Dennis Publishing’s benefits strategy remains young at heart

With a range of car, technology and lifestyle titles, such as Bizarre, MacUser, Men’s Fitness, Women’s Fitness, The Week and Viz, Dennis Publishing is an organisation that attracts a young employee demographic: the average age of its 380 staff is 32.

Consequently, the magazine and digital content publisher has striven to offer a benefits package that fits this employee profile. Alison Hunter, HR director, says: “We are the first to admit we have never been above-average payers, so we try to put a lot of emphasis on the diversity and flexibility of our benefits. We’ve also tried to make sure they fit into what we are all about.”

Sabbatical scheme

One of Dennis’s most popular benefits is its sabbatical scheme. After serving five years with the organisation, employees receive a six-week-long paid career break. They can choose to take six weeks’ extra pay instead, or a combination of the two options.

Hunter says: “If it doesn’t suit their needs, if they’ve got kids or don’t want to take the time off, they can take the money. Or they can take half and half. It’s flexible.”

Some 15-20% of its employees take advantage of the sabbatical scheme each year. Of those, 40% take the full leave or a combination of the leave and extra pay. “It’s still a good take-up on leave, because that’s really what we’re aiming for,” Hunter adds.

Another popular perk is Dennis’s employee-of-the-year scheme, a recognition programme that allows managers and peers to vote for colleagues. Sixteen staff are shortlisted for the annual award across four categories with four nominations each, which is announced at the organisation’s Christmas party.

The runners-up receive £500 cash, and the winner gets a one-week, all-expenses-paid trip for two to founder Felix Dennis’s private house in Mustique in the Caribbean. “It is such a big part of our culture that [Dennis] offers his house free of charge,” says Hunter. “The guy from the post room won it one year and he had never been on a plane before.”

Family-friendly perks

Other reflections of Dennis Publishing’s diverse employee population are the family-friendly benefits and flexible-working opportunities it offers. Its maternity benefits include six months’ leave on 90% of salary once an employee has completed three years with the organisation; paternity leave is two weeks on full pay; and flexible-working arrangements are available for all staff.

“It is all discretionary and very malleable,” says Hunter. “We find a lot of the editorial staff, especially those who work on websites, get the motivation from knowing they can work at home. We’re talking about it all the time at board level because we know we have to be a lot more flexible, even though we are at the moment, in our thinking about the workforce.”

Dennis has had a flexible benefits scheme for five years, with an annual election window in April. Its Your Reward online platform, provided by Edenred, includes a group personal pension (GPP) plan, a bikes-for-work scheme, childcare vouchers and a discount scheme.

Your Reward, which aims to cater for employees’ diverse lifestyles, is highly valued and has excellent take-up. “We’ve had really good feedback,” says Hunter. “We do a staff survey around September or October every year, and we always ask questions about the platform. In 2012, 96% of staff said it was useful and provided all the information they needed, while 84% felt the benefits package suited their lifestyle needs.”

The flex scheme also includes access to private medical insurance (PMI) and a health cash plan. The PMI scheme, which is taken up by 140 staff, is subsidised by a £10-per-month employee payment. “The PMI market needs to rebrand itself,” says Hunter. “It’s a valuable benefit, but it doesn’t seem to appeal to staff.”

About 300 employees currently take up the health cash plan. Dennis pays for the first level for all staff, who can then choose to flex in further levels or include dependants.

Value for money

Dennis Publishing revamped its healthcare benefits three years ago. “Coming out of the recession in 2010, we made a real play towards health and wellbeing,” says Hunter. “We rebranded Your Reward and set up a whole new category for health and wellbeing. We introduced health screening, on-site massages, the health cash plan and an employee assistance programme.

“It was aligned with our messaging at the time, which was: ‘Times are tough, pay freezes are around, but we want to make sure the benefits package will look after your welfare as well as provide you with protection’. The benefits have delivered value for money tenfold since then.”

Two new flexible benefits were introduced during the 2013 enrolment window: a dental plan and a restaurant discount card. The 2014 enrolment window will focus on auto-enrolment and communicating the GPP. Dennis will reach its staging date in January 2014 but will postpone auto-enrolment to April 2014 to coincide with flex enrolment. With the pensions industry predicting 10% average opt-out levels, Hunter is not worried.

“We feel we’re on a pretty good footing,” she says. “We have 78% of employees in the pension, so we’re just talking about another 10-15% to close the gap. But it will have a financial hit. It comes into my thinking for next year: managing the cost versus value. I’ve got to maintain a robust approach. I can’t chop any other benefits because of auto-enrolment.”

Communication challenges

Hunter says the big challenge will be communication, which will begin in October 2013. Alongside Dennis’s traditional channels, such as emails and posters, it is planning to host workshops and presentations for all staff.

Hunter says: “We won’t just say, ‘we have to do this’. We will put a very positive spin on it. I think we’re in a better position to do that because we’ve got a narrow gap [between members and non-members].

“But it is that demographic, the first and second jobbers, who haven’t taken it up. It’s the £18,000 to £24,000 salary level. Somehow we’ve got to spin that we’re not just forcing them to join. We feel now is the right time for them to seriously consider it and here’s how we can support them. There’s also an education aspect. It’s really just myth busting.”

In the meantime, Dennis will continue to evolve its HR strategy alongside its business strategy, developing its benefits package and focusing on a high level of staff retention. “The organisation is two things: our products and our people,” says Hunter. “If our people are not growing with the times, and with us as we grow and develop, then it just becomes a vicious circle. The benefits play a large part in that.

“We know we have got a lot of different people who work here, in very different functions, and we don’t want a one-size-fits-all approach. It doesn’t work. “We’re privately owned, we’re non-corporate, and we want to remain as such. When we’re looking to retain people and attract new staff into the business, we really do put a big focus on that aspect. We don’t shoehorn people into roles. We have very fluid job descriptions. We make sure employees advance and change as the business does.”

Dennis at a glance

Dennis Publishing at a glance

Dennis Publishing is a multi-platform publisher, with more than 70 brands in print, online and digital editions.

Originally set up in a small garret in Goodge Street in London’s Fitzrovia in 1973 by Felix Dennis, the organisation is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

About 85% of its 380 employees are based at its headquarters in Cleveland Street, Fitzrovia, with some staff in London’s W2 and its specialist motoring portfolio based in Northamptonshire.

“Fitzrovia is our spiritual home,” says Hunter. “It’s an amazing area to work. It also gives us a brilliant marketing tool when we’re selling people into the company. This is where the heritage is.”

Dennis’s employee demographic is young, with an average age of 32. Its average length of service is 4.8 years and gender make-up is 60% male and 40% female.

Alison Hunter

Career history – Alison Hunter, HR director

HR director Alison Hunter is in her 14th year at Dennis Publishing. She joined the organisation as personnel manager in 1999. Since then, the HR function has grown from a one-woman band to a team of five. “Even though I have been here a long time, I have had three or four different roles as the HR function developed,” she says.

Hunter was instrumental in Dennis’s accreditation as one of The Sunday Times’ 100 Best companies to work for in 2007, 2008 and 2009. She adds: “We have taken that as a platform to really harness the culture.

“Through the function of HR, not as a back-office function but being very forward-thinking and aligned with the business, we’ve managed to make this a great place to work. The whole cultural change at Dennis has been driven mainly through some of the initiatives we have put in.”

The alignment of HR and the business is another key achievement in Hunter’s time at Dennis. “I’ve always been given lots of opportunity,” she says. “I’ve always striven for it and taken it with both hands, and felt as passionate as a publisher would be about the people I work with. They inspire me every day, the people who put together the magazines, who drive the brands forward.”

Hunter was previously an HR adviser at JT International for two years and began her career in HR at the Hammersmith NHS Trust.

Laura Paterson

Case study: Laura Paterson

Laura Paterson, head of data marketing at Dennis Publishing, has worked for the organisation for more than 12 years.

“Within the direct marketing team, I look after data protection, the data warehouse and offer a data marketing advice function,” says Paterson.

She cites childcare vouchers as the most useful benefit offered by Dennis Publishing because they are tax-free. “Anything that helps towards this expense is very welcome,” she says.

However, Paterson’s favourite benefit is the sabbatical scheme, which allows employees who have completed five years’ service with the organisation to take six weeks’ paid leave, receive six weeks’ extra pay, or take a combination of the two. “I have been lucky enough to have had two [sabbaticals],” says Paterson. “The first time I was able to take half the holiday and half the money, which we used to move house.

“For the second one, my entitlement to the six weeks’ holiday fell so that I could add it to the end of my maternity leave. The extra time with my son was lovely because it meant he was that bit older when I had to return to work.”

The benefits:


  • Group personal pension (GPP) scheme.
  • Employer matched contributions at 3%.
  • The pension scheme has take-up levels of 78%.
  • Auto-enrolment staging date is 1 January 2014, but auto-enrolment will be postponed to 1 April 2014 to coincide with the organisation’s annual flexible benefits enrolment window.


  • Private medical insurance (PMI) scheme.
  • Health cash plan.
  • Dental plan.
  • Health screening.
  • On-site massages.
  • Employee assistance programme (EAP).

Group risk

  • Group income protection offered as a core benefit.
  • Death-in-service cover provided as a core benefit.
  • Critical illness insurance available through voluntary benefits.


  • 28 days a year.
  • Six-week paid sabbatical after five years’ service.

Family-friendly benefits

  • Opportunities for flexible-working arrangements.
  • Childcare vouchers.
  • At least six month’s maternity leave paid at 90% of salary.
  • Two weeks’ paid paternity leave.

Other benefits

  • Season ticket loans.
  • Online discounts scheme.
  • Dining card.
  • Holiday purchase scheme, of up to three days.
  • Bikes-for-work scheme.
  • Employee recognition programme.
  • Discounts with local organisations.
  • £500 finder’s fee for referring new employees.