Neil Robinson is digital director of Time, Inc, having been at the company in various roles for over twenty years. In this Media Voice, he discusses how the role of publisher is changing and how Time Inc’s acquisition strategy allows it to grow without losing focus on its core audience. 

In the ten years you’ve been a publisher, what’s been the major sea change?

With digital businesses, because of the nature of the fact that they’re growing and changing all the time, I think they tend to fall into the reality of needing quite a lot of specialisms. In the last five years we’ve been talking more and more about social, ten years ago we were talking about search. The point about it is it just keeps ever-changing, so I think the publisher’s role is a bit more tricky. 

Also I think there’s a purity to the commercial model more in a lot of cases. You’re either in eCommerce, you’re either in advertising, therefore, that can sometimes define exactly the way you’re going to run the business. 

At Time Inc a lot of the brands are very consumer, luxury focused. How does publishing to that audience affect how you think about distribution?

Inevitably the advertising market overall is now very audience driven and obviously what people are now trying to do is maximise the quality of the audience that they can capture, but they tend to be bigger and wider than they would’ve done previously. Arguably [we used to have] a much smaller market and our scale has grown significantly to meet that demand because you realise that whereas previously we thought everything was about what was owned and what was within our business, what we control and what we put on our page.

With distribution on Facebook and elsewhere, our audience is obviously present in many, many different places and being influenced by what we write or how they want to comment and be part of the community of people, or stories and storytelling that we’re doing. 

We wouldn’t build scale anywhere that we couldn’t monetize. There are areas that we haven’t got a complete solution on, we think we know how to get there but we haven’t got it completely right. 

To be honest with you, even when you break it all down, there is still too high a dependency on two areas: Google and Facebook. They are way too big arguably. We are actually dependent on third parties and more traditionally recently the news teams have suffered because obviously Facebook has changed its algorithm and everyone is up in arms. 

Facebook can act as a ‘ruthless brand destruction machine’ for the publishers who post to it. Is that a concern for Time Inc, particularly its luxury brands?

The good thing is audiences definitely care about a good story, so I’m comfortable with the fact that you can tell a good story anywhere; if there’s a captive audience that wants to listen and wants to read it, that doesn’t stop just because it’s Facebook.

There is no question that some of the more traditional media, when stacked up like for like, still perform better with certain brand metrics rather than what you might see from a digital business. 

People joke “don’t build brands online” but I think you build brands when you write good media plans. Those media plans have always traditionally been across multiple channels and digital is an activation channel, arguably, but therefore good brand marketing campaigns tend to have a level of activation in them. We did a research study recently with Instagram and Time Inc and that does fundamentally support the idea that actually combining or broadening your marketing mix has a bigger and better benefit than working in individually. 

Is there an end in sight to publisher reliance on third party platforms?

The audience will decide where it wants to spend its time. At the moment it’s Facebook and Snapchat and so forth, but there will always be a nervousness about what’s the next Snapchat. I guess the thing that ties it all together is data.

The reality is is that it’s taken a while, but everyone is getting a lot smarter now about the way that we not only capture data but use data, not just for our own benefits but also for the clients that we work with. When you think about that world, when we talk about where the publisher sits with that, it’s a very different role really now. 

Is Time Inc’s acquisition strategy to find products that relate specifically to a brand, or to buy up products that offer value to the publishing wing as a whole?

We do both actually. The fact is that you’re trying to acquire things that provide a capability which ultimately becomes a platform for use across multiple businesses and brands. 

Snapfashion [for instance] is broadly a kind of belief in a way that fashion will be consumed in the future and the way that people might curate their own fashion and, interestingly enough, that’s almost more of a tech company rather than a fashion company. The acquisitions can often be about speed and capability, so we’ll do a detailed analysis of the way that we want to play in a particular marketplace and at the end of the day if we see opportunity and it’s quicker to get there by acquisition, we’ll do that. 

So in a lot of cases it’s easier to do that than trying to expand the initial proposition of a brand?

I think organic growth where we already have strong capabilities, something we just need to invest more money in and double down on. Where I think you’re trying to do something brand new that you’ve not done before but you know it has a strong association with your core audience, which you already talk to a lot of, then inevitably sometimes it’s better to acquire because somebody’s already moved things forward, got an existing customer base and have got capability. 

As more brands move into the publishing space, what is the role of Time Inc UK in that new ecosystem?

I think what’s interesting is you only have to talk to [brands] for them to recognize that they find it really difficult to do this step. This creative voice and storytelling that I think they recognize is almost step too far. It’s very hard to see a brand that’s doing it well, so I think at the end of the day, with the core strength of the business being the content and storytelling we can do it’s a pretty unique position.

We can do it at such scale. The numbers of people in the UK and the US as an example that we talk to on a regular basis and have that kind of recency of authentic connection is quite important. The other problem with the brands is that they find it very difficult to have a regular dialogue. I think you see a lot of brands that can switch on a very significant audience when they create an event or an emotion at some point, the problem they have is that they can’t talk to them Monday to Friday, every week.

That’s where Time Inc will always benefit from, because of the nature of people’s interest in what we write about and what we are interested in.