Incisive Media’s MD of Events Simone Broadhurst tells the PPA how the business is having to innovate – and fast

What made you want to work in the publishing industry?

I always liked the fast-paced, creative, innovative, and fun environment of publishing and the tension and excitement when everyone worked together on a magazine. You felt such pride when the product was printed and on your desk.

Chart your career from the start to where you are now.

After working at a small video publisher, I focused in on marketing and moved onto a larger contract publisher and then moved over to a publisher which produced specialist consumer magazines. Following that I decided to move to Incisive, heading up their marketing department and consumer team, working on titles like Investors Week, Bloomberg Money and a Consumer Show Investor 2000. My career changed after Incisive bought an insurance business, which needed someone to run their six events. I went to work on the portfolio and did everything from recruiting speakers and delegates to organising the logistics and eventually growing that team and taking their six events to 60 over an 8 year period. I went on to run different events portfolios in legal, tech, finance and sustainability across Incisive and for these last two years I have been the MD of events across both tech and finance. I have seen everything during my time at Incisive – 9/11, 7/7, the dot-com bubble – but this has been by far the most challenging crisis that the events industry has ever seen.

How are you finding managing your event team virtually? Do you have any tips for virtual event management?

In terms of managing remotely, we have been working flexibly from home for four years. The transition has therefore been fairly seamless and as a business we have done a lot of things to keep our existing and furloughed teams engaged. I think honesty is important, always asking the team how they feel and getting that engagement with them because it is tough, and everyone is having to learn things at a very quick pace.

What new opportunities and innovation has this crisis brought the Incisive events portfolio?

The biggest innovation for us has been the Deskflix series, which brings together content and virtual events, our markets have really engaged with this new and exciting digital product. We have quickly pivoted to run our roundtables and smaller events online, becoming experts in platforms like Zoom, Fuse and Webex, constantly trialling things to work out what is best. iVent is also a platform which we will be using for our larger events. Professional Pensions Live, due to take place in July will be run over three days online rather than two full days live.

Do you reach larger and different audiences with a virtual event than you would have with the equivalent live event?

I would like to think virtual events open up the opportunity for more people to attend and what I would expect, as we have seen with our webinars, is that we are doubling the reach of the community. By accessing a larger audience, we may even find that it’s a stepping stone into developing more of a global reach.

How can you make virtual events interactive and engaging?

We looked long and hard at this and found that iVent had the most engaging look and feel around it and could excite both our sponsors and delegates. They are fairly established and really understand an event content-led business. We will have pre-recorded content but will also build in live Q&A panels as well as utilising iVent’s networking platform for sponsors and the strong exhibitor area, building up opportunities for sponsors to speak to people directly.

How will this time influence the way you approach contingency planning in the future?

Our T&C’s going forward will be a lot more flexible and will embrace what has happened here. Our new virtual future will be part of all our planning and will focus more on hybrid events. We’ll also think more about how to market our events and will essentially change the way that our events look and feel. We have all been talking about virtual for a long time, but this has accelerated everything.

What’s on your radar?

Looking at and continuing to study and understand all these online platforms. We haven’t found the right tech for our hybrid events which I think needs to be our focus for next year. As a publisher with a mixed portfolio of events, it means we can run our smaller events in the first half of next year and run our larger events in the second half when it becomes safe to do so. We were already looking at increasing our paid for delegate revenue this will be accelerated as a result of COVID-19 with the addition of different pricing models for virtual and face-to-face delegate revenue.

What magazine would you stockpile?

I wish I had stockpiled copies of Vogue. I would have enjoyed sharing the fashion pages with my daughter.

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.