The men's magazine market went all alpha last week - two initiatives, the first codenamed "alpha one" and the second aimed at a semi-mythical tribe of urban alpha males.
Very different beasts, these titles - but in a spooky sort of way, they perfectly encapsulate the whole history of men's magazine publishing in the UK. Because the alpha male title, a biannual magazine backed by the Dragons' Den TV show panellist Peter Jones, is to be called Man About Town.
Students of media history (and perhaps, especially, employees of Haymarket Publishing) will recall that there was an earlier manifestation of Man About Town. Bought from its original publishers by Michael Heseltine in 1960, what was essentially a trade title for the tailoring business was relaunched as Britain's first modern consumer style magazine for men. It wasn't exactly a runaway success, but it was notable in laying down some important markers for future waves of men's magazines.
Its latest embodiment will have a print run of 140,000, will initially publish twice a year with a cover-price of £5 and will seek (like its predecessor) to provide an ad-vertising vehicle for upmarket fashion brands.
So that's one bookend. The other, "alpha one", is for many observers the logical conclusion to men's magazine evolution - because it will be a free title, distributed weekly to commuters in the major conurbations. This, some media theorists say, is the fate of all print media in the internet age.
When people can get so much information for free from websites, why on earth would they want to pay for the same sort of stuff in print? Or anywhere else, for that matter. Men's magazines (you might assume) have already recognised which way the wind is blowing. All have been investing in their web brands, and one publisher, Dennis, has a free web-only brand - Monkey. Let's not forget either that FHM closed its US print edition in the spring, urging its readers to continue visiting the FHM.com website. Whether in print or online, perhaps free is the only way to go.
"Alpha one" is the brainchild of the former IPC editorial director Mike Soutar and the ex-Nuts editor Phil Hilton. It has the backing of the film producer Matthew Vaughn and the French Connection founder, Stephen Marks. It will be distributed at "key commuter points" in London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, West Yorkshire, Manchester and Birmingham, plus in gyms, sports clubs and coffee chains. With a print run of more than 500,000, it will target 18- to 35-year-old ABC1 men not catered for by Zoo and Nuts. Put simply, it intends to major on things other than scantily clad glamour models.
Paid-for titles will carefully monitor its impact - following a decade of growth, the paid-for market has hit a plateau.
Although the (non-porn) men's magazine market had been stirring since the late 80s (Arena launched in 1986, GQ in 1989, Esquire in 1991), the advent of a true mass market is usually traced to the launch of IPC's monthly lads' title Loaded in 1994. Emap had already been plotting its response, buying For Him Magazine from Tayvale and making it more red-blooded as a revamped FHM soon after. Total monthly sales of men's mag-azines averaged 385,733 in 1994.
Having been joined by Maxim, the sector's monthly sales totalled 1.6 million by 1998, and there was another huge leap forward in 2004 with the launch of two weeklies, Zoo from Emap and Nuts from IPC. The sector now accounted for monthly sales (counting four issues of each of the weeklies within the total) of 3.1 million. By 2006, that figure had declined slightly to 2.7 million.
But the magazines under the most pressure have been the monthlies. FHM, for instance, reached its circulation peak of more than 700,000 around the turn of the century. Its July-December 2006 circulation figure was just over 371,000. Zoo's was 204,564; Nuts' was 295,000.
Most publishers have evolved a dual strategy, developing websites while competing aggressively in their traditional print markets. The format of Monkey, which launched in November 2006, replicates the experience of turning magazine pages, many of which contain embedded video content. Its most recent eABC, based on its performance in January, shows that it is accessed by an average of 209,612 readers a week.
What it means for...
Outwardly at least, they're greeting the news of "alpha one's" imminent launch
(though no date has been set) with cool disdain. They point to the fact that it will aim to capture an audience not, in theory, currently being catered for by the laddish monthlies or the weeklies. The weeklies, in particular, are heartened that it will attempt to toe a rather more cerebral line, with few mammary glands on show.
And it's true that, in the past, when mainstream men's magazines have attempted to break ranks and become less trashy, they've paid the price in circulation terms. So the weeklies are probably right to feel that "alpha one" will not cannibalise their readerships.
As Eric Fuller, the managing director of IPC ignite!, puts it: "We think that this ["alpha one"] is an extremely high-risk project. It has a very fragile business model."
Those advertisers who've seen dummies have been surprised at what they see as a disparity between the avowed target audience - 18- to 35-year-old ABC1 men - and the new title's overall ambience. Their concern isn't so much the lack of glamour photography, but the general downmarket feel they perceive in its design, which they regard as tabloid in inspiration. As one put it: "It seems to be Zoo without the tits."
They believe it might need rethinking if it's to be credible as an environment for luxury goods and upmarket brands. But they are not put off, in principle, by the notion of a free magazine - after all, many can be found advertising within the pages of Sport. And they will be pleased if it can attract a genuinely new audience to this sector.