Straight in at the deep end: The Pool's publishing gamble
As it continues to expand, The Pool's co-founder and editor Sam Baker explains how years of print experience helped her discover a successful digital publishing model. By Ellen Hammett.
In the early months of 2014, ex-Cosmopolitan editor Sam Baker and BBC 6 Music presenter Lauren Laverne saw a gap in a struggling but still crowded magazine market - and so took a gamble with an idea they hoped would revolutionise the way people consume content online.
One year later, and the lovechild of two women with almost 50 years of experience between them in publishing and broadcasting finally came to life - and women's online platform The Pool launched with baited breath, waiting to see whether 12 months of solid preparation and research would pay off.
Sitting opposite me in their new offices in the heart of Fitzrovia (they've recently up-sized to fit the growing team) Baker tells me the last two years have felt like riding a bike down a hill so fast that you can't quite control it.
"It got its own momentum right from the start so it’s been insane," she says. "We didn’t do the classic digital thing of fling it out there, use your users as research in quite a disrespectful way like the tech industry behaves quite a lot.
"We gave birth to an adolescent; we’d spent the best part of a year talking to users, women, broadly 25-50 about what they wanted, what their lives were like, how their lives were changing, how they felt about mobile and also crucially how they felt about the internet and content."
I wouldn’t want to be working on a weekly magazine...That frequency doesn’t make sense anymore."
When Baker left Hearst four and a half years ago after almost 15 years in various editorial roles - most recently as editor-in-chief of Red - she felt like magazines were about to enter an especially challenging period.
Even Baker, whose entire career up until recently has been with magazines, admits she can't remember the last time she walked into a newsagent and bought one.
"But I didn’t believe women - people - didn’t want great content anymore," she says. "I just believed they didn’t want it delivered in the way it was delivered anymore and I felt like not just the company I was working for, but all of the big companies were being quite slow to recognise that."
And so Baker and Laverne set themselves a task to create a platform that would cut through the deluge of online content and save women time from "wading through piles of crap to find something to read". Because during her 27 year career, Baker says one thing has never changed: good content targeted at a specific audience will always have a place.
Now, armed with almost a million monthly unique users, a strong social following and an internationally-renowned Webby Award - Baker says this was the big tick she needed to reassure her that she hadn’t made a "massive fucking mistake" when she left magazines ("because of course many times over the last four years I’ve thought what the hell have I done?") - The Pool has laid the groundwork for an ambitious future.
Laverne and Baker with their Webby
When I ask Baker what that future looks like, she says their immediate focus is to break even, grow their revenues, grow their commercial team and AV output and then look beyond the UK (she's vague when I probe, but hints at Europe and the US).
Baker also says doing something in print is "conceivable" and that they would "never say never" to doing a male version. (I later ask whether they'd ever consider doing a subscription model, to which a spokesperson says there are no immediate plans.)
For now, though, The Pool is rooted firmly online, with half of its traffic coming from social media (mostly Facebook, which Baker says is particularly important to their business - "it is for everybody and anybody who tells you it isn’t is lying") and the majority of revenue from branded content.
Display and programmatic advertising have been off the cards since day one - and always will be, Baker says - with their main focus on creating a valuable and authentic audience for brands, rather than chasing clicks and growing for the sake of scale.
"When we launched I think everyone was in a race to the bottom...If you’re in a pile-it-high-sell-it-cheap business that’s fine, but to me saying that only programmatic and big traffic counts is like saying the only TV ad worth buying is in the Coronation Street ad break - that's nuts," she says.
"Programmatic is throwing all your money at that and hoping one click translates, whereas what we do is produce quality content for your brand that will make you part of the conversation with our readers rather than interrupting it all the time and getting on their nerves. We won’t do anything other than that because users hate it because it interrupts their experience. This is where ad-blockers come in."
Like many publishers, The Pool is also experimenting with advertising opportunities beyond digital, with brand-funded pop-up events beginning to play a key role in growing revenue. This includes a recent collaboration with fashion brand Warehouse, which hosted a series of lunchtime events in Cardiff, Liverpool and London.
However, because The Pool says it doesn't have a direct competitor, Baker argues it can be a challenging sell to advertisers that are keen to put publishers in a box.
What they are competing for, however, which Baker began to realise when she left Hearst, is people's time.
"And time is scarce," she says. "It’s one of the reasons we tell people how long everything will take them to consume - and why we put out 20 pieces of content a day and not 200.
"We might even be competing with the radio, Netflix, and at different times of the day you have a different competitor. The idea that we would sit in a boardroom and say our competitive set is Grazia or Stylist just isn’t the case anymore."
Out with the old
A lot has changed since Baker started her first placement on Chat in 1990 - a time when people still used typewriters and smoked at their desks.
From the rise and death of lads’ mags and the demise of teen magazines altogether, to the birth of Grazia and Glamour’s pioneering handbag-sized format, to the arrival of the internet and mobile, Baker has witnessed first-hand some of the sector’s biggest shake-ups and most seminal moments.
It was also during that time, in 1997, that Baker decided to take Just Seventeen - the teen mag she was editor-in-chief of at the time - from a weekly to a monthly format after circulation began to slide (the magazine eventually closed in 2004).
In 2017, 20 years down the line, I ask Baker if she thinks the weekly magazine market is dead, and she says yes, to her it is.
“I think magazines have had a tough time and I don’t think it’s going to get any easier,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to be working on a weekly magazine, that's for sure...that frequency doesn’t make sense anymore."
It is not hard to see why Baker thinks this. Circulation figures for the women’s weekly market have been declining consistently for a number of years - with less than a handful of titles ever recording an increase each time. Over the last decade, circulation for Take a Break - the most popular weekly mag - has halved.
Meanwhile, circulation for Now, Closer, Heat and New has decreased by between 16% and 17% - each - in the last year alone.
But it’s not just the weekly market Baker thinks has had its day; she also wonders whether there’s a place for monthlies like Vogue and Elle or whether a different model (“What if it was quarterly and it was three times as big and £10 not £5?”) would work better in a changing market.
While the majority of people still read magazines in print, it is clear that mobile is playing a growing role in consumption - mobile increases Cosmopolitan's print and PC readership by 115% - and Baker says mass magazines need to stop treating digital like a poor relation.
"One of the reasons we designed The Pool as mobile-first and then built it up is that everything we do, we do with our user in mind, right now," she says.
"The Pool isn’t secondary to a print product, TV, a movie or radio, it is the focus of our attention and I think magazines in particular - not all of them - but still a majority are not approaching digital in the way a user is using digital."
Baker's comments are sure to rile many in the media industry who still love - and see returns - from print, however.
And of course, there are some who are optimistic about the future of magazines as we know them - including Nicholas Coleridge, who, as he prepares to retire as managing director of Condé Nast UK after 26 years, says he still believes in the power of a passionate publisher to sell 12 undiscounted spreads to Cartier over breakfast at The Wolseley.
"Will magazine brands survive? That is the trick question they always ask. To which the answer is emphatically yes, in some shape or form," Coleridge wrote in Campaign this month.
"The march of digital can be a march of quality and exhilarating speed in a way that print never could...If I had to take a bet on "which will survive longest, Vogue or Twitter?", I would unhesitatingly reply Vogue."
The Pool might be one step ahead in that mobile and digital were baked into the plan from day one, and that it doesn't face the same challenges that the print market does, but that doesn't mean Baker isn't worried about the future.
"Because the future is every payday and everything moves so fast now," she says.
"The difference is I feel like we’re on the front foot and not the back foot...we’re looking at the future rather than looking behind us."