Daring to be different is paying off for Southall

The Marie Claire publisher has returned to IPC to bring the good times back to the women's title, Katherine Levy discovers.

Justine Southall has done exactly the thing that most magazine publishers would run a mile from by taking over a brand in a competitive market that has suffered countless consecutive periods of decline. In terms of professional risk, it's top of the "never, ever do" pile.

Even more unfathomable, Southall isn't even worried about it. "I had - and have - huge belief in Marie Claire as a brand across all platforms," she says, spreading out several issues of the magazine on her office table. "I was confident that this could be Marie Claire's moment again."

But the more time you spend with the indomitable publishing terrier (she says if she does not hit the gym regularly, she turns into one), the more you realise that it must take a lot to spook this woman. Her CV is impressive: she started off as an ad director on Marie Claire 23 years ago before becoming the group ad director for IPC's fashion and beauty titles. She then moved to the BBC where she co-launched Eve. Since then, she has been the publisher of the then National Magazine Company brands Company, She and Zest and, latterly, of the global behemoth Cosmopolitan.

So Southall's latest role is a homecoming. How does the Marie Claire brand compare these days with when it launched 24 years ago at the start of her career? "The basic philosophy of the brand hasn't altered - which is that you can be bright, intelligent and successful and be interested in fashion and beauty," she says. "But the reader is a little bit older and more affluent - she is around 31 or 32 years old now."

Marie Claire, originally a French title, launched in a relatively uncluttered UK market where there was the opportunity to attract a young, fun-loving and, arguably, "better-behaved" reader than that of Cosmopolitan. Since then, standout women's brands such as Elle, Glamour and even the weekly glossy Grazia have all made it harder for the IPC monthly to maintain the market share it once enjoyed. It explains Marie Claire's steady circulation decline in the past few years (its last total period-on-period growth was in 2006).

That is, until Southall stepped in. She must have been given a big slap on the back (or perhaps two air-kisses) by the IPC Media chief executive, Sylvia Auton, on the recent Audit Bureau of Circulations results day. Not only did Marie Claire see its first total circulation rise for nine periods, it also enjoyed the most significant period-on-period rise in the women's lifestyle sector, moving up by 6.4 per cent to 266,881 copies.

Southall is keen to point out that the period-on-period comparisons are fair. Yes, Marie Claire was multipacked in the latest period, but it was also multipacked once in the period before that. "All the marketing activity was like for like, which was so gratifying," she says.

It's a nice story to tell and it is clear what has driven this seismic shift. Since Southall's return, the brand has had a 360-degree refresh. Within weeks of her joining, a strategy was put in place to commission fresh research on the reader, overhaul the website and launch a spin-off, biannual fashion publication called Marie Claire Runway as well as a matching iPad app. The magazine, edited by Trish Halpin, also had a makeover. IPC made Marie Claire bigger, fatter and glossier (although the travel-size version remains a newsstand option).

It seems an odd move to make Marie Claire bigger when, for the past few years, the trend has been for magazines to become more compact - a fashion that started when Conde Nast launched Glamour as a miniature magazine. "If you're a glossy, beautiful magazine product, you've got to be more glossy, more beautiful," Southall explains. "We invested in making the magazine bigger, making sure the paper quality was right and also worked to improve the editorial content."

Southall says a key area of investment was the fashion pages: "We're using a raft of new stylists and photographers. The calibre of the fashion in Marie Claire has to be right at the top of its game."

Great fashion and thoughtful features have been at the heart of the brand since it started, Southall says, but those offerings needed to be amplified to live up to Marie Claire's strapline: "Think smart, look amazing." Southall adds they have "tweaked" the ever-important coverlines that sell the product "in three seconds" and points to one from the March issue that asks: "How bi-curious are you?" "You wouldn't expect that," she says.

If fashion is key, does Southall view Marie Claire, which costs £3.70, as more of a competitor to Vogue and Elle than Glamour and Cosmopolitan? "Yes, absolutely. We don't really compete with Glamour at all. The demographic profile of Glamour is very young - 18- to 24-year-olds - and because it's at a very low price point (£2), it attracts a less affluent reader."

Glamour, still the leading paid-for women's lifestyle magazine, had a tough ABC result, dropping 12 per cent for the period. Southall comments: "There are huge economic pressures on that younger end of the market. If you're making a choice between buying a packet of fags, topping up your phone or a copy of Glamour, it's tough."

Southall is determined that Marie Claire's recent market growth is not a one-hit wonder: "All the components were there when I arrived - there was nothing wrong. It just needed a bit of 'va-va-voom'. It's a very weird market that we're in right now - and, as a result, I think you have to be braver."

Age: Forty-something
Lives: Richmond, London
Family: Husband, Husseyin; sons, Ellis and Leo; and a cat, Runaway
Favourite media: I love magazines
Dying to visit: Brazil
Breakfast: Porridge and masses of black coffee
Favourite designers: Right now, it's Louis Vuitton and Gucci
Mantra: Work hard, have fun and, if all else fails, apply more lipstick