Out with the old Lady, in with the new
The Lady used to be fusty, dusty and full of stairlift ads – but no more. Sophie Morris meets the man who is giving the weekly women's magazine a much-needed facelift
Monday 30 March 2009
The offices of The Lady occupy a suitably distinguished address in London's Covent Garden, housed in a double-fronted building, a mere stroll from The National Gallery and the Royal Opera House. Step inside and one finds an establishment whose inner workings are as curious and outdated as the contents of the 124-year-old magazine itself, where ladies of a certain age can find the details of domestic staff and choose from three brands of stairlift.
The receptionist has a pair of furry moccasins on underneath her full skirt and leads me up a dark staircase to the office of Ben Budworth, The Lady's new publisher and chief executive, a cheery 44-year-old who seems an unlikely candidate to revamp a women's magazine.
Budworth recently returned from a job flying helicopters in Florida to revive the family business, founded by his great-grandfather Thomas Gibson Bowles in 1885. In recent decades The Lady has been as ill cared for as an elderly relative in a nursing home, withering away and developing ample bedsores in the form of irrelevant features, recalcitrant staff and Victorian working practices. The walls look as if they haven't had a lick of paint since 1891, when The Lady took up residence here, and there is dust everywhere. Budworth's "Uncle Tom" still lives in the top two floors of the property and was found wandering through the offices in his dressing gown on the morning of my visit.
Like most print media, The Lady has experienced a significant slump in sales over the past decades, plunging from a circulation of 80,000 in its 1950s heyday to just over 25,000 today. "My job is to dust down and protect The Lady," explains the publisher. "There is the way a modern magazine works and there is way The Lady works. We need to find some middle ground."
He has been introducing subtle changes in recent months in preparation for a full-scale relaunch tomorrow. The classified pages have been moved from the front to the back of the book and the squat, unattractive type has gone from the cover. "Bear in mind this is the first time The Lady's ever had any sort of change made to it," says Budworth. "Rome wasn't built in a day and The Lady is going to take substantially longer than that to change. I want to bring our classifieds back to their position as the number one place to advertise holiday properties and for staff, but we don't want to be the first place to make a comment on a footman being dismissed from Buckingham Palace."
Budworth thinks he can take on Gumtree online, though it is doubtful that droves of Australians seeking cheap digs in London will turn to The Lady's website. But he is confident it could be a useful resource for jobseekers over 40 and anyone looking to economise by renting out rooms or holiday properties. A new website accompanies the relaunch.
As a founder of One World Radio Budworth has experience in the media business but readily admits he knows nothing about women's magazines. He has brought in editor-at-large Sarah Kennedy who has experience on Marie Claire and Red to breathe life into The Lady's antiquated pages. Budworth says his uncle had a tendency to divide and rule and resist change, while Kennedy is keen to get the magazine behaving like the weekly it is.
He believes there are plenty of women with an appetite for a weekly magazine without "pap, celebrity dreck and dribble". Kennedy plans to put a stop to the topsy-turvy scheduling and heel-dragging tone.
"The magazine isn't planned week by week," she says. "They just think, 'Here's our file of features on cats and doilies, let's slot in these. Everybody's been to Tuscany, let's plop that in'."
If she succeeds in tightening up her pages with newsier features, a contemporary feel and better writing, are there any ladies left out there willing to pay £1.50 to read it?
"The time is right for women of a certain age to be noticed," says Kennedy. "You often hear women saying they feel invisible once they reach their late forties but these women's voices are becoming louder. They're not retiring any more, they're looking better and they have money to spend on clothes. They're interested in how someone like Sharon Stone can look so good."
The Lady stands alone in the women's magazine market because of its connections with the aristocratic world which Budworth's family inhabits. The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire is a lifelong fan, but even she appreciates the need for change. She expresses her appreciation in a recent letter which Budworth shows off. "Another fan letter for The Lady," she begins. " I do hope it is being noticed by the great British public... I keep waving it at people. Every bit of it is better. Not only the obvious things like the colour but also the fact that the classified ads are in one block and the stairlifts are not the only theme any more."
Heritage is important and "The Lady still has to keep a toe in that camp," says Kennedy.
"But where quirky, eclectic, grand old ladies are concerned, Vivienne Westwood should be as relevant as the duchess."
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