Under the Radar with Neil O'Brien

Louisa Cavell

This week I spoke with Neil O'Brien, Commercial Director at NLA media access, a publisher owned rights licensing and database business, about a lengthy career in publishing on both sides of the table, the importance of staying true to yourself and coming full circle in his career...

Neil O'Brien

What made you want to work in the magazine industry?
I'd worked on a magazine at university, and I'd worked on a magazine at school, so I had some exposure, and I just love magazines. When the opportunity came up to go onto a graduate training program at IPC it was fantastic. The thing that was unusual at that time is that it was an all-round opportunity to learn about magazine publishing. I did everything from visiting newsagents through to working on the Editorial floor, through to working on the Marketing and Advertising sales. I got that all-round sort of exposure to magazine publishing.

Can you chart your journey from when you started out to your current position?

My background is as a magazine publisher, I started at what was IPC, now TI Media, as a graduate trainee. Until coming to the NLA, my entire career was as a magazine publisher.

I worked in contract publishing, or custom publishing for a while. I worked in the Financial Times on their business magazines. I worked at Puzzler Media, and from Puzzler, which was then acquired by DC Thomson, I ran a business they owned down in Cheltenham called This England Publishing. Then I went up to Dundee and was publishing all the magazines for DC Thomson that they had. Everything from The People's Friend through to the Beano.

I live down in London and was looking for a reason to move back to London and be nearer to home, and then the opportunity came up at NLA.
NLA fits primarily in-between publishers, we collectively represent publishers with media monitoring organizations, and other people that want to own a license to be able to copy content for media monitoring purposes. The NLA only used to represent newspapers, it now represents magazines as well.

Basically we return money back to publishers, and we're now growing the money that we return to magazine publishers.
Do you have a go-to work outfit?

I've got a suit, and I wear it, but it depends on what you're doing. Obviously, we deal a lot with the newspapers, and suits still tend to be the norm in a newspaper environment. Magazines, I think, are much more relaxed in their dress code.

What do you turn to when you’re on deadline – tea/coffee/snacks?

Having worked in publishing where you've got deadlines pretty-much all day, every day, I think it's just the norm, so I wouldn't say that I necessarily turn to anything. One of the excitements of working in any kind of news media is that you're dealing, almost constantly, with deadlines of some sort and that’s what I enjoy.

What's the most unusual situation you've found yourself in because of your job?

When I was working on NME, on the marketing side, they sponsored a debate at the Oxford University Union, which was, “Has rock and roll lost its balls?”.

I ended up driving a guy called Stephen Wells, who was an anarchist poet, but he was also a writer on the NME, up to Oxford for him to speak at this debate. He was a proper anarchist, a proper angry man, and hated capitalism and given that I was a Management trainee, I must have been the absolute antithesis of everything he believed in, but we had a really good chat on the way up there.

He was a brilliant journalist, and unfortunately, he passed away, he was far too young. It was fascinating, just that kind of complete view and through university I don't think I'd met anyone kind of quite so angry, but his anger was for the right reasons, I think.

What would people be surprised to know about your job?

I think within the publishing world that there are still a lot of people unaware that the NLA exists, and the job that we do. I think it’s because we're very much behind the scenes and we just quietly get on with doing our job. We're obviously a sponsor of the PPA, and part of the reason we do that is so that the right people understand that we exist, and that we are force of good for publishers.

Walk me through your typical day.

That’s the fun of the job, it can be everything from working with either a new publisher, or a new group of publishers, in terms of new services and ways that we can help them protect their content, how they can monetize their content. Sometimes it will be newspaper and magazine-focussed, some days it will very much be dealing with trade associations.

I also look after our sales operation down in Tunbridge Wells, and I do two days a week there.

There really isn't a typical day because while we don’t have a deadline like a publication date we do have constant deadlines and more time to do some developmental work. Our eye is always on how can we maximise the revenues that we're gaining for the publishers.

How has being a member of the PPA helped you/added value to your brand?

Having the PPA, as that sort of professional trade association that is looking to make sure that best practice is consistent across the magazine publishing industry, obviously we want to support that, and the more thriving the publishing industry is, the better it is for everyone.

If you didn’t have to sleep, how would you use the remaining hours in the day? 

I'd learn to make wine.

What is the last photo you took on your phone (at time of interview)? Why?

It's really embarrassing, it's a picture of a carpet shop. We're looking to get a new stairs carpet, and there was a carpet shop that had a set of stairs in there; it's a picture of that.

Neil O'Brien last photo

What's your guilty pleasure? 

It's got to be the Mail Online.

Whose phone number do you wish you had?

This is a really tricky one, but I think I would really like to have Donald Trump's telephone number just because, wouldn't it be fascinating? Wouldn't you just love to know what really and truly is going on?

I have no political allegiance there, but just that if I had his number, to phone him up and have a chat.

What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Fairly early on, somebody said to me that if you work in publishing you're going to change jobs quite a bit, and you should sometimes look at that as an opportunity to re-invent yourself.

Actually, that is the worst thing. I think the great thing with publishing, and the people in publishing, is that you'll meet the widest range of people and personalities and everyone is desperately passionate about what they want to do. I think if you're going to do something like that you can only go in and be successful at it if you are being yourself. Don't try and make yourself into something you're not.

What/where is your happy place?

It's in my garden talking to my chickens; I’ve got five with strong female names. At the moment we've got Kylie, Madonna, Whitney, Audrey and Marilyn.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I once appeared in a photo story in Jackie magazine. It’s funny how things go around, with me 35 years later,being at DC Thomson, which had been the publisher of Jackie magazine. I’ve still got the issue!

What would be in your Room 101?

I think probably foxes, because then they wouldn't eat my chickens.

Introvert or extrovert?


Optimist or pessimist?


Film or television? What are you binge-watching at the moment?

TV. I’m watching Westworld at the moment.

Sweet or savoury?


Morning person or night owl?


Tea or coffee?


Emojis – cool or cringey? Which emoji do you use the most?

I don't use emojis


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