Expensive and proud of it

Esquire editor Simon Tiffin feels a price hike and a free offer will continue the title's resurgence

We cost less than a packet of cigarettes - and - we don't give you cancer," says
Esquire editor Simon Tiffin, discussing his magazine's latest price hike. "That was going to my strapline." He then gets up from his chair and excuses himself: "I'm off to have a fag," he says. Tiffin, a likeable cove dressed in a blue corduroy suit, is joking about the strapline but the increase in cover price (by a whopping 55p) is very much a reality and a calculated risk by the
Esquire editor and his bosses at the National Magazine Company.

We cost less than a packet of cigarettes - and - we don't give you cancer," says Esquire editor Simon Tiffin, discussing his magazine's latest price hike. "That was going to my strapline." He then gets up from his chair and excuses himself: "I'm off to have a fag," he says. Tiffin, a likeable cove dressed in a blue corduroy suit, is joking about the strapline but the increase in cover price (by a whopping 55p) is very much a reality and a calculated risk by the Esquire editor and his bosses at the National Magazine Company.

The extra charge will help to fund a range of collectable cover mounts (April's will be a DVD of the 1965 classic film The Ipcress File, starring Michael Caine), but it is also intended to send out a signal to readers and the magazine industry that Esquire is a "premium product".

Tess Macleod-Smith, Nat Mags group publishing director, says: "There's definitely evidence in lots of markets that people are willing to pay more for something that's very good value. The reason we decided to launch this brand new strategy was we felt there was an opportunity to own the premium price end of the market."

So Esquire now sells for £3.95, markedly more expensive than its two most obvious rivals Condé Nast's GQ (£3.40) and Emap's Arena (£3.50).

Tiffin thinks that top-end men's magazines are "undervalued" and that - even at £3.95 - Esquire represents a "bloody good deal". He says: "It's also a way of saying, 'We are an upscale magazine and we are not ashamed.'"

Rivals might scoff that Tiffin's first choice of upscale cover mount - a DVD of Night of the Living Dead given away with the February edition - hardly had the whiff of Belgravia about it. But he argues that George Romero's 1968 film was the prototype for a genre that has recently spawned 28 Days Later and Simon Pegg's Shaun of the Dead. "There's a whole zombie thing going on," he says.

Tiffin is also determined to put distance between Esquire and other men's titles simply by virtue of its content. For the past year or more, the men's market has been characterised by the emergence of the weekly sector in the shape of the hugely successful lads' titles Nuts and Zoo, with their diets of babes and japery.

Tiffin wants to capitalise on an Esquire tradition that (through its 70-year-old US edition) harks back to John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway. So he commissions Scottish novelist Ian Rankin to profile Sean Connery.

This star-interviews-star routine is an Esquire hallmark, with comedian Stewart Lee (writer of Jerry Springer: The Opera) interviewing Johnny Vegas and then, next month, Alan Partridge co-creator Armando Iannucci questioning his hero Woody Allen.

There is a 30-page segment near the front of Esquire called "Manifesto", which Tiffin thinks best expresses what his publication is all about, offering a quirkiness and unpredictability not found elsewhere on the newsstand. This translates into a piece by a 33-year-old German journalist on what it's like to share a birthday with Adolf Hitler. Katja Hoffman writes: "I have vivid memories of my birthday of a couple of years ago. Not of celebrating with friends but of waiting at the Alexanderplatz underground station in Berlin. The sounds of the 'Sieg Heil!'s echoing through its tiled corridors and of my heart pounding with fear as I saw them marching towards me."

Another Manifesto feature highlights the British basketball players who have made it to the hallowed ground of the NBA (the latest being a lanky Sudanese refugee who had moved to Croydon before finding his true talent for hoops).

Tiffin thinks that Esquire has not always had the credit for its journalism that it deserves. It was he who commissioned Kimberly Fortier to write a ground-breaking (if rather cosy) profile of the then newly installed Tory leader Michael Howard, which would have attracted more attention if she was as famous then as she is now. "It was the first profile he had done," says Tiffin. He was irritated by later suggestions (wholly untrue, he says) that Kimberly had proposed an interview with David Blunkett.

Tiffin has a feature on Labour election supremo Alan Milburn in his May issue but says it is not for glossy magazine editors to nail their political colours to the mast. He is commendably careful not to engage in the sniping that has been a feature of upmarket men's magazines in the past year, with Dylan Jones of GQ and Anthony Noguera of Arena engaging in a slanging match, which Greg Gutfeld ( Maxim) entered into with some relish. Tiffin, who is a former editor of GQ Active, says he hasn't got time for that sort of thing - unlike his allotment in Fulham, which he tends every weekend, nurturing the organic vegetables that he takes to dinner parties as presents. He even declines to turn his nose up at the weekly men's market, seeing the circulation potential for his title in hundreds of thousands of young magazine readers whom he can one day persuade that "there's more on offer than Abi Titmuss". He says his readers are slightly older than those of his rivals, though at an average age of 34 they are considerably younger than the 48-year-old who is the heartland of the readership of American Esquire.

Tiffin himself is 40, and has a slightly fogeyish way about him. When asked why he has opted for a CD cover mount with the March issue rather than reaching out to downloaders, he does not try to suggest that the tracks could readily be transferred to his readers' iPods. Instead he says: "If we had a free £10 worth of downloads I would say, 'I can't be arsed. I don't know how to do it.' But if I see a CD, I would say, 'Oh good.CD! Like! Understand!'"

Tiffin is clearly doing something right. Esquire's latest ABC is 71,401, up 11.3 per cent from six months earlier. This is why Ms Macleod-Smith, who also has responsibility for women's title Harpers & Queen, feels confident enough to push on with a strategy that will include major investment to raise Esquire's profile in independent newsagents and, especially, in supermarkets.

Tiffin admits that Esquire might historically have baulked at being stocked by Tesco, as opposed to Waitrose. But Macleod-Smith says: "Tesco are really good at selling magazines. They have pride of place in that store. We support retailers that support magazines."

She says that retailers are also happy with Esquire's cover price - because it means they get a larger return too. She admits, though, that advertisers' concerns over Esquire's notorious use of bulk sales (only 63 per cent of circulation is active sales) will have to be heeded. She wants bulk sales to be driven down to 13,000 (although the contract to supply free copies to British Airways first-class customers will certainly be retained).

On a crowded newsstand, the success of Esquire's new strategy will be in persuading AB men to fork out for subscriptions, which are currently only at 5,500. She has set Tiffin the challenge of increasing the number of subs by 20 per cent every six months.

Tiffin doesn't seem fazed by any of these targets and the early signals (subs were up 24 per cent last ABC) indicate that he is up to the task. If not, there's always the allotment.

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