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My Publishing Life – Jon Bickley

Jon Bickley, CEO of Anthem Publishing, answers our questions about his life in publishing.

By Jon Bickley

My Publishing Life – Jon Bickley

Q: How did you get where you are today?

A: Returning from two years in Australia and Asia to 1991 recession UK, I found a vacancy for a ‘Circulation Executive’ at COMAG and thought it sounded the perfect match of my yearning to be a journalist with my degree in business studies. Prospective boss, Jamie Malley, was less discerning – “Can you play football? We need a defender.” I was in. COMAG provided a perfect grounding, and it’s so sad that the company will be closing down.

A couple of years on, and I bagged myself a move to upstart Future Publishing, a company Renault Clio and a student lifestyle but with real wages. Future was a land of opportunity and, after two years of circulation management for titles like Amiga Format (140k ABC by the way), I took my first steps on the publishing ladder, eventually helming everything from Computer Arts and PC Format to MBUK and T3.

Ten years in and with two kids under two, I somehow persuaded my wife, Cath, it was a great time to leave the relative security of Future and set up in business with colleagues Paul Pettengale and Simon Lewis. Our first magazine, Music Tech, launched on the same day as the Second Gulf War perhaps deflecting some of our limelight, but it’s still thriving today as our most profitable brand. Through dalliances in sport, travel and even burlesque, our insatiable appetite for launch and experimentation has brought us to where we are today with music and food as our fundamental focus areas, 12 main brands and some 38 staff.

Q: What is your typical media day?

A: I wake up to Radio2 on the clock radio, frustratingly set 8-minutes fast for the past 26 years by Cath. I’ll glance at the BBC website and Sports App, before breakfasting to the backdrop of the Today Programme or Absolute’s Christian O’Connell Breakfast Show, depending on my tolerance of inanity or argument, from whichever show.

After cycling to work, media-free, I’ll flick through emails and LinkedIn before leafing through the latest issues of our magazines to come in that week. The lack of a commute means I need to consciously make time to read during the working day, but happily that’s hardly a chore. Lunchtime will often be spent with The Times where I’ll indulge in the comment and sports pages before turning to the crossword. The strength of our team here at Anthem, right from day one, has always meant I’ve felt able to switch off from work and not feel the need to be always-on – so a proper break at lunchtime is fairly standard. My intake of trade media is relatively limited to InPublishing, Sunday Times Business and digests of the week’s news shared by Marketforce and The Drum.

The evening might witness 6 Music in the background while we cook and eat with the kids, before a box set if Cath’s in, or sport/outdoor documentaries when she’s out.

Q: What is the secret to a happy working life?

A: For me, it’s to enjoy both work and play but to understand they don’t have to be one and the same. Don’t read emails in the evening, at weekends or on holidays – there’s barely anything that urgent and a phone call will escalate matters when necessary (easier to say when you’re one of the bosses, I know, but we don’t expect constant access to our staff either).

Work with great people who you trust implicitly so you don’t have to be all over everything they do – and let them do things better than you ever could yourself. Nurture people with talent, enjoying their success while they’re with you and just as much if they move on.

Finally, love and care about what you do at work and keep challenging yourself, while also maintaining friendships and interests that are completely separate from the business.

Q: How do you see the sector evolving?

A: Five or six years ago, I might have said that consumer publishing was moving inexorably towards a digital-only future, but the intervening years have shown that print has a fundamental part too. Whether it’s baking mags open on the kitchen counter, dusted with flour and icing sugar, or colouring and dot-to-dot titles that readers physically modify and complete, or a high production value magazine about that ultimate analogue media, vinyl, our recent experience has proved how much consumers cherish the printed product. Of course, my head’s not stuck in the sand, and I know how many touch points consumers expect to have with their favourite brands, whether that’s digitally or experientially. Consumer publishers must continue to evolve as their customer’s knowledgeable friend with a shared passion, and do their best to serve that interest in varying ways the consumer wants, while also giving advertising partners a way to communicate with those customers in a trusted, relevant environment. The key though, is to concentrate efforts on elements you can excel at, so that your customer – business or consumer – will pay you properly for doing so.

Q: Who has particularly influenced you?

A: From that first interview at COMAG to the week I left when he reminded me to “keep your standards up, as you don’t know who you’re going to cross paths with in the future”, Jamie Malley set me on my course in publishing, and has been a valued friend and occasional colleague ever since. Jane Ingham, as MD at Future – now at Media Clash, gave me the freedom and encouragement to grow as a publisher in those halcyon pre-millennium days, and we still swap ideas today. While James Binns of NetworkN outgrew being my assistant publisher to become a mind-boggling source of ideas, inspiration and energy that leaves you reeling after twenty minutes in his company. And, of course, my co-owner, Simon Lewis, the most idiosyncratic salesperson I’ve ever known, is a brilliant counterpoint as we plot the company’s course, while creative director, Jenny Cook, enables me to see what more can be possible when I don’t even know anything needs to be improved.

Q: What advice would you give someone starting out?

A: Although distribution may not seem the obvious career start in the light of COMAG’s passing, it certainly gives a crash course in the publishing world, exposing you to a rogue’s gallery of entrepreneurs as well as polished corporate publishers. But whether you come into publishing via circulation, subscriptions, advertising or editorial, the key thing is to try to learn from everyone you encounter, across as many disciplines as possible. That might mean learning how not to behave just as much as picking up positive habits, but try to find value in each new experience and to understand everyone’s place in the publishing ecosystem. You can go a long way by excelling at what you do yourself, but you can only really succeed as a publisher by understanding all the other functions and how to get the best people flying in those positions.

Q: How do you relax outside work?

A: I’m not sure it’s relaxing, but I’ve been part of a fan-led buyout at Bath City Football Club, with Ken Loach as catalyst and conscience. The club is now community owned, with one-member, one-vote, regardless of their investment, and I work voluntarily as a director on the commercial side of things. For true relaxation, I enjoy time with my family, making the most of the remaining days before the kids flee the nest. I also run, play badminton and like to walk up mountains – but mostly lament the fact I can’t play football anymore!

Q: In an alternate life, what would you have done?

A: I really wanted to be a football journalist until the day I took my seat in the Aston Villa press box. Clutching my student newspaper ID, I thought my dreams were coming true, only to be deflated by the disinterest and cynicism of the resident hacks, oblivious to the drama and excitement of the match. I duly tossed away my free press pass and took my place back on the terraces. Perhaps that’s when I decided it was good to have boundaries between business and pleasure.