Behind the change at MPA

It’s taken me a while to get round to writing this in August 2017. In April, the Master Photographers Association dispensed with the non-contractual arrangement that Icon Publications Ltd should provide members with a bi-monthly magazine. This was once a written contract, with a six-month termination, but our uncertainty over whether MPA would survive back in 2013 led me to continue on an ad-hoc basis. Provided we were paid, the magazine would continue, and as always would be the best that we could create.

MPA’s exposure to risk was zero. Icon covered all expenses from one fixed fee. No reporting fees, no travel expenses, no hotel bills, no meals, no photography fees, no freelance outsourcing, no additional costs were charged to MPA. To cover costs we retained the proceeds of advertising, reduced now to one-third of its value fifteen years ago. Eventually what had been the work of three employees in an office of six became the one-man work of one remaining director – me! – doing everything from database entry to taking envelopes to the post, alongside the real work of planning, writing, design, production and management.

By 2016 Master Photography was over half my work and income, and about the same for our son Richard running an office in Leicestershire. The demands of an association magazine, with a diary of deadlines and involvement in events, are very different from those of a free entity like Cameracraft (my current bi-monthly magazine). In 2015 I gave up a one week a month design and production contract for British Photographic Industry News and suspended the quarterly Cameracraft, because MPA’s awards timing would have left me trying to produce four complete publications simultaneously. In 2016, for only the third time in 43 years, I didn’t attend the biennial Photokina exhibition in Germany. MPA’s awards weekend timing, changed entry deadlines and their need for an early November/December magazine to replace an early October awards night souvenir book (once produced by Graphistudio) had struck again. This special edition also cost more, and made less, as the contents had to be confidential and we could not sell the congratulatory advertisements once booked by the sponsors of the awards.

Like it or not, Master Photography and the MPA dominated my working and home life. Anyone who knows me is aware that I normally worked 10.00am to 6.00pm (the post going at 5.45pm) then a couple of stints later on, normally 9.30pm to 11pm with a final check on email and some clear time for uninterrupted writing or editing after 1am.

The commitment in reverse – from MPA – had always been similar under Colin and Linda Buck’s management. The two-hour drive to Darlington for meetings came often enough, but most of the work was by daytime, evening and weekend telephone and email. I knew exactly what MPA was planning and what was needed from the magazine. We all worked all hours and worked hard.

After the revolution

From early 2013 on and the end of the Bucks’ engagement with MPA, this changed. Meetings almost ceased; long useful telephone chats ended. The new incumbents had little interest and less time. Travel to events abroad seemed to be a priority. No-one asked for our help (which when given often benefited us equally) and by 2016 – a year of no editorial meetings at all – I felt MPA had ceased to function as we knew it. Any plans were all in someone’s head and communication by telepathy is not my strong point. We assigned our all-round helper, Diane, to call the regions before every edition and she reported the same – she was the only contact they were getting from MPA.

In mid-2016, summer, the already quiet lines went virtually dead. A great deal of energy was being put into changes in the Cherubs baby photography franchise. MPA owned this, and with a dwindling membership the sales lead fees from this were (I believe) paying the bills. Around 120-150 members were, in effect, the cash cows for the association. Cherubs had already funded the purchase and building of two office buildings in Darlington (assets owned now by the membership) but very few members understood how these sales lead fees and associated products like triple folios were in fact the financial backbone of MPA.

In October 2016 at the annual awards, the CEO announced her resignation from MPA to become the Chief Executive of Babycloud, a proposed web-based venture which would buy Cherubs from MPA. Because the awards demanded it, I pulled publication of the November/December magazine issue forward by three weeks (hence no vital Photokina trip). I then had six or seven weeks before the next issue. We got on with other work, grabbed a week’s holiday in Malta as our first break in the year, produced an issue of the newly merged f2 Cameracraft and then asked when the new CEO would be appointed.

Looking for answers

It was early November, and MPA was in limbo. I had a magazine to produce, which obviously needed news about the Babycloud launch and progress, and to introduce a new CEO with a parting valedictory from Clare Louise. But my calls went unanswered. I then started to look into the background of the Babycloud story (as a journalist). There’s no need to go into detail, but it became clear it had not gone as expected. The former CEO was incommunicado, no new one was being appointed, the MPA board was divided in opinions and there seemed to be a risk that the Cherubs contract – vital to the businesses of so many members – could be lost.

So, I did my job. I got on with the work of following up excellent story leads to create a strong January/February magazine issue. Greg Moment, Melanie East, Mark Bushkes, Stephanie Ann Thornton, Rachel Gillies, Ian Boichat, Sandra Ramp, Philip Barrett, Gemma Walker, Richard Bradbury, Graeme Webb, Stuart Wood… all members, all featured with anything from a single page to a full portfolio article.

And I left four pages to deal with the new CEO, the Babycloud deal and MPA’s plans for The Photography Show in March. By November 18th when the organisers of that show queried a deal made by MPA with them involving advertising space traded for stand space, time had already passed for some deadlines (meaning I had to give them f2 Cameracraft space in lieu in 2017 – for which I still need to recharge MPA at the time of writing this) and I learned that Clare Louise, though out of touch with me, was acting as de facto CEO despite having resigned. Three weeks later no clear information had reached me, and at this time (early December) I started to email and call MPA directors, and use Facebook to find out what was happening.

It’s a complex story, even this account is too long. I still can not entirely work out how and why Babycloud evaporated, whether or not individuals were privately negotiating with Bounty (the providers of the Cherubs and further pre-natal sales leads), whether the former CEO was acting officially or not (if at all) and which directors of MPA stood to gain or lose (if at all) from various outcomes (if any).

As my deadline approached before Christmas, in the week of December 9th to 16th a lot seemed to happen. Many of the MPA board members resigned, with talk of bullying or intemperate language on both sides. Steve Ramsden, of the Northern Region, was appointed interim chairman of a slightly changed board, to replace the resigned chair Paul Wilkinson. Suddenly communication began again on many fronts. A complete rescue plan for the potentially missing Bounty/Cherubs deal appeared and accordingly a single page article was agreed (and seen by both surviving and resigned directors, as involved) and approved for print.

December 16th Article

This is the article. I saved a PDF copy. You can read it for yourself, as it very nearly went to press. It would have been in print had it not been for my usual late advertising copy and the need to fill three more pages (remember, I had left four, expecting a big news splash about Babycloud, welcome for new CEO and message from Clare Louise).

Counter-revolution

However, things didn’t stand still. Just exactly how this worked, I remain unsure (I have chaired committees and never come across this). Somehow, the resigned directors overturned new regional appointments, un-resigned themselves and reversed play. Steve Ramsden and David Thexton resigned, and Ray Lowe, having remained as a director all along, became interim chairman. But the Facebook debate raged on – Cherubs was not confirmed. No-one was officially negotiating with Bounty (though I later learned several individuals may have been, independently and possibly at cross-purposes, along with outside third parties who were equally interested in the rights to these valuable sales leads).

With my magazine schedule (and my entire Christmas plans) completely disrupted for many days, on December 19th I decided I had to act. I wrote a fairly strong email to Bounty’s press officer, urging her company not to allow the MPA to be left hanging this way, as the association itself was at risk. This is not something I would normally do – MPA internal politics had proved toxic before. But I’m an Associate, and an Honorary Fellow, a member since 1981 and good if distant friend to hundreds of MPA members over the years. I’ve helped rescue and rebuild the association and offered all the help and advice I could give to those involved over many years, freely in every sense, when asked.

I did not want to see MPA continue down a path of demonising board members who tried to play by the rules, with those in control forming cliques or putting personal interests ahead of the good of the association.

On December 21st I received a mid-day telephone call from Dimple Chhabria of Bounty. She told me my email had been a prompt to reconsider the arrangement with photographers and with MPA, and that we could publish a statement in the magazine – and immediately on Facebook – to end the panic and rumours. By the end of the afternoon I had the official email, the wording, and had prepared Page 4 of the coming magazine.

December 21st Editorial

Then, between 6pm and 7pm (note – I wrote 4 to 5pm originally when this was first published, in fact all two hours later), I received calls from Clare Louise and Paul Inskip telling me that this news from Bounty had nothing to do with my email to them, that they had been negotiating behind the scenes all along, and I must not release the statement. I deleted the Facebook post which was ready to publish Ms Chhabria’s words on the MPA Members’ closed group, while speaking to Clare Louise.

On receiving this information, Ray Lowe clearly felt what Bounty proposed was going to undermine the Cherubs business. With 120 or more members apparently provisionally signed to spend £500 a month on leads and Bounty requiring a figure in the hundreds of thousands to provide these, a potential £700,000 plus business (which I think had been the attraction of the Babycloud idea) might disappear and with it the substantial margin that had supported MPA, its executives and staff and the activities of the board for many years. Ray immediately arranged to meet Bounty, and completely renegotiated the arrangements to secure Cherubs as a business operated by MPA, rather than a lead service accessed directly by members at no benefit to MPA. I believe he did exactly the right thing, and if the previous good news given to me by Bounty on the 21st was indeed negotiated by others (with or without authority) he had stepped in to save the day.

So – I then reworked the entire content relating to the board, meetings, changes and Bounty to remove all the complex history of the past month and place Ray Lowe as new interim chairman in charge of passing it for press. That, after all, was my job as editor. When Steve Ramsden was interim chairman the information prepared for press at that time was approved by him, and also by others mentioned (these are the previously unseen page proofs linked above). When that board stood down through resignations and Ray came in as new interim chair, it was his board’s information which was printed.

Shooting the messenger

However, what had been promised did not happen. Instead of an EGM at the end of January, there was an emergency board meeting immediately after the holiday break. Since no minutes are published, it’s not easy to know exactly what transpired, but it seems pretty clear that Clare Louise was reinstated back as CEO despite her actions in 2016 and her resignation to become CEO of Babycloud – the venture which would have taken over the Cherubs turnover and had promised MPA funding to hold the necessary Cherub partners meeting, along with valuable sponsorship for the 2016/17 awards. Future funding for MPA had also been written into those plans. I do not know if MPA ever received any payment.

I admit freely that I made my view known to the new interim chair and board members, that a new CEO – preferably a professional association administrator not a photographer – should be appointed as originally planned. I believe that having a Chairman and a President is enough for an association of 700 or so professionals, and there was no need for a figurehead CEO. I was looking forward to an association secretary working for the board from the Darlington office… to quarterly or monthly meetings, to proper planning and advance information, attendance and reporting from board meetings, and a revival of active recruitment of British professional members to match the remarkable growth of the SEAsia and Chinese membership.

At the early January AGM, it now transpires that one of the first things Clare Louise did was to ask to put the magazine contract out to tender. She secured a unanimous vote supporting this. At this stage, I was not aware of this decision. I was told later.

The long-delayed March 19th EGM which by default had Clare Louise as CEO did not discuss any of this. Its main purpose was to confirm Ray Lowe as Chair along with other board positions. It was well attended, and I was there. I’m a professional journalist and editor, for many years a successful retained PR consultant and I can work with anyone even if I do not agree with their views. I did not always agree with Colin Buck but he was always honourable enough to sit down and talk about it.

I did not raise any point, or question the board’s appointments, or Clare Louise’s position. It was not my place to do so. Nor did anyone else, including Steve Ramsden whose brief period as interim chair placed him in a difficult position relating to confidentiality. He respected that confidentiality at the EGM.

However, my deference to playing by the rules proved ill-founded. Immediately after the end of The Photography Show, Clare Louise emailed on March 22nd to say I must submit a competing tender for the magazine. When I asked for the tender documents this minimal response came back (in bold below – this was the total tender brief – must have taken the CEO many hours to write). Some of these points of it are pretty empty business-speak, and others should be taken for granted from any publisher. None of this constitutes a proper tender request:

We are looking to deliver a membership communication that performs for the organisation and its members.

  • Share content on all channels that a member wants to engage 
  • Increase membership retention and acquisition
  • Provide value offerings to our trade partners
  • A redesign and content refresh to embody the MPA’s values
  • A comprehensive time line and flat plan for the magazine 
  • Any added value on offer to the MPA 
  • Keep within our £36k budget

The deadline for receipt of the tender was April 5th, little more than a two-week window, and apparently three or four other publishers were invited. I would emphasise that to do this without a single discussion with the existing publisher, with no meetings and nothing other than the above is more than unusual. My response was equally unusual (maybe too many words to say – surely you are taking the p*ss, look what you are getting, why do you want to lose it?). Please remember that UK MPA Fellows and Associates were being sent f2 Cameracraft completely free, a £35.70 value incentive we gave to MPA in the hope they could use it to encourage upgrading. But, as with our brief period of sending all members the second magazine free in 2015, MPA management did nothing to use it. It’s difficult to exploit a marketing benefit when you do no marketing at all. Still, we continued to send the extra magazine to A & F members.

Revision August 17th: I provided a preamble on March 24th to Ray Lowe, with the option to send this directors and regions, which he did in due course do. Therefore, all the directors and regional chairs had this information. It’s involved and dense because this is not a simple issue.  I now attach this here.

MPA-tender-preamble 2

I submitted a tender proposal which was the reverse of the brief bullet points, and gave reasons for suggesting changes. My tender reduced MPA’s expenditure by £6,000 immediately and was for four quarterly issues plus an Annual, slightly differently timed to fit in better with MPA’s normal diary of happenings.

mpsproposaldoc

On April 9th I was informed the next Master Photography (the one being worked on) was my final issue. No period of notice was requested or given. I have been told, since then, that discussion about the magazine between representatives of MPA and Future Publishing, the operators of The Photography Show, was heard during the show. I’ve never heard from any other publisher that they were invited to tender, and you can be sure I have made enquiries through my network of contacts and friends in the industry.

The decision to make a change I could accept; this is business. There’s no right after 22 years running a magazine to continue to do so, though a couple more issues would have seen me neatly to collecting my state pension and given MPA the semblance of having done this with good grace.

A clean slate

What followed was harder to explain. Normally, when a magazine changes hands in this way the previous publisher has some capital in the business, some goodwill or assets. They may also have liabilities. Signed-up subscribers likely to renew are an asset for a new publisher, but fulfilling their remaining issues is a liability for the outgoing one. So it’s normal to pass on subscribers. They continue to get their magazine, they move to the new owner, the circulation remains and the relaunch can add even more if well marketed. The outgoing publisher, in return, has no refunds to make.

I actually gave many MP subs free with f2 Cameracraft. Why? Because they cost me nothing. MPA had an agreement based on the magazine budget covering 1,600 members, the number it had when we changed from a formal ‘per member’ contract price to a fixed fee. As the membership fell from its high of around 2,000 fifteen years ago, we needed the equivalent of £2.15 per copy per member (12 copies a year). Then we settled on £3k a month and ten issues a year. Finally, with membership down to under half that baseline, we reworked the magazine with new printing systems (deeply regretting the need to move from our printers of 25 years’ service) and six editions a year. But Royal Mail asks for 1,000 minimum to secure Publishing Mail discounts – worth 65p on every copy. Printing under 1,000 is also not economical, and bad for our advertisers. So, we maintained the 1,600 run and the mailing, giving hundreds of subscriptions promotionally as they effectively cost nothing and maintained our readership so we didn’t have to lie to advertisers.

The advance advertising bookings are another asset. The outgoing publisher can not just transfer these to another title. In our case, many advertisers had dual series booking. They had a rate calculated on twelve insertions in the year, six in Master Photography, six in Cameracraft. This can’t be amended. Most would expect to be contacted for their advertising copy, and some helped with production of copy. So it’s usual for the new publisher to take on the confirmed repeat and advance advertising, and usually to pay a commission for the benefit of not having to sell this space again (it’s usually 25 to 30% of net).

But when I raised this through Clare Louise I got a same-day response of ‘no’ all round. The new publisher, unknown at that point, was not interested at all in subscribers or advertising. At this point, we seriously considered continuing Master Photography as an independent title, but concluded it would be destructive and negative to do this. As an MPA member, it would be unprofessional conduct, and no matter how unprofessionally others behave I try to run my life and business fairly.

Soon I learned that Future Fusion, the contract-publishing wing of Future, would be handling the title. I therefore tried contacting them by email directly (my emails were ignored). So I called their group publisher, known for many years, and discussed this with him. He made enquiries and confirmed there was to be no handover of subscribers or advertising, no continuity.

I had also offered the new editor all my production archives, over ten years of complete editions, all the logos, text files, pages and information needed to service the MPA account properly. This was turned down. I had not asked for payment. I was told they wanted to start with ‘a clean slate’.

When the replacement magazine appeared from the contract house, they’d cut the paper weight down to get below 250g postage (though the tender, I was assured, was to provide like for like). All the main MPA information was removed. No regions (just one with a big coverage – Clare Louise’s own West Midlands), no diary, no board contacts listed with the emails and phone numbers. In fact most of the statutory information you are supposed to print in a magazine was absent, no ISSN, no named publisher, no publisher’s address, no disclaimers or copyright notice.

One new Licentiate was featured, two major articles were about widely published non-MPA photographers – with the cover feature a re-work of an October 2016 interview in another Future title. Some business articles, of the type every editor gets offered daily, were featured and graphics rather than photography used to pad out the minimal text. The entire magazine contained under 9,000 words compared to over 21,000 in a typical issue of mine – and equally fewer images, though the savings in space by not having much other content did allow a nice big members’ gallery section.

There was, indeed, a second feature in the issue on an existing MPA member – Anthony Rew. He’s a good motorsport photographer. In fact he is so good that someone in MPA had forgotten that Anthony was the subject a six-page portfolio and interview just two years ago in the magazine, and probably recommended that the new editor should contact him. Since they had no archives, they wouldn’t know that many of the pictures had been used before. This is something we just never do! Some other deserving MPA photographer missed out on being featured, Anthony (who is a really nice guy and not to blame) got his story run twice.

anthonyrew the story from May/June 2015 Master Photography

And then, the new publisher not only wasted a full page on a huge typo-graphic of the awards date, but got the month wrong.

As for our subscribers, they once added 40% extra to the magazine circulation, over and above MPA members. Gone. And the advertisers? Several are baffled and frustrated that their regular advertising did not appear and they were not contacted. At least one decided not to appear as their agreed rate was not passed on, and they were asked for double. Instead of building on our regular supporters of the MPA magazine, the new publishers appear to have lost advertising.

All I can say is that this handover has not been a handover, and what is expected of a new publisher – a big effort to impress and meet the contract client’s needs – does not seem to be present. At least to my eyes. I’m sure it will improve but really this huge company, the most successful photographic publisher in the UK, should have blown everything I have ever done completely away. I’m just a bloke with a desk and Mac sitting at home. They have nine executive positions listed and four outside contributors. I look forward to seeing the fruits of some real hard work and diligence in future editions of Master Photographers.

That ends well?

Finally, it’s taken me a long time to put this on record, and by keeping it long and detailed I know it will not be read much. I have moved on, another photographic association has teamed up with Icon Publications Ltd giving us three times as many more photographers as MPA, and buying in Cameracraft for their entire membership. Our first issue with this new readership achieved 25% more advertising than Master Photography’s final one, 285% more readers and I’m really enjoying the variety of photographic genres and the fresh attitude from The Guild of Photographers. Many of my old MPA friends are members there, too. And it’s growing, and it’s a real UK organisation.

I have an email from one of those involved at MPA thanking me for my work over more than two decades but making it clear that my speculations on Facebook, in particular, which proved to be the only way I could uncover what was happening, were the reason they had to get rid of me. I had enabled others to ‘twist the knife’: I suspect that simply knowing too much and having my own opinions was sufficient reason.

Much of the advice I gave at the beginning of 2017 has been acted on, especially the renewed status of the regions. Ray Lowe has proved that a properly active volunteer MPA Chairman does away with the need for a ‘chief executive officer’. The new magazine proves that MPA never really needed a magazine, because if it’s considered OK or even thought to be better, that just says that 75% of my time and my staff and family’s time over the last 22 years devoted to it was completely wasted (the replacement proved to be a magazine issue which would take about a quarter of the time to put together as well as costing about 40% less to print and mail).

No contract publisher is ever going to do what we did for MPA again, and the dream of at least one director to dispense with print and move the budget to the web will one day be realised. It’s pity they did not issue a real tender, detailing the precise level of service and product quality we provided. Last time they did that many years ago the contract publishing industry wanted £13,000 per issue to tackle what we provided for under £4,000. And you can bet they wouldn’t have paid their own hotel bill for the awards or sent staff to cover press launches, regional events and trade shows without asking a penny extra for time or expenses.

The demise of print, of course, is the fate that could await all professional photography. One day nothing will be printed – unless the profession promotes and defends printing, hard copy, stuff you can hold and keep, in all forms. It’s what I have tried to do and it is a medium I love.

There is, of course, no going back. I suppose that MPA’s board might have viewed a monthly £3,000 bill as like a photographer losing one wedding a month, or a couple of portraits. I produced the MPA magazine from 1984 to 1989, and then again from 1995 to 2017. In a way I’d love to attend their 2017 annual awards, and indeed their AGM, but I won’t. From now on, I’m on the outside looking in on the association – not on the inside looking out for the association.

– David Kilpatrick FBIPP AMPA Hon.FMPA

Addition August 20th: on the MPA member forum, a director who had been so upset by his lack of judgment in 2016 that he broke down on the phone when talking to me and admitted he had been in tears about it, has suggested that members need to be positive. The revival of the regions is cited as a great positive move forward. I agree, and I had been pressing for this for years (including the restoration of capitation, funds given by MPA HQ to regions to enable event planning). In conversation with Ray Lowe, I emphasised this as the single most important factor in restoring MPA growth. I also made certain other points very clear. It’s fair to say that Ray took action in 2017 on the regions, frequency of qualifications and more. It is possible that others gave exactly the same advice. I just want this on record.

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4 Responses to Behind the change at MPA

  1. Well written and detailed, wouldn’t have expected anything else, but incredibly sad state for our profession to be in. Just how can someone drag down an Association while getting paid by it? Its beyond comprehension.
    Thanks for taking the time to write it and let’s hope all the membership bother to read it and take note.
    All the best for your new venture – it seems like a great idea 😊

  2. I am not an MPA member and whilst lengthy, I actually read all of this article. There are politics in all associations and it is never possible to please everyone. However, there should always be a commitment to behave in a professional manner and in the best interests of the association. Clearly this did not happen here and I can totally understand why you chose to speak out. A very well written article.

  3. Not a member of any professional photography organisation, and the politics behind as well as those in front are the reasons why. However the treatment you’ve been given isn’t warranted, especially after the work you have pout into not only the magazine but the profession as a whole as well.

  4. Tony Freeman says:

    It’s a worry that people in power can get things so wrong . Not sure what the thinking was behind the decision but the MPA have really lost a stalwart of the profession and an incredible service. There is always someone who complains about the magazine that organisations provide proving that you cannot please everyone but I am amazed the directors have made the decision that seems to be a disastrous disadvantage for members of one of the major benefits of membership.

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