Moving beyond its City limits
One of Time out’s architects of its return as a passionate Londonguide is leaving at a time when the title must get to grips with the online world and the challenges it presents. By John Reynolds
The news that Time Out group marketing director John Luck is leaving after three years (MW last week) comes at a crucial time for the London entertainment and listings bible, which is battling to retain its brand identity against a raft of competing media.
Luck is credited with helping to restore the original focus of the publication, which observers say had been in danger of losing its direction in an effort to chase readers.
Time Out editor Gordon Thomson, appointed three years ago, says: "When I came in, it was about applying common sense to the brand. It had moved away from its foundations and had started to become a general lifestyle magazine. It needed to become obsessive about the city [London] again."
Luck's replacement will join up with another new arrival, magazine consultant Mark Elliot, who takes over the vacant publisher's role in January. The brand has also switched media planning and buying duties to Vizeum from Total Media, which had held the account for about 20 years.
With such changes afoot, Time Out must also solve the conundrum of how best to maximise its Web offering without cannibalising sales of the flagship London magazine, which celebrates its 40th anniversary next year.
As Rob Lynam, Mediaedge:cia press director, says: "The difficulty Time Out faces is that the more content it provides online, the less motivated readers will be to buy the printed edition."
Observers suggest the dichotomy has long troubled Time Out founder Tony Elliot, who launched the product in 1968 as a single, A5 fold-out costing one shilling and with a print-run of just 5,000.
From such humble origins Time Out has grown into one of the best known brands in global publishing, with franchises from Shanghai to Tel Aviv and a strong foothold in the US.
The latest information on films, fashion, theatre, literature, art and events is now published in over 20 cities worldwide and the brand has launched in Sydney, Delhi, Lisbon and Singapore this year alone. Barcelona , Liverpool and Manchester are expected to follow soon.
While the London edition of Time Out is wholly owned by the Time Out Group, headed by Elliot and reportedly worth over £30m, its brand offshoots are wholly or partly owned by other businesses. For example, the Singapore edition is licensed to in-flight magazine publisher Ink Publications. The New York edition, which was launched in 1995 and currently boasts the brand's biggest circulation of nearly 140,000, is 45% owned by the Time Out Group.
The brand has also branched out into producing specialist travel guides for travellers and tourists, which sell more than 800,000 copies each year, as well as London-specific titles such as Time Out Film Guide, Student Guide and Eating & Drinking.
One media observer says: "Time Out has a superb heritage and people trust the brand, and that is why the brand has been able to launch around the world."
Yet while the group's plans to roll out the brand globally continue apace, the circulation of its flagship London title has suffered in recent years, as consumers become exposed to new entertainment, listings channels and free media.
The latest Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABCs) figure for Time Out London show a circulation of 87,308 between January 1 and June 30 this year. Its circulation has dropped significantly from a mid-1990s peak, when it reached 110,496 copies in the January to June 1995 ABCs.
However, Thomson claims the recent drop in circulation can be partly attributed to the majority of bulk sales taken out of the headline figure. And although consumer magazines are suffering in the current climate, Time Out has a history of seeing off competition and reinventing itself to remain relevant. Competing listings offerings such as City Limits, set up by former Time Out employees, and Richard Branson's Event, have folded while Associated Newspapers withdrew Hot Tickets as a standalone title after it failed to dent its rival's popularity.
And while the magazine no longer carries a radical political voice, observers believe its rebranding to emphasise individual cities and its move to a more portable size was a wise move, protecting sales from celebrity-driven magazines such as Heat and Now.
The move was supported by a radio campaign by RadioVille and reader promotions such as discounts on London venues and attractions.
However, it failed to promote its decision last year to put all its listings from the London magazine online. Although traffic to TimeOut.com has risen since then, many believe the brand has failed to make the most of its online capabilities.
Paul O'Neil, a partner at Michaelides & Bednash, believes Time Out's London edition has improved "dramatically" in recent years, but cautions that leveraging its online operations will be crucial to future growth.
He says: "It is getting back to campaigning around issues and the covers have also improved in recent years." However, he believes the titles have done little in the way of advertising and more must be done to put the magazine content online.
Observers point to sporadic advertising over Time Out's history. Its appointment of Vizeum came ahead of a new brand campaign this year aimed at encouraging consumer interaction with the brand as a whole. It has previously promoted specific magazine content on a weekly basis.
It is not yet clear where Time Out's future lies - whether as a publicly quoted company or as an affiliate of a global media player - the syndication of the magazine looks set to continue apace, backed by an improved Web offering early next year.
Time Out - Facts and figures
- Time Out was first published in 1968 by Tony Elliot in London with a print run of 5,000 lThe Time Out Group has expanded over the past four decades to publish listings guides for other cities, travel guides, and guides to specific aspects of cities.
- Time Out magazine is now published in more than 20 cities worldwide. It has launched this year in Sydney, Delhi, Lisbon and Singapore.
- Circulation of Time Out's flagship London magazine is down about 20,000 copies from its peak of 110,000 in 1995.
- The magazines were rebranded in 2002, to emphasise individual cities, for example, Time Out London and Time Out New York.