Behind this change is the figure of Sally O'Sullivan, the editor who pulled Good Housekeeping up by its cover straps. O'Sullivan was head- hunted from rival publishers National Magazines at the end of last year. She had edited Harpers & Queen and then spent four and a half years at Good Housekeeping, during which time circulation swelled from 385,000 to around half a million.
O'Sullivan is no stranger to mid-market women's magazines, either. A former editor of She, Options and Riva, her new role as editor- in-chief of the home interest sector means she can skip across a number of titles in the IPC stable. The relaunch of Ideal Home is only the beginning. Next, she says, her will attention turn to another title - Homes & Ideas.
The 46-year-old O'Sullivan, wife of Charles Wilson (managing director of Mirror Group and latterly editor of the Independent) and mother of two children, 10 and 14, worked magic on Good Housekeeping. IPC clearly hopes she will cast the same spell on Ideal Home. Certainly, something needed to be done. From the end of the Eighties, Ideal Home slowly haemorrhaged readers. Its circulation slipped from 285,000 in 1989 to 187,000 at the end of last year. The title simply failed to keep up with its market.
In the late Eighties, home interest magazines took their readers on a jolly Ranger Rover ride from converted oast house to country manor before inviting them to put their feet up in front of the Robert Adam fireplace. Then came the recession and the walls of the oast house came tumbling down. With negative equity came the clear message: if you couldn't move - improve. You might not be able to up sticks to a more desirable neighbourhood, but you could scatter a couple of cushions.
The competition for O'Sullivan is tough. House Beautiful, a National Magazine title, was launched in 1989 and now leads the market with around 310,000 sales a month. "Ideal Home didn't keep pace with the modern market," says Frank Farmer, publisher of House Beautiful. "Readers wanted practical information, shopping information and hints as to what could be done in their own home. It was no longer about converting estate houses, but suburbs and ordinary homes."
Along with House Beautiful, other titles appeared offering handy hints on how we could run off our own refurbishment. From a handful of titles, some 17 now jostle for space on the newsagent's shelf (not to mention an increasing number of titles brought in from abroad such as Elle Decoration and Traditional Homes). At one end of the market are the "inspirational" magazine House Beautiful, Home & Ideas, HomeFlair, all supplying ideas directories. "Leftover samples of fabric and cording can be quickly turned into designer toiletry bags," instructs this month's Perfect Home.
At the other end of the spectrum are the "aspirational titles": World of Interiors, House & Garden and so on. This month's Homes & Gardens introduces its readers to "simple style furnishings in a house with scenic views of the Cote d'Azur".
In this saturated market, Ideal Home was edged out. O'Sullivan's solution is this: refocus the title to come into line with the likes of Woman and Home, Woman's Journal, Essentials, Prima and Family Circle in the lifestyle market. But lifestyle with a home interest slant. Not only is there a face on the cover, but, for the first time, Ideal Home will carry fashion and beauty pages. Boundaries are, once again, shifting.
"I don't know anybody who is simply interested in a Conran sofa. They want to look good when they sit on it, to feel it, to be with nice people," says O'Sullivan. "Nobody is interested in just sofas and sinks. They have got a soul. And what we had lost was that soul."
O'Sullivan says that the new magazine has been enthusiastically received both commercially and during reader research. "As far as advertisers are concerned, the concept is very easily understood. Sometimes when you relaunch you have to explain really hard what you're doing and why. In the new arena of advertising, fashion and beauty, which we haven't carried in Ideal Home before, advertisers like the angle we are coming from. There are only so many ways you can do a new lipstick colour. Agencies always respond to a slightly different approach. Normally, agencies give you a hard time, but they like it."
A slightly different approach, yes, and one that is being applied in the hipper style press, too. Furniture, it seems, is "funky". This autumn sees the launch of Wallpaper, which aims for a relatively modest circulation of 45,000 with a mixture of travel, entertaining and interiors. The style market is a little older and fashion has begun moving into the home. Traditional style journalism now looks a little immature and it's no coincidence that this comes in the wake of Gucci and Versace launching home collections.
The times are indeed changing: Harpers & Queen has a new home section, while O'Sullivan's former title, Good Housekeeping, has more home interest. Whether the blurring of boundaries between beauty and bedroom will open the way to Ikea eye shadow (or Homebase moisturiser) remains to be seen, but its more immediate effect and one that concerns O'Sullivan is on the position of other titles in the IPC stable.
"This gives each one of them a clearer focus," O'Sullivan insists. "Homes & Gardens has a new editor in Julia Watson and she will focus on a clear decorating and style message. Homes & Ideas will focus on the young first- time buyer, with loads and loads of ideas in quick successfion. It may not build up a strong loyalty base, but it is not designed to. Because you have got a turnover of first- and second-time buyers, you're turning over numbers all the time. Country Homes & Interiors has clearly defined and distinct readership anyway."
Her competitiors are understandably less convinced. Caroline Atkins is editor of House Beautiful: "We would have been more tempted to have incorporated Ideal Home into Homes & Ideas. It is very difficult to do this sort of relaunch without cannibalising other titles in the group."
"When you do this, you never go forward saying to yourself: 'I'm going to take 20 per cent from there and 35 per cent from there', building your market from a negative. What you do is focus on your reader. Where they come from is incidental in a way," explains O'Sullivan.
Still, the outlook is cautious: "I think Ideal Home will evolve in circulation terms relatively slowly," she says. "I don't expect it to zoom suddenly. Fortunately, I don't appear to be working for people who have a noose around my neck. Initially, I hope we gain as many readers as we lose. Then we can build from that transition. I hope the readers we lose will go to our other titles. But we need simultaneously to gain a lot of readers and I think we have got the marketing in place to do that."
For Ideal Home, could this month's repositioning could be not a case of too little, too late but too much, too late? "Fair thought," replies O'Sullivan. "This is a relaunch, not an evolution. This is a complete change because the situation is more needy. This is not a magazine on the way up. To evolve would take too long and we can't wait for that length of time. Is it going to work? I believe so."
THE BATTLE FOR READERS ON THE HOME FRONT
"Ideal Home" is being recast in an attempt to set it apart in what is an overcrowded market. The distinction between the 17 or so titles that between them shift some 1.5 million issues a month can be slender:
Publisher: IPC Magazines; Circulation: 187,310; Editor-in-chief: Sally O'Sullivan. Relaunched this month with a lifestyle slant.
Publisher: National Magazines; Circulation: 311,050 (market leader); Editor: Caroline Atkins, "We are an ideas directory for the suburban first- time buyer."
Homes & Ideas
Publisher: IPC Magazines; Circulation: 276,555; Editor: Debbie Djordjevic. Followed the lead of "House Beautiful" with a catalogue of household hints and DIY tips.
Publisher: Haneville Magazines; Circulation: 75,710; Editor: Dawn Leahy. Considers itself to be in a "niche for readers specifically interested in home decorating and interior design".
Publisher: EMAP Elan; Circulation: 62,000; Editor: Ilse Crawford, "Our readers are slightly more experimental."
Publisher: DMG Home Interest; Circulation: 113,911; Editor: Julia Smith, "We provide a different idea on every page."
House & Garden
Publisher: Conde Nast; Circulation: 160,525; Editor: Susan Crewe;
A house is hardly worth considering if it doesn't have a conservatory.
World of Interiors
Publisher: Conde Nast; Circulation: 70,823; Editor: Minn Hogg
Publisher: GE Publishing; Circulation: 87,641; Editor: Deborah Barker, "We go for the creative home-maker, not just someone who is decorating."
Publisher: Orpheus Publications; Circulation: 160,525; Editor: Laura Goodhart
Period Living (includes Traditional Homes)
Publisher: EMAP Elan; Circulation: 50,561