MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON: CABAL COMMUNICATIONS - Cabal needs more than bright ideas to make an impression/The school of hard knocks is a shock for this upstart publisher

On balance, Cabal Communications’ decision to take part in BBC2’s Trouble Between the Covers series was probably a mistake. You can always argue, of course, that any publicity is good publicity and that Cabal had very little to lose. Fly-on-the-wall business docusoaps can be accidents waiting to happen, though. And Trouble was horribly compelling - the sort of TV you have to squint at through your fingers.

On balance, Cabal Communications’ decision to take part in BBC2’s

Trouble Between the Covers series was probably a mistake. You can always

argue, of course, that any publicity is good publicity and that Cabal

had very little to lose. Fly-on-the-wall business docusoaps can be

accidents waiting to happen, though. And Trouble was horribly compelling

- the sort of TV you have to squint at through your fingers.



Here were shameless ad sales executives offering to give blow jobs to

clients, and editors with questionable features ideas and even stranger

notions of making an exhibition of themselves in the pursuit of

notoriety.



And here was the Cabal founder, Sally O’Sullivan, a Patsy-like figure

who seemed to spend her life swanning into champagne-saturated

receptions and then staggering around Soho in search of a taxi.



It came across as a parody of a pastiche of ideas that were dropped from

Ab Fab scripts for being just too obvious. There are those in the

publishing business who felt it seriously undermined Cabal’s credibility

- a notion they believe is not unconnected to Cabal’s recent troubles,

the latest of which was the departure of the company’s managing director

and co-founder, Andy Sutcliffe.



A rival publisher comments: ’The programme seems to have confirmed

everyone’s worst suspicions about what goes on in publishing. It gave

you the impression that the business isn’t terribly professional - which

is what a lot of people want to believe anyway. Everyone knows that

Sally O’Sullivan is incredibly bright but all you saw here was her sat

behind her desk, a glass of wine in her hand, having all these blue sky

thoughts. I don’t think it did anyone any justice at all.’



The programme also helped shed light on the real nuts and bolts of the

problems faced by Cabal. When it opened its doors in 1998, Cabal

announced that it would launch 12 magazines a year. As of last week, it

had a portfolio of four consumer titles - Front, Real Homes, The

American Globe, Pro Cycling - plus a contract magazine called Voice.



And it seems to have found a surprising number of reverse gears. At the

beginning of this year it closed Maximum Mountain Bike and sold Good

Health.



A number of launches have been either postponed or aborted; Sutcliffe is

by no means the only senior departure.



Many people in the business are desperate for Cabal to succeed. As Vicky

Robinson, the press buying manager at New PHD, puts it: ’Companies like

Cabal are very important to the business because they keep everyone on

their toes.’



The magazine market surely needs new and ambitious outfits bursting with

good ideas - the big problem, seemingly, is getting those ideas to

market.



Are Cabal’s troubles evidence that it has become impossible to take on

the Emaps and the IPCs of this world?



Not necessarily, an agency source says: ’Publishing is run by massive

egotists and Cabal made the mistake of coming along and saying that it

was going to change the world. The big egos at existing big publishers

obviously said, ’Oh no you’re not.’ That’s human nature. Cabal made a

big fuss of itself and now it’s being bullied. If you’re going to change

the world, you should do it by stealth, like Attic Futura.’



Chris Shaw, the joint managing director of Universal McCann, tends to

agree with much of that: ’Cabal has far better ideas than its rivals but

it shows that ideas aren’t everything if you can’t get distribution and

a relevant marketing package in place. Cabal has had its ideas stolen

and all sorts of spoiling tactics thrown at it.



’It has to go for a huge number of launch projects that will totally

confuse the opposition or focus on a small number of intensely guarded

projects. But maybe it should look more radically at the distribution

problem. Perhaps Cabal should look at its business in a different way

and consider using different media - and obviously that would include

the internet.’



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