OPINION: QUESTION TIME WITH ... John Brown - The offbeat publisher is taking his talents to the US, Colin Grimshaw writes

By COLIN GRIMSHAW, campaignlive.co.uk, Monday, 27 September 1999 12:00AM

A publisher who once worked for Elton John and Pete Townsend, who lists Richard Branson and Felix Dennis among his influences and cites Viz as his favourite read is bound to be unconventional.

A publisher who once worked for Elton John and Pete Townsend, who

lists Richard Branson and Felix Dennis among his influences and cites

Viz as his favourite read is bound to be unconventional.

In fact, John Brown Publishing mirrors its idiosyncratic founder’s


Its portfolio reflects his sense of humour (Viz), his sporting interests

(Wisden’s Cricket Monthly), his eccentricity (Fortean Times and Bizarre)

and his business sense (Debenhams, Waitrose Food Illustrated and Ikea’s

Room). His home life has also had an influence (Gardens


Brown’s early career was promisingly offbeat. He was a motorcycle

courier with Sir Elton’s management company before joining Townsend’s

Eel Pie Publishing. But he had an entrepreneurial streak, too. Brown

spotted his first magazine opportunity when he was publishing rock music

books for Virgin. He came up with an idea for a stylish inflight

magazine, which eventually became Hot Air - a publication many frequent

flyers believe still soars above its rivals.

’Airlines failed to realise that passengers, having browsed through

Vogue in the departure lounge, were underwhelmed by inflight magazines

that resembled an East European parish newsletters,’ Brown says.

Although Hot Air was a success, Brown says his proudest career moment

was the discovery of Viz in 1985. He claims the title initiated the

lads’ market, but regrets that inexperience and the lack of an ad sales

background meant he didn’t spot the sector’s commercial potential until


Now a wiser Brown is taking his talents to the US where, he claims, ’the

contract publishing market is years behind the UK’. This theory was

reinforced by a visit to The New York Times, which was selling its

contract publishing division.

’We got the hysterical giggles when we realised the paper was making all

the same mistakes we made, but learned from, long ago,’ he confides.

Needless to say, he decided not to buy.

Instead, Brown has set up his own New York office for the US launch of

Room, which he is confident will be the best contract title in


’It will attract attention and act as our beachhead. We are already

talking to another high-profile US company.’

Brown also has two new UK consumer launches planned for next spring.

He’s keeping tight-lipped about what they are, although industry gossip

suggests one could be a men’s magazine.

He is also looking to the internet for brand extensions, with Bizarre

leading the way. ’We can sell products online that might be embarrassing

for people to buy face to face,’ he points out.

He is also preparing for the convergence of new and traditional


For instance, he can see a time when Room will be linked to a shopping

channel and an e-commerce website. ’I just hope we’re right in the thick

of (new media),’ he says, although he tempers this by adding: ’But we’re

going to be sensible. We’re not going to piss money down the drain like

some people have.’

So does he really read Viz? ’Of course. Sid the Sexist has done more to

correct men’s attitudes than any feminist campaign.’

John Brown on climbing the career ladder

’Don’t get stuck in a rut. There are masses of jobs, so if you are not

learning and enjoying yourself, then move on. I would want to be a

publisher by my early 30s, so I would want to have got everything I

could out of advertising sales by then. Personally, I regret not

starting out in sales. It’s key to understanding the business.’

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk


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