HEADLINER: Legal eagle has confidence to launch titles in a risky sector - John Woollcombe believes Mollin Publishing has the edge, Anna Griffiths writes

Interviewing a fellow journalist is difficult enough, but interviewing a barrister is like getting blood out of stone. John Woollcombe, the managing director of the start-up publishing company, Mollin Publishing, has left the lucrative legal world to launch two health titles, Shape and Men’s Fitness.

Interviewing a fellow journalist is difficult enough, but

interviewing a barrister is like getting blood out of stone. John

Woollcombe, the managing director of the start-up publishing company,

Mollin Publishing, has left the lucrative legal world to launch two

health titles, Shape and Men’s Fitness.



He thinks carefully before answering each question and I half expect him

to insert the statement ’without prejudice’ before each reply. Mollin

Publishing’s marketing director, Terry Grimwood, describes Woollcombe as

’nobody’s fool’. He certainly won’t be pressed on answering a question

if he doesn’t want to.



The world of media is nothing new to Woollcombe, although he’s neither

’Mr Glamorous nor Mr Media’ as one industry source puts it. Decked out

in a fading grey sweatshirt over a conventional blue-and-white striped

shirt and suit trousers, Woollcombe’s tall, wiry frame is more often

seen on a motorbike than in a Merc.



Aged 39, Woollcombe has followed an unorthodox career path. He shunned

his father’s law practice and chose instead to leave school and get a

job in the music industry, at MCA. His sights were set on becoming

involved in the deal-making side of the industry, but he soon realised

that this was not an option without a law degree. At 21 he checked

himself into law school and five years later qualified as a

barrister.



But Woollcombe soon became restless. ’A career at the bar is very narrow

and focused, while the cases that cross your desk can be from any area

of life. There is no commercial experience in it and that was too narrow

an existence for me,’ he explains.



He set up a business and management advice service for the media

industry with a lawyer who specialised in sports sponsorship and a

manager who had looked after bands such as T-Rex. Called the

Professional Management Company, the business gave him first-hand

experience of the publishing industry, working with companies such as

IPC Magazines.



Harold Mollin, who owns Mollin Publishing, says of Woollcombe: ’I see

him as an entrepreneur. He has already come up with other ideas for me.’

And Woollcombe agrees: ’I’m a deal maker, that’s the core of me. I see

opportunities, have ideas and go and make them happen.’



His idea to launch into a market in which two titles have fallen by the

wayside this year (Emap Metro’s XL ceased publication, while Conde

Nast’s GQ Active has been folded back into GQ) seems brave and

optimistic, but Woollcombe is convinced he’s found a gap in the market.

’I don’t think ZM has a clear vision of what it’s trying to say. Men’s

Health has a very clear understanding of what it’s saying, but I don’t

think it covers the whole market. There’s room for a magazine to talk

with another voice about the health market. What we have through Weider

(publisher of Shape and Men’s Fitness in the US) is expertise and

knowledge.’



Even during the interview, Woollcombe gives little away about the

content and target audience for the new titles. Instead, the details are

faxed through to me several days later, having been given the OK by

Woollcombe’s marketing director. Shape - which sells nearly

one-and-a-half million copies in the US - will be aimed at

30-year-old ABC1 women and cover health, eating well, fitness, sport,

beauty and fashion. Men’s Fitness will be tailored to a younger, fitter

market than Men’s Health, hoping to attract men in their 20s who are

already in good shape but keen to make themselves fitter.



Woollcombe sets out a good case for why advertisers and agencies should

have faith in his new venture. ’The key to a successful publishing

company is to bring on the right people to make the magazines a success.

I wouldn’t claim to have editorial experience, but I want the very best

and I think the input of people like Dylan Jones (former group editor of

Wagadon), Stephen Ferns (founding editor of GQ Active) and Sharon Walker

(former editor of Health & Fitness) - all of whom have very specific

ideas - is where we give the confidence to advertisers and agencies that

we have as much experience as any other publisher.’



Robert Tame, the publishing director of IPC’s music, sports and leisure

titles who worked with Woollcombe on setting up the NME Brat Awards, is

a great admirer of his ex-colleague’s work. ’He wasn’t like a

lawyer.



He had a much more commercial view, went further than seeing the

black-and-white side of things and had a very creative way of doing it.’

He is politely sceptical about the chances of success for any newcomer

to the health and fitness publishing market but declares: ’John

certainly seems to have the skills and perseverance to be able to do

it.’



The Woollcombe file

1988

Qualifies as a barrister

1989

Founds the Professional Management Company

1994

Buys out partners of PMC to become sole owner of the company, renamed

ReMedia

1998

Becomes managing director, Mollin Publishing



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