Get your kit back on for the lads

To lose a quarter of your readers seems like carelessness, but Esquire's editor Peter Howarth insists that he knows what he's doing. Either laddism is history - or he is. B

On a sunny morning in February, Peter Howarth climbed into a waiting car in Los Angeles en route to his annual meeting with the massed ranks of Hollywood's celebrity publicists. Howarth, editor of British Esquire magazine, had been to three of the meetings to date; they had been polite but not particularly fruitful. A-list female celebrities, said the publicists, weren't interested in appearing semi-clothed on the covers of laddish British magazines.

On a sunny morning in February, Peter Howarth climbed into a waiting car in Los Angeles en route to his annual meeting with the massed ranks of Hollywood's celebrity publicists. Howarth, editor of British Esquire magazine, had been to three of the meetings to date; they had been polite but not particularly fruitful. A-list female celebrities, said the publicists, weren't interested in appearing semi-clothed on the covers of laddish British magazines.

But Howarth had in his case a few copies of the latest edition of Esquire, the first after a radical move upmarket. On the cover was a tasteful monochrome portrait of Johnny Depp's face. He handed the copies around the room, to absorbed silence. "Suddenly, six of them spontaneously got to their feet and started applauding," Howarth says. "I know they do things differently in America, but it was still amazing."

It has been six months since Howarth took a decision to move Esquire out of the tits-and-bums domain of British mens' magazines and propel it upmarket. In a couple of weeks, the sales figures for that six-month period will be released. They will show that Esquire has suffered, in normal industry terms, a calamitous drop in circulation, losing 25 per cent of its readers since faces replaced female bodies on the magazine's cover.

Industry sources say circulation may be as low as 75,000, from 100,481 for the last six months of 1999. That would put Esquire an enormous distance behind its traditional rival GQ, which is expected to maintain something close to its last circulation figure of 142,162.

In most publications, such a careless loss of readers would be a sacking offence. Yet Howarth's bosses have just delivered a ringing endorsement of his work, creating a new, upmarket magazine group around Esquire. The readers who have deserted are "floating teenagers" looking for titillation, whom he never wanted anyway, he says. "Of course, when 25,000 teenagers stop buying your magazine, clearly your initial fear is, 'was this a good thing to do?' But nobody buys a magazine because of the circulation figure, which is really only of interest to your advertisers.

"For our kind of upmarket advertisers it is actually far better to be in a magazine that is focused and delivering 75,000 good people than 150,000 of questionable value to them." Esquire is actually making more money this year, with lower circulation, than it was last, he says.

It is a decent argument from a decent man who insists that he is not launching crusade against laddism, but who plainly doesn't fit the "it's all just a larf" image of the mens' market. A thoughtful, chatty 35-year-old, Howarth is married with two children, and the editor of a book on fatherhood; he is not a great drinker, nor, friends say, the kind to ogle women or indulge in ladspeak.

One imagines that he is more at home with Esquire's new image, which includes a monthly short story, an investigation, a photo-essay and a soon-to-be launched business profile. But his argument, which sounds well-rehearsed, is also one born out of necessity.

Howarth has had to justify himself to his bosses at the National Magazine Company and his advertisers. One senior Natmags executive says the move was seen as a necessary risk: "Obviously there was no point in Esquire trying to compete with FHM and tarnishing its own brand in the process, and Peter was very brave to want to change that. It's a long-term project, but obviously we can't carry on losing sales forever."

Esquire's move upmarket has made it a quite different proposition from its GQ, whose editor Dylan Jones teased Howarth for ditching the "tits and lists" philosophy of men's magazines "because his wife didn't like it". GQ's covers, with their lascivious pictures (most famously, of Kylie Minogue's behind) and tempting coverlines ("The Lolita issue"), conceal a magazine which has plenty of "upmarket" content and appeals to a wide readership, from tumescent adolescents to metropolitan sophisticates.

Esquire, much less "in yer face", may have blokes' portraits on its covers, but it still carries plenty of skin pictures, including no fewer than 26 of Anna Kournikova in a recent issue. But it has ditched nipple counts in favour of a smooth, narrow focus: the Kournikova photos illustrated a very insightful interview.

The question is whether this is enough to stem the outflow of readers. Howarth has no doubts. "It's no longer smart to revel in your dumbness," he says. "Laddism as a cultural force is spent."

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