Esquire: 'There is more to men than masturbation'

You don't need explicit photography to sell men's magazines ... well, not at the top end, anyway. What these guys want is a good read. Ian Burrell talks to an editor who is moving upmarket

Lads mags, you have been told: Jeremy Langmead doesn't need the gratuitous use of acres of naked female flesh in order to get a rise.

In his first six months as the editor of Esquire he has boldly taken the famous men's magazine back to more cerebrally-challenging territory – a policy that has rewarded him with a circulation lift of 14 per cent year-on-year, to 59,800. And this when the likes of Maxim, Loaded and FHM are watching their numbers fall off a cliff. Langmead is unsympathetic. "What's nice about the rise in circulationof Esquire is that it reflects well on men: there's more to men than masturbation," he says. "With a lot of men's magazines you might as well say 'I haven't got a girlfriend.' That's the problem the more pornographic magazines are having, people realise that they are not a good look. Esquire is for people who have a sex life and don't have to use a magazine for sex."

As a former editor of the design magazine Wallpaper+, Langmead, 42, is rather particular about what he leaves lying around at home, a flat in the fashionable London neighbourhood of Primrose Hill.

Not that he is po-faced, you understand. "I think some of the lads mags do a brilliant job. I'm a big fan of Nuts. Genuinely. It makes me laugh and I totally see the point. I also know how hard it is to produce mags like that," he says from his impressively de-cluttered office, which overlooks the bustle of Soho.

The men's magazine industry, Langmead believes, has effectively turned its back on a key demographic. "They were ignoring the people in the City working for banks and hedge funds or in other white-collar professions. There weren't magazines catering to them."

Of course, Condé Nast's GQ would claim to be serving such readers already. And Mike Soutar, chief executive of the new free men's magazine Shortlist, argued in these pages last week that his title was being placed in the hands of the professional classes. But Langmead thinks his product is a cut above. "Upmarket" is the word he likes to use.

Just as he likes to keep his desk and his apartment pristine, so to with his magazine covers. Langmead's Esquire is to be distinguished by its "clean covers and white backgrounds". This, unlike the more laddish competition, is a good look, he explains. "I wanted it to look grown-up and sophisticated and I think a white background does that, it looks masculine, it looks clean."

This cleanliness thing he takes much further. When Esquire spread word of its new higher- brow era, by hosting a party for key contacts, Langmead sent out an email to staff telling them they weren't to eat any of the food. Things aren't so bad at the National Magazine Company that the grub had to be rationed, Langmead had other concerns. "If you're entertaining [on behalf of the] magazine and you have an advertising client or a writer coming up to you and you have a huge prawn canapé sticking out of your mouth it's not a good look is it, – you know, excuse me, hang on – so I just think 'No food in public'."

When he was editing Wallpaper+, Langmead learned the importance of protecting a magazine brand. "It's not just what's on the printed page, the brand is so much more than that. Every single thing that leaves the office, whether it's a member of the team, a piece of notepaper or an email, everything has got to look right and be on brand."

So the Esquire staff were also given a party dress code of suits for the men and high heels for the women ("because it looks good"). Langmead's view of how a woman should appear on the cover of Esquire is that looking sexy does not equate to being unclothed. He holds up the current edition, featuring Naomi Watts. "I actually think it's more sexy than having them sitting on a Ford Capri with their legs apart. It's a little more subtle seeing a girl wearing what could be your shirt and tie first thing in the morning."

Michelle Pfeiffer was so pleased with her cover shot in an armchair that she praised it on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross. In October, Langmead headed to Los Angeles to spend a week wooing Hollywood agents on the benefits of appearing in British Esquire.

"It's very much like the fashion industry – they like a relationship with the people they are working with. Once they've met you and you've explained what your magazine is doing it makes it a lot easier to get the right people on the covers," he says, suddenly pronouncing 'magazine' with the emphasis on the first syllable, American style.

The agents were a colourful bunch, he recounts. One told him he had recently been to London and enjoyed "breakfast with Madonna, lunch with Courtney Love and dinner with Kylie". It was, said the agent, "a gay man's wet dream".

Esquire cover-lines are written as a team exercise in a local pie-and-mash shop. Langmead is tortured by the nightmare of tainting a cover with an error. "If you make a mistake on a magazine it sits there for a fucking month, stabbing you in the stomach every time you go into a newsagent," he says, noting that he has yet to experience that on Esquire and tapping his hand on his wooden desk.

There is a long way to go. GQ outsells Esquire by more than two-to-one and the NatMags title's website is a mere written apology: "We know... we're working on it now. And it's going to be good," says Langmead.

But the secret to Esquire's early success under Langmead, who was launch editor of the Sunday Times' Style section in 1994, is about much more than getting the covers right. He is keen on commissioning long-form reportage, recently running a piece on teenage gun crime after a young man was killed close to the home of Shaun Phillips, the magazine's features director. Phillips knew the victim personally. "Men's magazines barely do features anymore... apart from a supermodel interviewing someone," says Langmead, taking a swipe at GQ's use of Naomi Campbell's journalistic skills.

Langmead is also exploiting his literary contacts. He secured the first extract of Yorkshire novelist Ross Raisin's 'God's Own Country', which he predicts will be "book of the year". Later this year he will launch the Esquire Non-Fiction Awards to further emphasise the seriousness of the brand.

He has already founded the Esquire Man At The Top Awards, which have a deliberate business skew and have acknowledged the efforts of Terence Conran and Stuart Rose, among others. The event rewards those who "have achieved something of a substance", says the editor, before deriding GQ's long-standing Man of the Year awards for once choosing Sir Elton John's partner as its "Most Stylish Man". "It's lovely seeing David Furnish get an award but it's not really for Esquire."

With little promotion, Langmead and his deputy Dan Davies have started to turn Esquire around. Key to their strategy is subscription sales, which are up by 10,000 on the year. Subscribers receive a special coffee-table friendly edition of the magazine without all those messy cover-lines. "We concentrate a lot on subscriptions," says Langmead. "You don't have to rely so heavily on the news-stand and producing ultra-commercial covers, covered in giveaways and neon-colours and, to be honest, big pairs of tits."

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