would like to find out more about how we could help your business or you would like to join the Media Entrepreneur Meetup community.