Gordon MacMillan meets the ex-sales chief ideally suited to his new
Chris Hughes is a self-declared Esquire man. He is, as he puts it,
‘public school, Cambridge-educated and fabulously wealthy. What more
could you want?’. This confident description is entirely apposite as
Hughes is the newly installed publisher of the National Magazine
Company’s Esquire magazine (Campaign, last week) and not often does one
come across a character who sees himself as the embodiment of the
product he sells.
Hughes joined NatMags three years ago after more than a decade at Times
Newspapers, first at the old Gray’s Inn Road offices and then at
Fortress Wapping, where he earned a reputation as an aggressive ad man
who was, in turn, a decent chap to do business with.
For the past three years he has been Good Housekeeping-bound, working
under the tutelage of Liz Kershaw and Sally O’Sullivan. The end result
has been a contribution in turning the once-ailing magazine into a star
performer for NatMags. Nice work.
Now, as publisher of Esquire, Hughes will have his very own business to
play with. It is, he says, a challenge and a prospect he finds most
appealing. Partly because it will remove him from directly selling ad
space and partly because it will make him, in partnership with the
Esquire editor, Rosie Boycott, 100 per cent responsible for the health
of the magazine.
You can almost see the enthusiasm in his face when he says that he will
now be working on a magazine that the media buyers themselves read. On
Good Housekeeping he was responsible for getting buyers excited about a
magazine they certainly did not read, and that was once best-known for
Boycott must be thanking her lucky stars, too. Not only does she get a
top-rated ad sales man for a publisher but, to boot, he is the man she
is writing for. He is Esquire man. There he is, darting withering looks
at his ad manager and sales team from inside his glass box office, where
he is on tap ten hours a day. All perfectly ideal should one of those
‘Damn - what does Esquire man think of this?’ moments arise.
To satisfy your curiosity, here are a few more insights into the life of
this Esquire man. When not lunching around Soho, and not in the
Broadwick Street offices, he can be found complete with a wife, three
kids and a house in the country, unashamedly pursuing his interest in
gardening: ‘I am proud to admit it. It is a life-long interest and it is
Hughes is also a Spurs fan or, as one agency bod put it, ‘a Tottenham
yob with a calculator’, which Hughes quickly identifies as a put-down
from an Arsenal fan. However, even as a fabulously wealthy Esquire man,
Hughes is not impressed by the pounds 50 price tag it now costs for him
and his son to see a nil-nil draw with Aston Villa. ‘I would like to go
more often, but for that price I could buy a Richard James tie,’ he
Hughes says that being at NatMags has done him a lot of good, a real
change from the more frenetic and turbulent world of News International.
‘News International thrived on attrition. I thrived on it, but when you
are there for so long you do not realise that there is life outside.
Arriving here was a very pleasant surprise.’
One erstwhile colleague of Hughes remarked that departing the Murdoch
ship and heading for Hearst Corporation’s UK outpost was a make-or-break
For, while everyone regarded him as a real professional news-paper ad
man, the world of magazines is very different. There is, for a start,
less of a pin and less of a stripe in the suits. Hughes himself turns up
for the interview in an olive green suit and checked shirt. Not NI wear,
not newspaper wear. A different attitude entirely. Hughes seems to have
made the transition with relative ease.
What does Hughes think he has brought to NatMags from those ten years in
newspapers? ‘One of the things I tried to put forward on Good
Housekeeping is authority and good ideas. There should be no weak areas.
Your have to be on your toes all the time, otherwise someone else will
Finally, Hughes reveals the difference between Esquire man and the
Loaded lad, which also clearly illustrates the chasm in styles and
targeting in the small but burgeoning market of men’s magazines.
‘My wife does not work but, if she did, I would not mind being a house
husband. I’m very keen on cooking and all that stuff around the house.’
The Hughes file
1982 The Times, trainee sales executive
1983 The Times and Sunday Times, financial sales executive
1987 Today, financial group head
1988 Times Newspapers Group, financial head
1989 Times Newspapers Group, head of display
1990 The Times, ad manager
1991 Sunday Times, ad manager
1993 Good Housekeeping, director of ad sales
1996 Esquire, publisher
From all the honeyed words being spoken, you’d think that Paul
Woolmington’s appointment as the new global media top banana - or, to
give him his proper title, worldwide strategic media director - at
Ammirati Puris Lintas (Campaign, 10 and 17 May) was just fine and dandy
with everyone. Wrong. At least as far as Initiative, Lintas’s specialist
media operation, is concerned, it has caused no end of grief.
Now it would be unfair to dwell on Initiative, since the affair raises
questions for all full-service agencies, but Initiative provides us with
a useful starting point.
If phase one of the media-buying wars was the rise of the independents,
phase two was the fight back by the full-service agencies, primarily
through dependants such as the Media Centre, Zenith and Initiative.
Abbott Mead Vickers’ intended purchase of PHD demonstrates another
solution. Be sure of one thing, AMV isn’t buying PHD for the volume,
although that’s a nice bonus. No, what it wants is its strategic
capability and credibility, as well as healthy margins.
Now we are about to enter the crucial phase three, in which buying is no
longer the issue - it’s probably impossible to separate the top ten
buying points anyway - but media planning and media strategy is. In
other words, this will be the territory in which the battle is fought,
which the big media independents concluded a while ago, hence the many
high-level strategic planner hirings by the likes of Zenith, CIA and
Carat and, on the other side, APL and AMV.
But here’s the conundrum: if, as everybody accepts, being a fully
rounded media operation means melding top-notch strategy and buying
together, and the increasing complexity of the media world means
strategy has to work hand in glove with the creative process (as Martin
Puris clearly believes), where does this leave the Initiatives of this
world? Answer: struggling to escape from the box marked ‘commodity’.
Ironically, of course, this is exactly what Initiative had been doing in
the past year, which must make it all the more galling when big brother
comes and steals its clothes.
Similarly, WPP must tackle this problem if it is to go ahead with its
plans to create a group-buying operation, leaving the agencies with the
planning and the strategy. Indeed, this may explain why it is taking it
rather a long time to find the right person to head it up.
And therein lies the root of the problem. The best media operators are,
by definition, going to want to be as close as possible to the heart of
the process - which means handling the strategy as well as the buying.
But pulling the strategy back into the creative agencies will make it
harder for the likes of Initiative and WPP to attract the highest
calibre operators. But, of course, without a credible strategic
offering, they will not be able to compete long-term as buyers.
Once the strategy element departs, the entire operation is demoralised -
and it’s slippery slope time.