The Big Issue’s big pivot 

‍Group CEO Paul Cheal joined The Big Issue just a few weeks before the pandemic hit. He tells us what went on in the ‘war room’
Paul Cheal
Big Issue magazine seller with magazine

In the UK there are 14.6m people in poverty (after housing costs). My job is to make sure we’re harnessing all the power of The Big Issue brand to support them with training and development opportunities, as cost effectively as possible. Our business model is under threat, so it’s my job to create more modern applications of the brand to support the most vulnerable people in UK society. 

Magazine vending is in our DNA but pre-pandemic we were already facing headwinds: the decline of the high street, an increasingly cashless society, and the steady decline of print media. There were many more people to engage and a digital strategy to roll out. Then overnight on 18th March 2020, vendors were no longer allowed to trade on the streets. That meant 75% of our revenue and 100% of our 1,700 vendors’ revenue and earning potential was switched off. 

Everyone has been shafted by the pandemic, but few organisations have faced such an existential threat. Lockdown took my challenge from abstract theory to day-to-day reality. 

It’s a cliché but a truism that people react with fight or flight. Our conversations ranged from “Let’s close shop and come back in 18 months” to “Let’s accelerate our business model and find a way to survive”. Ultimately, the job we do is too important [to stop]. The magazine has to continue campaigning for the most vulnerable people, who are over-affected by Covid. 

We went into war room mode – fast. In one weekend, we completely reinvented the business and it was 100% teamwork. We all knew we weren’t going to let The Big Issue fall over. We said, “We’re going to do this quickly. If we fail, we’ll fail fast and we’ll find another way.” There was no beard stroking, only rapid decision making. We didn’t have time to mastermind or programme manage.

We pulled every favour we could out of the bag – beg, borrow and steal. We moved The Big Issue into shops for the first time ever. We set up deals with Sainsbury’s, Co-op, McColl’s, Asda, Waitrose and others. Some retailers let us into stores for free. Corporate sponsors gave us significant financial support, because of the role The Big Issue plays in society. We submitted funding applications. We exhausted every contact in our books. 

We immediately focused on turning bedrock supporters into magazine subscribers. Our existing subscriber offer was messy and only used by 200 customers, so we optimised the user journey, brought in a new fulfilment house and relaunched our subscriptions.

The single greatest thing we achieved in the last year was getting more than £1million to vendors, through subscriptions and consumer and corporate fundraising. Even more important than the £1m was the emotional connection we maintained with those vendors. Our frontline staff made 2,000 support calls to them in the 2020 lockdowns, and 45% of those were about financial support.

Loads of celebrities created videos for their social media channels, helping us get our message out. Armando Iannucci, Chris Packham, Christopher Eccleston, Aisling Bea, Floella Benjamin, Michael Sheen and many more got behind us. We received an outpouring of support from the public. Within 45 days, 10,000 people had paid cash upfront for a three-month subscription.

We kept learning and we were responsive. We improved our messaging around the impact that subscriptions have on our wider mission. We created a virtual map so that customers could direct 50% of their subscription to their local vendor, as it does when they buy the magazine on the street. We now have 6,000- plus subscribers on longterm direct debits. In 18 months we’ve gone through five years of transformation and are a much stronger organisation. We continued to publish every week during the year, and doing this gave us a platform for new types of digital and physical distribution. It allowed us to continue campaigning for our vendors and those most affected by Covid. Our social media and digital reach both radically expanded: unique site visits are up 73%.

The award I’m most proud of is the PPA Award for Best Response to Covid-19. It encapsulates everything we’ve had to do to ensure the viability of The Big Issue. Covid brought out the best in our teams, enabling us to diversify revenue streams, improve our editorial proposition, reach a larger number of vulnerable people and re-base our business model for future growth. The awards we’ve won are only the tip of the iceberg, though. They’re recognition for where we’ve travelled so far, not what’s left to do. We’re still early in the journey.

Our mission for the next five years is to help one million vulnerable people get back into society and employment. Our mantra is ‘A hand up, not a handout’. We’re about helping people to help themselves, and we’re looking at growth areas in the economy where The Big Issue can give a hand up. We’re thinking about the green economy and furthering employment opportunities. We’re working on better integrating support into communities, such as e-bikes coming to Bristol this autumn.

The idea to create a magazine that vulnerable people can sell on the streets was a stroke of genius 30 years ago. Now, I’m more interested in fast forward and what that will look like 30 years from now. 

This is an extract from ‘Now for the tricky bit’. As told to Gemma Stafford. This book features leaders from Bupa UK, Octopus, The Big Issue and more. After a year like no other, businesses have been given a chance to reset, re-evaluate and reimagine their futures. Download, or hard copy, available free from Fluxx

Written by
Paul Cheal
Written by
April 4, 2022