Media: Fall of the house of Wagadon

The publishers of both The Face and Arena seem to have lost their touch. By Richard Cook
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NO ONE likes a smart ass. And they don't come much more smart ass than Wagadon, the publishing house that invented the style magazine in this country with the publication of that quintessential Eighties' accessory, The Face magazine.

This small independent title was the brainchild of Wagadon's founder, Nick Logan, who went on to achieve another, more modest hit with the publication of Arena. This proto-men's magazine - in those pre-FHM and pre-Loaded days and since - has perhaps over the years proved to be just a little bit too stylish for the bulk of Britain's heterosexual men. Its sales have never passed 100,000, for instance, in a market where Loaded and FHM together now sell more than 10 times that number. For all that, it has been a considerable success, and has proved a popular showcase for men's fashion advertisers.

And that was pretty much that. None of the big publishers liked the fact that The Face was seen to shape youth opinion rather than follow it, or that Arena made their titles in that sector look tawdry and a little cheap, because all of them were prepared to admit - in their quieter, more generous moments at least - that these were the sort of cutting-edge titles that only an independent firm of passionate enthusiasts could really produce.

But that was then. Over the last 12 months, Wagadon, backed by a deal with Conde Nast that gives it access to big league paper-buying and distribution deals, has started to get a lot bigger and a lot more aggressive. Two major monthly launches have effectively doubled its publishing output over the last nine months. Suddenly the benevolent condescension shown by its rivals has degenerated into all-out war.

The principal target has been Frank, Wagadon's first major new magazine since the launch of Arena, and, unlike its predecessor, neither a critical nor a commercial hit. The mag first appeared last October as a title for the independent, intelligent woman of 25-35 and beyond.

The first edition sold more than 120,000 copies, suggesting that these independent, intelligent, opinionated women represented a considerable market opportunity. Unfortunately, having tried the new title, these same readers were quick to form the opinion that they didn't really like it. They didn't like it at all. In fact, the title is likely to post a desperately disappointing circulation figure of something between 40,000-50,000 copies when it reports its six-monthly average on Friday.

"I'm not going to beat about the bush," says Frank's publisher, Lou McLeod. "The figures are not what we thought they might be. We would have liked a circulation of 70,000-80,000. So, yes, we will have to give certain of our advertisers extra pages to make up for this shortfall."

It's fair to say that Frank hasn't been Wagadon's finest hour. So far at least. And the title is now in a difficult period. Two months ago, the launch editor Tina Gaudoin resigned, falling on her sword with the politicians' and magazine editors' plea of wanting to spend more time with her family. The deputy editor Lisa Markwell and the senior fashion editor Mandy Christie, who took up a job offer at Vogue, followed.

And, as the days after Gaudoin's departure became weeks, and then months, with no news about a successor, the rumour mill went into overtime. No one wanted the job, was the word: Frank, the industry experts reckoned, was unsalvageable.

In fact, next month's edition will be the first under the internally appointed new editor, the former launch features editor Harriet Quick. She is looking to restructure her editorial team and rework the magazine in a user-friendly image.

"We're not about making drastic changes and relaunches," says Quick. "I want to continue with what we set out to do. But with the September issue, there will be a notable change in the feel of the magazine - the design is more accessible and a lot more 'up'. I think some of the problems we had in the past stem from the fact that, although the content was great, maybe it looked as if it was trying too hard."

It will help that Wagadon is preparing to dig into its pockets again for a second advertising campaign for the title, aware that rivals such as Emap were prepared to spend around pounds 5m promoting its rival, Red.

"But I really do think there is a niche for the title," adds Lou McLeod optimistically. "I think women want something else from a magazine than 17 orgasms a night and 73 ways to cook a chicken. But when you try to do something completely different in this country, you get lambasted anyway. People, especially in publishing, just want to drag everybody down, and that's something that depresses me enormously. But I will admit that we have been a little bit too serious and, for me at least, the wit has been lacking in Frank so far."

Certainly, Wagadon has been looking towards the state of certain more populist titles for inspiration for the new-look Frank. But how far the title will change, and how fast, are anybody's guess.

"There's room for all sorts of different moods within a magazine," says Quick cautiously, before supplying evidence of the new, wittier approach the title may use: "I particularly liked a piece we did on rice cakes earlier this year, for instance. It examined the phenomenon that is the rice cake, and why they have suddenly become so amazingly popular with women, when the hard facts are that they make our breath smell like a two-day-old blow job."

Unfortunately, the problems at Frank are not the full extent of Wagadon's current worries. A second new title, Deluxe, has had a relatively slow start, while editorial changes at the group's flagship title, The Face, are proving to be slow to gel.

The new editor, Adam Higginbotham, marked his first issue with a hard- hitting and well received report on drugs. Unfortunately, he dumped the traditional Face cover star in the process. It wasn't a move calculated to go down well with a company proud of its publishing traditions. More worryingly, the title itself has been having its own ABC problems in recent months, losing almost 10 per cent at the last sales check, six months ago.

This week's sales announcements will all be scrutinised with more than their usual care, but then, for Wagadon, such scrutiny at least suggests it is no longer the sort of quaint little family business its rivals can afford to ignore.