We spoke with Darren Styles OBE, the MD of PPA member Stream Publishing about how the company looks different to a year ago, the highly successful 2020 Attitude Awards and the exciting possibilities of new acquisitions.
What made you want to work in publishing?
It took me years to realise this, but I think it’s in the blood. As a kid I remember going to see my Grandad at work – he was a delivery driver out of Bouverie Street back in the day – and so I saw newspapers coming off the presses and being loaded into the backs of vans, the scale fascinated me.
My Dad was Composing Room Manager at IPC, overseeing the layout of Caterer & Hotelkeeper, Motor, Autocar and the Disneyland comic, so there were always magazines about the house.
My parents later bought the village newsagent, and so I was then exposed to everything from Cage & Aviary Birds to Estates Gazette, and from The Face to Car. I became fascinated by size, shape, paper and layout – and by the different types of people that bought these disparate titles with, apparently, the same levels of enthusiasm.
Chart your career from the start to where you are now.
I knew I wanted to be a journalist and write for a living. On leaving school I applied for, but didn’t get, an apprenticeship with the Croydon Advertiser and so hounded the Editor of the Surrey Mirror instead, bombarding him with stories as a self-appointed ‘Local Reporter’. I landed a couple of front-page leads and built a cuttings portfolio that eventually got me a job with a local publisher of car magazines.
I went on to set up my own, World Sports Cars, that I built and sold before a two-year stint on the other side of the fence as Press Communications Manager at Renault UK. From there I took their customer magazine out on contract and built a publishing company around it that would become Brooklands Group, turning over £17m and employing more than 100 people at its peak.
But we were highly leveraged, and got taken out by the financial crash of 2008, subsequent to which I set up Stream Publishing, which today publishes titles for Vauxhall and SPAR, and acquired Attitude – the UK and Europe’s best-selling LGBTQ title – in 2015. If I say so myself, we’ve revitalised and rebuilt that brand into a market leader.
How does the Stream Publishing of 2021 look different to the Stream Publishing of 2020?
The pivot to digital we were all working through became a volte face. While we’ve been able to protect the flagship Attitude print product, the way we now use and present our digital channels, to consumers and advertisers alike, has changed significantly.
Whether it’s an issue for digital download, the website at attitude.co.uk or across social on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or YouTube, we have a multi-platform proposition that presents stories according to reader behaviour in any given arena, but as one brand. We weren’t good enough at that before – but our video content output is now at the heart of what we do.
Gratifyingly, we’ve taken those learnings to our client publishing, so you’ll see our print work for Vauxhall has now expanded into video content across multiple platforms as well, which has been as good for them as it has for us.
Some of your clients include travel companies – how have you approached these publishing strategies over the last year?
We’d published Flybe’s in-flight magazine since 2006, and we lost them to administration and then closure before lockdown had even started! And one of our biggest long-term supporters – Virgin Atlantic – were also having some trading difficulties.
So my team and I ended up separated, working from home and peering into what felt like an abyss for a couple of weeks. But post-2008 I learned resilience, if nothing else. So we regrouped, used the Government schemes and the time they bought us to adapt our offering to suit the readers that were now (ironically) coming to us in greater numbers than ever, and the advertisers that remained active.
That meant moving our renowned live events into the digital space and creating new strands that fulfilled the new needs opening up around us.
We launched a nine-day, online ‘Pride at Home’ celebration, which was watched by more than 745,000 people and, as importantly, brought in new commercial partners (Netflix, Klarna, Bentley) to sustain us.
In December you hosted the Attitude Awards – can you explain how you approached this event and how it turned out?
We knew that our biggest event of the year – the Attitude Awards – could be adapted like Pride at Home. Once the headline sponsors (Virgin Atlantic and Jaguar) had agreed to leave their money in, ‘all’ we had to do was morph into a television production company…
Over three weeks and eight shooting days at London’s Camden Roundhouse – the venue where we’d ordinarily gather 650 people in black tie to see 14 awards given out over a gala dinner – we created a two-hour programme hosted by comedian Tom Allen and featuring everyone from Dua Lipa, Taylor Swift and Paloma Faith to Stephen Fry, Simon Callow and Russell Tovey. Divas and doyens all. We had live performances that included The Vamps, Yungblud and Paloma, too, to add another layer of shareable content on broadcast.
The show premiered on YouTube and a series of local TV channels on the evening of 1st December, World AIDS Day, where it was watched by more than 209,000 people. And at the time of writing, Attitude Awards video content shared online and across our social platforms had achieved viewing figures of more than 2 million (2,003,790 to be precise, as of end of January), while some element of the event’s content was seen to reach more than 5.4 million people from Attitude channels alone.
I might not have voted for it at the start of the year, but Attitude digital had become a revolution by Christmas!
What Stream Publishing plans are you most looking forward to in 2021?
I want our live events back because they give people a chance to be seen, and voices a chance to be heard, that are mission critical for the LGBTQ community.
Here in the UK we have equal marriage, are protected from discrimination under the law and (finally) exist within the sex education curriculum in schools. But homosexuality remains illegal in 73 countries and carries the death penalty in 10. And so we have an opportunity, via a print magazine sold in 31 countries and a digital network, that we must take – to promote role models, positivity, diversity and inclusivity. It changes and saves lives, so why wouldn’t you?
That means the tenth annual Attitude Awards back at the Roundhouse on 6th October and – potentially, in an exclusive for you – a four-night Attitude Festival at the same venue from 30th August-2nd September, headlined by Boy George, Mika and the Vamps, among others. Coronavirus restrictions willing…
What’s on your radar?
I’m inquisitive and acquisitive – we came within an ace of rescuing a title that ended up closing last year – and we’re talking with a couple of people about projects that attract us in the same way. Bigger publishers are awash with moribund or unloved brands that have declined to the extent they make less and less sense commercially as weeks and months pass. But for a boutique publisher, like us, they can make all kinds of sense, especially when redressed with love and understanding. And that’s exciting…
What magazine would you stockpile?
There’s a quite beautiful car magazine called The Road Rat, a glorious, decadent piece of luxury publishing that generates in me the excitement I used to feel as kid on the day the comics came out (nod to the Dandy and the Beano). It’s produced by Mike Harvey (formerly of Autocar and Top Gear) and Guy Berryman (of Coldplay) and the love, care and attention to detail drips from every page. From the box it arrives in to the papers it’s printed on, to quality of the writing, photography and layout it’s magazine man’s (and car enthusiast’s) ultimate indulgence. It’s £48 for four issues a year and, truth be told, I still don’t know how they do it. But I’m glad they do, it’s to be savoured.