The situation is intriguing; first, because of the impact Hachette's move into the UK would have on the 50-50 joint venture deal it has with Emap that cedes the UK publication of Elle, New Woman and Red to Emap. Second, Kevin Hand, Emap's former chief executive and the man responsible for the growth of its French operation, is leading Hachette's exploration of UK opportunities. So is the entente cordiale between the two publishers about to end?
Recent reports have suggested that Hachette's talks with Attic Futura about a possible acquisition are nearing fruition.
The purchase would give Hachette a strong bridgehead from which to launch in the UK, with titles such as Sugar and B. However, regardless of this deal going ahead, it seems Emap is concerned about a Hachette presence in the UK.
Robin Miller, the man who replaced Hand as chief executive last year, was said to have written to Hachette to dissolve its ten-year partnership. Speculation has centred on the future of Elle, with suggestions that control of the title would pass to Hachette with Emap retaining the rights to publish New Woman and Red.
Emap says that it has contacted Hachette and is involved in discussions over the future of the agreement but that its favoured outcome is to keep it in place. However, this would need willingness on the part of Hachette to keep the joint venture secure. And how likely is this if it launches its own UK operation? The French publisher also has a joint deal with IPC, through a share in Group Marie Claire that allows the UK publisher to produce Marie Claire. A Hachette stable offering advertisers access to the likes of Marie Claire and Elle would be a powerful proposition but remains a long way off.
However, with likely developments in the coming weeks, Campaign asked observers what impact Hachette is likely to make in the UK and the possible impact on Emap and the rest of UK publishing. Emap refused to take part, except to confirm that talks with Hachette were ongoing.
Peter Thomson, the managing director of Mediahead, says: "Robin Miller's decision to talk to Hachette about possibly unwinding the Elle joint venture seems to be a tacit acknowledgement of the inevitable. It would undoubtedly be a blow to the Emap stable to lose the credibility, particularly in the fashion sector, that Elle provides. It will be interesting to see if Red and New Woman struggle to attract the top photographers and models with the incentive of 'promotion' to Elle off the cards."
Thomson also believes that Hachette should push on with the Attic deal: "If the Attic Futura deal goes ahead, I believe Hachette and Attic are in a great position in the UK. Attic's titles, combined with Elle Girl and Elle Decoration, should create a dynamic and vibrant publishing house that will attract the very best people."
Paul Thomas, a managing partner at MindShare, agrees Elle is a key title for Emap: "Elle is a flagship title. If it left, would it have a massive impact? Emap is a massive company and it wouldn't be a huge dent in its overall performance. But from a women's magazine point of view, it is a flagship brand. Should Emap look to launch a replacement title? At this point in time I would be surprised if Emap did that because the advertising market is not buoyant enough."
But what about Hachette launching into the UK? Thomas says: "It depends who runs the business. Kevin Hand certainly knows the UK market very well but is this the right time to come into the market? The Attic deal would be okay but it's not one of the big three or four so they don't have as much power as the other publishers. Its brands are reasonable but in a younger market than Elle."
Paul Richards, an analyst at Numis, believes that the Hachette/Attic talks raise interesting possibilities but that Emap would ride out the possible loss of Elle from its stable: "I'm sure Emap would rather this (the talks with Hachette) didn't have to happen but the loss of Elle would not be a massive blow to them as they have a deep and broad portfolio of magazines."
Some observers believe that dissolution of the Emap/Hachette agreement would hit the French company more because of the cross-selling opportunities that the Emap stable provides, with magazines such as Heat and FHM sitting well alongside Elle. However, others argue that Elle is a vital component in Emap's machine because it helps bring access for the likes of Red and New Woman to new types of advertisers and to new editorial opportunities.
Jon Wilkins, a managing partner at Naked Communications, believes Emap, along with other UK publishers, will be affected in terms of the extra competition that Hachette will bring to the UK market. He says: "This seems like brinkmanship from Emap because Attic is a good business and if Hachette were to move into the UK it becomes, potentially, a powerful publishing company. From Emap's point of view I think it doesn't want to dissolve the deal but if Hachette is coming into the UK market and taking ad revenue away it is taking the option of discussing the deal."
And Wilkins believes that the wider picture should excite agencies and advertisers: "It's (Hachette entering the UK) good news for the advertising community. ITV and Channel 4 have had a stranglehold on the young women's market so it would be good to have four strong players in the magazine market. Competition is a good thing."
Wilkins believes Elle is a vital title for Emap: "It's very important for them. It's one of the most successful women's magazines and the launch of Elle Girl shows that they believe in the brand. It is quite harmful potentially to its women's portfolio because strategically Elle is a very important title - clients and agencies often shortcut to it because it is so prestigious."
And he believes that there is much of the game yet to be played out: "I'm sure this is not the end of the saga. Emap is playing the game and knows Kevin Hand knows its business inside out. It won't give up by playing into the hands of the opposition. In any case the deal could be reviewed with Hachette taking the titles anyway."