Lads’ mag veteran Mike Soutar is launching an upmarket men’s weekly in the autumn and he is once again promising to break the mould. The former FHM editor, who is credited with launching Britain’s first men’s weekly magazine Nuts two years ago while at IPC, is working on a free title for commuters that will be more aspirational than the “tits and arses diet” of its predecessors.
Codenamed Alpha One, the weekly free magazine will join the growing list of giveaway publications. Daily Mail & General Trust’s Metro was the lone player in that market for several years but it has been joined by News International’s thelondonpaper and Associated Newspapers’ London Lite. Free magazine Sport launched in London in September last year targeting ABC1 men – the same audience Soutar is after.
Magazine publishers say they do not understand the “over-rated hype” surrounding Soutar’s plans. GQ publishing director Jamie Bill adds/ “I would not put my money behind this concept.”
EMAP Advertising managing director Marcus Rich also remains “unconvinced” about the commercial viability of a free weekly magazine, while IPC Ignite! managing director Eric Fuller says: “This is an extremely high-risk venture with a very fragile business model.”
Sport, cars and gadgets
Aimed at 18- to 35-year-old ABC1 men, Alpha One will be distributed on Thursdays and use the same saddle-stitched format as Sport. Its editorial content will include various “lists” about sport, cars and gadgets and offer bite-sized snippets of news and current affairs. About 500,000 copies of the weekly title will be given away in London, Leeds, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Birmingham and Manchester. “The magazine will serve an obvious gap and an unserved need in the market,” adds Soutar.
News of Alpha One’s launch comes just over a year after Soutar’s abrupt departure from IPC (MW June 15, 2006), where he was editorial director. His exit was shrouded in mystery but friends and foes alike always expected him to resurface with a major new launch.
Soutar has since set up a new company called Crash Test Media, which was initially launched to work with media owners on project launches. He was also in talks with Sport at the time of the title’s launch, according to its managing director Nadia Nardonnet.
But while rival publishing houses are already calling Alpha One a “flawed project” because of its reliance on advertising and the notoriously hard-to-manage distribution system, the launch comes at a time when paid-for men’s titles are floundering both in terms of circulations and advertising. It is understood that the next set of circulation figures, to be unveiled on August 16, will paint another dismal picture.
Media buyers who have seen the dummy presented by Soutar are giving the yet-to-be launched product a glowing report.
Steve Goodman, print trading director at Group M, welcomes the launch as a means to help develop the men’s magazines market. “It is a concept with legs and the product looks extremely good,” he says. “If the same standard of editorial content is sustained then the magazine could be a huge success with both readers and advertisers, and in process might just drive more people to newsstands.”
Clare Rush, head of magazines at Media-edge:cia, adds that advertisers have already shown interest in the “quality product” but says that she is concerned it will have an impact on the already struggling paid-for men’s titles. Press buyer at Initiative Ian Richmond is also sceptical the new launch will lift the gloom in the paid-for men’s market.
But Soutar remains convinced that his new magazine will stand apart from the paid-for titles and as a result will not have any impact – “good or bad” – on newsstand sales. He adds: “The good news for us is that the likes of Loaded, Maxim and FHM are sucked into the downmarket fight for sales. Our new free magazine is a different concept and will have a broadsheet tone and approach the more upmarket reader who wants a quality read.”
GQ’s Bill says: “I agree that there is no lack of appetite for quality magazines and so welcome this launch. But quality comes at a price and Mike has been associated with low-quality editorial for a long time.”
Soutar has managed to convince heavy-hitters including film maker Matthew Vaughan, French Connection founder Stephen Marks and publisher DC Thomson, which gave Soutar his first break in the magazines business, to support and finance his new venture with £7.5m.
He says that his “top class team” – including his mentor, the former EMAP and IPC boss Sir David Arculus – remains committed to editorial quality: “The fight for more tits and arses between Nuts and Zoo was symbolic of a fight between IPC and EMAP and therefore reached the lowest common denominator. But advertisers are looking at ways to reach ABC1 men, which is what we are trying to tap into.”
Meanwhile, there are also mounting concerns about whether vendors will be thrusting copies of the magazine into the wrong hands, therefore diluting the value of the product in the eyes of advertisers. “The success of the title will depend on whether a robust distribution network is set up,” adds Goodman. Soutar says that he has used “geo-dynamic analysis” to ensure its distribution locations target the highest ABC1 demographic areas.
Critics are also questioning Soutar’s contention that people under the age of 45 value free media as much as paid-for media. If that were the case, asks one, why are trains and buses filled with discarded freesheets and not copies of FHM, Zoo or Nuts?
Soutar says he feels “reassured” by the success of Sport and is influenced by a larger trend towards the availability of free media. “The power of free media is something that we are all having to come to terms with,” he adds. “When I was editing FHM and it was selling 35,000 copies, people at the time had said that men never buy monthly magazines. It was the same doom story with the launch of Nuts. And people are already writing off Alpha One. Now is the time to enter the market of free media, I think.”
Rival publishing houses are not writing off Alpha One yet, but they are certainly not quaking in their boots either.