Susan Duffin, managing director of subscriptions bureau ESco, answers our questions about her life in publishing.
Q: How did you get where you are today?
A: The springboard for me into publishing started when I was PA to the Chief Exec of a large private chemical engineering firm called Humphreys & Glasgow. Having gone as far as I could in a male dominated world (another story), I decided to step into sales and joined a secretarial college where they entrusted me to set up corporate sales – quite a risk considering I had no sales experience! It was here that I learned how a company should NOT be run and the principal of the college and I started talking about setting our own company up, which we did in August 1984… ESco (Elaine, Sue, company). Although Elaine left in 1986, her relationship with the right people at The Guardian gave us a kick start and between us, we tapped into other publisher relationships who were willing to give two young women a chance.
Having started a business aimed at helping companies build their sales databases and using them to build their businesses, as with so many things in life, we’ve evolved to do something quite different. The essential theme through the years has been seizing every opportunity, embracing change, loving technology and surrounding myself with innovative people.
Q: What is your typical media day?
A: First thing, I download The Daily Telegraph, switching to live BBC News as I get ready for work. Relevant articles fly into my inbox from a variety of sources which of course include InPublishing, LinkedIn, Twitter and I’ll skim these throughout the day in between various meetings. Regular BBC News updates keep me abreast of what’s happening in the world. In the evening, I’ll usually try and switch my mind off by watching some of the old Morse series (again!), a Scandinavian thriller or a film before finishing with a recording of that night’s 10 o’clock news. A challenging Book Club ensures I have to read books I would NEVER choose… currently Love’s Labour’s Lost… by The Bard himself, but brought down to earth with novels like Apple Tree Yard.
Q: What is the secret to a happy working life?
A: Above all, the satisfaction of a job well done for clients, the feedback to our staff and seeing staff blossom and grow during their career at ESco… and it's so important to get that work / life balance right. For many years, I worked such a silly number of hours every day and because the business used to be across the yard from my home, I was often working unearthly hours when my two young daughters were asleep.
Nowadays, I know how important it is to enjoy both work and home if life is to be fulfilling and I try to help all the staff to get that balance right too.
I’m very fortunate to be working less than two miles from my home which means I don’t have to sit on trains and in traffic jams but can have a long and productive day with just five minutes journey to and from the office… and almost everyone in the company is less than twenty mins drive away. This is great news for all of us and the environment!
Q: How do you see the sector evolving?
A: We service the publishing industry and obviously bureaux need to adapt to the market’s requirements in a cautious way. If we’d listened to some of the publisher gurus a few years ago, we would have thrown a lot of money into servicing publishers’ digital apps – but the truth is print subs, though declining, are still very popular and in some cases growing steadily. So, we have to be careful to invest our resources into the right places.
Having run ESco for over 30 years, we’ve been through two recessions and seen major change in the publishing industry and the requirements of clients who’ve had to reinvent their products. For us it’s about increasing the offer to meet publishers’ changing needs whilst maintaining the quality.
Bureaux can either narrow their offering and go down a very specialist road or, just like publishers that have a core product with spinoffs, increase their range of services, and where appropriate, partner with specialists either already serving the publishing sector or operating across wider markets and bringing new ideas to publishing.
There continues to be investment in gaining actionable insight from the vast amounts of data that are collected across platforms about each customer. There are so many customer touchpoints these days, having the right tools and expertise to understand this data is critical and enables publishers to make important business decisions driving their business forward. This is an exciting part of the sector, especially as we are seeing publishers target and engage individuals with personalised and timely communication based on an individual’s behaviour and not just old traditional demographic segmentation. As a result, they are driving up engagement and ultimately revenue.
We’re also seeing the need to work increasingly closely with other technology and service providers who bring very specific expertise to the table. No longer can a bureau be expected to provide all the services a publisher requires, so it’s important to have the right team in place to work with third parties and provide an integrated bespoke solution. Not a week goes by without someone in my team being in discussion with another solution provider who can improve conversion rates, increase engagement, track behaviour, provide actionable insight and deliver content, and this all requires strong project management and technical skills across the business.
Finally, an area that we’re keeping a very close eye on is the use of artificial intelligence to help customise a user’s experience, increase efficiency and improve customer services. This is an area in it’s infancy within our industry and we’re very interested in the opportunities it could bring.
Q: Who has particularly influenced you?
A: I have a very strong faith which influences me every day and has done since the day ESco started.
Mark Allen, founder of Mark Allen Group – he encouraged and trusted us to handle his paid subs when we’d not handled them before – we learned the hard way, but this really set us on the path to becoming a quality bureau.
Fraser Murdoch, when as Chief Operating Officer of CRU Group, he facilitated a very complex transition of data management from in-house to ESco. His diplomacy and tact enabled the ESco and CRU teams to work effectively together which led to our providing a completely new service thus launching our corporate sales team.
Q: What advice would you give someone starting out?
A: Be prepared to work very hard.
Build strong business relationships with clients and suppliers and be honest and straightforward with both, treating them the way you would wish to be treated, always retain your integrity.
Never take on a new client, or a new member of staff just because you can. Think carefully about what you can do for them, what they will bring to your business and look for those that are going to be a good fit where the relationship really works for both parties.
Make sure you spend time and effort recruiting the right people, look after your staff, they are the life blood of any business.
Be prepared to buy in 3rd party expertise rather than employing in-house. The right 3rd party relationships bring innovation, vibrancy and ideas outside the industry which can be game changing….
Don’t expect to make much money!
Eat properly and exercise regularly - it’s good for your health, good for the mind and spirit, and keeps you young and helps you embrace change. All good for the business…
Q: How do you relax outside work?
A: Don’t understand the question. Eat and sleep – no time for anything else apart from gym and holidays
Q: In an alternate life, what would you have done?
A: Cowgirl, female 007, missionary, astronaut, private detective, professional athlete.
But it’s funny how things turn out because now that I think about it, there’s a little bit of all of those involved in working in publishing.