I won't go downmarket to win this war

In the battle of the glossy mags, journalism still matters more than marketing, Terry Mansfield, head of National Magazines
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Terry Mansfield is crouching in his office, fiddling with a VCR. "This was working when I went on holiday," he mutters. "What have they done with it - ah." The TV screen comes alive with a a blur of minimally-dressed young women strutting along a catwalk. "See, the Cosmo show," he says, proudly. "Each year, 50,000 women come along to have a good time."

For 18 years, Mr Mansfield has been the chief executive of the National Magazine Company, which publishes such bedrocks of newsagent shelves as Cosmopolitan, Harpers and Queen and Good Housekeeping. The former advertising salesman - he joined the company in 1969 as advertising manager of Harpers and Queen - has presided over a period of stability and subtle expansion in one of the most testing times in the history of the magazine industry.

Right now, though, Mr Mansfield has more to be worried about than usual. The mainstream market, where National Magazines publishes most of its titles, is more crowded than ever. "You could be sitting in a pub tonight and start publishing a magazine tomorrow," he says. The demands on readers' time and loyalty (and those of advertisers) from other magazines and media have never been so high. Former bastions of steady circulation like Harpers and Country Living have slipped in the sales tables, the former by 4 per cent in the past year, the latter by17.1 per cent.

Added to that, Mr Mansfield, who has long been renowned as a skillful talent-spotter, recently lost his most high-profile editor, Mandi Norwood of Cosmopolitan, to Conde Nast in America, in a wrangle that saw her forced to work every day of a six-month notice period.

"I was very sorry to lose Mandi Norwood," Mr Mansfield says. "I found her, I developed her, and she responded. She's a great editor." So was it a point of principle that led him to force her to stay for so long? "No, she signed a three-year deal and I think that people who sign a deal ..." He says he can't comment further for legal reasons.

"And anyway we have an excellent new editor," he says, referring to last week's appointment of Lorraine Butler, a Times executive. "We saw 70 different candidates and the reason why Lorraine got it is that she's very features oriented, and Cosmo is a features magazine," he says.

Unlike Nicholas Coleridge (a former Mansfield protégé) at Conde Nast, Terry Mansfield is not an active editorial director, and sees himself as "a manager of talent." His background is in the commercial side of the industry and he played a key role in the company's expansion in the 1970s and 1980s. "Group editorial directors tend to make everything look the same," he says.

Silver-haired, affable and charming in a lightly-pinstriped suit, and tanned from a recent holiday in Morocco, he looks like the salesman he once was, though many have underestimated him at their peril. As well as his commercial acumen he has a creative streak which one past editor says "gives you complete confidence in what you're doing. He is a man who understands all sides of the industry, though he doesn't interfere with his editors unless he really has to".

Right now these qualities are being tested to the full. Ms Butler takes over Cosmo at a time when the challenge has never been greater. Marie Claire, its main rival, is now only 20,000 behind in monthly sales and seems more in tune with the realities of 21st-century living - Ms Norwood's last coverlines seemed stuck in an 1980s time-warp.

Even more pressing is the issue of cover mounts. It's something that troubles Mr Mansfield deeply and which he sees as responsible for the difficult time some of his magazines, Country Living included, are having. "Walk into a newsagents and you see every other magazine plastered with some giveaway," he says. "For me the most important point about a magazine is content."

Publishers like Emap and IPC, as well as smaller upstarts keen to get a foothold, have been more aggressive than National on giveaways. IPC's Ideal Home recently posted a 27.2 per cent rise in sales after a vigorous cover mount campaign. "It's also very expensive," Mr Mansfield points out: "I'd rather spend £300,000 on some really good stories than on sticking a pound of spaghetti on the cover. In the long run I am absolutely convinced reader loyalties are built on content, not on getting a free paintbrush." He adds that Good Housekeeping has consolidated its market share, without resorting to the multiple giveaways of some of its rivals, "through great content".

But National Magazines is no stranger to plastering giveaways on its products, either. "You have to respond," he says. "You can't have 16 magazines on the shelf and be the only one without anything on." He says he believes cover-mount mania will go on for a few more years, while pointing out it has happened before, some 70 years ago, and only stopped when all the major magazine groups got together and agreed to call a halt.

The other issue is the Internet. The average reader could be forgiven for thinking National Magazines' foray into new media has been somewhat uncertain. Look up the websites for Harpers or Good Housekeeping, and you are presented with a single, brochure-style page with circulation figures, basic facts, and a line about this month's magazine. It's hardly ground-breaking stuff. Mr Mansfield says he views the Internet as an opportunity for marketing and selling, but not a rival publication. "Nobody*s going to come home, switch on a screen and say, 'Ah, now it's time for a good read'. But the Internet is an additional demand on people's time, and so a rival in that way."

The way to survive, he says, is through diversifying the company's brand strengths. There is a Cosmo show, Cosmo bed linen, Cosmo TV programmes (overseas); Esquire had a jazz record label in the 1930s and something similar could be revived now: "Brands like Harpers and Good Housekeeping could work very well applied to the Net." But Mr Mansfield says he will never pour all the content from his magazines into his website. "Magazines will always sell if they have good words and pictures and good entertainment value," he says.

"I think magazines you can touch and feel have a great future." He says the company is in the process of "Anglicising" a version of women.com, an American portal owned by his parent group Hearst, which will give all kinds of advice and information to women.

There is an exception to this "tread carefully" philosophy. Esquire is boasting what Peter Howarth, the magazine's editor, calls "advanced and experimental" websites featuring streaming video based on stories in current issues. They feel a little ahead of their time, but are arguably more interesting than the different takes on home shopping offered by some rivals. They are said to have been inspired partly by Duncan Edwards, Mr. Mansfield's 35-year-old deputy, who says the other magazines will have similar sites by the year's end.

Despite a market in which formerly unique publications are fighting against a dozen or more imitators, Mr Mansfield thinks there is room for the launch of a new title, and hints he is looking at a magazine for middle-aged women. "They have more spending power than anyone else," he says.

There is also innovation among his existing titles. Peter Howarth says Mr Mansfield was "instantly supportive" after the former's recent decision to drop semi-naked women from the cover of Esquire. "We deliberately went along the route of its heritage," Mr Mansfield says. "I'm very happy with the decision." Isn't it a risk? "Of course it is, and we'll have to see what happens. But Esquire is a very sophisticated read."

For the sake of upmarket publications everywhere, one has to hope that Mr Mansfield's legendary instincts are right.