Media: Franks for the memory
And it was such a good idea at the time. Lisa Markwell, former deputy editor of Frank, looks back at the decline and fall of Wagadon's recently deceased magazine for women
Lisa Markwell is the editor of The Independent on Sunday. She was previously executive editor of The Independent, i and The Independent on Sunday and has edited the features pages, and both the Saturday and Sunday supplements. She writes comment pieces for the papers and restaurant reviews for the New Review. Lisa has worked across a variety of newspapers and magazines and can now tick off every publication cycle from daily to quarterly. She is an enthusiastic foodie, mother of two teenagers and drives an electric car. She is writing a book about adoption.
Tuesday 11 May 1999
At a time when women's magazines were in a rut, the idea to launch a high-fashion, high-intellect title was risky but appealing. In March 1997, Tina Gaudoin, formerly deputy editor of Tatler, was hired by Nick Logan, magazine guru and proprietor of Wagadon, as editor of project "Arena Woman". Logan famously created The Face and Arena from nothing and rightly earned kudos and cash from their success. When, after a 10-year gap, he proclaimed the market was ready for a new magazine, people sat up and listened.
The dusty warehouse space set aside for the staff of Wagadon's new magazine was, for some weeks, just that - a dusty warehouse. Tina and I set about hiring staff, seated at either end of a wallpapering table with a mobile phone between us. Everyone was excited to be part of something new; equally, everyone was dismayed at the salaries. The miles-from-Bond Street location daunted some, too.
Working for Nick Logan was an education - for both sides. Over sandwiches in the office, names were tossed into the ring (Skirt, Curve, Toast...). Our requests for computers, phone lines, business cards, loo rolls, anything, were met with a blink and "I'll think about that overnight" from Mr Logan. An early discussion was held over whether sub-editors were really necessary. There was also a major culture shock going on between the folk of The Face and Frank. Frank was behind a steel door with a combination lock; those used to wandering between titles for a chat felt affronted.
After battles with the advertising agency, the launch campaign had to be created by the magazine's art director and editor (which must have saved the company a few quid).
The media build-up was intense, rightly so for a magazine that proclaimed itself "provocative, challenging, intelligent, witty" (Tina's words). The mix in the first issue, of "frocks, politics, lipstick, handbags, human rights, babies, gardening, stilettos, fridge magnets", said what Frank was all about, under the banner headline, "you asked for it". The industry reaction was generally favourable but expectations were suddenly out of kilter with what we always thought the magazine was about. The Face and Arena had just been put out there and grown; Frank was expected to compete with Vogue and Elle from issue one. And frankly, on a minuscule budget and approximately two thirds the staff, with no promotion or marketing department, that was always going to be tough.
Nick Logan had given away something of his ambitions in this newspaper, pre-launch. "Women's magazines are the biggest, most profitable, the real, grown-up league of magazines," he said. This was a man who dragged his heels over buying computers and putting a decent mirror in the loo. I brought in my Apple Mac from home. Working weekends may be normal on a launch but, after nearly a year, the Friday night goodbye was still never "have a good weekend", but "see you tomorrow". Jossy Smalley, the managing editor, was pulling 14- and 16- hour shifts, going from the office to the repro house until she collapsed.
Even before the launch, the original art director, Boris Bencic, who openly admitted to having had a love/hate relationship with Wagadon for years, decided to return to America for health reasons. For a visually led magazine, this was disaster. Fortunately, Jason Shulman stepped into the breach and brought Frank to life. The cover photograph of a William Tell model with an apple on her head and features including Yvonne Roberts on nepotism in New Labour made the magazine unique. What a pity that we were all too exhausted to enjoy the ride.
Tina Gaudoin would be the first to say that she knew the magazine would never sell 100,000 - it had never been her intention to create a mass- market magazine. That meant no readers' letters, no horoscopes, no features about sex. As she said at the time: "If you think Frank is `nice' then we're not doing our job properly." But nice sells, as we discovered when Red was launched four months later.
The trade press generally thought Frank was a good, if left- field, thing. But all was not well inside Wagadon towers. Jason Schulman left that winter and the entire staff felt demoralised. Bizarrely, Boris Bencic came back as a consultant. Nick Logan, the force behind Britain's youth magazines, seemed paralysed by what he had taken on, then decided to launch Deluxe, a younger, more product-driven Face. At least the heat was off Frank, briefly. But the long, long hours and drastically hand-to-mouth production took its toll.
Last spring, Tina Gaudoin, exhausted and pregnant, bowed out and returned to freelance writing. "We were delivering what we promised," she says now, "a highly focused upscale specialised magazine for intelligent women. But I began to disagree with Logan both on the lack of investment and his desire to seek a more-mass market approach. The pregnancy was a catalyst. I felt like I hadn't been home for over a year."
Logan decided to bring Frank closer in line with his other titles, promoting features editor Harriet Quick. Her tenure was marked, insiders said, by long meetings behind closed doors with Logan and new group editor Richard Benson, examining each issue line by line, picture by picture. Editing by committee has never felt natural and Frank, while still bold, had lost its identity. Benson had been quoted, just months before, as saying he wouldn't have anything to do with Frank: "I don't have experience in the mainstream women's market." Boris Bencic's contribution to the magazine's design was made via e-mail from New York. Circulation plummeted to 35,000 and the sly launch tag-line, "the last thing you need", began to ring hollow.
This coincided with a dramatic reversal of fortunes for Nick Logan's company. The Face and Arena shed around 30 per cent of their readers in the last year and Deluxe quietly folded soon after its birth. The Face has recently ejected editor Adam Higginbotham and promoted assistant editor Johnny Davis. Is it a case of Logan returning to his roots, with a wounded paw (and a depleted bank account)? Frank publisher Lou McLeod says: "He looked at how much it was costing and had to say `I can't do it any more.'"
One ex-staffer pointed out that Logan (by accident or design) closed the magazine just shy of the two-year mark for the majority of the team, thereby saving on redundancy packages. He was "too tired" to see any of the distraught staff on Friday, although he has said they can use the office for the time being - to type up their CVs, presumably. But he's kept on Harriet Quick and a few others to rework Frank as a quarterly. He's put a spin on the closure, saying: "We're withdrawing from the women's monthly market - in which, as an independent, it's been hard to make an impact - in order to concentrate on what the company does best." The new direction will, Logan says, be similar in concept to Arena Homme Plus, the only successful title in the Wagadon stable right now. Logical, yes. But the atmosphere at the downwardly spiralling publishing house is not conducive to creating another women's magazine. Wags at Wagadon are already calling it Arena Femme Plus, a la sanitary protection, behind Logan's back.
The author left Frank in July 1998 and is now deputy editor of The Independent's Saturday magazine
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