Sylvia Auton: The A factor

First 'Nuts' and now 'Pick Me Up'. IPC's chief executive is presiding over an era of high-profile launches
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The Independent Online

Sylvia Auton, the chief executive of IPC Media, was deeply opposed to calling her new men's magazine Nuts. She is no prude and years ago raised eyebrows by commissioning a special erotica edition of Amateur Photographer when she was the magazine's publisher. She simply thought that naming a magazine after male testicles was a step too far.

Sylvia Auton, the chief executive of IPC Media, was deeply opposed to calling her new men's magazine Nuts. She is no prude and years ago raised eyebrows by commissioning a special erotica edition of Amateur Photographer when she was the magazine's publisher. She simply thought that naming a magazine after male testicles was a step too far.

Surely something like Sorted or PDQ - as in Pretty Damn Quick - would be much better. But editorial director Mike Soutar stuck to his guns and ultimately it became an issue for the paymasters of the world's first men's weekly, IPC's owners Time Warner.

Auton thought the Americans would hate such a demotic title. The Americans loved it and Nuts it was. The little contretemps illustrates the limits to the power and stubbornness of the most powerful player in the UK magazine market.

Nuts - Grab Yours Every Week, as the IPC slogan goes - is now a year old and Sylvia Auton could not be more pleased at the performance of the title. A recent issue carried dozens of pictures of young ladies in more or less tasteful states of undress plus an "outrageous new Shoot" devoted to Abi Titmuss as she "unleashes her steamy new stripping video". There was also room for football, cars and a celebrity interview.

Next month the official ABC circulation figures are expected to show that the circulation of Nuts is down a "smidgen" from its high of 290,000 but that it is still well ahead of Zoo, its Emap rival, although the gap is narrowing.

The battle between the two publishing rivals for the eyes of young men has been intense, complete with black propaganda, disinformation, claim and counter-claim about who is doing best. But anyone even referring to industry rumours that IPC may have ripped off an idea being developed by Emap and then nipped in first gets an immediate earful.

"I absolutely categorically reject that and categorically reject that we are neck and neck. We categorically reject that we will lose market leadership. We categorically reject that and anyone who doubts it should look at the next ABC figures," she says with real passion.

Without drawing breath Auton continues: "We don't believe in spin. We believe in the facts. They are definitely improving on their last ABC figure but then at 220,000 they couldn't really go down. We were 290,000 and we will come off that very slightly, but that's the classic sales pattern."

There is photographic evidence to show that IPC was working on the idea more than a year before launch, the IPC executive adds, should there be any remaining doubt.

There was no dispute whatever about the title of IPC's latest title - Pick Me Up - which Auton hopes will revolutionise the women's weekly market in the way that Nuts galvanised male readers.

The first paid-for issue has just hit the newsstands, after 3.5 million free sample copies were distributed with other IPC titles earlier this month as part of the £6m marketing budget that has been put behind the magazine.

The logic behind the latest large IPC launch is clear. Quite simply the women's weekly market is the most important sector in UK publishing, accounting for one in three magazines bought. In the sector IPC accounts for a third of sales.

"It's the most important sector for us. Get it wrong and we have a problem," says Auton, who joined IPC 28 years ago on the marketing staff of Country Life when she was 28. The magazines she says she still reads for pleasure include Country Life and The Economist.

The women's weekly market has also grown by 20 per cent in retail sales value over the past three years. While much of the growth has come from the television-fuelled celebrity market and titles such as Emap's heat, the Real Life sector, serving women who would prefer to read about real people rather than artificially created celebrities, has also been growing very nicely.

Pick Me Up is carefully crafted to try to wrest market leadership in the Real Life sector from Take a Break, the magazine from German publisher Bauer. "It's triumph over tragedy. It's real life with a sense of humour. It's younger. It's sexier. It's brassier. It's a best value in the market. It gives more puzzle content," says Auton of her new baby.

A Nuts for women? "That is too simplistic an interpretation," says Auton. At 60p it is aimed at the budget end of the market. "These women have hard lives. They have children and a part-time job and the way they get through it is through humour and that is what this title gives them," says Auton, who studied sociology and psychology at Southampton University.

The IPC chief executive says the magazine had the best scores in research she has ever seen, better even than Nuts, and the company is optimistic that its first year 250,000 sales target will be met.

The launches of Nuts and Pick Me Up are dramatic examples of the current realities of the magazine publishing business. It has become a hits-driven business. The days of the scattergun approach of launching a number of magazines to see how they go before you promote them are over. Marketing costs are so huge because that is the only way to get attention in what Auton believes is the most competitive magazine market in the world. There is a magazine title for every 18,000 people, whereas in the United States the figure is one for every 66,000 people. Before allocating marketing budgets as high as £5m or more to the launch of a new magazine, the concept has to be tested almost to destruction through detailed research with potential readers to try to minimise risk. "We are really excited about it ( Pick Me Up) and we think we are on to a winner. We are pretty sure that it is going to be a success," says Auton, who suggests another major IPC launch is likely in the autumn.

The market is so competitive, and cut-throat, that she will not even hint at the next sector of the market to be targeted by IPC.

Such dramatic activity, with the likelihood that there will be a third significant launch within the space of 18 months, represents a sea change for IPC, which has had a reputation in the past for bureaucratic caution.

The key to the change lies largely in ownership and the company's acquisition in October 2001 by the world's largest media group, Time Warner, for £1.15bn. There was little ability to take risks and spend money over the previous decade. Former owners Reed Elsevier wanted to specialise in the professional information business and made no secret of its desire to get out of consumer publishing.

Reed sold to venture capitalists CinVen, and venture capitalists usually have a three-to five-year horizon for dusting a company down, cutting costs, and then selling out at a handsome profit before moving on.

"It was really obvious when we were acquired by Time Inc - it sounds sycophantic but it's not -that we had found an owner that absolutely got it," says Auton. "What we do sits at the centre of what they do. They absolutely understand the business and we can talk shorthand." Last year Time committed £230m to the modernisation of IPC, including everything from buildings and pension funds to launches and acquisitions, with another £60m over the next two years. The launch of Nuts must have been a bold venture for Time to approve and Auton hopes the success will usher in a virtuous circle of growth that will create confidence and liberate creativity, leading to further growth.

"We got very good at managing the status quo. What we had got out of the habit of doing was growing the business," says Auton, who has been the publisher of heavyweight magazines such as New Scientist.

As she talks it does not take long to realise that Sylvia Auton is a very different person from her immediate predecessor, another Sylvia - although she doesn't call herself that - Sly Bailey, now chief executive of newspaper publishers Trinity Mirror. For some reason there have been a surfeit of Sylvias at IPC in recent years. The current finance director is Sylvia Evans who is known as Sylvia E while Auton is Sylvia A.

Auton is the quiet professional who gets quietly on with her job without having or seeking a high profile in contrast to Bailey, who revels in her brassy blond reputation - taking the men on at their own game.

"Sylvia had faith in the journalists and she had tremendous confidence in her decisions. Journalists find her much more approachable. Sly was always in a whirl," a former IPC executive notes. Another executive says of the two women: "They are clearly very different people. Sly was incredibly externally focused. Sylvia is very internally focused."

In what sounds like a side-swipe at her predecessor, Auton says her main priority when taking over was to get back to basics, eschew the search for column inches of publicity or grand gestures and concentrate on producing "brilliant" magazines and launching new ones.

"I didn't want to go out and launch ground-breaking initiatives when there weren't any. I wanted the magazines to speak for this company and that is what they are doing," says Auton, who has always worked on the marketing, business and publishing side of magazines rather than editorial.

"I discovered fairly early that what I did wasn't half as important as ensuring we had the right words and the right pictures on the page. Without that everything else is irrelevant."

Auton is helped in her mission by the fact that her immediate boss in New York, Richard Atkinson, is from Manchester, knows about the British magazine market and is always available for a spot of translation if any is required.

"Without being a large public personality she's a very impressive person," says Atkinson. "The job description for Sly was basically to sell the company for CinVen and she did a fantastic job on it. We are just thrilled with the job she (Sylvia) is doing and the direction the company is taking under her leadership."

There are no plans at the moment for an American edition of Nuts. It's not certain how such a publication would go down with the sensibilities of vital US retail outlets such as Wal-Mart.

The direction that Auton is taking IPC has included trying to put in place systems to encourage creativity so that new launches would not have to wait until an individual editor had a brilliant idea.

The new projects office consisted entirely of editorial director Soutar and his PA, although it has been augmented by the appointment of Andy Cowles from Rolling Stone magazine as creative director.

The model that produced both Nuts and Pick Me Up is now well tested and relies on ideas borrowed from the advertising industry. A market sector is targeted and a written brief spells out the key objectives on a single sheet of paper, and the basic concept has the backing of the board from the outset.

Three internal teams are then created, each consisting of an editor, a designer and a writer who compete for two or three weeks to produce the best project they can. "You get a great sense of what is possible," says Soutar.

The project goes into "prototype looping", testing and continually modifying the prototype in the light of a series of focus group sessions with consumers. The specification for the first big IPC launch merely identified the opportunity for "a fast funny fix of weekly entertainment for men". The result was Nuts. "New projects have a very bad name in most publishing houses because they were the place where people who once were good but who had gone to seed were sent. We needed to turn that on its head," says Soutar. He has several projects currently under way should Auton finally decide to launch a new magazine, or magazines, in the autumn.

The IPC chief executive may have a firm internal gaze but she is also fighting two important external battles at the moment - one against the BBC and the other against the Department of Trade and Industry and Brussels over attempts to introduce more competition into the wholesale magazine and newspaper distribution market. The competition authorities are having one of their periodic looks at the exclusive geographical franchises that have traditionally dominated the industry.

"The whole DTI supply chain review is hanging over the industry like a black cloud," says Auton. The end of the exclusive contracts would mean more competition in wholesale distribution, but it could also mean higher costs and the closure of up to 1,000 magazines and 10,000 local newsagents.

"The deal at the moment is that we give you (wholesalers) exclusivity, but you have to supply every retailer in your area," says Auton, who fears that local newsagents could go the way of local post offices, butchers and bakers if the rules were to be changed in the interests of creating perfect competition.

"We are hoping that common sense will prevail. What we don't want are unintended consequences."

The IPC executive welcomes the fact that, after more than a decade of controversy, the BBC has finally stopped on-screen promotion of its magazines.

She now wants BBC chairman Michael Grade to go one step further and either sell or license BBC magazines that do not have "a clear, objective and demonstrable link" to BBC programmes.

"Unless there is clarity about what the remit of BBC magazines should be, we will be replaying history. It (the row) will all start again.

"Who needs it - but we are not happy with what they are saying," says Auton with determination.

In many ways Sylvia Auton was a surprising choice for the IPC job - the tortoise who finally got there after 28 years after the younger hare had bounced off in a different direction, but no one should underestimate her.

"I am the daughter of refugees. Both my parents came over in 1938, my mother from Germany and my father from Austria. I was brought up with the mindset that I always had to work harder in order to get on and prove myself," says Auton, who is married with two grown-up sons.

Rivals should note just how determined she is. "I am a hard taskmaster but I am hardest on myself," she says. "I set goals and we will achieve the goals we have set ourselves. We don't do failure. I don't like coming second. I like winning."

Things could even be about to about to get worse for IPC's publishing rivals, however many copies Pick Me Up or Nuts sells. In 2007 IPC will be leaving its 1960s tower block and will move along the Thames to new headquarters behind Tate Modern. "It will exactly double the size so we will have plenty of room to grow," says Sylvia Auton.

And certainly more room for lots of new magazines.

A year in the life of IPC

JANUARY 2004

£8m launch of weekly lads' mag Nuts, a week ahead of Emap's rival Zoo. The editor Phil Hilton promises a "unique mix of sexy women, gritty real-life stories, sport, news and complete TV listings". In August, Nuts hammers Zoo in the ABCs, with average sales of 290,000 a week. The figures for the last six months of 2004, out next month, will show whether they have held the lead.

MAY 2004

Last issue of the teen mag 19 goes on sale after a steep drop in sales. 19's market was squeezed from all sides by new launches, the popularity of celebrity magazines, and fashion titles such as Glamour reaching a younger audience.

JULY 2004

Marie Claire announces its cover-girl scoop in the shape of Victoria Beckham, before unveiling its most drastic remodelling since launch in 1988 -a 50p price reduction and a slightly reduced size. Revamp seen as linked to disappointing sales figures in 2003, which showed a sharp 10 per cent fall.

SEPTEMBER 2004

Nuts' "Women, don't expect any help on a Thursday" campaign, which depicts women attempting "manly" tasks with little success as their man relaxes with a copy of Nuts, almost runs into trouble. The adverts show one woman cutting her leg off with a chainsaw; another setting herself alight on a barbecue; and a third dangling from a gutter when her ladder falls over. Luckily for IPC, which intended the ads to be "broadly acceptable to women", the ASA pronounces them neither offensive nor sexist.

JANUARY 2005

This year's big launch is one for the girls. The new women's weekly Pick Me Up hit the news-stands last week. "Real life as you've never seen it before!" is Pick Me Up's line, though it follows the usual Chat/ Take a Break/ That's Life diet of "you couldn't make it up" human-interest stories. Launch editor is Chat's June Smith-Sheppard, and IPC is trusting that the popularity of the "real-life" sector will continue to grow.

Sophie Morris

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