Ahead of Pan Macmillan’s relocation to Clerkenwell last month, the publisher’s 250 London employees were given three things: a laptop, a mobile phone and the code to their own locker. Tooled up, staff were then set loose to sit anywhere across the six floors of the refurbished Smithson building, with licence to keep moving around.
“It’s not just a new building, it’s a whole new set of behaviours,” says the publisher’s managing director Anthony Forbes Watson, after a brief sashay through the multiple locations where this interview might take place. There are just five rules: staff may sit anywhere they want, loiter, but must vacate, and leave tidy, a desk they have claimed if it goes unused for longer than two hours. They can’t eat at their desk, and floor spaces must be kept clear. Other than that it is a free-for-all, with staff who wish to be found able to register their locations on a special app. Having demolished the real walls at its former King’s Cross office, the publisher went a step further this time around, ridding itself of metaphorical ones. “We thought we opened up New Wharf Road 10 years ago, but now it feels as if we hadn’t empowered staff to the degree we had wanted to.” The idea this time is to remove hierarchies and encourage movement and conversation. “It is equal access, nothing is off limits. There’s nowhere that I can go where they cannot.” For privacy, there are cubicles, meeting spaces, a library and a prayer/quiet room. If you want to hide, you can.
Two and a half years in the planning, and led by publishing operations director James Long, Pan Macmillan used workplace effectiveness expert Leesman, activity-based working pioneer Veldhoen + Company, and architect and interior designer Neat Studios to think things through. The result is an environment that, while it looks quintessentially like a Pan Macmillan office, functions more like a home.
The point is to become less fixed. “You don’t go home and just sit on a chair,” explains Forbes Watson. “You walk through a home and go to the place where you need to be to achieve the tasks you want to do. I expect the outcome is that people will be more energised, happier and much more purposeful. Traditionally when people came to work, they would be patronised by the system and the culture. If it feels like a home, they will bring their own full selves to work.” He also expects the creative friction to establish new relationships: “If you are stuck at the same desk every day, not only is it unhealthy, but you talk to the same people. What [staff] didn’t have are the unexpected meetings, and now they do. What we need to learn now is how to filter.”
Relocation, relocation, relocation
Pan Macmillan is the third of the UK’s big four publishers to relocate this decade: HarperCollins swapped west for east when it moved to parent company News International’s News Building, by London Bridge, at the beginning of 2015. A few months later, Hachette consolidated its federal publishing units at Carmelite House, near Blackfriars. Later this year the biggest of them all, Penguin Random House, shifts along the river with two locations, a refurbished Vauxhall Bridge Road, where half its imprints currently reside, and the Vauxhall-based One Embassy Gardens.
These are all more than just “real-estate moves”. HarperCollins’ move gave it a new identity and impetus, under its then relatively new c.e.o. Charlie Redmayne; and Hachette bunched up just as it needed to figure out how to operate as a joined-up collective of individual businesses. In both cases there was an element of modernisation and show: those without open-access offices got them; meetings rooms were named, “W1A”-style, after legendary authors or books; in-house cafés were opened; rooftop gardens seeded. If it was about cost saving, it was well hidden.
“This is not an extravagance, it is a coherent response to our strategy,” says Forbes Watson of the move. Actually, he adds, costs were minimised, with furniture from its former office re-used and the familiar olive-green colours retained. “We didn’t want any fancy stuff, or corporate hubris. ” Forbes Watson says it considered looking outside London, “but not for long”.
If there is an overall theme here, it is the people, whom Forbes Watson believes are Pan Mac’s single most important advantage to counter the threat of the bigger groups. “Publishers are not generic, the people are not infinitely substitutional. Publishing people are very specialised. I haven’t lost a single person in the course of this move. If we had moved to Croydon, say, which would have had a significant financial impact, we wouldn’t be the same company. If we moved to Manchester, we’d have had to start from scratch.” Did he consider a satellite office? “We are a mid-size company, we don’t have bits. Virtue signalling wasn’t one of the strategies of the move. The serious point is that at 11 a.m. last Monday, I talked to everyone here in one space. This is still a company that is one community.”
Under Forbes Watson, Pan Mac has been on a good run, with organic growth over 10 years of 155%. In 2018, Macmillan Publishers, which includes Pan Macmillan and its distribution centre MDL, reported sales of £118m. In Nielsen TCM terms it has grown to £76.2m, putting on 9.5% in 2018 to a market share of 4.7%—not quite in touching distance with HarperCollins, but a sizeable shadow. Rivals should note that its new building gives it 50% more space. “We’d outgrown New Wharf Road, so it wasn’t exactly strategic. We simply didn’t have enough room. The move wouldn’t have been possible without that growth, but this isn’t any sort of pat on the back, it is a statement of confidence in the future.”
Growth is key for Forbes Watson, even though, as he makes clear, Pan Mac could double in size and still be classed as a mid-size publisher. “People don’t come into trade publishing to sit in a boat in the middle of the ocean and wait for the winds to blow. You have to do some of the work yourself.”
The design, says Forbes Watson, is consistent with its guiding principle: not to be the biggest, but the best, a business that can flex up when necessary, but choose when to fight and when to withdraw. “If we tried to do everything PRH did, we would never succeed. You have to be strategically incisive. We have to know where we care, and where we don’t.”
Not standing still
Pan Mac’s remarkable run has extended into this year with a string of bestsellers, notably Kate Allinson and Kay Featherstone’s Pinch of Nom, and the paperback of Adam Kay’s This is Going to Hurt. Its biggest investment, Elton John’s Me, arrives on 15th October. Despite the disruption of the move, Forbes Watson feels it is well-timed. “Elton John would have sold brilliantly at any point in the past 10 years, but we are better placed now to optimise his sales than we ever have been.”
It is nevertheless a different type of publishing: when Pan Macmillan won Publisher of the Year in 2015, it followed a year in which it had no titles in the overall Top 50 bestsellers of the year—its strength was in its overall consistency. Now, as Forbes Watson says, it regularly captures 12%–20% of the Top 50 titles each week. But is he worried, as a mid-size publisher, about the costs associated with fishing in the waters already dominated by the bigger presses? Taste, he responds, is key. “As our world becomes more competitive, and more books are published every year and our channel choices don’t increase, so the complexity of decision making—judgments on the mix [of titles issued], what will and won’t sell—becomes more complex, and that’s a real issue. You have to believe in taste to challenge the paradigm: which is that, as content grows in cost, how do you become more profitable?”
After 11 years at the helm of Pan Macmillan, if Forbes Watson is considering leaving the building anytime soon, he does not hint at it: “I’m not really worried about stylish exits,” he says, when I ask if he wants to go at the top. “Besides,” he adds, “there’s always more. We have momentum, but I don’t take anything for granted.”