My Biggest Mistake: Tony Elliott

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The Independent Online
The founder of Time Out, the London listings magazine that is 25 years old this week, edited a student newspaper at Keele University and was so fascinated by the culture of the late 1960s that he left to start a magazine dedicated to his interests.

I had trouble deciding what my biggest mistake was, but one that still seems very relevant came out of our involvement with a magazine called Paris Passion.

David Arculus, chief executive of EMAP, the publishing company, has said that when you take over a company, particularly a publishing company, it is important to move quickly and implant your own culture in it - otherwise you're sunk. But I only read that remark when it was too late.

The magazine had been started in 1981 by a North American as an English-language publication that reflected what was going on in Paris. It was well designed and useful, but it failed and went into administration. A number of people here knew and liked it, so when the owner phoned me in the summer of 1987 and asked if we would be interested in taking it over, we decided we were. It fitted our emerging policy of trying to establish databases and information- led publications in other cities - in particular European capitals. We thought there ought to be a market of about 15,000 copies a month, so we took it over, with us holding 75 per cent of the operating company and the founder having 25 per cent.

The mistake was that, having decided to take over something and invest quite significantly, as it turned out, we allowed the existing regime to continue to produce much the same magazine that it had in the past. We never had our own permanent person there to represent us and be in charge. This meant to a large extent that we were working with the people there, rather than having them working for us, the way it should have been.

The magazine wasn't that bad, but one always felt it was an uphill struggle to get things produced in the way we wanted them to be. I worked with the founder for about two years and in the last year it was a deteriorating situation. I remember one absurd argument I had with him about the spelling of theatre. Despite the fact we were producing a magazine that would be read mainly by Europeans, he insisted on spelling it the American way.

We also got this line from the people there that things work differently in France - so what we wanted would not work. It may be true to a point, but it indicates how we were funding the operation but had not colonised it to the extent we should have.

Eventually I fired the founder and brought in a team from England, but it was too late. The magazine did quite well on advertising, but in selling only 8,000 copies a month it never reached the circulation level that the budget really required. Some months it lost about pounds 20,000.

In 1990 we had reached the point where we had borrowed a significant sum and reached our limit. In common with other businesses at the time, we were under pressure from the bank to reduce our exposure. we tried in the last half of that year to force the magazine to break even and stand on its own, but there wasn't enough time. So we closed it.

We now have publishing operations and magazines in Amsterdam, Paris and New York - run by a Time Out employee who understands our company culture. And as a result of the Paris experience we tend to be nervous about people with problematic projects who come along asking us to finance them. To do it properly you should take them over lock, stock and barrel - which involves a lot of money and time. Unless you do that, the project will never be what you want it to be.

(Photograph omitted)