At Work With: Barry McIlheney, CEO, PPA
Barry McIlheney is chief executive of the PPA (Professional Publishers Association), the organisation that supports and represents UK magazine publishers. As a well-respected and popular figure in the editorial world – he edited Melody Maker and Smash Hits, launched Heat magazine and was chief executive of Emap (now Bauer) women’s titles – he has brought a new focus to the PPA. At the end of a busy year marking the PPA’s 100th anniversary, Barry shares his week ahead.
Where are you today?
I’m in our groovy new offices in London’s increasingly fashionable Blackfriars district. The PPA turned 100 this year, and for a mere 72 of those years we were in Holborn, so to move in here after all that time was a bit of an upheaval, but in a really good way. Two weeks in, and I already sense that it is one of the best things we have ever done.
What can you see from the window?
To my left I can see the river and Sea Containers House. To my right I can see Ludgate Circus, and beyond that Holborn Viaduct. We are five minutes away from St Paul's and St Bride's, yet also surrounded by funky cafes and sushi bars aplenty, so it’s this brilliant mix of the old and the new. A bit like the magazine industry right now in other words. See what I did there?
How many emails are waiting in your inbox?
I am fanatical about replying to all relevant emails on the same day as I get them, so this early on a Monday morning, not that many. I average about 150 a day, so it’s a challenge, but as De Niro says in Heat, that’s the discipline.
What’s your favourite magazine this morning?
I interviewed Oliver Stone when I was Editor of Empire, and I asked him to pick his favourite movie from the ones he had directed, and he parroted out that old cliché about how this was like asking him to pick a favourite from his children. So if it’s good enough for that old hack, then it's good enough for me. We have 230 publisher members of the PPA, and I’m not about to offend 229 of them. Of those who are yet to become members or who publish overseas, I rarely miss an issue of Private Eye or The New Yorker.
What drew you to work in magazines in the first place?
I was 14 years old and growing up right in the middle of the Belfast civil war of the ’70s and I just fell in love with magazines in general, and the NME in particular. I’m sure a therapist would have a field day on the escape that this new world offered me from the very grim reality of everyday life in North Belfast, but it was also on a simpler level the quite brilliant writing and design in the NME at that particular time. Apparently we have to call it content now, though I much prefer writing and design. To end up working first on Melody Maker and then editing Smash Hits at the age of 26 was, as you can imagine, more than I could ever have hoped for. I do look back on that time with a mixture of wonder and pure gratitude.
Do you miss the day-to-day ups and downs of editing a magazine or are you relieved to have moved on?
I miss it a lot less than you might imagine, possibly because I was writing or editing or publishing or running magazine companies for 25 years before I finally took a break back in 2007. And by that point I was lucky enough to have done pretty much everything I had ever wanted to do. So when the PPA job came along at the start of 2010, it seemed like the perfect chance to have a meaningful and useful second act, doing something very different yet at the same time doing something that I knew and that I loved with a real passion. It’s a bit like being a footballer. I played at a decent level, was lucky enough to win a few medals, but now my legs have gone and it's somebody else’s turn. Part of my job now is to try to spot that new talent, to help them develop on a wider stage, and to cheer them on at our various awards shows as they score a few goals of their own. I’ll drop the football analogy now, for fear of actually becoming Alan Shearer.
Is it sometimes difficult to balance the demands of your high-powered industry members with those of the broader industry?
Not really. In fact, this is one of the key misconceptions - and there are many - about the PPA and the job that I am there to do. Of those 230 members that I referred to earlier, at least 200 of them would be what most people would classify as small independent publishers. So numerically at least, the association is dominated by this group and their titles, as seen at their best in our two most recent events, the Independent Publisher Conference & Awards last week, and the PPA Scotland Magazine Awards in Edinburgh, which I have just got back from. The biggest cheer of the night was when a title called Menopause Matters won the award for Best Small Publishing Magazine. And of course at the same time I am equally busy, as is everyone here, making sure that those 30 or so bigger members also feel that they are getting the leadership and service that they deserve from us. So it’s a very broad church, which is why it is so formidable when we come together, and which is one of the main reasons why I love it so much. Maybe that should be our new strapline. The PPA: from Good Housekeeping to Menopause Matters.
While celebrating the the association’s first 100 years, the PPA100 campaign has been careful to look forward to another 100. How do you feel about the future of our industry?
Genuinely incredibly excited and optimistic. When I started out, I had one chance every week in Melody Maker to talk to our readers. Smash Hits was once a fortnight. Empire once a month. This is only 20 years ago, and we are talking about a major magazine brand where the people creating it had just 12 chances a year to engage with their audience. Unbelievable! I would give my right arm to be starting out now and have the chance to talk to my readers every minute of every day of the year. And not just in the mag, but on the web, on the tablet, on video, on the phone, at live events, on Twitter, on Facebook, on all the things that haven't even been invented yet. Can you imagine? They wouldn't be able to shut me up! Yes, there are huge challenges, and yes, the competition has never been tougher, but I honestly go to our New Talent Awards every year and think God I wish I was 21 again and starting out in this incredible industry that we have now become.
What are you most looking forward to this week?
It’s the staff Christmas party on Friday, which is always a hoot. We have had an extraordinary year, what with turning 100, moving offices after 72 years, signing up 22 new members, running a dozen big events and countless forums, old Uncle Lord Leveson and all, so it will be nice to let off a bit of steam after all that and to thank the team for a very special year to remember.
What are you least looking forward to this week?
At some point I actually have to do some Christmas shopping. You know that guy on Christmas Eve with a look of panic in his eyes as he starts to realise he has to get 12 gifts in three hours? I'm that guy.
What will you be doing after this chat?
I think I might go for a bit of fresh air and walk up to St Paul’s. We are working five minutes away from one of the greatest buildings in one of the world's greatest cities, so it seems crazy not to make the most of it. And I like old churches. Running the PPA can be a right giddy whirl, and St Paul’s has a nice way of bringing it all back down to earth.