MEDIA HEADLINER: Veteran satirist who uses ads to placate m'learned friends

Private Eye's readers make an attractive proposition to advertisers, Ian Darby says.

"Moon-faced midget", "sanctimonious little toad', "gnome-like hands - just three of the charming sobriquets bestowed upon Ian Hislop, the Private Eye editor, by the Daily Mirror in its sustained "Hidden Hislop" campaign.

Piers Morgan, or "Moron as Private Eye dubs him, doesn't like Hislop much because he wrote lots of nasty little stories about the tabloid editor's involvement in the City Slickers share dealing scandal. And the feeling is mutual.

It has to be said that the Daily Mirror, despite trying desperately, has failed to unearth any interesting dirt on Hislop. His onscreen persona, as the public school toff playing against Paul Merton's football-loving scruff on Have I Got News For You, is perhaps what most winds people up.

Elitist, sneering and contemptuous, but also wickedly funny.

But Private Eye pays the bills day to day and after 16 years in the editor's chair Hislop, 42, seems affable and relaxed about the magazine's fortunes. Not surprising, really, given that he is basking in a year-on-year sales increase of nearly 13 per cent to 198,000.

So why is Campaign chatting to the man whose magazine wrote "advertising has always been a nasty business in its current issue? Well, apart from journalistic admiration, the intention of the Eye to build its ad sales revenue seems reason enough.

But Hislop sounds almost bemused when discussing the commercial success of the magazine. "I'm delighted really. It's not the best climate at the moment and with Punch closing you can imagine how delighted I was."

Reflecting further, though, he soon warms up: "I'm absolutely thrilled," he concedes. Private Eye is doing well despite lack of pressure from above.

Pressdram, the holding company that owns Private Eye, is an affiliation of private shareholders who Hislop says "historically don't do much".

They don't put him under pressure but he admits it's good that the magazine is performing well.

Traditionally, Private Eye has struggled to attract quality display advertising.

While press buyers attribute this to the low production quality of the magazine and to the risky nature of linking a brand with a title that takes great delight in publicly flogging big companies, there is also an impression that the Eye is indifferent as to how much advertising it carries.

This is changing. The magazine has recently lured the likes of Siemens, Peugeot and Lowenbrau into its pages. Before its problems in the US, Arthur Andersen was even an advertiser. However, as the creator of the magazine's Ad Nauseum spot, what is Hislop's view on ads in his magazine?

"I'm very happy to take their money, he says. "We obviously don't want advertising that makes us look bad. I'm always keen to fill it up with ads because they subsidise what the paper does and cover our legal bills."

Private Eye's sales are now outsourced and the team are using the magazine's strong readership, 90 per cent ABC1 and 76 per cent male, as ammunition.

"I'm amazed it doesn't have more advertisers, given who reads it," Hislop says. "There's obviously a nervousness toward us from advertisers but they clearly don't know that we have the numbers of ABC1 30- to 40-year-olds we do."

Listening to Hislop conversing lucidly on the dynamics of the advertising market is surprising but he has a healthy disrespect rather than utter contempt for the business. He refuses to say who writes Ad Nauseum, other than to confirm it is somebody who works in advertising, but says of the section: "We take a jaundiced view of the advertising industry. But when you see that we have three pages devoted to our own business (Street of Shame) and just one on advertising I don't think you have anything to fear."

Private Eye is run with a fairly tight team of 10 regular journalists but uses specialists such as doctors to compile news in various sectors.

Although the magazine has a consistent feel to it, Hislop has made changes - the introduction of two new cartoon strips and a science section are the most recent. "The great trick with the Eye is to make it look the same while innovating constantly, Hislop says. But does this get difficult after so many years at the helm? Isn't he more than a little jaded? "When I don't want to carry on I won't do it any longer," he counters.

With the magazine enjoying a relative boom, Hislop's enthusiasm remains and there are plenty of targets for his bile: "The sales leap is partly due to 11 September and a greater interest in news but also, with it being his second term, people are fed up with Blair and the honeymoon is over."

Hislop is on a roll - the closure of Punch by his bitter rival Mohammed Fayed only adds to his sense of triumph. So unless the Daily Mirror uncovers Angus Deayton-style antics, Hislop's fortunes show no sign of waning.

THE HISLOP FILE
1984: Spitting Image, scriptwriter
1985: The Listener, columnist
1986: Private Eye, editor
1991: Have I Got News For You, team captain
1996: The Sunday Telegraph, columnist

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