If you’ve ever had that feeling of standing on the edge of a comms precipice the night before an announcement, Tim Arthur, the chief executive of Time Out – the granddaddy of all listings magazines – knows the feeling only too well.
In September 2012, Arthur and his PR team were tasked with putting the finishing touches to the comms strategy for the biggest shift in Time Out’s history. The title was to join publications such as ShortList, Stylist and London commuter newspapers Metro and the London Evening Standard in ditching its £3.25 cover price to go free, and launch day was upon them.
"I definitely had that moment of doubt that we weren’t going to get the message across. Then Tuesday morning [the launch day] came round and I walked around the West End, watching the distribution and thinking are people picking it up? Thank goodness at least one in three people were actually picking it up," Arthur recalls.
The London listings magazine was launched in 1968 by Tony Elliott and run as a co-operative until 1981, but it was suffering from waning ad revenues and circulation had dived from 92,000 in 2006 to 52,000 in the first half of 2012.
Elliott invested £3m of his own money, but the company continued to struggle with debt until white-knight investor Oakley Capital stepped in during 2010, injecting £10m for 50 per cent of the business.
Time Out’s plan was to increase its circulation from around 50,000 to 305,000 and achieve a readership of 500,000, and this shift to the ‘freemium’ model (a portmanteau word Arthur hates) had been his principal responsibility as CEO.
But make no mistake, if his vendors had come back with bags full to bursting with undistributed copies of Time Out, Oakley would have been distributing something else to Arthur: his P45.
Arthur explains that he had to be committed personally to the comms strategy as it simply could not be allowed to fail.
"How we managed the process was a huge part of our planning. I had to take a lot of that under my wing and work very closely with the external PRs that worked on it and with our own internal PR team too," he remembers.
"As we did the research with our audience beforehand, all our activity was building into a consistent story that we could tell the market."
As well as focusing on the launch, the comms strategy included visits to media agencies to reassure the brand’s existing commercial partners and to sniff out new ones.
"For us, the PR and comms actually started from the moment we decided to look at this really seriously.
"There was a moment of commitment where we did all the business side of it and made sure we had a sense of engagement with our audience and our commercial partners," Arthur confirms.
For now, Arthur seems to be delivering for his investors. According to Time Out, the print circulation of the magazine has stabilised at 305,757 copies, its website has increased traffic by 69 per cent, and the brand has made advances in the mobile space with more than a million users across mobile and tablets.
Looking ahead, the company is set to launch 86 new titles around the world and shift the perception of the brand to Time Out multimedia, focusing on web and mobile only in some territories. Although he does not identify which markets will include a print launch, he defends the decision to go with print in London and would not rule out other print launches within the global mix.
Returning to the London launch, he concludes: "I remember doing an interview with someone and they suggested that we were seeing the ‘death of print’, and I thought, ‘I hope not as we’re investing millions of pounds into this. It had better not be the death of print, otherwise we’ve made a massive cock-up.’"