After saturation exposure to the Alastair Campbell Diaries, you might think we’ve had our fill of the alpha male. Not budding entrepreneur Mike Soutar, though: he can’t have too many of them, so long as they fit an ABC1 profile and they’re under 35 (sorry, Alastair). In fact, he is going to publish a weekly magazine for 500,000 of them, called ‘List … something’, and it’s going to be full of quality editorial and, oh, it’s going to be free too.
The question is, should we regard this as a) a daring foray into what has become the wilderness of magazine launches or b) unfortunate delusional behaviour more typical of some of his potential readership than of a veteran editor?
There are plenty who will summarily tick box b. GQ publishing director Jamie Bill for example: “I would not put my money behind this concept”. Or IPC Ignite! managing director Eric Fuller: “This is an extremely high risk venture with a very fragile business model.”
Judicious observations no doubt. But, then, they would say that sort of thing, wouldn’t they? Putting aside for a moment the flaws (if that’s what they are) in Soutar’s formula, we should be reminded that no consumer magazine empire is likely to dabble in “free” publishing when it risks undermining its own established paid-for brands – especially in these rocky commercial times.
That’s not to say a fully-funded, well prepared venture capital outfit could not succeed where the institutions of magazine publishing fear to go. Soutar is well bankrolled (private backing of over £7m from, among others, French Connection billionaire Stephen Marks). And his experience, first at FHM, then launching Nuts, speaks for itself. Indeed, media planners were stunned – during the prelaunch roadshow – by just how much polished preparation has gone into this title. Had he really been able to do all that in the 12 short months since his mysterious rupture with IPC supremo Sylvie Auton, they marvelled?
But plaudits from grizzled media specialists, though encouraging, are no copper-bottomed guarantee of success. There are two interrelated issues advertisers will need to satisfy themselves on before committing their money. The first is whether the “free” concept is suitable for Soutar’s target market. This, by its very nature if not its habits, is a highly discriminated readership, much more siloed than the bland upmarket profile which has supported Metro, London Lite and thelondonpaper. With paid-for titles, or indeed TV programmes (Nuts plans to go on Freeview), the audience selects itself and can be easily monitored. In a “free” market such as this, how much must advertisers rely on the judgement of individual “vendors” handing out the copies? To this, Soutar’s retort is Sport. They scoffed at Sport, which targets a similar male audience, when it launched. Yet, a year later, there are reasonable indications of success as it begins to pull in the fashion ads.
The main difference between Sport and Alfa One (the codename of Soutar’s project), however, is scale. Sport’s circulation of 322,000 is confined to London, whereas Alfa One’s will be 500,000 covering six UK cities: this suggests a different order of difficulty in managing distribution. Something advertisers will not be slow to seize upon.
Nevertheless, whether it succeeds or fails, this is an interesting project which challenges a number of publishing conventions. It will repay close scrutiny.
Stuart Smith, Editor