Media Headliner: From niche title to fighting-fit leader of the pack

Morgan Rees, the editor of Men's Health, tells Anne Cassidy how he's made it into the UK's biggest-selling men's magazine.

While many editors continually stretch themselves and their editorial budgets to come up with the most inventive, state-of-the-art, celebrity-strewn covers for their magazines, Morgan Rees, the editor of Men's Health, barely has to engage his brain.

A black-and-white cut-out of a guy flaunting a fine line in torso topography, a red masthead and blue cover lines (usually screaming something about abs) is the front cover of Men's Health. Every single month. And, somehow, this simple, consistent, arguably dull, formula seems to work better than all the gate-folded, 3D, Swarovski crystal-studded gimmickry money can buy.

Last month, the NatMag-Rodale title became the biggest-selling men's magazine, knocking FHM off the top spot and selling more than a quarter of a million copies. Rees believes the advantage Men's Health has on the newsstand is that it doesn't look like any other magazine.

"I was talking to a guy in an ad agency once who said he liked our cover. I don't meet that many people who say that. I asked him why he liked it and he said: 'It's like Coke. You see it and you know exactly what it is and it delivers on it,'" Rees explains.

But, for all its simplicity, the title has suffered from the misconception that it is read either by spoddy youths who yearn to be Mr Universe but look like Mr Muscle, or gym-obsessed narcissistic goons whose favourite tipple on a Saturday night is a whey protein shake.

Rees is quick to dispel this notion. He calls the typical reader a "heteropolitan man". He's in the older bracket (late twenties to late thirties), with a good disposable income, is in a relationship and perhaps thinking about starting a family. Men's Health readers, Rees maintains, want to look after themselves, but also to get the balance right: "They still want to have a laugh and a drink."

You see, the magazine isn't just about the time-honoured quest for buns of steel, it offers advice on psychology, nutrition, finances, fashion, parenting and relationships. Guidance on how to stop your other half cheating, managing finances and the nutritional merits of custard are all part of the mix in this month's issue.

Rees calls the offering "service journalism". The magazine offers several hundred tips and advice all endorsed by experts and from the latest scientific research.

"It's not about opinion. It's entirely about fact. Everything in it is accredited. It makes it a very labour-intensive magazine," Rees says. He stresses that while it sticks to the facts, it does it with wit and the tone is light and irreverent: "It could be a very dry world. We try to make sure it is funny and that there's a good read in it."

Readers are so integral to Men's Health that they often get to star on the cover. This month, an extraordinarily buff pipe fitter is shirtless on the front after winning the Men's Health readers' fitness challenge. Staff also get to be cover stars if they can transform themselves from pigeon-chested hacks into V-shaped hunks, proving that (almost) anyone can be an Adonis through a balanced fitness routine.

Rees, himself, won't be winning any bodybuilding competitions anytime soon, but does like to keep in shape. To his eternal bemusement, the first question people always ask him when they find out what he does for a living is: "Are you healthy?" "I wonder if they ask Louise (Court, editor) at Cosmopolitan if she is indeed cosmopolitan or Victoria (White) at Company if she's good company," he says.

He believes the key to the magazine's growth (this year marked the title's 15th consecutive ABC rise) is its broad outlook, which has pushed it into the mainstream. Advertisers have also taken note and include Tag Heuer, Audi and Dunhill. Vanessa Clifford, the press director at Mindshare, says: "We used to bracket Men's Health in the special-interest category. But that's daft. It's about men's lifestyle."

Rees has worked on widening the magazine's outlook to focus on overall wellbeing since becoming editor more than five years ago. He also oversees sister titles Runners World and Triathlete's World since his promotion to the role of the editorial director across NatMag-Rodale in April. NatMag's chief executive, Arnaud de Puyfontaine, credits Rees' "natural flair for editorial excellence and creativity" and the hard work of his team for Men's Health's success.

Rees learnt the ropes from two of his heroes (in the men's magazine market, at least): the GQ editor, Dylan Jones, and the former Loaded editor James Brown. He describes them as the "yin and yang" of men's magazines. Rees started his career at Loaded in its heyday in 1995, then did a stint at GQ and the now-defunct Jack and Maxim before joining Men's Health.

On the subject of lads' mags, Rees concedes, with admirable diplomacy, they're "in a tricky place" at the moment: "I think men want more from their magazines these days. They need to have more than the 'lager and crisps' appeal that they had in the 90s."

Rees sees getting to the number-one spot as a "hell of an achievement", but is less concerned with staying there than with developing his magazine. For him, it's all about the readers: "We consider what men want to read, not what we think they should read." And the future for the magazine? Rees asserts: "We're aiming to make Men's Health as culturally relevant as we possibly can."

THE LOWDOWN

Age: 34

Lives: Chelsea

Most-treasured possession: A signed photograph of myself and Thierry Henry (signed by him, not me)

Favourite gadget: The cushion I hide my BlackBerry under

Fitness routine: I am a connoisseur of the Men's Health 15-minute workout page. I am time-poor, but hopefully not excuse-rich!

Last book you read: The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland. Structurally innovative with some wonderful, warmly written characters

Motto: "If you have to ask 'Will this do?', it invariably won't." Or: "Never let a reader leave a page empty-handed."

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