Media: Media magnate wannabes
James Brown, the hell-raising former editor of Loaded and GQ, is the latest in a line of successful journalists to set up their own publishing companies. In his case, the mind boggles. By Naomi Marks
Tuesday 22 June 1999
As other equally illustrious, if not so notorious, figures from the world of journalism have done before him, he is setting out on the road of mini media magnatedom, becoming publishing director of his own magazine house, gloriously named IFG (for I Feel Good).
Brown first came to prominence as the journalist who, carving Loaded in his own self-destructive image, proved there was indeed a magazine market to be tapped in the beer, tits and trouble-making antics of a new breed of British lads. He was given unprecedented free rein at publisher IPC, took the title to unchartered peaks and was lauded by the industry, only to find himself three years down the line staring upwards at the circulation figures of a brighter young imitator. He had been out-Loaded by Emap's FHM.
Flagging from the frenetic lifestyle that goes with the Loaded territory, Brown last year was offered a graceful way out when Nicholas Coleridge, managing director of Conde Nast, offered him the editorship of GQ.
Brown underwent the strangest of transmogrifications. He married his girlfriend, said he was giving up the drink and drugs and was photographed in Savile Row suits looking every inch the smart, clean-living Nineties dude.
But those heads which wagged disapprovingly at Coleridge's brave choice of GQ editor had a point. Though Brown did manage to halt the decline of the glossy monthly, his previous incarnation proved harder to throw off. A certain laddism crept into GQ and finally Coleridge cracked. Apparently appalled at the naming of the Nazis, and Field Marshal Rommel in particular, in an article listing the "sharpest men in the 20th century", he gave Brown his marching orders in February.
So now it seems, after a period of reflection, Brown has decided he will march to his own tune, and his own tune only. He has rented offices in the media village of Clerkenwell, bought cast-off furniture from troubled trendy publisher Wagadon and teamed up with youth-media companies Harry Monk and Cunning Stunts for his new venture.
Leeds Leeds Leeds, the Leeds United title he launched and is passionate about, is expected to kick start IFG. If all goes to plan, other consumer titles, possibly a men's one among them, will follow.
In taking this route, Brown joins the roll-call of top, malcontent journalists deciding to go it alone. No longer happy just to talk of only the titles they preside over as their babies, more and more of the industry's highest profiles want to extend their nurturing talents to entire companies. Not renowned for their back-seat egos or ambition deficits, they are building those companies themselves.
Before Brown, Eve Pollard, former editor of the Sunday Mirror and The Express on Sunday was the latest to succumb. Having watched the successful launch last year of Cabal Communications by former Good Housekeeping and Ideal Home editor Sally O'Sullivan, and taking heed of Rupert Murdoch's exhortations that great entrepreneurs come from all areas of the media business, last autumn she set out to gain finance for her own publishing project - armed with just the editor's essential quota of "ideas" and some "funny dummies", knocked up at home and stuck together with Sellotape, to back them up.
Now Pollard's venture, Parkhill Publications, is preparing to move into central London offices and is busy recruiting journalists as it gets set to launch titles into "under-exploited consumer markets".
Pollard, like Brown, might not, at first glance, seem obvious raw material for a hard-headed publisher. She started her career on women's magazines at a time when, as she puts it, "editors knew nothing about budgets and finance, they floated through on a financial cloud".
Neither does her more recent work - co-writing steamy blockbuster novels with friends and freelancing as agony aunt to the Sunday Mirror - constitute any more classical training than Brown's hell-raising for a foray into media business.
But, as well as gaining a reputation for glam habits such as long-distance editing as a national newspaper supremo in the lean late Eighties and early Nineties, Pollard learned some serious financial lessons to complement her editorial acumen.
Parkhill Publications plans its first launches, in the general features and leisure areas, early next year.
Brown, Pollard and O'Sullivan may be the latest to set out on their own, but the notion that journalists are better placed than the traditional advertising-rooted management for spotting new market niches to be plumbed is not a new one. Chris Anderson did it when he spotted the huge potential for computer magazines 14 years ago. He set up Future Publishing with a pounds 15,000 bank loan and nine years later sold it for pounds 52m.
Former journalist at The Mirror and The Spectator Michael Wyn Jones co- founded New Crane Publishing to launch the incredibly successful and much- aped Sainsbury's The Magazine in 1993.Former editor of The Sun Kelvin MacKenzie is, of course, now transforming Talk Radio.
But however smart the journalist, the road to business success is not an easy one. Journalist Mark Allen, who set up Mark Allen Publishing in 1985 with two titles and today oversees 18, as well as related conference and travel businesses, cautions Pollard, Brown et al that there is no point in being starry-eyed about taking this route. "The best editors who are also publishers do have a creative spark but they also have their feet on the ground. A lot don't realise how hard it is to make money in publishing," he says.
And competition in the magazine world is fierce. O'Sullivan's Cabal has already suffered from the might of IPC - which scuppered one planned big Cabal launch, Crime Weekly, after rushing out its own one-shot into this largely untapped area.
Bill Borrows, editor-at-large on Loaded and a writer closely associated with Brown, points to Brown's Yorkshire origins. As well as having the editor's knack of an all-consuming passion for his titles, he explains: "He's good with the pennies."
O'Sullivan and Pollard both believe that small, flexible publishing houses with creative, experienced nous at the top can spell success. Both also believe they can do things differently, as well as better.
While the former's innovations have included a flat management structure and a quirky free-chocolate-on-Wednesday policy, the latter's plan is to knock down the barriers that keep editorial and advertising departments safely at spitting distance.
No doubt Brown will be infusing his new company with an innovatory ambience, marking it out from the mainstream. Only in this case, the mind boggles as to what that will involve.
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