Magazine relaunches kill or cure?

By ANNE-MARIE CRAWFORD,, Friday, 16 August 1996 12:00AM

Change is crucial to ensure a magazine’s continued success, whether it's a process of gradual evolution or a last-ditch attempt to save an ailing title. Anne-Marie Crawford reports on how the publishers approach this risky business

Change is crucial to ensure a magazine’s continued success, whether it’s

a process of gradual evolution or a last-ditch attempt to save an ailing

title. Anne-Marie Crawford reports on how the publishers approach this

risky business

If there’s one thing that is constant in the rapidly fragmenting world

of media, it’s change: changing audiences, changing objectives, changing

environments and changing channels of communication. If it’s your job to keep on top of all this, good luck, because it’s scary out there.

Magazines are in a constant state of flux. Think of your favourite

magazine and the chances are it’s been relaunched, redesigned, tweaked, tinkered with or tarted up at some point in its life.

The great and the good, as well as the downright downmarket, have all

gone back to the designer’s drawing board in recent years: She, Elle,

Cosmopolitan, Punch, New Statesman, Eva, Ideal Home and OK! are just a handful of the titles to have reinvented themselves - often for

surprisingly similar reasons.

It's a fact of life that magazines need clearly defined target audiences

and healthy circulation figures to attract advertisers and generate

revenue. If one element of this virtuous circle has lost its virtue,

action, on the publisher’s part, becomes necessary.

The most prominent examples in recent times are She and Punch, which

have both been dramatically overhauled. She, published by the National

Magazine Company, underwent radical surgery in March 1990 after a long period of stagnation. The magazine had meandered along with no clear proposition since its launch in 1955 and reached a plateau of 200,000 readers.

It was repositioned as the magazine for ‘women who juggle their lives’

by the former editor of Cosmopolitan, Linda Kelsey, who had just

returned to work having had a baby. The changes incorporated a complete redesign, a new format, new editorial sections and a much glossier approach. Today, She sells 245,839 copies, so the changes appear to have worked.

For Punch, it was relaunch or be consigned forever to the historical

scrapheap. The magazine originally launched in 1841 as a hard-hitting,

satirical, decidedly Republican publication. It was taken up with glee

by the middle classes - but then, in an effort to retain that very

readership profile, Punch lost its edge and became just another humorous magazine.

The real decline began in the 1950s and 60s, but the title soldiered on

until its closure in April 1992. Stewart Steven, the chairman of Liberty

Publishing - which rescued Punch from oblivion earlier this year - says:

‘It became a cosy, British, non-essential read.’

Liberty’s answer is to return to Punch’s original proposition and

reinvent it for the 90s. The new-look magazine, which launches on 6

September - autumn is traditionally the best time to hit the market with

something new - has been redesigned in-house and promises to be a tough, witty read for the literary, politically aware consumer.

Despite these examples, full-blown redesigns are more often viewed as a risky undertaking for publishers. As Nigel Conway, media planning

director at the Media Centre, points out, such a drastic step can

indicate a serious lack of confidence in your product and alienate more

readers than it attracts. He believes the key for consumer titles is

evolution rather than revolution - even when there is no immediate


"Many publishers prefer to make changes over time and gradually evolve a magazine. If you look at the January and October issues of many magazines, you’ll probably see a huge difference, but you may not notice it actually happening. And just look at most of the men’s titles: 18 months ago there were no tits and bums; now they’re everywhere, partly as a result of the success of Loaded. Often, evolution is the only answer in a competitive marketplace,’ he says.

Indeed, IPC takes the strategy a stage further and follows a policy of

what it calls ‘continuous incremental improvement’. Nigel Davidson,

managing director of the Weeklies Group, says: ‘We try never to let any

magazine stand still.’

By following this strategy, Davidson maintains that major relaunches

should not be necessary, unless a new competitor launches and changes

the dynamics of the marketplace.

Arguably, this is happening in the teenage sector, where the launch of

Sugar by Attic Futura in November 1994 captured the trend away from

market-driven issues towards a monthly lifestyle feel. Other publishing

houses are now looking afresh at this sector and we can expect to see

some movement here in the months ahead.

Paul Mukherjee, press and radio buying director at the Network, agrees

with the evolution theory of magazines. ‘It’s the purest form of

Darwinism,’ he says. ‘Everything is evolving. Once products had life

cycles measurable in years, now it’s months. Consumers get easily bored with products and are promiscuous - they have to feel they’re getting their money’s worth with magazines, especially as TV and newspapers are eating into what magazines do.’

Mukherjee believes that the closer publishers are to their readers, the

better they are at judging the marketplace.

For that reason, most major publishers conduct ongoing readership

surveys and questionnaires, focus groups, bespoke research and events

aimed at tying the consumer back into the magazine brand. IPC, for

instance, operates a rolling readership base of 4,000 people across all

its titles, NatMags runs the Country Living Fair and BBC Magazines lures

readers with its Clothes Show Live.

On top of this, most publishers regularly consult media agencies in

order to keep abreast of the marketplace. Conway says Emap’s chief

executive, Tom Moloney, and Conde Nast’s managing director, Nicholas

Coleridge, regularly send their publishers into the agency.

Arguably, if publishers are continually keeping such close tabs on their

readers, there should be no reason for major rethinks. But sometimes it

doesn’t quite work that way. For example, some editors stay on at the

top far too long and allow a fixed formula to prevail. Over time, this

approach can cause readers to drift.

Many feel Marcelle d’Argy Smith, the former editor of Cosmopolitan, was

a case in point. ‘Marcelle had edited Cosmo for years and had a set idea

about how she saw the magazine,’ says one media buyer, who chooses to remain anonymous. Cosmo’s problems have been well-documented, but is it fair to lay the blame at Marcelle’s door? Probably not. But it may have been the one element of a delicate mix that was out of sync.

There is no doubt that some editors are larger than life and come to

epitomise their brands - Glenda Bailey, formerly of Marie Claire, and

Sally O’Sullivan, former editor of Good Housekeeping and now responsible for Ideal Home - are obvious examples. But fresh editorial input, combined with other carefully planned activity can reinvigorate an

ailing brand.

Some think that Cosmo was caught off-guard when Marie Claire launched in 1988 and has fought to maintain its market dominance ever since. Under its new editor, Mandi Norwood, Cosmo has undergone a series of differences designed to update the product and take it back to its original unassailable position.

NatMags has always strenuously denied talk of a relaunch, but the

changes between Norwood’s Cosmo and d’Argy Smith’s are clear to see.

Time will tell whether Norwood’s influence can propel the brand far

ahead of its rival. The latest ABC figures show it is inching up but,

for the moment, Marie Claire is still snapping at its heels.

Emap Elan’s Elle has also faced similar problems in the women’s monthly

market. Since its launch in 1985, it has declined steadily from a peak

circulation of 250,000, to 191, 243 in the latest round of ABCs. The

Elle team has now completed a major revamp under the aegis of its new

editor, Marie O’Riordan, who joined in February from the hugely

successful More!.

Elle’s executive publishing director, Carrie Barker, admits that the

disappointing July-December 1995 ABC figure acted as a catalyst for a

major rethink. ‘We employed focus groups to talk to Elle readers and

find out what the magazine meant to them. We also did quantitative

research to analyse each page. We then went back to the original

international formula, looked at the templates and decided what needed

to be done,’ she says.

In order to help her create a new, improved product, O’Riordan appointed Elle’s first creative director, Stuart Selner, soon after she joined. The changes the team has wrought, although they fall short of a complete relaunch, have been pretty significant. They have included the

introduction of a regular six-page feature at the start of the magazine,

improvements to various sections, the introduction of new columnists,

and investment in glossy cover production.

In general, consumer publishers prefer to carry out redesigns in-house

rather than call in external consultancies, although they may often wish

to inject fresh creative blood.

David Hillman, a partner at the magazine consultancy, Pentagram, says

newspapers and trade magazines tend to be the most lucrative area for

his company. ‘Consumer publishers tend to have their own in-house

designers and art departments,’ he says. Despite this, Pentagram was

called in to work on the launch of John Brown Publishing’s Classic FM

magazine in 1994.

IPC consulted a number of freelance advisers on its biggest relaunch to

date, the repositioning of Ideal Home, but brought in a new art

director, Julie Rogers from Top Sante, to help carry through the

changes. As Chris Boyd, managing director of IPC’s Southbank Group,

points out, if your in-house design team can’t do it, they won’t be able

to carry through the necessary ongoing changes to the magazine.

For a publisher who chooses to outsource the work, magazine redesigns

can cost anything upwards of pounds 12,000, for a concept redesign,

according to Hillman. Pentagram charges pounds 1,500 per day and counts

Esterson Lackersteen as its main competitor.

In-house redesigns usually cost publishers more because of the

additional promotional element, such as cover-price cuts. Boyd reckons

the Ideal Home relaunch cost about pounds 1 million all told, while

Elle’s publicity drive alone cost about pounds 750,000.

The personnel responsible for magazine redesigns can vary considerably.

The Elle changes were set in motion by Barker, working in conjunction

with the editor-in-chief, Ian Birch. The Ideal Home revamp saw the

redoubtable O’Sullivan as editor join forces with Boyd to thrash out a

concept and sell it to the IPC board (indeed, Boyd goes so far as to say

it probably wouldn’t have happened without O’Sullivan). The publishing

director, Kathy Rudd, then worked through the changes with O’Sullivan.

As a rule of thumb, the publisher will always be closely involved

somewhere along the line.

Magazines are always changing and that is what makes them unique. As

Colin Gottlieb, managing partner at Manning Gottlieb Media, says: ‘The

magazine medium is a wonderfully buoyant market, unlike any other. It’s competitive and reactive and there is a huge amount of choice and

overlap.’ For all these reasons, publishers will constantly need to

rework what they are saying to consumers through their different

publications and market circumstances will dictate the nature of those


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