Media: New Lad takes on the New World

As laddism wanes in the UK, its magazines are storming the US - but with a wary eye on the nipple count.
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The Independent Culture
The lessons to be divined from James Brown's premature exit from the editor's suite at GQ seem straightforward enough - describing Rommel as the height of mid-20th century chic comes a close second in the bad taste stakes to trussing up a topless Asian model and plunging her in a bath of blood. These were not the finest moments in the history of British men's magazines, and Brown has paid for them and other occasional lapses during his 18 months at Conde Nast.

Conde Nast are already talking about taking the magazine back upmarket to restore some of the intellectual credibility it enjoyed under Michael VerMeulen and Angus MacKinnon, and establish a better balance between nudity and new writing. As for the rest of the market, well, Brown's dramatic (if temporary) departure and the gradual arrest in the development of FHM and Loaded, are combining to provoke a rethink about the wisdom of cover-to-cover babes and breasts.

There is a fabulous irony at the timing of all of this. Namely, at the precise moment when Britain's ardour is cooling, America is enthusiastically embracing laddism. In magazine form, at least.

The US version of Maxim magazine is the fastest growing title of its kind and is redefining the men's market in America as Loaded once did in the UK. Set up in New York two years ago under the banner "sex, sports, beer, gadgets and clothes", its guaranteed circulation has risen from 175,000 to 950,000 according to figures out last month. With Emap looking to launch FHM and IPC surveying the possibilities for Loaded, New Lad looks to be finding a home in the New World.

In an example of machismo straight from its own pages, Lance Ford, group publisher of Maxim, says: "We are now twice the size of Details and a third larger than GQ." But he concedes: "They are ahead of us in ad revenue." This is because conservative American advertisers are "skittish" about the magazine's fleshy content.

Ford says rivals told him men's lifestyle magazines wouldn't work in the US, but the magazine is expected to turn a profit in 2000, almost two years ahead of its five-year business plan. "We've done well; we were in the right place at the right time," says Stephen Colvin, president of the US arm of Dennis. "A lot of magazines are reacting to Maxim."

American GQ, the conservative fashion title, has a bikini-clad model on its front cover. Esquire recently devoted much of an issue to breasts, while the latest edition of Details features a vest wearing Liz Hurley on its cover next to the line: "Still shagadelic? Yeah Baby!" It appears that American pop culture is going through a metamorphosis. The big film hits of 1998 were There's Something About Mary and Adam Sandler's The Waterboy, both irreverent and very male. Couple that with endless Bill and Monica jokes on television and you get a sense that American humour is getting smuttier.

Maxim's February issue was adorned by a scantily clad Bridget Fonda. Its cover lines included Lingerie Runway, a guide to Valentine underwear, and 50 Signs the World is Coming to an End. Inside, there were confessions of a strip club bouncer and a feature on how to get corporate freebies with the headline: "Here's how to get more perks than a coffee machine at alcoholics anonymous."

There are, of course, cultural differences that Maxim has had to take into account. As Glenda Bailey, the British editor in chief of the US Marie Claire, explains: "In the US, when Cosmopolitan pictured a girl with long hair which covered up her dress and made her look like she was naked, Wal-Mart decided to take it off the shelves."

So Maxim has covered up the nipples and promises rather less than it delivers in the UK. Yet despite American conservatism, Bailey says the size of the market offers publishers the chance to expand beyond their wildest dreams. Marie Claire is up 22 per cent for the last six months of 1998 and she says its owner, Hearst, has plans to bring other titles across the pond.

The most recent British arrival on US turf is Peterborough-based Emap, which became the first UK company to acquire a major US magazine house. It paid $1.5bn for the special interest publisher Petersen, and now Emap wants to bring its hugely successful and fourth largest English magazine in the world, FHM, to the largest English speaking magazine market. As well as IPC's deliberations over Loaded, Northern and Shell is near to launching Stateside its celebrity title, OK.

Time Out, Loot and the BBC have all been here some time. The BBC has only one title, BBC Music Magazine, in the market, but has its eye on rapid expansion. Peter Phippen, president of the corporation's American operation, is looking for partners to bring across titles based on its programmes.

Time Out New York, arguably the advance guard of the British invasion, is due to turn a profit by 2000, according to founder Tony Elliott. It sells an average 85,000 copies a week and is set to expand to other US cities. Tony Elliott says: "An LA edition is absolutely likely. Film and music advertisers want us to do it."

So what is attracting all these British publishers? Paul Hale, head of consumer magazine publishing at US investment bank, Veronis, Suhler Associates, says: "There has been a decline in network TV audiences and magazine publishers are getting their revenge."

According to Veronis, Suhler, spending on consumer magazines rose 6.4 per cent to $17.3bn in 1997, with advertising growing by 9 per cent - its largest rise since 1989.

But despite the rosy outlook, expat Chris Anderson, who brought his PC games magazines to the US, warns of risks: "The market is inherently tougher and the economics of distribution is brutal. You have to reinvent the business model and that is why a lot of Brits have been burned."

But as Her Majesty's subjects Tina Brown, Liz Tilberis and Glenda Bailey can testify, the British do have some unique skills to offer. "The Brits come with a down-to-earth approach to magazines, with creative skills and great editorial ideas," says Maxim's Colvin, while Tony Elliott says the British are just more independent minded.

Chris Anderson, who has built his PC games business into a company turning over $70m annually, explains the reason for the rush of British publishers simply enough: "America is five times the size of the UK market; when you make it big, you really make it big."

Just go easy on the Rommel and the blood baths.