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Media: So is Heat ever going to be hot enough?

The magazine that was supposed to be the bold new saviour of a nation's youth is now officially `struggling'. Will a rescue package help it turn the corner?
When Emap was preparing to launch a new weekly entertainment magazine earlier this year, secrecy was very much at a premium. Everything about the title - even its name - was classified information. Celebrities were simply telephoned by representatives of a mysterious Project J. This, they were told, was an exciting new launch from the magazine giant Emap, the publishers of Red and FHM. They were solicited for interview on that basis.

The Big Breakfast presenter Johnny Vaughan was among those approached. His programme was at the time casting around for a replacement for Denice Van Outen, a process that had attracted considerable media attention. In fact, that search became the first cover story of the new title. This, when it eventually emerged on news-stands in February, was the rich fruit of an 18-month programme of market research, interviews and intensive focus groups conducted by the magazine giant.

Nothing had seemingly been left to chance. The launch itself was backed by a massive pounds 3.5m advertising spend entrusted to the agency that had made the seminal Levi's campaign, Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

This was the title that was going to do what Entertainment Weekly had done for years in the States, Emap maintained, but with a more hip, streetwise edge. It was going to take popular culture by the scruff of the neck and drag it kicking and screaming into the lives of those twentysomething people who devote themselves to searching out their next cultural and media hit. This magazine, the hype suggested, was going to be their cultural dealer. It was going to be the very fuel, rolled up in the back pockets of a nation's combat-trousered youth, that would propel their leisure time choices for years to come.

And then the title itself appeared - this bold new saviour of a nation's youth - and it looked, well, all right. At long last the name was revealed, and it was called... Heat. Frankly, said Vaughan at the time, summing up a general sense of deflation and disappointment: "I thought Project J sounded way funkier."

Unfortunately for Emap, Heat has continued to confound all our expectations ever since. Matters were finally brought to a head last week. Emap chief executive Kevin Hand revealed that the title was now selling just 60,000 copies a week and that it was on course to lose at least pounds 5m in the current year. He also made the first of what promises to be a host of changes to the titles. He replaced editorial director David Hepworth, one of the founding lights behind two of Emap's more successful launches, the music titles Q and Mojo, with David Davies. Heat, he confirmed, was now officially "struggling". Davies, for the last two years the editor of Q, was deemed closer to the entertainment front line. And something, Hand muttered darkly, desperately needed to be done. If the figures didn't improve, he added bleakly, Emap would not "waste shareholders' money" by continuing to publish it.

But then it wouldn't be the first time the company has got it desperately wrong in the weekly magazine market. Its last mainstream launch in this cut-throat and costly market, Carweek, benefited from a pounds 2m launch ad campaign four years ago. It was swiftly closed, leaving only embarrassment, recrimination and a Heat-like stain on Emap's bottom line.

"Of course we are disappointed with the sales figures. We set a target of 100,000 and are well below that," admits Emap Metro managing director Paul Keenan. "But we are still confident that there is a place in the market for Heat. The major problem we've got is that we haven't communicated to enough people what we are offering. But I'm not pretending the title is fine the way it is. We've got to make it a more accessible read and we've got to look at the marketing to try to get the message across. We're not a listings title, we're not a film title or a monthly glossy and, because we don't fit into any existing pigeonhole, people have got to be persuaded to buy it every week. At the moment they aren't being persuaded in sufficient numbers."

The rescue package he proposes means that out will go much of what Emap's exhaustive project research and focus groups initially prescribed. In will come a less pedestrian design, less bulk and a much more accessible editorial approach. Unfortunately, this might well be too little too late.

"When they came in the present Project J to us, they mentioned a circulation figure of 100,000 as a sort of bare minimum, and I can remember thinking that with all the money they were spending on promotion, that wasn't the most demanding of targets," says Simon Timlett, the head of press at Optimedia, one of the UK's largest media-buying agencies. "But 60,000 is just poor. There's really no reason for advertisers to support it at that level."

Emap is still confident the corner can be turned and points to the slow starts made by Q and Mojo in its defence. But times are tougher in today's frenzied media marketplace. Strugglers seldom get a second chance. Emap saw its overall circulations fall 1 per cent last year, and is now talking darkly about a policy of "managed circulation reduction". Unfortunately, Heat's unexpected contribution is making that policy rather too successful for the company's long-term good.

"Heat doesn't fit into any existing categories, yet a wide range of newspapers and magazines already cover much of the same ground. This means that Emap really has to provide a compelling reason for advertisers to support it. And that reason can only be in the bottom line, the sales figures," warns Ian Clark, media director at the Booth Lockett Makin media agency.

For the moment, though, Emap is finding that the rosy promised land - the location where it would serve as a cultural home to the nation's young; that warm, well-lighted place its research and focus groups led it to three months ago with such a ready confidence - today and for the immediate future, remains a decidedly chilly destination.