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Market Leader Interview - 5 minutes with...

Russell Blackman

Managing Director, The Big Issue

Russell has been with The Big Issue for  two years. Previously he was Publishing Director of the Fitness and Entertainment divisions at Dennis Publishing where he worked for fifteen years.

His tenure has seen the sale of the 200 millionth copy of The Big Issue, the 25th year of operation and some exciting new partnerships that have delievered growth against a challenging backdrop of economic uncertainty, an evermore cashless society and people simply looking down at their phones. 

creativebrief: As Managing Director, what is your primary focus?

Russell Blackman: As MD, I head up all Publishing and Business development for The Big Issue. My primary focus is to ensure we are developing and building the business in a way that maximises our reach, influence and most importantly, impact.

The print publication continues to flourish and we are forecasting to post a third consecutive ABC increase. This would mark a first in our 26-year history and shows that we are producing a title that readers want to read and return to, and one that creates opportunity for our vendors to sell and make a living. It’s our aim to produce an entertaining, thought-provoking read and a magazine that’s as easy as possible for vendors to sell. So, it’s heartening to know that more and more people are buying it.

Our rise in circulation is also reflective of the difficulties and challenges that hit an increasing number of people in our society. The Big Issue is here to meet that need, both by providing anyone who needs it with the opportunity to earn an income, and also by using our distinctive editorial voice and campaigning agenda to agitate for positive change.

This last year has been focussed around building a structure and framework within the business and positioning ourselves for the next five years.  We have developed new digital channels, an e-commerce platform and strategic partnerships that will allow us to engage a wider audience, reinforce our values and create a wider range of outcomes.

creativebrief: Is there a broader initiative that you are driving for the brand outside of the day to day?

Russell Blackman: The Big Issue is a social business. Our mission as an organisation is to dismantle poverty through the creation of opportunity.  The broader initiatives are focussed at leveraging our brand strength and diversifying our publishing business to create more preventative and restorative outcomes. Every business solution we develop will use the filter of either preventing individuals hitting the street or moving them on from the street through new, work-based opportunities. One area that we are developing is custom content production for third parties. We are also looking to establish our own creative academy for young, hard to reach people seeking opportunities in the creative sector.

We are developing projects and business activities, which look to engage a younger audience. Our content is more relevant now than it has ever been and we have an eye on growing exciting work with young people, co-creating and building communities to empower a new generation of Big Issue consumers, supporters and activists.

creativebrief: Can you tell us about the Change Please initiative?

Russell Blackman: The Change Please initiative was a concept developed between The Big issue and The Old Spike Roastery, a coffee roasting house in South London that empowers people affected by homelessness through a training and development programme and stable employment.

The Big Issue was interested in developing this concept further but by using the Big Issue vendor-based model. Change Please launched in partnership with The Big Issue in late 2015, giving Big Issue vendors, amongst others, the opportunity to train as baristas and run mobile coffee vans in and around Central London. This opportunity has provided another pathway for vendors to move forward, providing new skills, experience and employment. There are now more than 10 coffee carts in and around central London.

Following the success of the coffee carts, we have also developed a line of Change Please/Big Issue branded coffee that is available from all major Sainsbury’s stores across Britain. That’s a new spoke to The Big Issue brand.

It’s an interesting business that has put The Big Issue in a new and relevant context and we are exploring other business opportunities that continue in this vein.

creativebrief: You’ve recently launched an online shop. Can you tell us more about that?

Russell Blackman: The Big Issue Shop is the latest addition to The Big Issue network. We offer a platform for social trading to make ethical and social shopping a truly accessible option for consumers, giving them the opportunity to use their spending power to make a positive difference to the world we live in, by buying things they really want.

We sell our own products as well as products from other Social Enterprises, businesses that put people and planet first.  All products must have ‘a social echo’ to them, meaning they have a positive social impact in some way. This can range from what the product is made from, who makes it or where the profits end up.

The first year's sales performance has been very encouraging and we are scaling up development though 2018 to empower other organisations to sell through our marketplace and through creating further awareness around the many ways The Big Issue is developing its business to dismantle poverty.

creativebrief: How are you tackling the trend towards a cashless society?

Russell Blackman: Although our print sales continue to buck print media trends, and we’re paid for, not free remember, the way in which people consume and buy media continues to develop and change. It is vital that we develop the right contactless solution for our vendors, ensuring that they can get instant access to their funds, even if they don’t have their own bank account due to a lack of permanent address. As we work to draw in a wider and younger community, we must ensure we are developing a solution that overcomes the obvious barriers to entry - people not carrying cash - and one that allows for spontaneous and opportunistic street sales. There is interesting development going on within the blockchain and crypto currency space at the moment and The Big Issue is currently seeking out the most effective routes to market. Watch this space.

creativebrief: What is the biggest challenge facing the Big Issue

Russell Blackman: The Big Issue is much more than you think it is. I don’t tire of painting a full picture!

The magazine is now into its 27th year and is very much part of the social fabric of our society. However, it’s a business that remains frequently misunderstood by the public. One of our greatest challenges has always been tackling misconceptions around our work, our vendors and our business model. 

The Big Issue is not a charity. It doesn’t rely on any grants or fundraising activity. We’re a social business and we generate all our income through commercial activity, whether that is copy sales, advertising, e-commerce or other business initiatives. Profits generated are invested back into the business, to fuel our mission.

Our vendors are running their own micro enterprises. They buy the magazine up front from The Big Issue and then sell those copies. The difference is their earnings. They don’t receive magazines for free nor do they work on sale or return. They rely on customers buying and taking the magazine to provide a living. Our vendors use the The Big Issue as a tool to help solve their own problems and work their way out of poverty. Some customers will often give money to local vendors but not take the magazine. It is well meaning, but it’s the antithesis of what we stand for. It turns vendors from workers, proud and making positive life decisions, into beggars. It also means that The Big Issue misses out on the commercial opportunity to reinvest revenues to do more in our local communities. 

The Big Issue also works in many ways, other than the magazine, whether that be brand extensions such as our e-commerce platform or our industry leading social investment banking arm, Big Issue Invest. Set up in 2005 as the social investment arm of The Big Issue, Big Issue Invest exists to further our activities and reach by financing the growth of sustainable social enterprises and charities. Our aim is to continue supporting organisations that are seeking to make a positive difference for people and communities across the UK. We offer social enterprises, charities and profit-with-purpose businesses, loans and investment from £20,000 to £3 million and have now invested over £30 million in over 300 business nationwide and currently manage or advise on a total of £170 million worth of social funds. These investments are not generated from magazine sales but are sums managed on behalf of other major banking organisations or high net worth individuals and then loaned.

Our challenge is to continue to raise awareness of the various ways The Big Issue supports the most vulnerable in society, other than it being just perceived as a magazine that homeless people sell.

creativebrief: What work has excited you most this year?

Russell Blackman: The most satisfying piece of work I have been involved in during the last year was embarking upon a strategic partnership with Southampton Football Club. 

The club wanted to raise awareness of the Saints Foundation, their charitable arm, which aims to create opportunity for the most vulnerable in their local community. They wanted to amplify their work, and also show how The Big Issue and they share core, key values.

To launch the partnership we produced a special Saints FC edition of The Big Issue for the first game of the 2017/2018 season. It was sold in Southampton and around the wider Hampshire area by vendors and also some of Southampton’s first team players in the week leading up to the match. It also acted as the programme for that first game of the season and our Big Issue vendors worked as official programme sellers on that day. 

In addition, we created an employability programme for Big Issue vendors living and working in the area. Through an eight-week programme, vendors were able to learn a variety of different roles and experiences that are on offer within the club and as a result four vendors completed the course and have since been offered jobs within security and hospitality teams. 

It was a huge success and had global media reach. It allowed Saints to align their brand and work with a highly credible and trusted voice and it meant that The Big Issue could communicate its key messages to an audience that wouldn’t normally engage with us. 

That week’s edition sold 20 times that of a regular edition in the local area and it resulted in a three-fold increase in Southampton’s match day programme sales.

Through collaborative partnerships, events and digital projects we aim to grow our customer base further and encourage widespread and ongoing commitment for people to support their local vendors and wider social ventures, reinforcing our vision of a society empowered and encouraged to take responsibility for positive change.

The Big Issue Group’s mission is to dismantle poverty by creating opportunity through self-help, social trading and business solutions. As well as The Big Issue Magazine, they have a social investment arm, Big Issue Invest and an online shop selling products with a ‘social echo’. Lord Bird also launched his bill in the House of Lords in 2016, aimed at helping millions of renters get fair access to credit. For more information, visit www.bigissue.com

About the author

Ben Somerset-How, Client Director

Ben heads-up the brand focused business development team which sees him dedicate time to engaging both new and existing clients of Creativebrief. He is also the driving force behind our Market Leader Interview series and regularly guest-lectures at a variety of university marketing & management courses.

https://www.linkedin.com/in/ben-somerset-how-2a3697a

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