Ikea shares a bed with the Fat Slags

Anything goes at the company that brought us `Viz'. Dominic Prince reports
Viz magazine, for those who don't know, is a pretty risque adult comic. It has a warning on the front cover: not to be sold to children. There are cartoon characters that go by the name of Fat Slags, Sid the Sexist and Tasha Slappa's Mam. The content, some would say, is distinctly obscene.

But Viz has been a huge commercial success. Founded nearly 20 years ago, by the early 1990s it was selling a million-plus news-stand copies on a bi-monthly basis. And there were T-shirts and books.

On the back of the profits generated by Viz, John Brown - its 46-year- old maverick publisher - is now a millionaire many times over through his 80 per cent ownership of John Brown Enterprises, the holding company. That company has just entered the list of top 30 magazine publishers in the UK, in terms of newsstand sales.

In 1995 the company had a turnover of pounds 8.7m. Some three years later it had doubled to more than pounds 16m. With new contracts and new launches throughout this year, it is headed for a turnover of more than pounds 20m.

Although John Brown publishes Viz, the creative forces behind it, Chris and Simon Donald, are based in Newcastle. Originally the magazine just sold in Newcastle. Then in the early 1980s the brothers got backing from Richard Branson, and the man who was put in charge was Brown.

In 1987 Brown set up an independent company. "I just kept putting this business plan in front of Richard [Branson] and asking him for money. In the end he couldn't be bothered to read it. He just said: `Here we are,' gave me some money and took a 20 per cent stake." Brown set up on his own, not only with Viz itself, but also on the contract to publish Virgin's in-flight magazine, Hot Air.

In 1993 the company launched Gardens Illustrated, a sort of Interiors magazine for those with an interest in topiary, borders and other esoteric aspects of gardening. For the company it was the second stand-alone newsstand magazine since Viz. It had a creaky start but it now sells 45,000 every month.

In 1993 John Brown Publishing had 15 employees. Today there are 150. The company has branched out from consumer magazines and the range of magazines published now includes contract publishing.

There are also one-offs such as the official Spice Girls magazine and the Wisden Cricket Monthly, which is published on contract for the cricket- crazy philanthropist John Paul Getty.

But none of this is what Brown wanted to talk about last week. John Brown Publishing had just won a contract to produce the Ikea magazine in the US. Brown reckons he can teach the Americans a thing or two about contract publishing.

"The US is where we were 10 years ago. The standards are pretty low with contract magazines out there and it's a pretty wide-open market."

In the US he plans to get particular help from a man who used to work on the international side of the City, his old friend, the disgraced former Barings director, Peter Norris.

This may raise eyebrows in some quarters but you get the feeling that John Brown doesn't give a fig. Things are anything but orthodox at his company.