creativebrief: How are you tackling the trend towards a cashless society?
Russell Blackman: Although our print sales continue to buck print media trends, and we’re paid for, not free remember, the way in which people consume and buy media continues to develop and change. It is vital that we develop the right contactless solution for our vendors, ensuring that they can get instant access to their funds, even if they don’t have their own bank account due to a lack of permanent address. As we work to draw in a wider and younger community, we must ensure we are developing a solution that overcomes the obvious barriers to entry - people not carrying cash - and one that allows for spontaneous and opportunistic street sales. There is interesting development going on within the blockchain and crypto currency space at the moment and The Big Issue is currently seeking out the most effective routes to market. Watch this space.
creativebrief: What is the biggest challenge facing the Big Issue
Russell Blackman: The Big Issue is much more than you think it is. I don’t tire of painting a full picture!
The magazine is now into its 27th year and is very much part of the social fabric of our society. However, it’s a business that remains frequently misunderstood by the public. One of our greatest challenges has always been tackling misconceptions around our work, our vendors and our business model.
The Big Issue is not a charity. It doesn’t rely on any grants or fundraising activity. We’re a social business and we generate all our income through commercial activity, whether that is copy sales, advertising, e-commerce or other business initiatives. Profits generated are invested back into the business, to fuel our mission.
Our vendors are running their own micro enterprises. They buy the magazine up front from The Big Issue and then sell those copies. The difference is their earnings. They don’t receive magazines for free nor do they work on sale or return. They rely on customers buying and taking the magazine to provide a living. Our vendors use the The Big Issue as a tool to help solve their own problems and work their way out of poverty. Some customers will often give money to local vendors but not take the magazine. It is well meaning, but it’s the antithesis of what we stand for. It turns vendors from workers, proud and making positive life decisions, into beggars. It also means that The Big Issue misses out on the commercial opportunity to reinvest revenues to do more in our local communities.
The Big Issue also works in many ways, other than the magazine, whether that be brand extensions such as our e-commerce platform or our industry leading social investment banking arm, Big Issue Invest. Set up in 2005 as the social investment arm of The Big Issue, Big Issue Invest exists to further our activities and reach by financing the growth of sustainable social enterprises and charities. Our aim is to continue supporting organisations that are seeking to make a positive difference for people and communities across the UK. We offer social enterprises, charities and profit-with-purpose businesses, loans and investment from £20,000 to £3 million and have now invested over £30 million in over 300 business nationwide and currently manage or advise on a total of £170 million worth of social funds. These investments are not generated from magazine sales but are sums managed on behalf of other major banking organisations or high net worth individuals and then loaned.
Our challenge is to continue to raise awareness of the various ways The Big Issue supports the most vulnerable in society, other than it being just perceived as a magazine that homeless people sell.
creativebrief: What work has excited you most this year?
Russell Blackman: The most satisfying piece of work I have been involved in during the last year was embarking upon a strategic partnership with Southampton Football Club.
The club wanted to raise awareness of the Saints Foundation, their charitable arm, which aims to create opportunity for the most vulnerable in their local community. They wanted to amplify their work, and also show how The Big Issue and they share core, key values.
To launch the partnership we produced a special Saints FC edition of The Big Issue for the first game of the 2017/2018 season. It was sold in Southampton and around the wider Hampshire area by vendors and also some of Southampton’s first team players in the week leading up to the match. It also acted as the programme for that first game of the season and our Big Issue vendors worked as official programme sellers on that day.
In addition, we created an employability programme for Big Issue vendors living and working in the area. Through an eight-week programme, vendors were able to learn a variety of different roles and experiences that are on offer within the club and as a result four vendors completed the course and have since been offered jobs within security and hospitality teams.
It was a huge success and had global media reach. It allowed Saints to align their brand and work with a highly credible and trusted voice and it meant that The Big Issue could communicate its key messages to an audience that wouldn’t normally engage with us.
That week’s edition sold 20 times that of a regular edition in the local area and it resulted in a three-fold increase in Southampton’s match day programme sales.
Through collaborative partnerships, events and digital projects we aim to grow our customer base further and encourage widespread and ongoing commitment for people to support their local vendors and wider social ventures, reinforcing our vision of a society empowered and encouraged to take responsibility for positive change.