'Shortlist': Young, free and sensible. A lads' mag grows up fast

New, smut-free and given away. 'Shortlist' has become the most widely-distributed men's magazine. Ciar Byrne reports

A decade on from the heyday of the lads' mag, the latest round of magazine circulation figures made depressing reading for the likes of FHM and Loaded.

Even the weeklies, Nuts and Zoo, which five years ago injected new vigour into the market, looked dejected.

But one men's general interest title does have something to boast about – and it has achieved it without the aid of naked female flesh. Shortlist, the new free weekly masterminded by former FHM editor Mike Soutar and ex-Nuts editor Phil Hilton, posted its first-ever ABC result – which shows that it is handing out a robust 462,000 copies a week, making it the biggest-circulation men's lifestyle magazine in Britain.

Last time I saw Soutar was at a glamorous breakfast briefing on one of the upper floors of King's Reach Tower, the now vacated Thames-side skyscraper and former home of the magazine giant IPC, where we discussed the group's legions of titles over champagne, exotic fruit salad and smoked salmon and scrambled eggs.

In his new guise as Shortlist chief executive, Soutar has downsized to a Spartan, if refurbished office on a quiet side street near Holborn in central London. And we are here to discuss the company's only title, a mere infant in the magazine world, launched back in September.

As the title suggests, Shortlist is composed primarily of lists – useful nuggets of information to entertain and inform its target audience of professional males during their commute.

The design is better than your average freesheet, although lacking in the production values of a paid-for glossy, with an attention-grabbing primary colour scheme. Famous faces on the cover suggest exclusive interviews, but are flagging up yet more lists – of best films or television shows.

In response to criticisms that it was too lightweight, in the sixth months since its birth, the magazine has been refined, so that it now contains meatier features. But the most noticeable characteristic is the absence of the tits and arse so prevalent in most of the other men's magazines.

Soutar wants Shortlist to be the sort of title that a fully grown man would not be embarrassed to be seen reading on a train –or even to take home to read in front of his wife, girlfriend, or young children.

The magazine is handed out every Thursday by distributors at around 100 main line and Underground stations in London as well as at key points in major cities around the UK, including train stations, bus terminals and NCP car parks. The idea is to catch men at the start of their journey into work, or on their way home.

I ask Soutar why it is not available at West Hampstead, my Zone 2 home stop, where thousands of young, professional men get on trains each day – nor at Canary Wharf.

"We're not at Canary Wharf because it costs a fortune and, having trialled it, we don't get the returns from it that we might want. As we grow, we will continue to add more and more stations until we get to a point where we have critical mass.

"Logistically, we have to do runs that aren't too long, so there are some stations which we would like to do, but don't because it would be very difficult to include them in a run."

The rival free weekly Sport, which launched before Shortlist, is available on my daily commute, but Soutar does not see this title as a competitor.

"Sport is a focused title," he says, "there isn't any content in there which isn't sport related. Our remit is to be a broad, general-interest title. We've got that national footprint, which at the will turn us into a much bigger brand. We want to build a blockbuster men's brand."

I know women who are regularly handed a copy of Shortlist on their way to work, suggesting that the distributors do not stick strictly to men. But, building on the solid circulation figures it has just unveiled, the magazine has just conducted its first in-depth piece of research on its readers – polling around 1,000 online.

Three-quarters of them work in management or executive positions; more than half have a household income in excess of £50,000 per annum; and they are big users of new media, spending on average 10 hours of leisure time online each week.

Perhaps most interestingly, 65 per cent had not read any other men's lifestyle title in the previous three months, indicating that Shortlist is tapping into a new market. The biggest crossover with any other title is with the upmarket monthly Men's Health.

"What that shows is that we've succeeded in bringing a huge number of new readers into the marketplace, which is great," says Soutar.

Both Soutar and editorial director Hilton are well placed to expand the dwindling men's magazine market. At FHM, then owned by Emap, Hilton was Soutar's deputy, and in those days, he claims, "you could count the number of naked breasts on the fingers of two hands". The breast count only went up as the market became more competitive, with the arrival, at the beginning of the century, of Nuts and Zoo, weeklies that rely heavily on titillating photographs of women or pictures of gruesomely shocking things. Again, Soutar and Hilton were right in the fray of the Nuts/Zoo battle at IPC.

"If you launch a new magazine, you can innovate in terms of price, format, modes of distribution and the editorial proposition. What Shortlist has done is innovate on pretty much every level," says Soutar.

Shortlist is privately funded, with investment from the hedge fund GLG Partners, the media company DC Thomson, the retail entrepreneur Stephen Marks, Marv Partners, the film company run by Matthew Vaughn and Kris Thykier and the management team. The investors are led by the former Emap MD Sir David Arculus.

Revenue comes from advertising, both in the free title and on its website, www.shortlist. com. Advertisers have included O2, Apple, Yves Saint Laurent, British Airways, Renault and Cannons gyms, and Soutar insists they are well on track to meet their target of break even in year three. While it is early days, Soutar is already looking for more ways to exploit the brand and its national distribution network. "We're reaching affluent young men on a scale never before achieved, so there may be other products and services that we might want to introduce them to."

When Shortlist first launched, a cringe-making training video, in which Soutar over-enthusiastically instructed distributors on the right approach to handing out the magazine, was leaked to YouTube – at one point becoming the 18th most popular UK clip on the site.

"I made that very enthusiastic video and then somehow it ended up being leaked, much to my embarrassment and shame." Slightly unconvincingly, he adds, "Some have suggested it was a cynical viral marketing campaign – I couldn't possibly comment."

But the one thing that is not in doubt is Soutar's commitment to his latest project. "I will do anything and everything that it takes to make this successful, because I really believe in it," he insists. And you can't help but believe him.

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