Media Spotlight: NatMags gets second wind on men's fitness titles

Why is NatMags moving into this area when it failed last time? Alasdair Reid reports.

The National Magazine Company came up short with a badly pulled muscle the last time it took a run at men's health-and-fitness magazines.

Six years ago, launching in this market seemed an eminently good idea because, back in 1998, keeping healthy and trim was, according to social commentators, a "late-90s male zeitgeist".

It wasn't. Not in publishing terms at any rate. Increasing numbers of men might have been going to the gym but magazine buyers remained steadfastly addicted to birds and booze. So NatMags' ZM (short for Zest for Men) didn't last very long; nor did a couple of rivals, GQ Active and FHM Bionic.

But now NatMags is back, via a joint venture deal with the Men's Health owner, Rodale International. At first sight, the circumstances seem familiar, with all sorts of cultural commentators arguing that, as a nation, we are waking up to the fact that it's better to be fit than fat. This view also has a stamp of government approval now that obesity has been pushed so high up the political agenda.

Things are very different this time around, because the publisher is taking a very canny route back into the market. It's not launching its own title, not even a spin-off (the usual route in segmented markets) from an existing title, nor is it acquiring an established brand.

Instead, Rodale's two UK titles, Men's Health and Runner's World, will henceforth be published by NatMag Rodale Limited, which will be headed by Duncan Edwards, the managing director of NatMags, and Gianni Crespi, the president of Rodale International.

It is, Edwards explains, a true joint venture. Although NatMags will be contributing much in the way of physical resource and infrastructure (the company will be located within NatMags' Broadwick Street offices), the fact that the two titles will be published under licence means Rodale retains control of the intellectual resource.

But who benefits, and how? Presumably, this is merely a cost-cutting exercise with benefits coming principally from the distribution side - the titles now get better terms and more leverage from retailers, NatMags gets to spread distribution overheads.

Yes, Edwards says, but that's not all. He explains: "There are clearly some cost advantages to the joint venture as a result of this coming together and, obviously, a company of Rodale's size doesn't have the procurement clout of a NatMags. So there are some savings for the new business - and that's a good thing, obviously, but that's not principally why we did it. We're doing it because of the growth potential we see in the existing magazines themselves and in the category as a whole."

Edwards sees the potential as coming under three headings: ad revenue, circulation and online activity - he sees in particular the Runner's World website becoming the default site for many sports events. Which is plausible.

But does he really see a lot of circulation growth to be found in the health-and-fitness sector?

"I know it sounds counterintuitive, given what has happened in the past," he states, "but running continues to grow as a social phenomenon and it is a more-than-averagely upscale activity."

It's intriguing that Edwards seems keenest to talk about the running title rather than its bigger sibling Men's Health (which has a circulation of 220,466). On the other hand, Runner's World actually seems to reflect a more readily recognisable universe - Men's Health casts more than a passing nod in the direction of the more narcissistic side of bodybuilding.

One source at a rival publisher says that the mainstream consumer publishers will always struggle to make sense of this health-and-fitness sector - it often looks as if it could or should be more mainstream but, to date, that's never really been true. He adds: "NatMags tried to do a spin-off in the past but that isn't going to work. If you read a fitness magazine, it's often because you are genuinely interested in fitness at a level way beyond just keeping healthy. It's a real commitment thing. The specialist publishers understand that. They do fitness plus a little bit of lifestyle. Mainstream publishers do lifestyle plus a little bit of fitness."

Does the deal make sense, though, from a structural point of view? It seems, at first sight, to be rather quirky and untidy. But Edwards points out that it's the sort of thing Hearst (NatMags' parent) does a lot in the US - particularly on the broadcast side where it has several joint-venture initiatives, such as ESPN, with Disney. And NatMags is no stranger to joint ventures either, if you count its distribution company, Comag, set up way back in 1977 with Conde Nast.

Paul Thomas, the press director of MindShare, says the deal makes sense from all sorts of angles. It benefits both Rodale and NatMags, he argues.

And, he adds: "In a world of big media buying operations, it becomes more difficult for a smaller entity to get heard."

Mark Gallagher, the head of press at Manning Gottlieb OMD, agrees with that analysis. But, he cautions, it would be a mistake to allow the sales side to become commoditised. He concludes: "Everyone is looking for ways to maintain scale these days. But, in terms of sales representation, although those titles are niche, they shouldn't be struggling to be heard. Being sold by a big publisher is not always to the benefit of the smaller player because it can often become marginalised. And there is no substitute for real expertise and enthusiasm when it comes to selling."

RODALE FACTS

Founded: 1930 in the US by JJ Rodale

Key international brands: Men's Health (worldwide circulation of four

million in 36 countries), Runner's World (worldwide circulation of 3.5

million in ten countries outside the US), Prevention (22 international

editions and ten million US readers)

US-only titles: Organic Style, Organic Gardening, Backpacker, Best Life,

Bicycling and Mountain Bike

Other activities: Largest independent book publisher in the US

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