Soutar's ShortList stands a sporting chance

In 2004, the men’s market went into a spin with the launch of Nuts and Zoo. Publishers hit the jackpot as men’s magazines went weekly. Now, after a period of relative stagnation, there’s an air of expectation. This time the buzz word is ‘free’.

There is plenty of action in the tired monthly market, where new editors have been appointed at Esquire and Arena, charged with turning around flagging sales and winning back high-end advertisers. Jeremy Langmead’s first edition as editor of a relaunched Esquire hits the shelves this week and will be closely watched for signs of life in the monthlies. But the real action is happening outside of the newsstand.

When ex-FHM editor-in-chief Mike Soutar teamed up with some of the industry’s best-known executives to ‘fill a gap’in the flagging men’s market, they made the decision against joining their previous projects on the newsstand. Instead they’re following the example of successful London free weekly magazine, Sport, that has proved to a sceptical industry that no cover price doesn’t have to mean no quality.

The new men’s lifestyle weekly, working title ShortList, is to hit the streets on 20 September, with the majority of the circulation (360,000) being distributed to London commuters, the rest going to other key cities. It will target, as does Sport, those 18 to 35-year-old ABC1 men that are much desired by high-end advertisers such as BMW and Mercedes.

The magazine will target men who have grown out of the boobs and jokes format of the traditional lads’ mags such as Loaded and Nuts, but who perhaps aren’t quite ready for The Economist. There will be strictly nipples, but instead a mix of news, style, sport and business.

Why isn’t ShortList doing battle with GQ and FHM on the shelves in WHSmith? Soutar explains: ‘When we looked at our objectives, we wanted to create a quality editorial environment which would really appeal to men who aren’t in the market at the moment for buying any of the paid for magazines. The idea of direct distribution seemed to make the most sense and seemed to be the most efficient way of doing it.’

With few titles expected to see a rise in this month’s ABC figures and some, such as Loaded, expecting further dramatic decline, the men’s shelf is a risky place in the newsagents.

Dan Pimm, head of press at Universal McCann, said that with direct marketing he has faith in ShortList’s success, but he wouldn’t have said the same if it were launched as a paid for.

‘There does seem to be that gap in the market but no one has been able to fill it, or they’ve tried and failed,’he said. ‘There is the thought that men later on don’t particularly want to buy general lifestyle magazines. Blokes tend to start going into their specialist interests more. People have their interests by then, they want to get more news or sport, or they want their fishing titles.

‘General lifestyle for older men has never worked and people have never really wanted to pay for it. I just don’t think men would want to go out of their way to look for a general lifestyle magazine. You can see that Sport has been very successful in this target market.’

Sport, which Soutar said ‘has done a terrific job of proving you can be free and quality at the same time”, has managed to establish itself well in the 10 months since it launched, announcing an ABC of 321,893 in February, successfully filling its target ratio of 35 per cent advertising by March this year and being nominated for consumer specialist magazine of the year at this year’s PPA awards.

Launching as a free and placing the magazine into the hands of your target audience cuts out the high cost of placing the magazine in retailers such as WHSmith and Tesco, as well as the costly marketing campaign to build product awareness. However, new costs come from having to start with a much higher print run than a paid for, paying distributors, and convincing your advertisers that people are actually reading the magazine and not just dumping it seconds later.

‘It’s whether the business model can work,’said Pimm. ‘It’s a very expensive way to distribute a magazine; the publisher has to have deep pockets if it’s going to work.”

Publishing company Sport Media & Strategy first launched Sport in France, where it is now distributed in more than 50 cities, claiming a circulation of 900,000.

Greg Miall, publishing director of Sport in the UK, said reports that over here they are ‘losing money hand over fist’are not true. Sport has a three-year plan in place, and Miall claims that not only are they ahead of the plan, but they’re also ahead of where the now massively profitable French edition was at the same stage.

‘It seemed a more sensible way of doing it, and it’s proven to be the right decision,’said Miall. ‘If you compare the men’s market to the women’s, the women’s is so much bigger and I know that difference is not reflected in the amount of advertising money.

‘Advertisers are desperate to get a medium where they can do high quality print advertising.”

So the advertisers are there, but is the audience? Miall, who previously worked as global sales director at Metro International, said that the key question today is how you get men to read magazines. ‘Why has there been a massive fall-off in the men’s mags? Is it because something fundamental has changed or is it because the mags themselves aren’t delivering what people want?

I don’t know – maybe it’s a combination of the two. There was certainly a gap in the market when we launched, when we talked to agencies and clients and asked what the strategic need is.”

In order to entice advertisers and prevent an environmentally led backlash that the London freesheets are seeing, ShortList has to be able to prove it’s not a throwaway. Sport says that London commuters rarely see issues of the magazine littering carriages. It’s a longer read, taken off the tube to finish later that day.

Those who’ve peeked at the prototype said that, like Sport, ShortList is a longer read than your average commute. Starting with bite-sized titbits, it then moves into ‘meatier’features.

Dummy covers haven’t splashed with a model or film star, with one reported to have George Bush on it, almost in the style of Private Eye. Away from the newsstand, Soutar said he is free to be creative and break the mould.

‘You speak to any editor in paid-for magazines and most of their headaches come from the fact they’re on the newsstands, dealing with so many samey products. It’s very difficult to be distinctive, and it’s also very difficult not to slip into a formula. It’s a very frustrating thing on a creative level.

‘We have the ability to create a very distinctive product which doesn’t have to bow to the rules that you have on the newsstand.”

If Sport can do it and if ShortList succeeds, how long will it be before someone else follows? Alex Randall, associate press director at Vizeum, thinks that with Sport as an example, not long.

‘If this new men’s weekly is going to work, it has to maintain the integrity the Sport has in its editorial, with some strong covers and good exclusives.

‘If they can replicate that then I think there could be a competitor coming out quite soon. I’m sure there are a lot of publishers waiting in the wings.’

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