Forward builds relationships with consumers by delivering insight-driven content with editorial flair
Interview with Simon Hobbs, CEO Forward Worldwide
CUSTOMER magazines were pioneers in owned media long before the concept became fashionable, and Forward Worldwide was one of the trailblazers.
London-based Forward was set up as a contract publishing company in 1985, but has evolved to embrace content in its wider context, producing everything from customer magazines to websites, email campaigns, social media and apps for its clients – all characterised by an editorial and journalistic approach.
“The channels we use are driven by the consumer,” says CEO Simon Hobbs. “In the luxury sector, for example with Patek Philippe that tends to be a more traditional publishing model, with a print magazine published twice each year in eight languages. But in retail, it is more digital and social because that is how their customers consume content. For example, with Tesco’s Baby Club, we publish a website, emails, a product testing site, and it is entirely digital.” Other key clients include financial services providers Fidelity and Standard Life, and Amex Travel.
Forward’s approach starts with an audit of the content a client is already producing. “We believe every brand needs a content strategy,” says Hobbs. “But we will look for insights into what its customers want, and what is effective among the content they produce.” Forward will then formulate a content strategy designed around effectiveness and consistency, he explains.
The company’s offer is strongest when it forms the backbone of a content rich CRM program, says Hobbs. “We segment and identify a group of customers at a particular life stage, then seek to understand their needs and serve relevant content to them.”
For retailer Tesco, Forward’s biggest and one of its longest-established clients, the segments include parents of babies and toddlers, wine enthusiasts, and users of beauty products. In each case, says Hobbs, Forward creates an editorial calendar throughout the year, tying in with the brand’s own calendar of events and trade plan, but also building in a tactical flex to respond to specific eventualities.
Forward aims to produce content with the same values and standard to match editorial that is un-branded – for example news stand magazines. “That has got easier because brands now have permission to produce great content – take Red Bull for example – and it has also got easier to commission high-profile journalists, writers and photographers,” says Hobbs. Increasingly, the company also draws on a network of bloggers and producers of user-generated content. Clients, meanwhile, are becoming braver because they recognise that to get ‘cut-through’ you need content that is genuinely engaging, he adds.
Forward was acquired by WPP in 2001 and became part of tenthavenue which caters for connected consumers in 2013. Recently, it has joined forces with another tenthavenue company, Spafax, from whom it has taken in a dozen employees and a number of airline accounts. “The idea is that we can work together to develop our expertise in the travel sector,” says Hobbs. “Forward will still be a separate brand, but we will share one group P&L.”
Forward has worked with other tenthavenue companies, including Joule and Kinetic, and was recently called in by one of WPP’s top digital agencies. “Where we can help other companies is producing engaging content that maintains a relationship with customers between the peaks of campaigns and product launches,” says Hobbs.
The company has over 100 desks at its headquarters in London’s Clerkenwell district, and has also set up an office in Shanghai with five people. Hobbs doesn’t rule out further overseas expansion, citing South Africa and Singapore as both being of interest, but adds the caveat: “We would always follow a client-first strategy.”
For all its publishing and journalistic credentials, Forward is structured more like an ad agency than a publishing company, with a planning department at its heart and account directors to manage client brands. The company also has a powerful philanthropic ethos; alongside its long-established and highly-regarded Forward Prizes for Poetry it runs a charity StreetSmart, sponsored by Deutsche Bank, which supports homeless people through a voluntary £1 levy on restaurant diners at Christmas time.
Content is a broad concept, acknowledges Simon Hobbs, and it’s one that agencies in many disciplines would like to claim some part of. What makes Forward stand out, he says, is its singular approach to creating content that really engages and builds a relationship between brand and consumer. With many traditional media in decline, and ad blocking on the rise, it’s a strategy that looks set to pay dividends.
Contact: Simon Hobbs, CEO, firstname.lastname@example.org
WPP The Wire Magazine, Quarter 3 2016