Are lads' mags past their prime?

With sales dipping, men's titles appear to be next on the recession hit-list, writes Meg Carter

After six years of spectacular growth, the signs are bad for the men's magazine industry. Not only are the old formulas failing to woo more twenty- and thirtysomething readers, but talk of the advertising recession spreading to their titles has many publishers bracing themselves for a lean new year.

After six years of spectacular growth, the signs are bad for the men's magazine industry. Not only are the old formulas failing to woo more twenty- and thirtysomething readers, but talk of the advertising recession spreading to their titles has many publishers bracing themselves for a lean new year.

Recent weeks have certainly been tough for Britain's magazine publishers. IPC pulled the plug on 74-year-old Women's Journal and five other titles. Meanwhile, Robin Miller, Emap chief executive, reporting on difficult market conditions for the half-year to September 30, warned that advertising revenues are likely to remain under pressure at least until summer next year.

Look for evidence on today's news-stands of advertising recession in the men's magazine market, however, and you could be forgiven for thinking the economic gloom has passed men's titles by. November and December editions are fat and advertising revenue seems healthy. Yet 2001 was tough for men's titles even before post-September 11 economic jitters began to hit home.

When January to June ABC figures were published in August, men's magazine sales overall were down 5.5 per cent year-on-year, and 11 of the 15 titles posted a decline. Market leader FHM saw a two per cent year-on-year fall in sales to 700,172; second placed Loaded was down 13 per cent to 305,444 and Maxim down 6.5 per cent to 305,070. Already this year, Later, Sky and Mondo have folded. More recently, Dennis Publishing has postponed its launch of an older men's fashion title, and I Feel Good, the publishing outfit of James Brown, the former Loaded editor, has put on ice its plans for another older men's magazine, which was codenamed "Project Jack".

With advertising booked at least two to three months ahead, men's magazines are apparently insulated from fluctuating consumer confidence and declining advertising revenues. But while fashion advertising remains stable, publishing sources concede that advertising expenditure for mobile phones, cars and computers in men's titles were all down in the third quarter of 2001, compared with the previous year. Chris Llewellyn, managing director of Emap International, says, "Post-January, we, like everyone else, are finding it hard to gauge, as people are leaving it late to finalise spend." Eric Fuller of IPC Ignite!, which publishes Loaded, adds: "In terms of a sales downturn, this is a market that quadrupled in size from 1994 to 1998. Such growth was never sustainable. Yes, it plateaued, and yes we have seen a slight fall, but you can't just look at one set of ABCs."

Others, however, are more circumspect. At Cabal Communications, Piers Hernu, editor of Front (one of just two titles to see sales rise in the first half of this year by more than 6 per cent) predicts further closures. "It wouldn't surprise me if we see one of the more established players go. Those who have lost readers are now more dependent on ad revenue – if that starts to go too, pulling the plug can't be too far behind."

"Too many men's titles have failed to protect the advertising environment, placing page after page of glossy ads where readers want editorial to be," says Graham Hawkey-Smith, planning director at BLM Media. "This is increasingly frustrating readers, and clutter makes it harder for advertisers to stand out." As falling advertising expenditure reduces media costs, print looks vulnerable to losing out to TV. "Current peaktime TV airtime is selling at rates not seen since 1993," he adds. "The choice of whether to use men's magazines for a campaign is no longer clear-cut."

Chris Llewellyn readily admits the sector has some way to go when it comes to product differentiation. "Vulnerability is less to do with circulation, more market positioning. And we've all fallen into the same traps – at the news-stand, no one screams 'this is substantially different to that': it's Pepsi and Coke. FHM has suffered most from others copying what it has done. Our challenge is to innovate and come up with something better, something new."

Adds Peter Howarth, editor of Esquire: "The men's market generally has a big problem because of its formulaic approach." True, some have made changes. Esquire, for one, attempted to distance itself from the "lads' mags" market two years ago when it dropped semi-nude cover girls and placed a greater emphasis on more serious editorial content. The move cost it sales, but by refocusing on a slighter older and more upmarket readership, advertising has grown "healthier", Howarth says. "But if I edited a tits 'n' arse magazine for twentysomethings, I'd be concerned. Not only is this hardly in step with the current zeitgeist, it also increases a title's reliance on commodity (as opposed to fashion and designer brands) advertising and advertising for beer, trainers and so on is particularly shaky at the moment."

Two stalwarts of the tits 'n' arse end of the men's magazine spectrum are Front and Loaded. Front's Hernu claims his title is doing well following a "smartening up" of its image. Loaded, meanwhile, last month unveiled a revamp featuring more women and more humour – especially timely given the "miserable times" post-September 11, claimed the editor, Keith Kendrick.

With a number of media analysts warning of an imminent dip in spending by the sector's advertiser stalwarts – fashion brands and designer goods whose budgets are decided in the US – men's magazine cover girls may not be the only ones losing their shirts in the months to come.

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