Arena: Cheers, lads! It's a man's world again

'Arena' struggled in the boyish excesses of the 1990s, but it's back with renewed confidence and a website to drive the brand. Ian Burrell meets editor Will Drew
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The autumn of 1986 was a revolutionary period in British publishing, when readers were offered brand new national newspapers ranging from The Independent to the Sunday Sport - and, for the first time, a men's magazine that wasn't designed for the top shelf.

Arena was the brainchild of Nick Logan, the ground-breaking publisher who also dreamt up The Face. When it first emerged - with the coverline "A new magazine for men" and the date "Winter 86/87" - Arena boasted design by the great art-director Neville Brody and the fashion styling of Ray Petri. Mickey Rourke - the Hollywood actor of the moment - was on the cover.

That's something Logan regrets to this day; he wishes he'd run a picture of the back of a then little-known boxer's head. "The Mickey Rourke shoot was poor," he says, writing in Arena's 20th anniversary issue. "Inside, we had headshots of Mike Tyson by Albert Watson. One was an imposing image of Tyson's head and neck. My regret is that I didn't run it on the cover. It would have broken every rule in publishing."

Two decades on, Arena remains true to its remit of taking chances and introducing readers to up-and-coming faces - or backs of necks. For the past year, Will Drew has been editing a magazine that was driven into the darkest corners of newsagent shelves during the Nineties lads'-mag revolution, but is now reasserting itself. With a modest ABC of 40,140, the Emap-owned title is a poor third out of three in the men's quality magazine market, but defiantly bills itself as "the fastest-growing men's style magazine in the world".

Drew's Arena is unashamedly elitist in the sense that the magazine is aimed at those young men who seek to place themselves apart from the mainstream but are in touch with those at the cutting edge of music, film, literature, fashion, technology and design. "Our readers want to be ahead of their peer group. They want inside knowledge. They want to know who these people are before they are household names."

Thus the 20th anniversary Arena cover features a row of up-and-coming female talent from film (Alice Eve), television (Alexa Chung) and music (Lady Sovereign). "The idea of this is that we are very aware that we need to keep looking forward. That's what Arena has always been about, not being retrospective, not being nostalgic."

The editor - no doubt encouraged by budget restraints - also applies this rising-star approach to his stable of writers. Not for Drew the celebrity-studded roster of GQ, which employs the likes of AA Gill and Tony Parsons.

"Signing up half a dozen household names does not make for a great magazine. It makes for some nice marketing - you can shout about having those names - but unless those names produce great copy it doesn't mean anything. The danger of signing established names on long-term contracts is that they're filing 1,000 words a month and... just bashing it out," Drew says. "The advantage we have is that our writers are passionate about what they are writing about and they are establishing their names in Arena."

Drew knows that he has to trust his writers. At 34, he falls (just) within the age 25-35 demographic of the Arena core readership, but having spent the previous weekend caring for three sons aged between two and seven while his wife was away, he knows he's not going to have all the bases covered. "It's important that you don't let the magazine reflect your own personality too strongly. Apart from anything else, I've got three children and I live in Wimbledon - I'm not at the cutting edge of culture as much as I might once have been," he concedes.

And of course there are others on the Arena team who are willing to do the edgy stuff. The features editor Will Storr last month wrote up his role as part of a human shield protecting Colombian villagers from machete-wielding paramilitaries. Senior editor Steve Beale was prepared to take an assignment that required him to "explore the notion of sex with a transsexual", as Drew puts it.

"Before people make a judgement on that, it's important that they read the piece," he says. "It's extraordinarily insightful in terms of male-female relations and what are the attractions, if any, of that kind of boundary crossing. It questions one's own prejudices and the sexual mores you've grown up with."

Next month's anniversary issue will also look at the latest shift in the relationship between men and women, and what Drew describes as "a return to some old-school male values". He says: "It's more about self-sufficiency, men embracing the outdoors life, being able to put up a tent, fix their own house, their motorbike. You go up Snowdon now and you can't move for urbanites reclaiming their masculinity."

The edition will include a 32-page Arena retrospective, which will include photography by Mario Testino and Nick Knight and pieces from previous editors such as Ekow Eshun (now artistic director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts), Mark Ellen (now editor of The Word), Kathryn Flett (now television critic of The Observer) and Dylan Jones, now editor of GQ.

Drew knows that such a supplement will, in itself, do little to secure subscriptions from the new, younger readers he needs to attract. "The 25-year-old guy we might be trying to recruit to the Arena cause thinks that the previous 20 years of Arena are irrelevant. We have seen plenty of magazines that have been iconic in their day fall by the wayside. We have to live or die by what we produce that month."

So Arena is driving its brand ahead with the launch of the website, which went live last month. The site is designed as an interactive experience, updated during the day and "much looser and free-form than in the magazine".

The Arena website is much less heavily dependent on photographs of young women than its fellow Emap title FHM. "There are lots of pictures of girls on the internet in all sorts of forms and poses," Drew says. "Although our pictures would be more beautiful and sophisticated, most blokes who go on the internet looking for pictures of girls are not looking for that.

"What we want to do is engage with them on a different level. If they enjoy the writing on there, which is typically Arena, then they're much more likely to pick the magazine up at newsstand."

Arena can grow, he believes, by casting aside the crisis of confidence that hampered the title during the lads'-mag years. "Arena always maintained the core identity, but perhaps some of the surface stuff - the way it presented itself or marketed itself - was not as clear and confident as it could have been. I don't think there was a clear, consistent message of what Arena was about.

Over the last four or five years, we have worked hard to re-establish that confidence both in the advertising community and among readers."

The magazine is also expanding overseas, launching in Thailand, Korea, Denmark and, at the end of this month, Singapore.

Drew, an Emap veteran, was the deputy to the previous Arena editor Anthony Noguera for more than three years.

He started his career at the trade magazine Fashion Weekly (later swallowed up by Draper's Record), which gave him a solid grounding in the workings of the rag trade. "When I started I knew absolutely nothing about fashion - and some would say I still don't," he says.

When we meet, he's wearing an understated navy shirt, dark jeans and white trainers, although the shoes are the fashionable Pointer brand rather than Reebok Classics, the chosen footwear of Mike "The Streets" Skinner, of whom Drew is a big fan. "I have a bunch of interests from Manchester City to hip-hop and - I hesitate to say it - art house movies," he says, before heading off to give instructions to his "pretty tight" team of 18 editorial staff.

"We try to get different ideas and voices in the magazine, but there's a tone that runs throughout which I think is quite entertaining but quite self-deprecating as well," he says. It's a description that would apply equally to the Arena editor himself.