France: English mags in Paris

The French are a nation of magazine lovers and, with 1,600 titles to choose from, British publishers are finding it a tough market to crack. Anna Griffiths investigates. The French magazine market is a rich seam in the media world. With around 1,600 consumer titles, it accounts for a staggering 26 per cent of the country's total media spend. In contrast, consumer magazines in the UK attract just 16 per cent, according to the global magazine federation, FIPP.

The French are a nation of magazine readers. Each person consumes an average of 3.7 magazines a week, according to the French consumer magazine association, the SPMI. The reason for such a strong market is that, in many respects, it makes up for an inadequate newspaper sector, with news weeklies filling the gap.

Television guides also account for a phenomenal proportion of sales, with the top-selling title from Hachette Filipacchi shifting 2.3 million copies every week. In the women's magazine sector, Femme Actuelle, a weekly from the Bertelsmann-owned Prisma Presse, sells 1.7 million copies.

Given that magazines are such a powerful medium in France, and the industry is expecting to benefit from an advertising recovery following a lean period between 2001 and 2003, you would perhaps expect hungry foreign publishers to be queuing up to get their hands on a few more French euros.

But the UK has exercised considerable reserve in this respect. In terms of mainstream consumer titles, you can count on one hand the number of UK exports - FHM, Maxim and Essentials. If you look at the more specialist titles, the number increases, but launching in France would seem to be a tricky business.

Just ask FHM's publisher, Emap. The company's share price fell by 10 per cent last month as a result of the tough time it has been having in France. Its weekly television listings magazines, Tele Star and Tele Poche, have lost circulation and generated lower than expected profits because of intense local rivalry.

The competition issue is compounded by France's egalitarian attitude towards distribution rights. Everyone has a right to have their magazine distributed, however small it may be or how ill-fated its concept. Chris Llewellyn, the international managing director at Emap, says: "When you get to newsstand, it's a complete mess because you are alongside titles that have no hope. If you go to a kiosk in Paris and see a quarter inch of a magazine spine, you're very lucky. With it being much more difficult to market your product, the payback times for investment are longer."

Kerin O'Connor, the international publisher of Dennis Publishing's Maxim, adds: "There are easier markets in which to launch, places such as Eastern Europe, the Far East and South America, for example, where there is less competition and it is easy to be innovative. There are very sophisticated publishers in France and it is an immensely expensive market that requires a lot of marketing for each magazine."

According to George Green, the president of Hearst Magazines International, which launched Cosmopolitan in France in 1973 and has sales of around 350,000, another barrier for new titles is advertising.

"Advertising has always been tough in France," he says. "It is much more complicated and difficult. The broader advertising budgets tend to be difficult to access."

Hearst has considered launching Harper's Bazaar in France but, according to Green: "Every time we have thought about it, the economy has not been quite right."

The inability to advertise on television was another barrier to creating a significant marketing presence. This changed in January following pressure to comply with European Union regulations. However, as Llewellyn points out, TV advertising does not come cheap so only the big publishers are likely to use it.

FHM launched in France in 1999 but it was not the first UK title Emap had exported. The company had already tested the market with a photography magazine, Responses Photo. "It was big enough to test the French publishing system and small enough for no-one to notice if it failed," Llewellyn says.

The test proved a success, with Emap deciding to carve out a new niche sector with the lads' mag FHM. According to Llewellyn, the French edition has a lot less nudity than the UK original, which means it can be seen as a more conservative, discerning read. It is the biggest title in its category, with Maxim (renamed Maximal in France) coming in second.

However, with sales of around 175,00 copies a month, FHM is still fairly small.

French media buyers are fairly dismissive about the UK publishers' foray into the men's market. Catherine Villa, the press director at Initiative France, says: "The UK men's market is trashy and portrays sex in a crude manner. This is not right for the French market but UK magazines insist on cloning an English recipe. The French are almost ashamed of buying the UK titles because they're seen as being on a low intellectual level."

Luciano Bosio, the general manager of Carat Expert, is less judgmental.

"FHM and Maximal are quite successful but they are not enjoying the same success as they are back home. But this is seen as quite normal because a foreign concept doesn't necessarily work at the same level in another country," he says.

When it comes to more specialised titles, Emap has exported Max Power across the Channel. The motoring magazine has been rebranded Addx and has achieved a circulation of around 100,000 copies in two years. And Future has been successful in capturing the computer games sector in France.

Greg Ingham, the chief executive of the Future Network, says the French operation underwent a substantial restructure three years ago. "Business costs, such as those associated with employment, are much higher in France," he says. "So we had to retrench the business. It was a more drawn-out business than we experienced elsewhere."

However, the company now has 18 titles and employs 150 people. Most of the magazines, such as PlayStation2 and Xbox, are similar in look and feel to their UK counterparts because of the universal appeal of the subject matter.

Ingham points out that Future has been careful to create a subsidiary that is French in its approach. "It has French magazines entirely under French management, which means people do not feel that they are dealing with a British company," he explains.

France's competitive nature means it is not a market to enter lightly.

However, a magazine with a strong concept and universal values is likely to work. O'Connor observes: "Editorially, it is a market you treat with respect."

And Bosio adds: "France is a big country with a big history - and the French are as nationalistic as you Brits."