Despite changing tastes, seismic eruptions on the publishing landscape and a market where people expect to get much of their street print media for free, The Big Issue continues and will hit 200 million sales in Britain this year.
The Big Issue was established in response to the seemingly unstoppable rise of street homelessness in London; vendors could buy copies of the magazine from The Big Issue for half the cover price, then their earnings would come from the sale. It was very simple. Working not begging – a hand-up not a handout. That mechanism has remained core to everything since. And from it, all other ideas and projects spring.
Because The Big Issue is a social enterprise, profits are directed back to do good and change lives. So the publishing arm of The Big Issue works like any other commercial publisher. Money is made on sales and advertising. Profits are directed to the charitable arm, The Big Issue Foundation, and they use those funds to support vendors as they move back into society.
It’s important, then, to keep costs down. So to keep renewing interest and keep front of mind, we have had to use creative links rather than money. There have been guest edits from people like Damien Hirst, Rankin, and more recently David Cameron and Joan Bakewell.
This has an important knock-on effect. The Big Issue wouldn’t have existed for almost a quarter of century without quality content. Historically, that has included famous exclusives with The Stone Roses and George Michael. More recently, it is about nurturing the outsider voice, the anti-establishment tone that holds those who rule to account. But always with zip and cheek. It must never be boring. The first cover asked ‘Why Don’t The Homeless Just Go Home?’ This tough, challenging, suggestive line has been one we seek to maintain.
Our covers are also key. People don’t leaf through before they buy, so our covers have to act as ads – to attract at distance, to suggest enough to make readers want to dive in, to be our calling cards. We have to give vendors on the street as much help as possible every single week to shift as many magazines as possible.
We worked a great creative with Take That’s Mark Owen last year. He designed the cover, and that cover then became the nationwide poster for his new album launch. We got a national on-street push and he could say he was on a cover of a magazine that meant something, and further that he’d designed it. It was a win-win on both sides and evidence of the sort of progressive commercial thinking we need to have to survive. These take time to get right. We must never lose the trust of the reader.
We’ve also worked with agencies including M&C Saatchi to come up with on-street and online campaigns. We realised recently that some people were tipping vendors but not taking the magazine. This is meant well, but it stops the vendor trading and moving on. It makes them a beggar. So our vendors collaborated with Saatchi to come up with a campaign to encourage people to take the magazine when they pay for it.
Our next battle is the cashless society. Already some of our vendors are taking card payments. We need to grow this.
Next year we hit 25 years in business. We believe that so far we’ve helped Britain’s poorest and marginalised earn close to £115m. We are not a government agency, we are not a charity. We are a magazine that every week challenges and entertains and is keeping a loyal army of readers. So long as we are needed, we’ll keep facing down the challenges that come and keep on keeping on.
Paul McNamee, UK Editor, The Big Issue. Paul will be speaking about at Advertising Week Europe on Wednesday 25 March.