60 Seconds – James Hill

22nd November 2019
What does it take to be a winner in the tough subscriptions arena? James Hill of Hearst UK explained to the team at ACE what the key elements of success look like

Hearst UK Subscription Team recently won “Subscriptions Team of the Year of the Year” at NMA2019. What do your readers value most about your brands?

Here at Hearst UK, 16 of our 26 brands offer print subscriptions. Whilst these brands each reach wide and varying audiences, the thing they have in common is that they all help our readers to get more out of life. Whether that’s fashion, homes, food, fitness or soaps, our brands have been trusted for decades and are a huge part of our readers’ lives – they tell us this all the time.

What inspired you to enter Subscriptions Team of the Year?
We’d had another incredibly strong year, seeing our subscription revenues in growth for the second year running, and acquisition volumes at a five year high. We take a great deal of pride in this performance, and the work and effort the team put into it every day is well worthy of industry recognition. At Hearst we have always been very supportive of ACE and the great work they do for our industry. The NMAs are something we take very seriously, so we carefully consider our merits for each category.

What does team mean to you?
I’m fortunate to be part of an incredibly high performing team at Hearst, working with lots of very talented people, which makes coming into work every day a real pleasure. We have moved away from the traditional silos over the last few years and there are high levels of collaboration across the various functions of the department, which means everyone is pulling together in the same direction. This is what “team” means to me – and if you can blend this with clear targets, talented people and an enjoyable working environment then you have all the right ingredients for a successful one.

The judges were really impressed with Hearst’s highly integrated team who delivered very impressive results. How important is agility, initiative and creativity over budget for publishers like Hearst facing the challenges of a changing environment for their products?
Incredibly important. For us, it’s all about finding the right balance between, on the one hand, constant innovation and encouraging new ideas, whilst on the other, ensuring we are commercially aware and staying true to our overall business targets. Our team is set up with a clear distinction of people responsible for marketing, and people responsible for business management. How these two areas work together and collaborate is key to finding that balance. We are fortunate to work across such a large number of brands and routes to market, which also really helps us to be agile with our budgets, based on the current priorities.

What three things does a team need to be successful in publishing?

The number one most important thing is having a clear plan. Unlike newsstand, where results are often seen instantly, subscriptions are all about the impact that our actions now will have over the longer term. We have five-year plans for all of our brands, so we can be really clear on the areas that investment and focus is required. Then it’s making sure that the team are really engaged on the plan, how we are performing against it, and the role they play in delivering it. And thirdly I’d say a relentless energy to keep innovating, improving and reacting quickly to new opportunities and challenges. So, a clear plan, strong communication and a never-settle attitude.

What are the best things a company can do to encourage high performance teams?
I think it’s as simple as creating an open and honest environment, with a clear and well communicated strategy. And, of course, regular feedback on progress. At Hearst we have a strong purpose, vision, and values that are set at the very top, which are very effectively communicated down to the teams. But as well as knowing our targets and priorities, we have a lot of fun too. Over the last couple of years the business has allocated teams with a social budget that we are empowered to use as we see fit. We will generally use this to mix quarterly team briefings with a social event, which really pulls everyone together and creates a very positive environment in the team.

Communication is important within every team, thinking about your winning team what communication advantages might you have had over the competition?
We have definitely benefited as a team from the wider business culture that I touched on in my previous answer. To expand on that, we have quarterly team briefings where we are given frank and honest feedback on how we are performing against our plan, and the big future priorities. We then follow up with monthly team meetings where the focus is short term targets and how we are tracking against these.

On the night of NMA2019, what was the reaction on your table when it was announced Hearst UK had won?
I think to start off with it was relief, as we had been shortlisted in three categories and had both our COO and Managing Director at the table with us. Having already missed out on the first two to strong competition, I was starting to feel a little hot under the collar before this one was announced! Joking aside though, we were all ecstatic and it was a brilliant night.

How has winning “Subscriptions Team of the Year” helped your team to become even stronger?
It’s certainly given the team a lot of confidence that we are doing the right things and are on the right track. This was our third “team of the year” win in two years, across NMA / PPA Awards, and we take an incredible amount of pride in this achievement in the midst of such strong competition.

Any advice for entrants to this category in 2021?
One very simple thing I’d say would be to get your head up and start every award entry with a blank piece of paper. Often I see people dusting off old entries from prior awards as a starting point, and I don’t think this is conducive to really thinking about developments and innovations that are being made in the here and now

Ace would like to sincerely thank James for his brilliant interview contribution full of valuable insights we can all benefit from whatever area of the industry we work in.

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