Beware: 'Psychologies' editor can read your mind
'Psychologies' shows that a glossy doesn't just have to be about fashion and celebrity. Maureen Rice tells Ian Burrell how her fast-rising title exploited a gap in the market
Monday 26 February 2007
With the greatest respect to a former editor of this newspaper, surely no eavesdropper to the office chatter at a women's magazine would expect to hear Andrew Marr identified by staff as the object of their fantasies?
And it cannot be your everyday women's magazine readers' poll of sexy men that throws up such names as Clive Anderson and Boris Johnson MP.
Though press reports show that the latter clearly has his admirers, he was sufficiently surprised by his identification as a modern-day sex symbol that he wrote to Maureen Rice, editor of Psychologies, to express his thanks. "I'm highly gratified if somewhat bemused... I wonder whether Professor Stephen Hawking came first?"
In fact, the winner of the magazine's Sexiest Brain competition was Newsnight's Jeremy Paxman, who didn't send a thank-you note. Perhaps Paxo failed to appreciate the magnitude of the accolade. The readers of Psychologies are rather a special group.
Bored by the celebrity and shopping content that obsesses much of the newsstands, they have turned their backs on traditional women's magazines. They will listen to Radio 4 and peruse the supplements of the quality press but they are hugely unimpressed by commercial television's attempts to gain the attentions of the female viewer. As such, they are a hard-to-reach group for advertisers, in spite of their relative affluence.
Psychologies magazine was one of the outstanding success stories of this month's biannual magazine circulation figures, posting a 20 per cent annual increase. But Rice knows that her monthly sale of 115,000 still leaves room for improvement in capturing the attentions of a sector of modern society that she believes is ignored by the rest of the media.
Those who bought this month's edition will have found articles advising them how handle difficult conversations, to learn from their mistakes and to discover their authentic selves. Pamela Stephenson Connolly writes on relationships, alongside regular contributors Derek Draper, the one-time New Labour spin doctor, and Oliver James, the clinical psychologist, journalist and author on the dangers of craving material wealth.
"Psychologies is not a fashion magazine and it's not about surface," says Rice. "There's no gossip, but a lot of stuff talking about personality, going beneath the surface and talking about people's inside lives."
Rice has had hurdles to overcome in selling the concept, not least as a result of the magazine's title, inherited from her French publisher Hachette Filipacchi, which has previously established a successful French product with the same name. "I think people don't really know what it means here," Rice says. "And it doesn't say 'women's magazine' either."
To some British women, the word "psychologies" conjures up another: "neurotic". Rice says: "I think people who don't like it are people who don't buy into the idea of the examined life. They are uncomfortable with the idea of it being legitimate for us to examine ourselves and try to understand ourselves better. There is perhaps a slightly old-fashioned British idea that it's somehow slightly self-indulgent or neurotic."
Psychologies, insists Rice and her publisher Jude Secombe, is a magazine for "fully functioning adults" not people with problems. "People say to me, 'Isn't it all about depression' when in fact it's an incredibly upbeat and positive magazine. Some of our readers might say it's too positive." The magazine's promise is the promise of personal change, that our lives and our relationships are ours to make. Changing your external circumstances is often most powerfully done by changing your internal circumstances."
Serious readers might also be inhibited by their suspicions of the sort of cod science that is increasingly prevalent on television lifestyle shows. "It's not physics, it's not even nutrition but there's some science involved in psychology and a lot of good sense," acknowledges Rice.
She points out that her features editor, Rebecca Alexander, has just completed her second psychology degree. Nonetheless, she accepts, there are some dodgy self-help books out there, particularly those American tracts that claim that willpower is all it takes to conquer the world.
"I hate that kind of stuff," says Rice. "The British reserve is melting but we are very sceptical about the cheesier end of self-help, and rightly so. It makes people into victims.
"If it's more about the writer than the reader, then I am not going near it. I don't like gurus."
The expertise of the likes of Alexander helps Psychologies staff identify quality material from what has become a vast money-spinning sector for the publishing industry. "There's some very bad work out there but we say to our readers that we will read all of them and bring you the good bits so you don't have to waste your time on those ghastly books."
Though Psychologies has tried to shun the cult of celebrity it has repeatedly devoted its covers to A-list stars - Meryl Streep is on the front of the current issue.
Rice rejects the idea that this undermines the magazine's ethos. "We are a personality magazine, we are about people." Of her big-name interviews, she says: "We are not necessarily looking for dirt - your affair or who you are dating - but maybe your feelings about relationships generally and what has and hasn't worked for you. It's not hagiography but it's a slightly more human approach to celebrities just as personalities. We are interested in interesting women."
So Streep is talking about the need for taking risks in life, not a cover line that other women's titles would have seized on. Sigourney Weaver was on the front of Psychologies' most successful issue and Rice notes that she has not graced the cover of other British women's magazines.
The Psychologies editor and her readers might be on to something very different but they are not a species apart. "Some of our readers will quite happily read a gossip mag," Rice says. "I know I will. I like a little gossip, personally. I would very happily read a fashion mag, I enjoy fashion."
Earlier in her career, Rice edited 19 magazine and Options but it was when she was a freelance journalist that she began charting what she saw as fundamental changes in British society. A 2005 cover story for The Observer magazine, headlined "Are the Kids All Right?" highlighted the unhappiness of teenagers and mirrored findings in the recent report by Unicef.
When, shortly afterwards, Hachette decided the time was right for a British version of Psychologies, she knew it was a magazine made for her. Media agencies and rival publishers were sceptical that such a concept could cross the Channel but the advertisers have followed the circulation figures.
In spite of the editorial content, premium car and beauty product manufacturers have no compunction in buying space in a title that has an 81 per cent ABC1 readership. The core of these are between 35-45 but some are in their twenties and some in their sixties. They read what used to be called the broadsheets - and the Daily Mail. "We call them latte activists, they are very clued up about organics and food miles and fair trade and they are very into that kind of stuff too," says Rice.
Her aim is to inspire her readers with "at least one lightbulb moment per month", though she accepts that some British women will never be plugged in to what she is offering.
"I think Psychologies is a very polarising proposition," she says. "It doesn't do the same things that other magazines do and that will be either attractive or repellent, depending on where you are coming from."
Sales don't lie: for an increasing proportion of British women, the Psychologies proposition is an attractive one.
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