Jack offers lads a mature role model

New title Jack aims to reinvent the ailing ‘lads’ mag’, but its rivals seem happy to stick to the hackneyed ‘sex sells’ formula, reports Sonoo Singh

The “lads’ mag” market, if not the age of the readership, is maturing, and the main flagwavers for bare breasts and lager-fuelled antics are becoming ever more desperate in their measures to maintain tottering circulations.

IPC Media’s latest marketing ploy for Loaded is to line up five regional covers for its October issue, each featuring a model with a link to that part of the country. The stunt goes head on against EMAP’s FHM “High Street Honeys” campaign, which includes a national search to find the Top 100 non-celebrity women to feature in the magazine.

Meanwhile, Jack, which some hope will be the saviour of the men’s magazine market, is about to go monthly from October. The magazine, from publishing house I Feel Good (IFG) and edited by Loaded founder James Brown, positions itself as the step forward for the original Loaded readership, now into their 30s. However, observers have serious doubts about marketing support for the product and its innovative (read Glamour-style) A5 format.

The rise of men’s magazines was spearheaded by the launch of Loaded and FHM in 1994 and consolidated by the arrivals of Maxim and Front. With editorial devoted to drinking, football, Britpop and naked female “totty”, the lads’ mags increased their sales to a combined average circulation of 2.8 million copies a month by 2000.

Since then, the sector has experienced a steady fall in circulations and advertising revenues. The Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABCs) January to June 2002 figures show that the men’s titles still sell more than 2.3 million copies a month, but bulks and free copies pad that figure.

Loaded recently saw sales stabilise slightly, with 0.1 per cent growth for the first six months of this year compared to the same period in 2001, and 1.2 per cent year on year to a circulation of 309,041. FHM, the only title in the sector not to include bulks or free issues in its total circulation figure, slumped 17.1 per cent year on year but inched up 1.8 per cent period on period to a monthly circulation of 580,738.

In the past two years the sector has seen closures, including IPC Media’s Later and Cabal Communications’ Mondo, and revolving doors for editors – Front being the latest to change helmsman after Cabal sacked editor Piers Hernu in June.

Jack is staking its flag on higher ground as it enters this monthly battleground. It does not feature scantily clad models on its covers and the editorial content is wider ranging, with even the softcore erotica more imaginative and adventurous. The title describes itself as “an adventure magazine for grown-ups”.

However, media buyers believe Jack could founder due to a lack of marketing. IFG claims it has invested £750,000 in marketing Jack this year, but that is small beer for a new magazine launch. The company last month reported a pre-tax loss of £285,000 for the six months to June 30 and its resources are thin.

One buyer says: “Any big launch needs deep pockets to support it and that does not seem to be the case with Jack.”

Another buyer points out that the sector is starting to look to cover mounts to increase circulation, but that Jack’s A5 format may limit its options in this area.

The established magazines are quick to deny that there is a hint of desperation in their latest marketing campaigns. FHM publishing director James Carter believes that the “High Street Honeys” campaign will increase sales. He says: “This does not mean we are resorting to desperate measures in desperate times. The market is in need of rejuvenation and we have a level of responsibility in achieving that.”

But sceptics feel that rather than being another step to lure readers into the market, the latest campaigns are simply marketing tricks designed to create a buzz in the media. Most media buyers reckon the market is still composed largely of formulaic titles buoyed by hype and expensive promotions.

One media buyer says: “All the men’s titles resemble each other – they’re all about titillation, macho stories and jokes. Nothing new for readers. Pick up any of the titles and they all look very tired and dated.”

When something different is tried it often does not pay off. Esquire editor Peter Howgarth has just resigned after struggling to distance the magazine from the generic lads’ mags, although he says his departure has nothing to do with this issue. He took scantily clad women off Esquire covers two years ago and aimed for a more upmarket look – but sales have remained static at 62,000 readers.

Steve Goodman, group press director at MediaCom, sounds a more positive note: “It is true that the market is cluttered with loads of magazines similar in a number of ways, but I do not think that the bubble has burst as yet.

“Publishers need to look at different ways to attract readers and I think Loaded is going in the right direction. FHM’s move is what one would expect from them, which is innovation. The problem is that if these moves prove successful, everyone will jump onto the bandwagon.”

However, Stuart Mays, press director at Zenith Media, does not believe that moves such as different cover mounts are innovative or different. Last year, rival FHM toyed with the multiple-cover concept, putting four different covers on the shelves at the same time.

“It’s a point-of-sales gimmick really,” says Mays. “What is needed is real change to reflect the readers’ requirements. A product like Jack is great news and I hope it stays in the market for a long time, giving it the time to evolve.”

A return to growth is unlikely while men’s magazines stick to the jaded formula of female flesh and pub humour. But will Jack, with its National Geographic pictures and features on bioterrorism, blaze a new path? Sources suggest the April launch issue sold 70,000 copies, which means the magazine will have to be nimble on its feet if it is to establish itself as a serious player in the market.

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Tom Fishburne is founder of Marketoon Studios. Follow his work at marketoonist.com or on Twitter @tomfishburne See more of the Marketoonist here

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