Felix and the feelgood factor
After the trials of Oz, Felix Dennis struck gold in the computer press. Now he has a fat wallet, a villa in Mustique and a new men's magazine to play with. Maggie Brown reports
Tuesday 04 April 1995
Well, that's the way some interviews go.
I had asked to meet Britain's most unconventional publisher because this week marks a departure for his privately owned, central London-based company (Dennis Publishing, what else?), which produces a sheaf of best-selling computer magazines, aimed at both the user and the trade.
After a year of careful analysis and research, the company is diversifying into the mainstream with Maxim, a glossy monthly for men. This will attempt to capitalise on the success of GQ, Esquire, Loaded, FHM, XL and, most recently, Men's Health, which are proving that around half a million men will buy general interest publications that do not simply rely on the traditional male areas of sport, music and news/politics.
Maxim invades the traditional women's magazine agenda (oral sex, how to pull a rich spouse, careers and cookery), gives it a sex change and adds in a bit of rough. This is quite deliberate: the company headhunted the accomplished editor Gill Hudson (formerly of New Woman and Company) to finesse the £1.25m project into a commercial product, aimed uncompromisingly at heterosexual men.
"We own the computer market, now we'll steal someone else's lollipop. It's a growing market," Dennis observes, as he empties his pockets in preparation for a photograph, throws me his immaculate wallet (so there are no unsightly bulges) and dabs his face with a laundered handkerchief. "Double-breasted suits are most difficult to shoot," he tells the photographer with the assurance of a man who knows every last jot about the editorial game.
All the while he is talking nineteen to the dozen, spinning out jokes and ideas. Hudson is told about his latest editorial idea: a feature on the contents of celebrities' fridges. Dennis says his are crammed full of food that his staff eat; the only thing he draws the line at is Jaffa Cakes (I think this is a joke).
Felix Dennis is streetwise. Twenty-four years ago, he was one of three defendants in the longest obscenity trial in British legal history - the Oz trial. He was accused, along with co-editors Richard Neville and Jim Anderson, with conspiring to produce a magazine "which would corrupt the morals of children and other young persons" by publishing Schoolkids' Oz, a mix of smutty jokes and drawings.
When the saga ended and the sentences were quashed, Dennis edited a final edition of the now broken Oz and then speeded to build himself several publishing fortunes, here and in the United States.
Having been once pursued by the courts, he assures me that he would never sue a journalist for libel, though he is scathing of the low standards of the British press compared with the fact-checking energy that goes into the best American products. (Like many British magazines, Maxim is produced with a small permanent staff of seven and buttressed with contributors.)
Dennis is the genuine article, a bustling entrepreneur who does everything in his distinctively brash and energetic way: he talks about his Roller and his latest purchase, a beautiful villa on Mustique, built by David Bowie. He hands me the estate agent's brochure. This complements his main residence, a historic Warwickshire manor house and estate.
Dennis is as swift to acknowledge that the idea was brought to him by two magazine experts, Mat Snow and Lloyd Bradley, as he is to talk openly about his personal life: no point the News of the World staking out the Warwickshire spread from which he mainly operates, at arm's length from his managers.
Snow and Bradley had failed to interest EMAP Metro in the proposition, so they took it to Dennis. "It was a sound concept, they're talented guys. But we didn't feel either of them was the editor", says Dennis. "They're brilliant, but the biggest prima donnas who ever walked the planet. Magazines are about teamwork."
Mat Snow, who left after the first full dummy of the magazine was devised last May and is now editor of successful music magazine MoJo, replies: "We only met Felix three times. He is a charming man. He didn't rip us off. I'm hurt about the prima donna thing."
The basic aim is to interest the unashamedly red-blooded male, who may well be in his thirties rather than his twenties. Eric Fuller, the publishing director recruited to expand the company, says that the men's market is clearly growing, but that the existing magazines "had a very narrow editorial agenda".
The magazine is smaller than a traditional monthly. It is printed on high-quality paper, and is designed to fit into briefcases for an easy read on the train or Tube. "Classy," says Fuller. "They don't want to feel embarrassed about taking it home."
Gill Hudson says that it is well known that men often read women's magazines. They don't want psychobabble, but straight and real insights into, for example, women's views about sex. (Accordingly, one article is devoted to women discussing oral sex, encounter group-style.)
It also has 15 cartoons. This is Dennis's editorial contribution to the mix. An instinctive entertainer, he wants readers to have a laugh. The title emerged at a board meeting.
The company states publicly that it is aiming for sales of 50,000 by the end of the year, but this is modest for a magazine that has slapped a seductive woman in a skimpy black dress on a bright pink cover.
I read over to Mat Snow the magazine's main storylines. He groaned. "They are all the ones we tried to exclude on the grounds that they are naff." But then he cheered up and repeated what Dennis had said to me the day before. "If it's a success, I can say it's my idea. If it's a failure, I can say they should have listened to me." If it succeeds, then Felix Dennis will be launching more titles aimed at the general reader. Going mainstream.
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