Count them all out, count them all back

Three years ago, when the founder and senior management team of B2B publisher Incisive Media acquired the business in a management buyout, they decided to introduce more agile working to the company, which provides news and information to the technology and financial sectors. “It feels like foresight now,” says CEO Jonathon Whiteley.

Most staff were already working from home one or two days a week, so when lockdown was announced in the middle of March, the transition was relatively smooth. Of the company’s 180 staff, around 40 have been furloughed on the events side of the business, but Whiteley is quite clear: “The absolute priority is that we get through this with all the jobs intact, so that when we can get back into the office, hopefully in the next couple of months, there are as many people at Incisive as there were prior to this whole thing.”

However, he adds: “There’s no question it has been impactful on the sector and therefore on us.”

Impact on events

Around fifty per cent of Incisive’s business is events driven and this is the part that has been most affected. The company’s last event was held in early March and the next event is not likely to be until October. As a result, they have taken advantage of the government scheme to furlough some of those working on the event teams or in functions supporting events. On the plus side, quarter three which is most affected, is the quietest period when it comes to events.

Whiteley explains: “We’ve gone through a process of working out whether we do one of three things: we postpone an event until later in the year, but that comes at the risk that we’re stacking that last quarter; or we cancel some of those events and accept that we run them next year and have a year out – perhaps the large consumer events like festivals; then the third option is that we’ve virtualised some events.”

Impact on editorial

On the editorial side, the picture is much more positive. Incisive has been quick to introduce new editorial products, including Coronavirus news hubs, a collection of content around the implications for the industries it covers, analysis and interviews with senior executives and thought leaders.

One of its main audiences, the technology sector, has come into its own as a result of homeworking. Whiteley says: “We publish in three sectors: technology, financial services and sustainability. The tech companies are in heaven at the moment. All the SaaS technologies and the platforms they’ve built are really coming to the fore. In the tech world, our audience tend to be senior IT professionals, CEOs, CTOs, IT managers, that sort of thing, so they’re incredibly information hungry. As an audience group, they’ve come into their own. Of course, technology has always been important, but now it’s even more important to CEOs and CFOs. That part of our audience is very active at the moment, they are very engaged with our sites, they’re very engaged with the webinars.”

For its financial audiences, the move to working remotely has been a little more fraught in terms of issues around security and regulation, coupled with the negative impact on the capital markets.

“What we’re doing editorially around that is making sure we’re putting out as much thought leadership as we can. In our financial portfolio, we’re doing a lot more senior opinion format style interviews. Our financial portfolio is quite technical because we are often dealing so much with regulatory issues, so we’re doing a lot more longer form explainer pieces around the implications. They are great survivors the financial community, they’ve come through many crises, it will have an impact and their revenues will be impacted by the swings in the capital markets, but they tend to come back relatively quickly.”

Editors have been hosting “hang-outs” with key audience members. Whiteley reveals: “Like most B2B publishers over the last three years, we’ve been trying to take our reach much higher up the value chain within the audience. We have VVIP segments within our audience, so a lot of the editors and editorial directors are running hang-outs for those groups. There’s one running that’s a kind of ‘wine o’clock’ where they’re meeting at five and having a drink, but it’s for C-level and above in the audience group.”

Impact on advertising

On the commercial side, advertising was up in the first quarter of the year thanks to the certainty around the general election – “which seems so long ago now” says Whiteley – and most of the second quarter was pre-booked before lockdown began.

“To be really candid with you, the 64 million-dollar question is, how does that look in the second half? Inevitably advertising is correlated to GDP, we’ve got good brands, we’ve got strong market positions, but we can’t fight the tide. What we have seen is a big pivot towards digital.”

Incisive only has two remaining print magazines, Investment Week and Professional Pensions, which coincidentally went monthly in March. Its marketing teams have worked hard to ensure these will still be seen by readers, contacting subscribers to offer delivery to their home rather than office address, to ensure that clients can still reach their audience.

In addition, Incisive has introduced Deskflix, a new virtual event platform which allows clients to interact with and influence their audiences. “We think we were quite quick to market with that and you might recognise the format, having episodes and seasons around particular editorial topics that are badged up where clients can sponsor them, but the content is editorialised. For our asset management community for instance, ESG (environmental and social governance) is a big theme in investment at the moment, so we’re running a Deskflix season on ESG with specific episodes which have contributions from certain client groups. We are trying to virtualise events, but not have a very flat webinar style,” says Whiteley.

Looking ahead

Does he have any idea yet what the future holds for Incisive?

“It is too early to say. What we’ve been doing is modelling lots of different scenarios, thinking about how this could look. From a digital perspective, what this has done is really accelerated people’s acceptance of these sorts of communications. Video was always the largest growing category of digital media anyway and that will have accelerated further. We need to make sure that we’re in good shape to be able to provide that solution for audiences, and for our client base as well.”

“As regards events, if you ask ten different people you get ten different views on how events are going to look. As a nation, we’ve become incredibly good and competent at social distancing and I guess that will continue for a time. Our model has been that we are not now running another event until October and even then, we’re expecting that those events will have to be run with some form of social distancing and other provisions: hand sanitiser, low-level PPE if that’s required.”

Incisive’s events portfolio is 50/50 conferences and awards ceremonies. While some of its awards events are small intimate affairs, Whiteley cannot see a return to the grand Park Lane ballroom style award ceremonies any time soon.

“Our view is that nobody is going to want to go to a black tie do which is lots of carousing and backslapping; it’s very difficult to social distance at those, until much later in the year at the earliest,” he admits.

When it comes to conferences, it is the smaller events which he expects to come back first. “We do run some at the larger end where we may have 300 to 400 delegates, but actually the rump of our conferences are far more intimate. In the last five years, we’ve focused very much on quality over quantity in terms of audience participation. Investment Week has a very healthy events portfolio, but most of the events are sub-20 delegates, because those 20 delegates individually control many billions of assets under management. We’re more confident those sorts of events will continue into Q4 and into next year. Naturally, they lend themselves to more social distancing, they’re not hugga-mugga, you’re not queuing up to get your food, it’s a very different affair.”

He finds it “heart-warming” that after a difficult period in the post-truth era, one consequence of Covid-19 has been to restore people’s trust in independent journalism.

“We’re a really robust, vital sector. We were in danger up until the end of last year, with the post truth era, of journalism becoming less valuable. I think people have realised that trusted news and analysis from reputable sources at times like this is absolutely imperative.”

He adds: “We’re in a sector where the last fifteen years have seen a massive amount of disruption from digitalisation, and we’ve proved to ourselves that we can adapt at speed, that we are resilient, and that we will continue to focus on doing the things we need to do. Whilst at the moment it does feel like it’s a very difficult time for the sector I think it will bounce back very quickly and I think it is a sector that is really important in the eco-system of the markets that we serve.”

Jonathon Whiteley was speaking with InPublishing.