Passion, tough choices & commitment in the world of Children’s Magazines

7th May 2020
In the highly competitive Childrens magazine sector how are publishers managing present major market place disruption and what plans are they seeing necessary for the future? The team at Ace caught up with Dean Barber – Managing Director at Kennedy Publishing, who highlighted how they are taking swift, tough decisions now to maintain effective sale and adapting for a future which will see a need to increase efforts to drive home the educational value of magazines to balance the shift in buying patterns

Children’s magazines overall saw a sizeable lift in sales early into lockdown, now we are in week seven how have sales performed? 

We continue to see moving sales patterns, but the number of retailers open and selling magazines in the UK is now relatively static. Inevitably, social distancing measures have led to reduced footfall at grocers, and this, combined with the reduction in supply to some of the larger stores has led to a reduction in magazine sales across the children’s category.

Conversely, convenience and independent stores have seen an increase in sales as people seek to reduce their contact with others by shopping locally. Online sales are similarly spiking. Many of our export markets remain open and selling well, including Australia and Germany, which are two key sales channels for Kennedy.

We are, of course, in the fortunate position to be able to continue trading, with Youth & Children’s magazine categories remaining one of the strongest on the newsstand. As we potentially enter the eighth week of lockdown, EPOS is beginning to show signs of improvement, in fact in the stores that remained open, sales over the last 7 days across the children’s magazine sector are in growth. We hope this will continue as stores reopen and restrictions are gradually eased.

What have been the biggest challenges for you as a Children’s title publisher over the last couple of months? 

Following the initial lockdown announcement on 23rd March, and the subsequent school closures, we put titles on sale early to meet the increase in demand. As lockdown has progressed, we have responded to store closures and reduced EPOS by slowing the publishing cycle.

These frequent changes, often last minute, have put strain on the team at all levels as we seek to respond rapidly to the shifting retail landscape without compromising on the high standards Kennedy titles are known for. All this, while adapting to working remotely, with the added pressures and new stresses that this inevitably brings.

What has impressed you most with your editorial and non-editorial colleagues’ efforts since lockdown?

The entire team has shown tremendous support for the business in recent weeks, eager to brainstorm ways in which we can respond to changing consumer preferences. Staff have adapted our offering across the portfolio to ensure we are serving the current appetite for educational, puzzle and craft titles, driven by enforced social distancing and school closures.

Typically, the concern amongst businesses tends to surround productivity when working from home yet we have, in fact, found the opposite to be true. Our team have capitalised on the slowing publishing cycle and used it as an opportunity to get ahead, banking future magazine issues and covermounts ahead of Chinese New Year 2021, normally one of Kennedy’s busiest periods. Our New Business team continues to be proactive with several new acquisitions already secured for later in the year.

How has Kennedy Publishing adapted to home working for staff and can you share any tips on how to get the best for company and colleague alike from this way of working?

Our staff remain focused, and positive, buoyed by regular, honest and transparent updates from the management team. Some individuals have faced challenges due to school closures or health issues, and Kennedy remain flexible by putting individual arrangements in place to manage this on a case-by-case basis. For example, alternate shift patterns to accommodate childcare commitments.

I am impressed by how quickly the team have adapted and built a strong online internal support network, ensuring channels of communication remain open as they would in a physical office environment. Morning coffee meetings, check-in sessions, entire team briefings and quizzes and even the company book club are continuing in the virtual world through video conferencing, which I believe helps enormously with staff positivity as we move through these unprecedented times

What are the toughest choices you are having to make at the moment?
We are having to make changes to the portfolio on a daily basis as we react to the evolving retail landscape and reduce/increase supplies and frequencies accordingly. For some titles, this means delaying their sales cycle for the first time in our fifteen-year history! However, making these tough decisions now will increase the efficacy of this ‘survival’ period and lay the groundwork for us to stabilise the business and then grow as we pass through the crisis. .

How much of an advantage is being part of a family-owned publishing group, which may be able to take a longer-term view than a of publicly owned organisation? ?
Being part of a well-run family business allows us to make swift strategic decisions with the directors providing a source of stability and commitment to the group by maintaining their long-term outlook. Flexibility in their strategic planning allows us to respond quickly to a constantly-changing retail landscape. This is especially important as the group navigates its way through the pandemic with multiple and varied businesses within its portfolio. .

These are uncharted waters, bringing increased pressure on all involved. What are the three key things that drive you forward in facing the challenge?

  1. Now more than ever we are committed to bringing children their most-loved characters and brands via our innovative, interactive, and story-led magazines. With classrooms closed indefinitely, many parents are keen to reduce the amount of time their children spend on screens, and are therefore spending money on quality magazines, which encourage reading, writing, which captivates our readers through a variety of imaginative activities. The unprecedented number of post entries we are receiving from readers is testament to this and shows that children are engaging with Kennedy content now more than ever.
  2. As well as our consumers, we are also committed to our key partners and suppliers who enable us to produce the high-quality magazines we are known for. Having operated in the children’s magazine arena for over a decade, we have built and maintained strong relationships with companies across the sector. We will continue to work closely with them throughout this time, offering them the support they need to weather the storm, and ensuring they come out of the pandemic in as good a health as we will. We are looking forward to working together ‘on the other side’ as we look to maximise on opportunities and grow the business once again.
  3. Of course, we couldn’t do any of this without our creative and passionate team of designers, editorial and covermount staff, whose innovative approach to producing outstanding magazines drives the business forward daily during this pandemic. Despite the adverse circumstances, they are constantly striving to create content and products that are imaginative and stimulating, ensuring that our readers are absorbed from cover to cover. Their contribution is vital as we face this challenge head-on.

ACE has recognised that, throughout our industry, colleagues and teams are employing extraordinary efforts to maintain sales and reader satisfaction. Who are your heroes?

The NHS, key workers and charities are undoubtedly the heroes of this crisis, and it is telling that children’s aspirations have changed in recent times, with 43% more youngsters now wanting to become doctors. At a local level, we are showing our support by attempting to donate magazines to Bristol Children’s Hospital. On a larger scale, we are looking to work with the National Literary Trust to supply women’s refuges, food banks and schools and nurseries with magazines for children in need of fun and educational resources.

What have you found are the best actions and initiatives to employ in supporting the well being of your colleagues/employees?

Consistent communication, transparency, and flexibility are the key pillars we try to abide by as we move through this crisis. It is vital that we communicate effectively and regularly with our staff, and that we do so transparently and consistently, so they are kept abreast of the changing retail landscape and what it means for our portfolio.

We must be flexible to staff needs as they juggle home working in unfamiliar and sometimes challenging circumstances. We’ve found that when people can fit their jobs around their lives, they enjoy their work more. The by-product of this is increased productivity and great quality work.

If you had to identify the further market challenges awaiting magazine publishers in the children’s sector as we move through 2020 into 2021 what would they be?

  1. We are likely to see a shift in long-term buying habits post Covid-19, and we will need to respond to changing trends by managing the existing portfolio skilfully, while looking to new and innovative ideas.
  2. The inevitable economic downturn will mean families have less to spend on non-essential items, so it is imperative that we drive home the educational value of magazines to provide affordable and accessible screen-free fun.
  3. Alongside this, we continue to work with the Children’s Publishing Forum to tackle issues of sustainability and shelf space, as well as supporting the Department of Education in their objectives to encourage reading through play, using magazines as a key resource.

It’s impossible to predict what children’s reading habits of the future will be, or how magazines will fair, especially in times of economic uncertainty in the UK. But I’m confident magazines will survive as a physical product, continuing to grow and adapt to changing times. Therefore, as a company, we will continue to offer high-value titles that engage and educate children to the highest possible standard, using their favourite brands and characters.

Ace would like to sincerely thank Dean for his time sharing his analysis, initiative and expertise for this interview.

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