“People often think they can’t start small, you have to be of some size. I’ve always advised people to aim for a niche and establish yourself in that niche and then build from there”.
It is hard to believe now but finding out what was going on in the nation’s capital was a difficult business in 1968. There were no dedicated listings magazines and getting to grips with the cultural scene in the city meant going through what was then called the “underground press” with such titles as International Times, Oz and Gandalf’s Garden. At this time, Tony Elliott was about to go into his final year at Keele University. Seeing a gap in the market, he decided to use a £75 birthday gift from his aunt to start his own listings magazine.
Time Out would serve both the alternative environment in London as well as established culture, such as the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Alongside this, the publication would offer coverage and analysis of the political issues that were current in London in the 1960s and 1970s such as racial equality, police harassment and the role of the state. For the first few issues the paper ran 5000 copies and was distributed personally by Tony and his co-editor Bob Harris to retail outlets around the city.
Today the magazine not only has widespread distribution in London but it is also found in many of the world’s major cities including New York, Moscow, Delhi and Hong Kong. Such is the appeal of the Time Out brand that the Time Out Group more often than not has overseas parties coming to them asking to operate the license for a particular region. Alongside this, a thriving web platform is becoming increasingly popular as consumers shift from print to digital.
About this work.
This interview has been created for “How Did They Do It?”, an interview series looking at how the contributors have achieved success in their fields. The aim is to publish the series in a coffee-table style book, raising funds for the Prince’s Trust. Tony kindly volunteered his time to support the project. The author is Ashley Coates, a recent graduate. Read more here.
Using this work.
This interview is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. You are free to copy, distribute, transmit and adapt the work with attribution to the source.
You started Time Out with a £75 birthday gift from your aunt in the 1960s, could you summarise what took place between getting that £75 investment and actually printing magazines?
I think the short answer is we had credit with printers and other partners so we could run the cash-flow by not paying people to begin with, especially in the early days. I can’t remember the numbers but we weren’t paying for issue one until we were printing issues eight, nine and ten. Printers and staffing are the two major costs of the business and I think we stretched the tolerance of our printers at various times.
So that was one point, the other thing was that, broadly speaking again, most of the initial advertisers were people who were part of the same area of interest, like record shops and record companies, cinemas and theatres. As we were new and because of the openness of the times we could go back after the first or second issue and say, “do you mind paying us, we need the money!” and most of them did give us the money and in some cases I think we started offering small discounts for early payment. We had cash-flow basically.
I guess there was a degree of sympathy from advertisers.
Not sympathy, there was mutuality of interest because the kind of people we were featuring in the magazine also turned out to be people the advertisers knew, so it was all intertwined as it is in all good media projects.
What were the major challenges facing Time Out as a fledgling business?
I think in our case the first major obstacle that didn’t go our way was distribution. I am a veteran browser of mastheads and I remember looking at Private Eye before I started the magazine and saw it was distributed by Moore-Harness so I made a mental note to talk to them. What happened was I, and the person I was working with, Bob Harris, I think we printed 5000 copies of the first run and we just went out and we took the magazines and put them out ourselves into retail outlets.
Then Moore-Harness noticed this magazine. They realised it was beginning to find a market, all be it small, so by the time that we did the third issue they took the magazine on. Our print-run then went from whatever it was we were doing, let’s say 5000, and immediately went to 20,000 and we probably sold about half.
What do you think drew people to Time Out during its early years?
We were doing information. I always say it’s an information business and it was about information from day one. I was fully connected to the way things were going at the time, a lot of the cultural changes, the new-wave, whether that was music, quite a lot of theatre was emerging, poetry, books and the only place where you could really find out about these things was what was then called the underground press. There was a newspaper called International Times but there was also a very good political newspaper called Black Dwarf, and one or two others like Oz and Gandalf’s Garden and things like that.
None of them were doing the information in a particularly focused or dedicated way. I was also interested in what I could do for what you might call the best of the established culture, the Royal Shakespeare Company, I think the National Theatre must have existed, there was also a lot of fringe theatre, so we had the best of the established and the best of the new. I think people took one look at the clarity of what we were doing and thought, “oh why hasn’t anyone thought of doing this before?”. That’s what it was really. It was really plugging a need.
So it was run as a cooperative when it was first started…
No, not at all. The background to this is there was a long period from about 1972 through to 1981 where basically everybody except the very senior management were all paid the same amount of money. That started because there wasn’t a lot of staff and there wasn’t a lot of difference between what the so-called management were being paid and the rest of the staff.
The staff then got very heavily unionised and the NUJ particularly liked using the concept of everybody getting paid the same to kind of keep everyone slightly in line. When we had the big strike in 1981 and closedown it was entirely about the principle of introducing pay-scales and the management’s right to manage the company basically but it was not – I emphasise – not ever, ever, ever a cooperative.
Did commercial considerations force the magazine to drift away from what would now be considered quite a radical stance on a number of issues?
No, the magazine was always commercial, we always sought to sell as many copies as we could, we actively and aggressively went out and sold advertising. I suppose the content of the magazine has shifted over the decades because the decades have shifted frankly. If you look at the 70s, the 70s was a very political period, we had the disaster of Ted Heath and the miners’ strike through to Labour government and then Thatcher coming and in the 80s it was the style decade, it was the beginning of nightclubbing etc. In the 70s you had an extremely important period of time called punk and punk people were commercial in a sense that they maximised their opportunities as was appropriate.
So the content reflected what was going on in British society?
Always, exactly, yes, there was a tension between the view of the world of some of the staff who were quite political, very political in some cases, and some others, including me. So when punk and clubbing began to emerge, some of those people didn’t see that activity as being particularly something worth covering enthusiastically because they had a more censorious view of what was worth doing. That was another contributory reason as to why we had to close down and had the strike in 1981, it was that the whole rationale and direction of the way we had to do things had to change, because otherwise it would have just disappeared.
You’re in the rare position of not having worked for anyone else. How important was self-employment to you and was that a major motivation for you?
I started the magazine when I was still technically at university and I was going to go away to France to study. I was aware all the time that I was working for myself and it is true that over the years I have fought very strongly to keep that independence but I think the project is more important than the idea of being self-employed because you could never have done the project without being self-employed.
How would you characterise your management style?
You’ll have to ask someone else, I have no idea! I currently have a lot less to do with this than I have done, which I am very pleased about. In the period where I was much more hands-on then I could be very direct with people and be very tough and say “this is what we have to do, get on and do it”. You know what has to be done and how but also I believe I have always been very open to listening to people because I didn’t have much experience or knowledge to bring to the business from day one. So you solicit ideas from other people and you have to decide how much of it you are going to use.
Over the last decade or so Time Out has been growing extensively abroad, how have you gone about expanding Time Out internationally?
We’ve had licenses for 11 years now and it started with some people in Turkey, then people from the United Arab Emirates came to us so they did Dubai, then we had people from Israel and then from Cyprus. We organised it very quickly, having employed a consultant who knew about this area, so he went out around the world looking for other interested parties. So you reach this really virtuous point in time when you’ve got the critical mass where people think, “oh actually, I’m interested in doing that for my city”, so they come to us.
It’s really impressive that the brand has been able to maintain interest for so long and you get people coming to you from other countries.
It works very strongly because they want to do it, if you take for example Lisbon, where we have a successful licensing arrangement, the whole idea of a bunch of people from London trying to bring out a magazine in Portuguese is a non-starter.
What would be your advice to someone starting their own business?
If people have got a strong idea that is well executed, and clearly it has to be something that fulfills some kind of a need, the last thing the world needs is 150 new music magazines for example, so you’ve got to pick your spot, really work hard and execute it as well as possible.
I think people often think they can’t start small, you have to be of some size. I’ve always advised people to aim for a niche and establish yourself in that niche and then build from there. I think the era is over really where people have an idea that goes national and becomes enormous. It’s more a question of small and good.