'My readers are posher than yours' - GQ vs Esquire

The UK's leading upmarket men's mag, GQ, has launched a scathing attack on Esquire - and taken the battle to the advertisers. Why? Because its rival claimed its readers had more cash - and class.

The magazine world has always been a bitchy place, resonating to the sounds of heels stamping and fingernails scraping. So it was nothing unusual when, earlier this month, the editor and publisher of one magazine went out of their way to antagonise their rival with an acidic letter and scathing newspaper article about them.

The magazine world has always been a bitchy place, resonating to the sounds of heels stamping and fingernails scraping. So it was nothing unusual when, earlier this month, the editor and publisher of one magazine went out of their way to antagonise their rival with an acidic letter and scathing newspaper article about them.

Point-by-point, the letter (sent to the magazines' all-important mutual advertisers) and the article (in the London Evening Standard) alleged weaknesses in the rival publication, about how its readership had fallen, and how the editor was telling fibs about the quality of readers that remained.

The curious thing was that the bickering was taking place not in the traditionally back-biting world of women's glossies, but in the supposedly laid-back arena of upmarket men's magazines. And the extreme defensive tactics were being employed by what is generally believed to be the strongest magazine in the upper-end of the men's market, GQ.

Published by Conde Nast and edited by the former Sunday Times writer-at-large Dylan Jones, GQ had just seen its biggest rival, Esquire, inflict on itself an unprecedented sales plunge of 30 per cent by banning the standard lads' mag fare of semi-naked women from its cover, and replacing them with head shots of celebrities. The male, magazine-buying public spoke, the sales of Esquire dropped to 70,000, and GQ (whose own circulation had dropped only slightly by 6,000) could have been forgiven some quiet gloating over suddenly having sales nearly double its enemy's.

But Conde Nast's reaction was odd. Luxury goods companies, car companies and media buyers for fashion designers all received the letter from GQ's normally gentlemanly publisher, Peter Stuart, addressing every point Howarth had made about Esquire's move upmarket in a newspaper article. "Let's look at Esquire's claims as made by the editor Peter Howarth...," the letter began, before attempting to take him apart.

At the same time, Jones wrote his scathing rebuttal of Howarth in the Evening Standard, ending, somewhat curiously to some, with an appeal to advertisers to see through his rival's spin. "It was curious because GQ is obviously in such a strong position," says one media buyer. "We knew Esquire's circulation had dropped, and it was Natmags (publishers of Esquire) who should have been worried."

"My initial reaction was surprise," says Howarth. "I'd written an article about the good things about Esquire. I made no comparisons between my magazine and GQ. So I was amazed to see a whole page in the Standard the following week by Dylan, writing not about GQ but about Esquire. And it rankled because there was one sentence in particular which was untrue; he said ' GQ men earn more than Esquire men', when they actually earn less."

Jones insists his article was neither a personal attack on Howarth nor a criticism of Esquire. "Whatever Peter does with Esquire is none of my business," he says. "The only thing I took issue with was his claim that his magazine has more upmarket readers than ours, which it doesn't."

Men will bicker, and in fact the statistics indicate that, disparity in reader numbers aside, the magazines are virtually neck-and-neck in the all-important quest for the highest proportion of upmarket readers. But the question remains as to why GQ had worked itself up into such a lather.

Look at the two magazines and the editors' different philosophies are obvious. Jones is generally regarded as having done well in retaining GQ's broad appeal with a mixture of flesh pictures, serious interviews and hip lifestyle features. Esquire, meanwhile, has banished drooling photo spreads of women, replacing them with some lengthy, investigative journalism, though it's debatable whether the writing inside is superior to GQ's overall.

Judging them on covers (which many buyers do), few people would doubt that Esquire's recent offerings, featuring close-up face shots of the likes of Samuel L Jackson, Brad Pitt and David Beckham, look classier than GQ's of Britney Spears unbuttoning her blouse, Kylie Minogue's bottom famously airbrushed bare and a pubescent soap star under the cover line "The Lolita Syndrome", which was unfortunately on sale at the time of the paedophilia uproar. Objectively, though, Howarth needs to deliver the upmarket readers (not just the covers) if the advertisers are to believe in his philosophy.

Crucially for the bottom line, which in magazines is largely dependent on advertising revenue, GQ is highly regarded by advertisers. "Quite simply, GQ takes in more advertising than anything else in the men's market," says Ian Rockett, of the media agency, Mindshare.

So perhaps the reasons behind the angst at Vogue House are more social than commercial. If there's something you should never tell the family-run firm who publish Vogue, Tatler and Vanity Fair, it's that you're more upmarket than them. "Remember Conde Nast is a relatively tiny publishing company compared to its profile," says a senior Vogue House executive. "It's whole raison d'être is built on being the classiest. If a rival magazine goes around claiming it's classier, the alarm bells ring."

But Nicholas Coleridge, the formidable MD of Conde Nast, is too wise to let his executives be directed by social snobbery. Howarth, for one, now thinks the vehement reaction of the editor and publisher of GQ were singular for their obvious concern about advertisers' perceptions.

"Quality is the entire heartbeat of the Conde Nast brand," Howarth points out. " GQ is driven by them being able to say to advertisers they are the top magazine in the men's quality market. Then suddenly I come along and say, 'You're not upmarket, we are now', and they get riled. They know people will look at the covers and come to conclusions. We are trespassing onto turf Conde Nast thinks is theirs by right, it's undermining the basis of their entire brand, and it's scared them."

There is a big difference between proclaiming your intention to capture the upper market and actually doing it, and Howarth's changes are still a work in progress, but he has a point. Perceptions are everything, and if Esquire does gain a reputation for being the most upmarket, then Jones could be in the uncomfortable (and possibly unprecedented) position of editing a Conde Nast title that is not the poshest in its field, something the letter and article were clearly aimed at preempting.

Jones claims he is unconcerned. " Esquire is not a more upmarket publication than GQ. If they turn up with more AB readers than us, then good on them, but it's not happening at the moment." He defends his recent covers as "funny and clever without looking cheap, and they had an enormous amount of press coverage," which Esquire's didn't.

Indeed, in the short-term, it is Esquire that should be worried, for after the circulation drop advertisers (the magazine's main source of revenue) are in a position to demand discounts on the magazine's rates, with potentially damaging effects on the whole business.

So why are the big cheeses at National Magazines, publishers of Esquire, being so nonchalant in the face of the sales plunge? One theory gaining ground is that the company, which is in acquisitive mood having recently bought Gruner und Jahr's UK operation, has set its sights on acquiring a very well-known lads' magazine from another major publisher, with a high circulation and downmarket readership. This will allow Esquire to go all-out in its battle for the high ground. A senior Natmags source confirms "it is an option we are actively exploring."

All of this means, if nothing else, an interesting continuation of Howarth's sociological experiment to see whether men aren't only interested in sex. And, at GQ's offices in Conde Nast's Mayfair headquarters, either an editorial rethink or a large amount of urgent correspondence heading for the corridors of Gucci, Prada, Mercedes et al, to reassure them posh men are just as interested in Britney Spears ('Thank Heaven for Little Girls') as they are in Samuel L Jackson.

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