JAMES FREEDMAN is reliving the glory days. When he set up the Manchester United magazine in the 1990s he knew all the stars. He even had an early interview with David Beckham.
“We had exclusive access to all the players,” he recalls. “We got behind the scenes and did amazing photo shoots. It was a quality magazine for the fans.”
Circulation of the publication (later renamed Inside United) peaked at 169,000 a month with editions in 11 languages and sales in Scandinavia, Thailand and China. By the turn of the millennium its time at the top was coming to an end, however. The internet was changing the way football fans gathered news and gossip.
“Fan forums and websites were feeding an insatiable hunger for club news on a minute-by-minute basis,” said Freedman, who sold the publication, trading under Zone Publishing, in 1999 to Future for £2m. “I saw then that the internet was going to revolutionise the way brands communicated with customers.”
The decision to sell led the way to Zone, the digital agency Freedman founded with his wife Anna Kissin in 2000. Its internet advertising for BT, Coca-Cola, Tesco and Prostate Cancer UK, has pushed sales to £10.3m, with profits of more than £260,000 in 2013. The company expects to report revenues of about £17m for last year.
Zone offers a range of services, including social media management, designing and building websites, and content creation from videos to blogs and games. It has been working with Coca-Cola since 2011, spearheading the drink company’s Share a Coke campaign and its sponsorship of the 2012 Olympics.
“Any time you see Coca-Cola on any digital platform — a website, Facebook, Twitter — we have created that interaction,” said Freedman.
His latest project with Tesco is educating children on the origin of supermarket foods. Zone has linked up with Google’s Connected Classrooms platform to post online virtual tours of plantations and food factories all over the world. “The idea is that once you understand the provenance of food you are more likely to have a better relationship with it,” he said.
Zone, based in King’s Cross, north London, employs 180 staff with offices in Bristol, Berlin and Cologne. In January the company took a £6m investment from the Business Growth Fund, the government-backed investor, to help with the next stage of expansion.
“We’ve built the business brick by brick over the years,” said Freedman, who is executive chairman. “There’s a huge demand for companies of our expertise — to build on our capabilities purely through cash flow would be too expensive now.” Zone’s early clients were mainly media companies, including the BBC, The Economist, Yahoo and Channel 4. Today it has a wider base. “Brands started to realise they would need to act more like media owners and build a direct digital relationship with their customers to survive,” said Freedman. “The market has moved towards us.”
Freedman grew up in Hampstead, London, where he attended University College School. His mother was a housewife and his father a businessman who worked in a variety of areas, from clothes retailing to football clubs, including Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United. “He exposed me to entrepreneurship at a young age,” said Freedman.
Freedman read classics at Queens’ College, Cambridge. “I was very academic but had no real sense of what I was going to do.”
On graduating in 1987 he tried his hand at film making, getting jobs as a runner and then as an assistant film editor in Soho. In 1990 he won a scholarship for an MFA in screenwriting and film directing at the University of California in Los Angeles. Despite the help, he “ran out of money” after a year.
He moved to New York, where he met his wife, and was working in an art gallery when he received a call from his father Edward, then merchandising director at Manchester United.
“Dad was thinking about producing a magazine for the club, but going through the larger publishers hadn’t worked,” said Freedman. “I offered to produce one for a few thousand pounds using desktop publishing — and they loved it.”
He moved back to London with Kissin, and with two university friends set up the publication from his bedroom in Belsize Park. “We were young; we didn’t have any financial commitments or children, so it was a risk worth taking.”
He has never forgotten his early roots in football. When he sold Zone Publishing nearly a decade after launching it, he also founded icons.com, a website dedicated to selling signed football memorabilia. “I could see there was a huge demand and the internet was a very effective means of tapping into a global audience of football fans,” he said. “I sold icons.com to the management team in 2010 as I wanted to focus on building Zone.”
Freedman lives in Hampstead with his wife, who is also Zone’s finance director. They have two children. His advice to entrepreneurs is: “Understand the rewards but also the risks and, where possible, how best to avoid them. Business shouldn’t be a big gamble — as Woody Allen says, 80% of success is turning up.”