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Strategic Management Case Study 2023: Future plc

Introduction and setting the scene

It was 7am on a rainy November morning in 2022. Future plc’s CEO, Zillah Byng-Thorne, had arrived in the office early that day to grab an hour to herself. She leaned back in her chair having reviewed her notes for the third time.

It was the most important day of the year, the day that Future plc released their highly anticipated annual reports and accounts. Highly anticipated because since Byng-Thorne became CEO of the company in 2014 the business has been on an upward trajectory, bucking the trend of almost all its rivals in the magazine publishing sector.

Byng-Thorne was due to deliver a press conference to media and city journalists at 9am alongside her CFO, Penny Ladkin-Brand. Accustomed to the scrutiny that Future plc’s phenomenal performance has attracted she knew it was vital prior to press conferences such as this to fully consider every conceivable question that could be thrown at her as a result of the financials. Byng-Thorne knew the markets would be poring over these latest results for evidence of a slowdown, a tide beginning to turn, after the consecutive year-on-year exponential growth the business had boasted since 2016.

She also knew the one question that would be uppermost on everyone’s list. A couple of months previously she’d mentioned in passing to the Chairman of Sky News that she was looking to step down from Future within the year. The company’s stock had plunged the next day by 17%.

It was true that under Byng-Thorne’s reign the company had gone from a business on the verge of collapse to the multimedia success story it is today. But could one person alone really be responsible for revitalising a business as big as Future plc? Such that their departure spelled gloom for investors?


Future plc is a multiplatform specialist media company whose origins were print magazines.

The company started as one magazine in 1985 and today boasts over 220 brands across multiple platforms in the UK and USA. Future plc today claims to reach one in three users, in both the UK and the US. The business is worth £1.5bn (at time of writing). It turns over £825m and employs 2,985 employees.

Despite operating in a highly challenged sector the company’s steep growth shows no sign of flattening with the latest financial reports underlining the extent with which it continues to outperform every other publisher in in the market.

So, how did it all start?


Future plc began as one magazine, Amstrad Action, created by a passionate young computer-gaming journalist named Chris Anderson in 1985.

Two years previously, in 1983, Chris had been made editor of two early UK games magazines. Computer gaming at this stage was still in its infancy and seeing rapid growth in the sector, Chris approached his bank for a £15k bank loan, and in the village of Somerton, not far from Glastonbury in Somerset, UK he created Amstrad Action.

Amstrad Action catered to owners of home computers from the Amstrad CPC

Figure 1: Amstrad Action

range and later the GX4000 console and was focused on the emerging gaming market.

The magazine launched, teetered and almost never got going, were it not for a clever marketing device that Anderson is said to have pioneered with his debut publication, the cover-mount, which in this case was a ‘free’ computer cassette. A year later, that one magazine spawned two more, again focussed on a single computer format or console, and from there came more publications of similar theme, namely: Amiga Format, Commodore Format and Nintendo-focused Total!.

As the company grew Anderson moved from the village of Somerton to new premises in Bath, UK (where the HQ of Future plc remains today).

Once in Bath, Anderson diversified out of gaming for the first time with the launch of a music title, Classic CD magazine, where he repeated the cover-mount trick (a classical music disc to boost circulation growth). From here, he went on to launch Diesel Car.

Figure 2: Future Plc’s Bath HQ

With by now a healthy stable of homegrown titles, Anderson switched his strategy to acquisition, expanding into America in 1994 to create Future US with the acquisition of GP Publications. GP Publications came with titles CD-ROM Today, Computer Entertainment News and PC Entertainment which further boosted Future’s founding and strongest editorial category (known as verticals) – computing and gaming. Simultaneously, to maintain optimal efficiencies within the expanded portfolio, Anderson closed a number of titles that hadn’t been performing so well, including Sega Zone and Game Zone.

Later that same year in 1994, less than ten years after Chris Anderson had launched his first magazine, Future was acquired by Pearson, a British company which then owned the Financial Times, Madame Tussauds and Thames Television along with a portfolio of 34 titles. Pearson acquired Future for £53m, which at the time was considered high given that many of Future’s titles’ circulations had began to slide.

Just four years later in 1998, with Future contributing annual sales of £70m and having added new titles such as the Official PlayStation Magazine, Total Film and Total Guitar, Pearson sold its two consumer magazine businesses back to Anderson and chief executive Greg Ingham, in a £142m buyout backed by venture capitalists Apax Partners.

In 1999 the company was floated on the London Stock Exchange valued at almost £1bn, even though it was loss-making. Future Publishing became Future plc.

In 2001, Chris Anderson left Future to work full-time on TED talks, at that time an embryonic online conferencing company, which he had acquired via his Sapling Foundation organisation.

By 2002 Future plc was profitable again, for a short while at least.

The Chief Executive, Greg Ingham, departed the company in 2005 after an ill-fated £30m purchase of 38 mostly loss-making regional and specialist magazines from the collapsed Highbury House.

Figure 3: Chris Anderson

It was at this point that Future entered into freefall. It appointed a succession of CEOs as it struggled for direction, launched a lot of new titles (including the still-successful TechRadar in 2008), shuttering or disposing of many others. The business, looking for alternative revenue streams to print advertising and circulation sales, began to build up an events arm and where it could, migrate titles to online versions, in order to save the costs of printing.

In 2007, Future’s online advertising revenues began to build. They rose by 50% YOY albeit from a relatively low base to £6.9m, making up just 12% of the group’s total advertising revenue. This however marked an improved trend. In 2008 the company was reporting that “a 39% increase in online advertising revenue to more than offset a 2% reduction in print advertising revenue”.

Future plc’s then chief executive Stevie Spring, enthused by this, prophesied in November 2007 that the company would perform well in the then global financial crisis, arguing that because Future

targets specialist hobbyists rather than general readers, its customers’ demand for tailored content

could endure through financial pressure.

Unfortunately, she was proved wrong. By November 2009, weakness in Future’s US operation had seen company-wide pre-tax profits fall by 61%.

By May 2011 the business had still not recovered and reported a further 45% drop in Future’s pre-tax profits. In October that year it was reported that CEO Spring and her finance director John

Bowman had resigned, or to quote the press, “fallen on their swords to help Future cut costs”, saving the company an estimated £1m a year with their resignations.

In 2012 Future plc began to distance itself from print, redefining itself as a digital specialist media powerhouse. The company closed six gaming magazines in three months in order, according to the company, to focus on its strategy of accelerating digital growth across its “international digitally- focussed brand business”, with staff to be redeployed to other publications within its stable.

In the same year, 2012, the company claimed that it was “close to returning to profitability” in the US and that visits to its websites had risen more than 50%. It had made sales of over £5m through Apple Newsstand in the year since the service launched, and by November group digital revenues were reported to be up 30% to £20.6m.

In 2013, once again, where print revenue dropped 9% from £40.8m to £37m, digital turnover continued to increase, this time from £9.2m to £12.4m. The company reported in May 2013 that in the first half of the year its websites had attracted 51m unique users – as many as they had received for the whole of 2012, in half the time.

Despite all the positive press statements however, the company was, in reality, still struggling. In April 2013 Future announced that it would be reviewing its structures “to identify further efficiencies

which will benefit the group”. The result of that review was 55 redundancies in the UK. To justify the head toll, the company’s chief executive at the time, Mark Wood, said in a statement that

“approaching 60% of our advertising now comes from digital markets. As Future becomes an increasingly digital business, we need to reduce costs and staff levels devoted to print products and downsize back office and support activities.”

Morale by now was rock-bottom. Just two months after the tranche of redundancies, in November 2013, the editor, deputy editor and technical editor of a Future magazine named Linux Voice left the title, citing “top-down meddling” from the company as the reason. Contrary to the prior year’s claims from Future that its US operations were close to profitability, Linux Voice’s outgoing deputy editor claimed that the company was “losing lots of money”, complaining that even though his publication’s circulation was growing, Future had “insisted that all magazines cut 16 pages regardless of how well

they were doing.”

Enter Zillah Byng-Thorne

Zillah Byng-Thorne became Chief Executive of Future plc in April 2014. She had joined the company six months previously, in November 2013, as part-time chief financial officer (CFO), arriving from automotive platform Auto-Trader. Future plc at that stage seemed a poisoned chalice for any new CEO and Byng-Thorne openly admitted that her first year was spent worrying she wouldn’t be able to pay staff.

Byng-Thorne had honed her business management skills in finance. She qualified as an accountant with Nestlé UK, and later held senior finance roles with GE Capital and HMV, before becoming CFO of Threshers and then Finance Director of Fitness First. After that, she spent three years as CFO

of Auto Trader Group, an online car-trading platform, before joining Future.

At Auto-Trader Byng-Thorne had worked closely with Penny Ladkin-Brand who had been the company’s Commercial Director. Prior to Auto-Trader they had first worked together at Fitness First. It was clearly a partnership that worked and shortly after Byng-Thorne was made CEO of Future plc, she installed Ladkin-Brand as her CFO.

The third member of the Dream Team

On arriving at Future plc, Byng-Thorne met Kevin Li Ying. Li Ying had been at Future plc for eleven years, starting out as a programmer. By the time Byng-Thorne joined the business he had risen to Director of Web Development and was then rapidly promoted by Byng-Thorne to Chief Technology Architect in 2014, then CTO in 2016. Li Ying was to lead the development of sophisticated, proprietary technology architecture at Future, which

would be pivotal in supporting the acceleration of

Future’s multi-platform strategy.

CEO, CFO and CTO combined financial, commercial, and technological skillsets to strategically transform the business. They remain the senior members of the Future plc Executive Team today.

Figure 4: Key members of Future plc Executive Team

How did they do it?

The turnaround strategy could be described as three staged: firstly, consolidate and evaluate; secondly, drive up organic growth through expansion of monetisation opportunities; then thirdly, boost growth through acquisition, UK and stateside, extending the formula across a wider range of editorial categories and regions.

Dissecting each stage:

  1. Consolidate and evaluate

Arriving at the Future plc in 2014, Byng-Thorne embarked on what many described as a hatchet job.  

Six months following her appointment to CEO, in November 2014 the company revealed that revenues had dropped from £82.6m in 2013 to £66m. Byng-Thorne jettisoned a number of poor performing titles that she felt had no commercial potential such as Procycling, Triathlon Plus and The Knitter, and cut staff numbers dramatically, from 980 to 577.

  1. Invest in R&D to maximise monetisation and yield

With a leaner, more agile and considerably more efficient company, Byng-Thorne then embarked on refining the technology arm of the business before embarking on an acquisition drive.

Byng-Thorne’s time at the car-trading portal had shown her the value of user data. Strategic data capture and profiling of site users maximised sales potential. Her focus was on yield ie. generating maximum revenue per user, by attracting high-value site visitors with intent to buy. These individuals were of greatest value to advertisers allowing Future to demand high advertising rates to reflect this.

Future plc’s R&D invested heavily in proprietary software that captured user/reader profiles and tracked their usage. In doing so, the business ensured it could monetise their media consumption across their stable of online titles at every opportunity.

These tech systems were focussed on web design ie. digitalising print titles, and data capture in order to maximise monetisation. The systems were named and included: Hybrid (an integrated digital platform), Hawk (proprietary e-commerce technology), Eagle (proprietary voucher technology), Vanilla (website platform) and Aperture (customer audience data platform). Many of these systems comprised algorithms that derived commission from lead generation tracked from Future plc content.

Highly refined SEA (search engine advertising) meant that over three quarters of Future’s web traffic came from organic search and therefore pre-qualified leads. Customer audience data then allowed the business to capitalise on high yields derived from selling ‘readers with intent’ ie. those who match the advertiser’s target audience profile and are visiting Future’s sites looking to buy. Such individuals presented high rate of sales conversion for any advertiser.

While simultaneously developing their proprietary technology, Future invested in quality, ‘intent-

driven’ editorial content that would be trusted by readers and have attached beneath each article a

range of price comparison and purchase option links. Some of the company’s online titles, such as Marie Claire, even developed their own online shops.

  1. Boost growth through acquisition

To start with, Byng-Thorne and her team set out to acquire titles where she saw greatest potential for revenue growth across multiple platforms, initially concentrating on the core editorial categories (known as verticals): games, entertainment and technology; music; photography, creative and sport.

Within sport and music verticals were added the titles: Airgun Shooter, Bow International, Clay Shooting, Gun Trade News, Sporting Rifle, Acoustic Magazine, Bass Guitar Magazine, Computer Music, Drummer, and Total Guitar, alongside the site, But the acquisition drive also went beyond magazines, especially in the US, to expand the portfolio’s breadth and depth, such as 2016’s purchase of events and websites group Blaze Publishing adding established events such as The London Acoustic Show, The London Bass Guitar Show and The London Drum Show. Events brought in revenue from tickets sales, sponsorship and participating exhibitors.

From 2017, investors started to sit up and take notice, with shares doubling in value that year, helped by three acquisitions: Future rescued formerly-owned rock music titles Metal Hammer, Classic Rock and Prog from Team Rock for £800k; snapped up a £32m portfolio of home interest titles from Centaur for £32m in July 2017, to add to the previous year’s purchase of rival publisher Imagine Publishing’s 30 titles for £15.9m.

The strategy was clearly to widen the number of editorial categories (verticals) the company operated in and in doing so grab a higher share of the global magazine-reading audience, on and offline. Byng- Thorne announced how these new titles would “significantly add to our scale and momentum, while further diversifying our revenue streams.” Revenue rose 43% to £84.4m and the group just broke even from a £14.9m pre-tax loss the year before.  

Acquisitions continued through 2018, with Future investing tens of millions of pounds at a time on specialist magazines covering realms as diverse as the US’s curated news publisher for the B2B market Smartbrief for $65m, bringing with it 6m subscribers; UK titles: Stuff, What Hi-Fi, Practical Caravan and Practical Motorhome magazines; and the football magazine, FourFourTwo from rival UK Publisher Haymarket for £14m. The company then bought the US publishing group Newbay Media which published Music Week among other B2B titles for 13.8m.

In the year ending 30 September 2019 revenue had grown as much as 70% year-on-year from

£130.1m to £221.5m, with pre-tax profit tripling to £12.7m over the same period. Growth in 2019 had been accelerated with four acquisitions which took the business for the first time into price and market comparison territory. These included the US publisher Purch for $132m, bringing well known media brands such as Tom’s Guide and Tom’s Hardware with it.

Come 2020, Future had fully integrated the 2019 purchase of London-based Barcroft Studios, known for its low budget Youtube and vlog content, for £23.5m, bringing with it competency in video production and another new revenue stream. Barcroft Studios became Future Studios.

That same year, at a time when almost all publishing houses in the UK were seriously struggling, having seen their print advertising revenues decimated by digital competition, Future plc announced its completion of the £140m surprise purchase of TI Media from Epiris Private Equity. TI Media added

41 magazine titles to Future’s stable, including Country Living, Decanter, House and Hound, and importantly, took Future plc, for the first time, into the lucrative women’s interest and lifestyle sector with Marie Claire, Homes and Gardens, Wallpaper, Woman’s Weekly and Woman’s Own.

The intention was to digitalize and monetise these new titles as quickly as possible, a feat that Future felt comfortable achieving. During the company’s voracious acquisition drive, it was simultaneously fortifying its digital armoury, and had developed an additional lead-generation system called Falcon to maximise monetisation.

Pandemic Prevalence

In 2020 came Covid and with it near devastation for many businesses and sectors, including media and publishing corporations who saw magazine sales and advertising revenues dry up.

Future plc however, held up better than most in that the business’s portfolio of specialist titles boasted a high level of direct-to-home subscriptions. Plus, the company reacted quickly to March 2020’s global shutdowns, temporarily cutting freelance budgets and closing six magazines.

In fact, because the business weathered the pandemic so well, Future was able to pay back

money secured from the UK government’s furlough scheme in July 2020, and Byng-Thorne revealed that the group had given all of its staff members £1,000 each to help with the cost of home-working.

Indeed, despite the adverse global situation caused by the pandemic, Future’s position had further strengthened. In October 2020, the company announced its plan to make 150 new hires, mainly in the area of specialist editorial but also in Future Studios, the new video content division, and the following month the company stated that it had tripled pre-tax profits for the second year in a row.

Go Compare…

The 2020 announcement was coupled with the news that Future planned to make its biggest acquisition yet. It planned to buy GoCo Group, owner of comparison site Go Compare, for an eye- watering £594m.   

Future’s purchase of Go Compare stumped the markets who felt this was a stretch too far for a publisher-based business, but there was a logic behind its acquisition: a reader would, for example, read an article in any one of Future’s titles about homes, cars or insurance then click on an e- commerce tab that would take them to GoCo to compare insurance providers. This would at the same time rapidly increase traffic and viewership of GoCo’s own content helping to open up brand new monetisation opportunities.

In 2021, the global acquisition trail showed no signs of abating, adding Australia-based financial comparison website Mozo, Marie Claire US, and Dennis UK (the latter for £300m), publisher of the highly popular brand The Week and its family of titles, to Future’s portfolio.

Future’s acquisitions in 2022 further extended their commercial range and scope. They included US

women’s fashion e-zine brand Who What Wear who specialise in email marketing, and the US

companies and Waive, a data-insight platform that provides intelligence on emerging content trends.

Time to catch a breath…

Highlights of a winning strategy

In the eight years under Byng-Thorne’s leadership, Future plc has gone from a seemingly moribund, loss-making specialist magazine house to one of the world’s most successful multimedia companies, owning more than 220 brands. Through these 220+ brands Future plc, in 2022, claims to reach 1 in 3 adults in the US and the UK.

The company’s strategy has been exhaustive, in that while rapidly growing its audience, no opportunity to monetise it has been overlooked and all monetisation opportunities have been primed to deliver the greatest revenue yield possible.

This profit-maximization strategy permeated throughout operations: Investments have all been highly strategic and production costs kept in check through utilisation of multiple platforms.

Future plc has itself, put its success primarily down to two factors:

  1. Diversity

Diversity spreads the risk and widens the revenue-generating opportunity:

Firstly, through the diversity of its revenue streams by source. Byng-Thorne describes advertising (mainly digital) revenues; recurring reader revenues ie. subscriptions; and affiliate commission/ecommerce revenues as her “holy trinity”.

Secondly, diversity of revenues by region. Future plc’s expansion in the US has given the company considerable head-room to grow turnover across all platforms in an online market that is seven times the size of the UK’s.

Thirdly, through the diversity of its verticals (editorial categories) when it comes to content. Future plc now operates across four broad editorial verticals catering to a major share of the magazine-reading population. The acquisition drive in the UK and stateside has diversified the business beyond its original stronghold of Gaming, Ents and Technology (GET), to include Lifestyle, Knowledge and News (LKN), Wealth and Savings (W&S), and the highly lucrative B2B.

Figure 5: Future’s editorial verticals

This ensures that if one sector sees a dip (such as is currently happening with GET) other more buoyant sectors can compensate.

The result of this three-pronged diversity strategy means Future is never reliant on any one format or vertical, or region.

  1. The Platform Effect

Byng-Thorne credits a lot of Future’s success on its ‘Platform Effect’. This is essentially its ability to derive revenue from the same content/advertising delivered across different platforms, keeping sales, marketing and editorial costs static as a percentage of revenue. The company’s unique and proprietary technology allows them to do this effectively as does the quality of its content, which is described as trusted, intent-driven (for those looking to buy) and evergreen (content that does not date but remains relevant for as long as possible).

Both these factors have been underpinned by Future’s investment in digital technology and its focus on data acquisition.

The Backdrop – sector analysis

The magazine market has transformed almost beyond all recognition in the last decade as the digital economy has flourished.

Indeed, the sector is now defined by many who work within it no longer as magazine publishing, but as a multiplatform media sector of which a print title is one element.

Print has been in long-term decline as a result of its high cost and, with the rapid emergence of digital competition for readers, fast-shrinking revenue potential.

Although print as a sector has been in decline for some time, revenues have slid fastest in the last ten years as digital media has become a lot slicker in terms of user experience and far more sophisticated in relation to data and revenue generation.

Advertising spend has moved online to either display ads in the form of banners or skyscrapers placed via programmatic algorithms that match advertising brand to site user profile, or to social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Google. Content now extends across platform and discipline from print to video, email, social media and web.

The pandemic served to exacerbate the decline dramatically with the UK magazine sector seeing advertising revenues drop by as much as 33% in 2020 (Press Gazette, 2021). The sector is yet to recover.

To give an indication of the speed with which the market has shrunk, the number of UK titles in circulation at any one time in 2021 was around a third what it was in 2020, falling from 1.6 billion to 565 million.  Consumer expenditure on magazines dropped accordingly from £1.4bn in 2020 to

£669m in 2021.

In terms of content, some editorial verticals have fared far worse than others. Men’s and Music magazines in particular have seen overall circulations plunge by 90% since 2020, where women’s interest has fallen by 45%. Instagram is credited with stealing much of these sub-sectors’ traditional share of readers’ time.

By comparison, print verticals that are holding up well are news (such as The Week), by some distance, and home interest (eg. Homes and Gardens, Wallpaper).

Cut back to that rainy November morning in 2022

Zillah Byng-Thorne and CFO Penny Ladkin-Brand presented the latest full set of results for Future plc at a press conference on 30th November 2022. Confounding the sceptics, the financials showed Future plc continuing its upward trajectory, with no dip in gradient.

The presentation was comprehensive in its detail on the strategic pillars that have led to another set of impressive results and left little in the way of questions for the city analysts and journalists gathered.

Before opening the floor to questions, Zillah Byng-Thorne pre-empted the one she knew would be at the top of everyone’s notebook…

“There’s never a good time to leave a company, but…”


Key Financials

Note: For Future plc’s full financials and annual reports dating back to 2016 use the link:


Note: The references used in this report are indicative and we expect students to follow the APA 7th referencing style in their reports and to follow academic conventions of referencing required by the University of Exeter.

See and for more


Future Plc: UK Press Gazette: various InPublishing: various

Mediamasters Podcast:

The Drum:

The Times:

The Guardian:

The Independent: passion

This case study was written by Imogen Clements using a range of sources cited above. It is written for use by students studying Strategic Management and prepared to provide overview material for the module’s Assignment 3, 2023.

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