Have you got the balls for women's work?

The world of magazines may be fabulous, but says Richard Cook `AbFab' it ain't

It was a sketch by, of all people, French and Saunders, that helped set the tone. The pair sat around in their lavishly appointed offices for what seemed like an age before finally deciding that black was the new beige and then, work done for the day, promptly stormed off for a liquid lunch and a little light shopping.

Next there was Patsy Stone in Ab Fab, and whatever remote chance there had been that work on a women's magazine might be seen as anything other than an extension of the girl-about-town's social scene was emphatically over.

Working in women's magazines might be fun, was the message - it might even be a lot of fun; it might be an excuse to blag discount designer ware or frequent fashionable restaurants - but it wasn't really work.

Well, forget all about that. Or most of it, anyway. In truth the women's market is the single most fiercely fought-over battleground within the magazine industry.

The market stretches all the way from the cheap and cheerful delights of the weeklies found at the head of supermarket queues, to the carefully treasured glossies that do so much to brighten newsagents' shelves. What they all have in common is a forced fascination with market share and the twice yearly excitement of the circulation figures - the most convenient and nerve-racking way of keeping score yet devised.

This is big business - the women's weekly market on its own is worth pounds 250m a year - and changes in any title's performance are likely to mean big changes of personnel, of look, even of the name.

"What we are looking for first of all is people with a good business sense," explains the National Magazine Company group general manager Brian Wallis. "The most important attribute for any staff member is that they can construct an argument on behalf of the magazine."

NatMags is one of the giants of the women's magazine market, alongside the likes of IPC, Conde Nast and Emap. It publishes nine titles, but they include Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping and Harpers & Queen, and the publisher sells in excess of 2.2 million copies a month.

"We generally look to grow our own top talent," adds Wallis. "What we try and do in the first place is to find good calibre people and start them off in classified sales." They get two weeks training before they start and then for the first year are dispatched on supplementary courses to bolster individual skills.

After a year recruits should be looking to move on, either to agency sales, where they talk directly to advertising agencies and present the virtues of the magazine to them, or perhaps by joining the display team on one of the titles. Salary levels are comfortably competitive with other media and all display sales staff get a company car.

After three years staff could expect to reach a relatively senior role like sales development manager and from there the next steps are a move to ad director or even to publish one of the titles yourself.

Of course women's magazine work is no longer the preserve of women. NatMags, which publishes eight titles aimed at women and one, GQ, aimed at men, reckons its staff is very nearly evenly divided by sex.

"Increasingly we are looking for people who have a little experience in other media, perhaps in TV or in the regional press," says Wallis. "What we want is a keen business awareness."

Intelligence and adaptability are especially important to the other publishers as well. Conde Nast, for example, launched two new magazines last year, Conde Nast Traveller and GQ Active, and as a consequence found itself having to fill a total of 142 job vacancies over the year and find about another 30 short-term contract workers.

"I try and get the very best person for every single job, no matter how far up or down the hierarchy it is - even last year, where we had to recruit an exceptionally large number of people," says Conde Nast personnel director Susannah Amoore. "But then I try to see anywhere between 800 and 1,000 people a year, just for a short chat and to keep their details on file. That way, when we do have vacancies we have a pool of people we can turn to."

At Conde Nast the position of PA is a traditional first step into the magazine world. "I'm afraid we mercilessly exploit whatever talents our PAs have and expect them to be flexible," says Amoore. "In return they get all sorts of opportunities to progress and show where their interests lie. If I'm looking for a circulation person I don't necessarily want someone already doing the job, I want someone who's keen to give it a go."

Certainly the magazine world can be an enviable place to work. Although it is a business and a hugely competitive one at that, pay, benefits and the working environment are all impressive.

"We don't lose many staff to other companies because people really do enjoy working here, and in fact we say we have a revolving door policy," says Amoore, "because so often people who go end up coming back."

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