The Publishing Director of the Enterprise Technology division at Incisive Media talks making the move from print to digital a decade before most b2b brands and why the future of publishing lies in events.
What made you want to work in the magazine industry?
Back in the day, my stepdad got the Monday issue of The Guardian, which had a media supplement. He showed me an advert for a graduate
scheme with a Dutch publishing company called VNU Business Publications. It's now called Nielsen.
I read newspapers quite vociferously at the time and I was not quite sure what technology or IT publishing was, but I thought it seemed interesting. The scheme was based in London and I was keen to move to London.
My stepdad probably takes the major credit. Without him pointing that advert out, I probably wouldn't have sent off my CV, so advertising does work. That's the overall moral to this story.
Can you chart your journey from when you started out to your current position?
I joined the graduate scheme in 2002. I started working in sales. My background was advertising sales. I was quite lucky, because technology publishing or IT publishing was the first to go from print to digital and it went really, really early – probably a decade earlier than a lot of other b2b brands or magazines, so I quickly started working on digital products.
We were thrust into it – changing advertising budgets and the changing needs of clients, so that probably helped me progress quite quickly.
I moved into key account management until Incisive bought VNU in 2007. Incisive Media is the company I'm at now, so technically I've been at the same company, albeit under different names, since the age of 21 [Alan is 37 now].
I became Head of Sales for one of our IT brands. Then in 2009 I became Head of Sales for our legal division. The digital, print and events teams were created at that time, so I was responsible for all of that. This was quite new for b2b publications and was good for getting events experience.
I got the first publishing gig in 2010, running the whole of a brand. I published in 2010 across our financial enterprise and clean technology markets. At least two of those aspects were international publishing remits as well, so I've had a lot of travel to the US over the last few years.
I took over our Enterprise Technology group, which is the job I'm doing now, in 2015. The sector we're in – technology – has moved so quickly that you get a lot of experience in a short period of time.
Do you think events are the way forward in publishing?
Yeah, totally. Incisive’s focus in terms of growth has moved in the last five years to be in events. We have an integrated marketing services model. We work to deliver a full suite of services for our audience, but also for our clients. All of our sales teams and key account managers offer digital as well as event-based solutions.
The future of b2b is offering clients services and solutions to be as close as possible to their audiences. People will always want to do business face-to-face and will always want to learn best practice at conferences or network at conferences.
We have a big awards programme, so we do a lot of that as well. In my group alone, we have about 15 or 16 awards that we do across the UK and the US [mainly in New York, but previously in San Jose and San Diego, California], so it's certainly one big part of the future for any successful b2b brand, because advertising doesn't do what it did a decade ago. Technology doesn't even do what it did two decades ago.
The difference will be some of the trends you're seeing now in our sector happened 10 years previously in the tech sector, so we're quite nimble on our feet to evolve quickly. We conduct research, create content and provide almost agency-type solutions to clients – like production, shaping content and creating videos for them, but also offering bespoke events or expanding our conference programme.
Do you have a go-to work outfit?
When I started, it was all suits and ties. Even big clients, like the Microsofts and IBMs of the world, don't expect people to wear that. It's become a lot more relaxed. You typically dress to reflect the markets you serve or the clients that you speak to, so I'm probably in a shirt and smart chinos – you probably get told that a lot. Guys typically will wear what they feel most comfortable in. We don't challenge ourselves in the dress sense at work, so something nice and simple, which you can sit in.
What do you turn to when you’re on deadline – tea/coffee/snacks?
It's probably coffee – I’m caffeine-driven. Also, the fear of missing a deadline. I always hark back to my university days where I had to hand in about three dissertations in one day for my History degree [at the University of Sussex]. It was something ridiculous like 26,000 words, but I always harness the fear of that feeling when I've got a deadline. I go back to that place and I don't think it'll ever be as bad as that. It drives my adrenaline and I can work 25% quicker.
What’s the most unusual situation you’ve found yourself in because of your job?
We used to have this big exhibition 12 or 13 years ago at the National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham. Everyone’s job was to spot tyre kickers, people who were rocking up to the exhibition clearly not as who they said they were, but to get freebies or nick things.
They would normally wear completely inappropriate clothing, so our job was to spot them and then gently encourage them to leave the building. We were trying to determine between who was not meant to be there and who was just really badly dressed, so we could massively offend people. It was quite a fine line to tread – 80% of the time you got it right and 20% of the time you got it wrong.
What would people be surprised to know about your job?
If I say I work in publishing, people first think that I do books. If I'm in a "funny" mood, I say, "Yeah, I publish books. I do the Harry Potter books" – just to slightly wind people up. People always think you are a publisher literally or some people think you're a literal publisher of books.
People are quite surprised at the complexity of what we now do in the event era in the digital age. People have a view that it's basically just magazines, websites and we sell some ads and go to the pub, which maybe would be a nice thing, but those days ended a long time ago.
Walk me through your typical day.
I have a hands-on role running the Enterprise Technology division, so a lot of time is spent in meetings with the management team. We've got quite a strong new product development – we call it NPD – culture running through Incisive, so a lot of those meetings deal with new product ideas, getting the product to market and making sure things are released or launched on time, whether they be new events or new research services.
Most of my time is managing the existing products we have and all the things that we offer on a week-to-week, quarter-to-quarter basis, but also driving for new product development and new services to our brands.
If you didn’t have to sleep, how would you use the remaining hours in the day?
I have an experience of this, because after having kids, you don't sleep that much and you wish you could and you lose the ability to sleep, which is a bit gutting. If I didn't have to sleep and I had more time, I'd probably read a bit more. I used to read vociferously. Nowadays, having content on my smartphone, I do read a lot in 5-10 minute bursts, but it’s nothing like an end-to-end read, where you properly subsume yourself into the narrative. I'd like to read Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff.
What is the last photo you took on your phone (at time of interview)? Why?
A photo of my daughter – she’s 10 months old. I probably bore the world with photos of her. Most of the photos are of her just sleeping peacefully, but I show them to people and I can't help it.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
When I go to watch a football game, it's eating what I know to be awful, awful food and having some, frankly, watered-down lager, which tastes a little bit of urine.
Whose phone number do you wish you had?
Barack Obama’s. He keeps a cool, calm demeanour, and because you call people in times of crisis, you want to call somebody who has words of sage wisdom and who's pretty composed. He strikes me as all of those things. He's a fantastic orator with a great, soothing voice. I think even just listening to him would calm me down.
What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
On the way to the Rio Carnival in 2009, I sat next to this Brazilian guy who said he would show me the places not to go in the city. He got a map out of his pocket and then proceeded to cross off 90% of the city in red pen!
I stuck to this advice for 24 hours and couldn’t really work out why the Carnival wasn’t living up to expectations, so I decided to ignore what he had said and just go with the flow. I went on to find the best parties and meet the coolest people. It taught me a key lesson – be bold and trust your own instincts rather than other people’s caution!
What/where is your happy place?
Watching the cricket at Lord's.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I swam a mile when I was only the age of six. When I was in swimming class, you got given badges – for 400m, 800m. Obviously nobody under the age of eight or nine had swum 1,000m and I went over 1,000m. I went over 1,500 m and I just kept going. For a small period of time, I was a swimming prodigy. I attempt to swim now and I'm surprisingly tired. When I was six, I was at my dolphin stage. I peaked at the age of six in terms of sporting prowess, which is worrying.
What would be in your Room 101?
It's a fear of heights with open spaces, where I can literally look over the edge. I can’t bear it. Closed heights are fine.
Introvert or extrovert?
Optimist or pessimist?
Film or television? What are you binge-watching at the moment?
I would have said film back in the day, but now in the age of Netflix, I would say television. I'm watching Suits\, also _The Defiant Ones_. It's about Dr Dre and Jimmy Iovine working together and the whole hip-hop era.
Sweet or savoury?
Morning person or night owl?
Tea or coffee?
Emojis – cool or cringey? Which emoji do you use the most?
It depends who's doing them. If my dad's doing an emoji, it’s 50/50. I like to think normally cool. It’s probably because I'm not as funny as I think I am, but I tend to put the crying with laughter emoji. Hopefully the people will feel like following it and actually laugh.