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Fork in the road

We’ve some exciting news at LFR this week: we’ve just added Derek Pearson, former editor of Sign World, to our team. To explain the reasoning behind this – and indeed detail other changes at Format – Marc Burnett has written the below blog:

Refreshing news from LFR and Format PR, or… Marc Burnett learns how to run a business that serves many masters while minimising the potential for conflict.

As some of you will already be aware, there are two distinct businesses being run here at Format HQ – an online news publishing business, and a PR and marketing agency.

Clearly there is significant potential for conflict when you have two such businesses, one that sets out to serve everyone in the industry equally and impartially, and another that specifically serves a select few with a service entirely biased towards gaining those select few a competitive edge.

So, how did we get into this position? And what’s to be done to allow these two businesses to continue to flourish and grow without conflict or compromise?

Here’s the history, as briefly as I can:

In 2012 − following the management buy-out I undertook with Abi Ricketts – Large Format Review became a fully independent, online news publication serving the sign and wide format display print market.
Since then Large Format Review (or LFR as it is more commonly known) has grown into one of the industry’s leading online publications, boasting an advertising portfolio that is currently sold out, an LFR Product Bulletin email advisory service that operates at near capacity, and a website that boasts more daily visits from sign and display print professionals than you could reasonably shake a whole truckload of sticks at.

Good thing too, because that level of commercial success was planned from the minute the management buyout was conceived, and no-one is ever happy if such plans don’t pan out.

Format PR on the other hand was born entirely by accident.

I have been in the sign and display print industry for some 25 years now, and in more recent times worked in senior marketing positions within businesses that had commercial relationships spanning the entirety of our market – hardware, software and consumable supplies – both here in the UK and internationally. Over the course of that time I’ve worked with a large number of big brand manufacturers on collaborative marketing campaigns and associated PR. Bottom line − I know a lot of senior people in a lot of senior businesses in our industry.

After Abi and I had completed the MBO of LFR we got phone-calls from a number of those senior people. I’ll take it as a compliment that some of those phone-calls were from previous associates who wanted to know if we were also available to do some freelance marketing and PR work. Now, I’m not very good at saying no at the best of times, but with a new business to fund and develop, the luxury of saying no to a guaranteed revenue stream seemed daft. So, almost from the get-go, we had found ourselves doing marketing and PR work which we originally believed was to be little more than short-term “favours for friends”. However, things quickly developed beyond that.

I’m blaming Abi Ricketts for what happened next. You see, Abi is a top quality, corporate-level PR specialist. Her previous gigs include European PR Director for telecommunications giant Alcatel, as well as bucket-loads of high-tech PR agency experience over the past 20 years.  She was able to take my 25 years of industry specific experience and polish my work to the point where it suddenly became more than reasonably professional.

We also managed to secure the services of Morwenna Kearns in 2013, previously co-founder of Output, editor of Print Monthly and deputy editor of SignLink, as well as a charity marketing assistant and blogger. Alongside her impressive CV credentials, Morwenna is super-organised, an excellent copywriter and a proof-reader extraordinaire.

The end result? The short-term, “favours for friends” quickly evolved into solid commitments to provide a PR service on an ongoing basis. We were being asked to go on retainer as a contracted marketing resource. Over time more companies came on board, and they wanted the same level of service.

In a nutshell that’s how Format PR came about, by accident rather than design, and it’s grown exponentially. We now look after an exclusive client list that includes Nazdar Ink Technologies, Drytac Europe, Zünd UK, HEXIS UK, ArtSystems and a number of other, equally well-known UK distributors and resellers who collectively represent just about every reputable brand in our industry.

As a result we found ourselves in a tricky position where LFR and Format PR co-existed, but − as the PR side of our business continued to grow – there was too much potential for conflict and something had to change. It is impossible to be totally impartial with one hat on and completely client-oriented when wearing another – and, believe me, we’ve tried. No business can achieve its full potential when shackled by compromise. While we think we’ve done a pretty good job of managing the situation, the fact remains that, in order for our publishing business to thrive and our PR business to reach its fullest potential, they will have to operate in greater isolation from each other.

And then Derek Pearson phoned me. And the clouds parted. And I had my moment of clarity.

Derek Pearson photo LFR

Derek Pearson started working in the sign industry in 1996 and has been the editor of Sign World magazine for about 11 years. His credentials, and his experience, are second to none. Derek told me he was available.

By the end of that phone-call Derek was − to all intents and purposes − the new editor of LFR.

Just as importantly, this freed up Abi Ricketts to become the boss of Format PR, meaning she doesn’t need to log in, look at, or even consider LFR ever again. In fact I don’t even care if she and Derek never talk to each other again, though as friends I bet they will. Abi can now focus her time and talents exclusively on developing the PR and marketing side of our business.

Our plans for Format PR remain modest – we have no desire to take over the world, or become a big agency – we simply offer a well-tailored PR and marketing service to a discerning clientele. I guess you could call it a kind of boutique PR and marketing service.

The result? We now have two business running independently of each other – both firmly in the hands of absolute professionals – and both can now thrive.

So, what have I learnt?

I’ve learnt that I have a huge amount of respect for distributors – particularly distributors who serve many masters − where each master expects to be the most important and demands results. I’ve never done that job, but I think the last three years have given me a very real insight into just how hard it must be. Steve Hawker at ArtSystems − I’m thinking of you here. You’ve been elevated to status of “Industry Legend” because you’ve been doing exactly this for years, and doing it very, very well.

I think I’ve also learnt what it must be like to manage a dealer channel – where everyone you look after is competing, and all of them want to be top of the pile. Again, I have a new found respect for anyone that works in channel management. Never done it myself, and I don’t think I ever want to.

And in conclusion I’ve learnt that in business, particularly when managing the potential for such conflict, the only, and I mean ONLY, way to make things work is to be absolutely and unerringly honest with everyone and anyone that is in any way invested in you and your business. No hidden agendas, no playing people off against each other, just straight down the line honesty – even if it isn’t always the answer that some people want to hear.