Media: Something about Sally

After a 10-year absence, Sally Brampton has been lured back to glossy magazines with the editorship of Red. But what are her plans for the title? Mary Braid reports

A little frisson of excitement has spread through the glamorous, shiny world of women's magazines this week with the announcement that Sally Brampton, who became a legend in the business after her successful launch of Elle in Britain is to return to magazines after a 10-year break.

Brampton has been lured back by Emap Elan, publisher of Elle, but a decade on, it is to edit Red, its more mature and considerably less glamorous sister title.

Brampton is shunning all interviews until she hits the hot seat next month, which will disappoint those eager to know what has enticed her back after she opted out of the rat race at the height of her success to combine writing - her fourth novel comes out in January - with motherhood. She returns to the fray a married woman - her husband Jonathan Powell, credited with bringing us Casualty and EastEnders, is currently the head of drama at Carlton Television - with a daughter, Molly, now seven.

What precisely she intends to do with Red fuels yet more speculation. The press release announcing her appointment restates Red's commitment to "middle youth", that more discerning, intelligent and previously neglected group of the thirtysomething women (who might have children and mortgages but still groove with the best of them at rock concerts) the magazine claimed to have discovered when it launched in January 1998.

But there are rumours that Brampton might be planning to take Red where few other women's magazines would dare to tread, deeper into so-called older women's territory. Red has already found an older niche - with its broad target band of 29-45 and ideal reader age of 35-38 - but some claim Brampton may take the "greying" further.

It is interesting speculation in a business where traditional assumptions that over 35 is too dowdy and over-the-hill to be worth catering for is now being challenged. Indeed the speculation may arise because Brampton, now an absolutely ancient 44, has written passionately and eloquently on the subject.

Red may be happy still to describe itself as "middle youth", but it's a term its new editor despises, along with the prejudices and attitudes that gave it life, and the publishers, who are forever claiming they want to launch "older" titles but still cannot bring themselves to utter the f-word (that's 40). Describing three friends, still stylish and glamorous in their forties and fifties wearing Gaultier, Helmut Lang and Joseph, Brampton argued, in an article in The Independent last December, that such women are neither "middle aged" nor "middle youth". She asked scathingly if there was ever a blander, more patronising phrase?

What was wrong with women's magazines aimed at the over-30s, she said, was that they had "No grit, no humour, no rigour, no bloody style", and were made for a generation of women ready to put its slippers on. "Elle and Marie Claire may be way too young for us, but magazines that tell us how to crochet a centrepiece for a table or disguise a thickening waist with clever accessories are just way too old," she says. She does not mention Red by name but says the "exciting" new magazines being launched into the middle youth market are no more than the same tired formula - frocks, cooking and gardening - smeared with a touch of gloss.

The woman who stayed at home "knocking up gourmet meals from left overs and wearing bright colours in clashing patterns" no longer exists, she says. Neither does middle age. Of her own age group, Brampton says: "our time will come".

Such views are worth considering now that Brampton has her own vehicle, already parked on the edge of "age", with which to test her theory. In her only statement, via the press release, she has said she believes Red reflects and challenges a new generation of smart, informed savvy women.

Ian Birch, Emap Elan's editor-in-chief, says Red's readership is defined more by attitude than age. He adds that Brampton feels there are more women out there that Red could reach, lingering in the twilight zone that follows the twentysomething titles full of frocks, make-up and multiple, earth-shattering orgasms.

In an echo of Brampton's own assessment, he says that Red recognises that 40 is what 30 used to be, and while a woman can be a grandmother at 42, she may also be having her first baby. He insists Brampton will be building on what Red has already achieved. "It will be a process of evolution not revolution," he says, pointing out that the new title's success would make it madness to "throw the baby out with the bath water".

It is true that Brampton is taking over a pretty healthy magazine from outgoing editor Kathryn Brown, who herself left to have a baby. Emap conducted exhaustive research before the launch, and spent a lot of money and went to extraordinary lengths to reach their target audience. Within weeks it had its 180,000 readers. Most have proved loyal. Almost two years on, circulation has slipped by only 3 per cent in a viciously competitive women's magazine market.

According to Gavin Stamp of Media Week, as many as a half the readers who initially bought Red are thought to have been fresh - ie not deserters from other women's magazines, though of course other magazines did suffer from Red's arrival.

It is precisely because women's glossies is such a competitive area that Red, despite its success cannot afford to be complacent. "It had a good launch, and found its niche," says Mr Stamp. "But the question is where does it go from here."

He is not confident that increased circulation will be won by targeting women over 40 more vigorously. Though he admits the age group is under exploited and that has more to do with a lack of ambition than past failures.

Other than her theories on age and segmentation of the women's market, what else will Brampton bring to Red? Birch claims that his new editor epitomises his readership. Glamorous, successful, smart, Sally Brampton is the woman Red wants to reach. And despite her long absence, he says Brampton, once his boss at Elle, is still "one of the world's most inspiring editors".

What industry insiders expect her to bring is a touch more glitz, glamour and excitement to a title which, though perceived as more substantial than its rivals, has become a touch worthy, and slightly dull. Glamour and substance - not a mix many, if any, of the women's titles can really boast. If she is successful, it may not be long before rival titles come round to Brampton's way of thinking on older women.

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