Media Forum: Can men's mags be revived?

Have the recent relaunches of men's monthlies worked?

FHM and Esquire relaunched in the summer, and both promised to be slightly less trashy than they have tended to be in the past. "No B-list floozies," as the editor of Esquire, Jeremy Langmead, put it. Last week, it was Arena's turn.

Its December issue, featuring a mean, moody, but slightly less than magnificent David Beckham on its front cover, represents the culmination of six months work by Giles Hattersley, who was appointed to the editorship back in March. His brief was to restore the magazine's fortunes - or, more realistically, to arrest its alarming decline.

In the July-December 2006 Audit Bureau of Circulations figures, it was down 30 per cent year on year. Figures for the first half of 2007 were not encouraging either. It had dropped from 34,556 to 30,886.

His approach, not unlike the strategies at FHM and Esquire, is to offer something more intelligent than we've come to expect in this sector. The aim is to make Arena "the authoritative monthly bible that arms its readers with the sharpest looks and opinions".

The new Arena was well supported by the advertising community, and received plaudits from across the industry for its fresh look. But these are "make-or-break" times for men's monthlies. Esquire has been holding its own - albeit at a relatively low level - hovering above the 50,000 mark; but in the last ABCs, FHM was down from 371,263 to 311,590. GQ has been holding up fairly well, but Loaded is still declining alarmingly.

The challenges have been coming thick and fast. First, the rapid rise of weeklies such as Nuts and Zoo, then the advent of Web 2.0 and the myriad distractions that offers to young male readers. Now there are even free weeklies aimed at this market. So some observers would have you believe these relaunches are the last throw of the dice. Can they succeed in reinvigorating this sector?

Dominic Williams, the press director at Carat, hopes so. He says: "Both FHM and Arena had to do something, or they'd be faced with closure, but I don't think anyone believes it (FHM in particular) can recapture its heyday. Blokes are consuming media in a very different fashion these days, so the publishers are under pressure. They have to change the ways they target men, and realise they need really strong content. You can't expect to sell copies just on the strength of the women you have on the cover."

But Claudine Collins, a managing partner at MediaCom, is confident it can be done. The internet may well provide men with the glamour photography element of the more downmarket titles, but it doesn't replace the stylish, intelligent read the best magazines provide. She adds: "Jeremy (Langmead) and Giles (Hattersley) have done a good job with their relaunches. Esquire and Arena are much better than they were. But they have been so inconsistent with their offering in the past that they are going to have to work hard to get men back into reading their magazines."

And in that context, it's somewhat disappointing, Alan Brydon, the head of press communications at Media Planning Group, argues, that these relaunches haven't been given much in the way of promotional backing. "The industry is aware of these changes and scrutinises them closely, but I'm not sure readers do. I find it strange that the publishers are leaving it for readers to find out for themselves. Where were the big relaunch campaigns? While I've no doubt that these are now better magazines, you have to wonder if the impact will be limited in circulation terms," he states.

Jo Smalley, the publishing director of Nuts and Loaded at IPC Media, agrees with that. While he's confident the market can succeed in stabilising itself, the relaunches are, in themselves, an irrelevance. He concludes: "What does work isn't rocket science. Strong brands skilfully delivering their core values to receptive audiences. Loaded does just that. We're now in a fully mature men's market, which sells twice as many magazines than it did before the weeklies launched."

YES - Dominic Williams, press director, Carat

"If they don't get it right, then this market could collapse altogether, but they still have time. I think the publishers are doing a lot more to try to understand their market, and that has to be encouraging."

YES - Claudine Collins, managing partner, MediaCom

"Where numbers are concerned, it's never going to be the same as it was at its peak. But getting upmarket men back into magazines, there's a possibility with the relaunches that this could happen."

MAYBE - Alan Brydon, head of press, Media Planning Group

"It's great that the publishers are doing this. I like what (FHM editor) Anthony Noguera is doing. We should always encourage competition, but it is getting to a point where you have to wonder if some titles have critical mass."

NO - Jo Smalley, publishing director, Nuts and Loaded

"Another round of cosmetic relaunches will not, in isolation, drive sales substantially. I've lost count of how many times FHM has tried to reinvent itself over the years. However, sales of the monthlies are definitely stabilising, and we will not see major drops at the next ABCs."

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