Colin Morrison

Preston, is a little-known northern British city with an illustrious past in the country’s 19th century industrial revolution, and a football team whose best days were more than 60 years ago. It was at the heart of a world-beating textile industry, was Charles Dickens’ smokey location for “Hard Times”, and – 200 years ago – was the first town outside London to have gas lighting.

A business park in Preston seems an unlikely location for a dynamic business-to-business media group. But this is the home of the 170-year-old Farmers Guardian whose founder was a local campaigner against alcohol. But it was his national lobbying for the repeal of restrictions on grain imports which provoked the launch of the weekly newspaper which, until 1958, was called the Preston Guardian. Its location 370km from London might explain why Farmers Guardian was neglected by its long-time owner United Newspapers (now UBM).

For years, it was managed as part of a regional newspaper group while its London-based parent independently launched a competitive (and, ultimately, unsuccessful) weekly for farmers. Divestment of Farmers Guardian had seemed inevitable, even before UBM began its sale of magazines and “content” in order to concentrate on exhibitions.

In 2012, it was acquired by Briefing Media, a start-up led by Neil Thackray who has spent almost 30 years managing the highs and lows of publishing and events for some of Europe’s largest B2B companies. He had started out selling recruitment advertising for Reed Business Information before becoming publishing director and then CEO in companies large and small. Along the way, he became a punchy advocate of reinvention in traditional media.

In 2010, he had teamed with Rory Brown (a former Metal Bulletin and Incisive Media marketing whizz) and Rupert Levy (a Finance Director from Haymarket and UBM). Briefing Media started, slightly confusingly, with Media Briefing, a web site which quickly became a significant source for analysis of the digital media wars. It became a platform for the British Media Awards and for high-flying media-tech conferences.

Then came the breakthrough £10m acquisition of Farmers Guardian and the medical newspaper Pulse from UBM, another of Thackray’s former employers. His strategy for Farmers Guardian presumably included four objectives:

  • Combine print and digital – for readers, advertisers and sponsors.
  • Grow digital revenues while maximising print
  • Replace subscriptions and copy sales with a membership scheme
  • Build strong exhibitions, conferences and awards events

The UBM acquisition had been the culmination of years of chasing private equity-funded deals, and Briefing Media hit the ground running. It moved quickly to acquire the 34-year-old LAMMA machinery show which spawned the three-year-old CropTec exhibition and then the LAMMA Exchange machinery digital classifieds. Last year, it bought the five-year-old Agrimoney which gives a foothold in the international agribusiness and commodities market, where it claims 70,000 users in 170 countries.

Briefing Media has been able to exploit the low costs of operating in Preston, where 70% of its 100 people are employed.

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