Is the web killing men's mags?

Is the internet a real threat to the viability of men's magazines, Alasdair Reid asks.

From the very beginning, as the men's magazine sector emerged from relatively obscurity to become a mass- market phenomenon, commentators have been predicting its demise.

Men's titles in the 80s were unapologetically niche and often, in the broadest possible sense, gay. There were scary levels of grooming and some pretty silly and expensive clothes - influenced as these titles were by the preening end of the New Romantic scene as it collided with the power-dressing City style of high Thatcherism.

The launch of Loaded in 1994 blew all of that away and the magazine (and its imitators) became highly successful in catering for a new generation of likely lads and lovable rogues. But critics said this would not last. This was surely a passing cultural phase, as fleeting as psychedelia, say, or punk.

And then when the sector survived and grew, led now by FHM, people began to realise that something more basic was in play here. Sex, obviously. These rags were the successors of the rakish top-shelf magazines that had painted themselves into an indecent corner a generation earlier.

So, as the supermarkets and other distributors began to worry about the content of many of these titles - and bans loomed - it was not hard to predict that the sector was heading for a similarly seedy fall from grace. But no. The sector kicked on yet again with the evolution of the weeklies Nuts and Zoo alongside the staple diet of monthlies.

Or so we thought. Reports of this market's ultimate demise are in the air once again. And this time it is serious - as witnessed in the carnage of the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations figures. Many of the more prominent titles were down significantly year on year: FHM by 24.9 per cent, Loaded by 21.9 per cent, Maxim by 35.8 per cent.

Some observers say that the reason is obvious - you can get all the glamour photography you could possibly need on the internet. Are they right? Phil Hilton, the Nuts editor, does not think so and he can speak from a position of strength. Though activity on nuts.co.uk is growing ("exponentially", according to Hilton), the magazine's circulation remained flat in the recent ABCs, which makes it one of the better performers.

Hilton says: "What seems to be happening is that people are engaging with the same brand in two different ways. It's unsophisticated to say you don't need the print versions of the brand. Whatever your interest is, you will pursue your passion in as many different ways as you can. You'll find many ways to go to that happy place in your head."

Marcus Rich, the group managing director of Emap Advertising, would second that. "This is now a multi-platform business and the people who are going to succeed are the ones who stretch their brands more quickly than single-silo media owners can," he states.

And Nicola Green, the head of public relations at O2, whose remit includes media, would tend to agree. She points out that one of the company's more important activities in this target market is a five-a-side football tournament, the FHM O2 Cup. The FHM properties on both on- and offline are important in developing this. "It's the interaction with the audience that's important - and in the telecoms sector it has become really important to find new ways to differentiate yourself. It certainly isn't a case of either/or where print and the internet is concerned," she says.

But Mark Gallagher, the press director of Manning Gottlieb OMD, argues that publishers have more than a little cause to be worried. He explains: "I think there's a growing realisation that there's not a lot of product differentiation out there, particularly at the more laddish end of the market. So it's interesting to note what some publishers have been up to in revisiting their own internet strategies. For instance, I think Dennis is looking at an online project that will keep many of the qualities you'd find in a magazine. The next question is about how it monetises that."

But Damien Blackden, the director of strategic marketing technologies at Universal McCann, is not convinced publishers really appreciate the seriousness of the situation. He concludes: "I don't know if it's just me, but men's magazine formats look tired. They have explored how far you can go in terms of decency. They've explored the limits of shock values. What next? If they don't move the format on, they are likely to become marginalised. The one thing they offer is portability, but that too will be eroded as technology improves."

NO - Phil Hilton, editor, Nuts

"When your circulation goes down it's always someone else's fault. It used to be that the marketing budget wasn't big enough, now it's the internet. But the truth is that if you get your online product right, the two sides can work together."

NO - Nicola Green, head of public relations, O2

"To get close to the audience, we have to use both print and the internet - and the notion of partnership is far more important than thinking in a straightforward way about advertising or advertorials."

MAYBE - Mark Gallagher, press director, Manning Gottlieb OMD

"Print formats have looked tired but do not underestimate the strength of magazines. There are people who will kill me for saying this, I know, but it's always easy to click away from a website. You are more likely to remain engaged with a magazine."

YES - Damien Blackden, director of strategic marketing technologies, Universal McCann

"For the younger generation, the first port of call is the internet rather than magazines. And, unfortunately for publishers, when people go online they don't always go to the websites of existing titles."

- Got a view? E-mail us at campaign@haynet.com.

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