Crain’s opening shot - Interview with Crain's publisher Arthur Porter
Last week Crain’s commenced weekly publication of its new Manchester business newspaper. The title – which is simply called Crain’s Manchester Business – had so far hit the streets just three times since December as part of a soft launch.
Publisher Arthur Porter, pictured, says the controlled circulation glossy is on track for success – despite the fact the 21 January edition did not contain a single paid-for ad.
The newspaper is, apparently, in a stand-off with the media buying community over a sales policy that has been imported straight from the United States, the heartland of the company behind the venture; Crain Communications.
This family-owned company publishes a chain of city business journals in the US as well as specialist magazines, the best known of which is Advertising Age.
Its scale gives the operation deep pockets and the confidence to enforce a sales policy which has alienated media buyers. Quite simply it refuses to negotiate on price. Said Porter: “I think we have given them a shock. They are expecting special deals, but there are none on offer.
“We do offer discounts. In fact we will discount up to 55 percent, but only in return for commitment. And everybody gets the same level of discount.
“Some buyers expect me to be sitting here at 6pm on a Friday waiting for their call to find out what I would be prepared to do for £2k. But I am not here at that time on a Friday. I have gone home.”
Porter is determined to start relationships as he means to continue – and he wants series bookings and serious conversations.
Against the grain
“I do not want one off bookings. We all know that one off ads do not work. To get a real return the activity should be part of a campaign.
“Now obviously if somebody does want a one off ad we will not turn the business away but we will not encourage it either. That is why we do not call our sales people sales people. We call them consultants. We want them to work with the clients to show how our products will help grow their businesses.”
But the overall policy is truly against the grain. Manchester’s large media buying outfits are built on the basis of being able to buy media more cost effectively than their rivals.
In fact many pitches see clients requiring media agencies to complete price comparison forms telling them what they can buy specific newspapers for.
A title that offers the same rates to all comers is anathema to this way of doing business.
But Porter believes the market will have to come round to his way of thinking.
“Media buyers will have to stop waiting for deals. I would – while not warning them – certainly advise them to be aware of Crain’s, because there is no doubt their clients are interested and want to know more about us.”
Sitting in his plush office, on the 22nd floor of City Tower, a prestige office development in the heart of Manchester, it certainly looks as though he has the means to outstare the market.
And those means go beyond Crain’s hard cash. Porter’s accent is another clue. He sounds Manc through and through, and somebody – who is aged 57 – has some tough media experience behind him.
The journey to his current desk started back in the late 90s with catastrophe. The Manchester media sales operation he owned, Arthur Porter Media, hit the buffers after the loss of his only clients – The TV Times.
“I wasn’t expecting it to rain on my parade, but it did. Here I was, aged over 40 and basically looking for a job,” he said, “But I had a wife who was from Ohio and saw an opportunity to start a new life in America.
“So we moved out to South Carolina, and I got my first job – selling cars on a car lot. That was a real experience – leaving Manchester and suddenly selling Chevys – although I did make sales person of the month at one point. I think they liked my accent.
“But I wasn’t there long. I came across this business paper that had started in Charleston. It had only got $4,000 in its first few issues.
“So, given my background, I was taken on as sales director and increased revenue by 830 percent, although admittedly that was from a small base.”
From there he launched another business paper near Atlanta before being hired by American City Business Journals, an operation that has 41 city newspapers across the US.
He worked in a variety with some success eventually becoming publisher of a title in Tampa.
“That paper’s performance put it at number 40 in the group. I took it to number one,” he said. From anybody else the claim would have sounded arrogant. But Porter has a way of making grand claims, with a sense of humility, no doubt part of the secret of his sales success.
With his yellow shirt, unruly hair and ruddy complexion he was no doubt was an antidote to that well groomed, sharp suited stereotype of American business.
While in Tampa, Malcolm Glazer, owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, bought Manchester United. To Porter, a diehard Man U fan, the deal opened up a chance to reconnect with his old town.
“The deal gave Tampa and Manchester a real link, so I decided to organise a trade mission to encourage inward investment into Tampa and perhaps vice versa.
“However, when I got to Manchester I realised just how far the city had come since I was last there.”
And he couldn’t believe the city did not have a business newspaper. He returned to Florida, gave his bosses one year’s notice and started to plot his return to England.
“I knew Crains – which have four major city titles in the US – were looking to expand, but were finding it difficult to identify opportunities in the States. So I suggested they look at the UK and Manchester in particular.
“It was great working with them. They took the decision to launch in May, and we had the office up and running by August.”
As well as the advertising sales policy the newspaper follows a model that has been finely honed in the US. In fact Chris Crain, a third generation member of the dynasty is spending one week a month in Manchester, to oversee the launch. He is listed on the newspapers flannel panel as editor in chief. In fact, sharp-suited and well groomed, he made a quick appearance during The Drum’s conversation with Porter. “Things are going extremely well,” he said. “But I will be here one week a month until we start hitting the sales levels we want.”
He left leaving Porter to explain the strategy: “We have invested five-times as much in journalism than any other product in the market. What we aim to do is provide readers with information they cannot get anywhere else – information that will help them grown their businesses.
“We are very confident this model will work. Already one leading accountancy firm has bought 42 subscriptions at £75 and sent out a message that they believe every partner should read this paper.”
Although the paper has a controlled free circulation, another big difference between recent launches in the UK, is Crain’s ambitions to convert this to paid-for.
Said Porter, “We like the subscription model because it really adds value to advertisers. At the moment we have a circulation of around 16,500 – made up of 140 subscribers, 500 free trials, news trade sales and the rest based on a controlled list which we bought.
“What we aim to do is to gradually convert this controlled circulation to requested copies – so we start to build a relationship with the reader.
“From there we will slowly convert them to paid-for subscribers. We accept this will take three or four years. My goal this year would be to have 1,000 paid subscribers. My supergoal would be to have 3,000.”
And there is no doubt the editorial product is excellent. Another featured imported from Stateside – is to have a member of the editorial staff devoted to compiling lists, which are published each week. All this information will then be put in a yearbook called The Book of Lists. The project will also be marked with a Book of Lists Party.
The mix of events and yearbooks is a formula that is familiar to most business to business publishers.
And indeed it has been tried before in the North West. Recently a weekly North West Enquirer was launched; only to sink without trace. Porter, says he will not fall into the same traps. “The North West Inquirer was a general newspaper that covered the whole of the North West.
“We are a business paper that covers Manchester. And just like every major city in the US, all Manchester people care about is Manchester.
“And that is all we care about too. We are not interested in Liverpool for example, to the extent that if somebody launches a business paper there then good luck to them.”
Despite the focus on Manchester, if the paper works there is little doubt Crains will look elsewhere in the UK. Porter believes there is a lot of potential: “If Dayton, Ohio can support a business journal, then there are a lot of other cities in the UK which could support one too.”
But how much are Crain’s prepared to invest. Porter will not be drawn, but says the level of investment is substantial, which is why they can be aggressive on the sales front. Or as Porter says: “Even without advertising we will still be here this time next year.”