Media Forum: Will lads' magazines have to grow up?

The next ABC figures may provide a wake-up call for men's monthlies. Are they likely to listen, Alasdair Reid asks. Nobody is likely to dispute Dennis Publishing's assessment of the men's monthly magazine it has just closed. Jack, it announced in the obituary notice, "was an excellent, innovative and clever product". Yes, quite.

But perhaps the really stupid thing was to believe it had a fighting chance of taking on the new generation of male fantasy mags. In that particular contest, the likes of FHM and Maxim are absolutely bound to come first.

Judging by the personal services ads in the leading titles (sex chatlines, escort girls, hydroponic grow-your-own-skunk systems, replica guns, lubricated rubber vaginas, hair-restoration kits and, almost inevitably, treatments for short-sightedness), you get the feeling that the readership is not entirely sophisticated.

Which also goes without saying for the market being opened up by the new men's weeklies, Emap Consumer Media's Zoo and IPC Media's Nuts. Both have captured sales of around 200,000 apiece (in other words, a combined total of more than 1.5 million units shifted each month) and a third weekly is now thought to be on its way, courtesy of H Bauer.

They seem to be fishing from the same end of the pool as the stronger monthlies. Obviously, if the weeklies keep growing, it won't just be Jack that feels this particular squeeze - and, indeed, the likes of Maxim, FHM and Loaded are expected to turn in some pretty fragile circulation figures in the next set of ABCs. They haven't exactly been complacent of late - for instance, Maxim has a controversial new editor and FHM is redesigning in time for the September issue (out about now, as it happens) - but do men's monthly magazines now face an increasingly tough future?

The publishers obviously don't quite see it that way. Paul Keenan, the chief executive of Emap Consumer Media, confidently expects that the weeklies will grow the market. He states: "On a monthly basis, men are buying up to two million more magazines than they were buying this time last year. That change is for the long term. In time, the market will rise to double what it was previously."

But why? Was there really so much unsatisfied demand? Yes, basically, he argues. And that will only continue as the two sectors develop a better understanding of how they can complement each other. "Zoo is an incredibly topical but ultimately perishable read. There's a greater understanding that FHM must be reflective and indulgent and deep," he states.

Interestingly, though, the rival publisher Eric Fuller, the group publishing director of IPC Ignite!, reckons the monthlies are already getting it about right in providing a more involved, "curl up on the sofa" kind of read. He argues the ABC figures will show some cannibalisation of the monthlies by the weeklies but not as much as some people are predicting.

He agrees with Keenan that, seen in the round, in extending the totality of the men's market, the weeklies are good news for the sector.

Does the ad industry agree? Jon Wilkins, a partner of Naked Communications, thinks the monthlies' circulations will probably remain pretty robust, but he thinks the publishers need to take stock. They should differentiate themselves more from the weeklies and they should attempt to become more sophisticated. "Greg Gutfeld, the new editor of Maxim, will probably introduce more ideas that people can hook into. In general, the sector isn't exactly knackered but it definitely needs a new lick of paint. The biggest cultural change is that young males are more feminine. I'm not sure they reflect that," he comments.

Rod McLeod, the communications manager of Volkswagen, has another slight niggling worry. He explains: "Elsewhere in the world, men's magazines tend to hold on to their readers as they grow slightly older. In the UK, they tend to head off into specialist magazines. As they face circulation pressures from the weeklies, maybe they should consider that. Otherwise the market, though not yet at saturation point, is close to maturity."

Simon Mathews, a partner at Rise Communications, says it's down to fashion.

Some magazines, such as GQ and (to an extent) Esquire, have done a great job of staying on top of the trends and have succeeded in growing with their audiences. Others have been less astute and now they may come under an increasingly harsh spotlight. "Some of the magazines sit too close to the men's weeklies to be comfortable. Inevitably, something's got to give and the publishers will ultimately be faced with a choice between continuing to bank-roll loss leaders or redesigning their products. I know what I'd do," he concludes.

- "What the weeklies have done is stimulate a process of Darwinian evolution - and that has to be seen as a good thing. Up to now, it has been possible to sustain a weak monthly. Now the weak, the irrelevant and the ill-conceived will be found out." - Paul Keenan chief executive, Emap Consumer Media

- "One way or another, the monthlies are realising they have to shift with the times. There hasn't been a noticeable change in approach since they launched more than ten years ago. It's still crude, basic stuff. In the meantime, there have been huge cultural changes." - Jon Wilkins partner, Naked Communications

- "The UK is different from many markets in that the monthly titles are read by a relatively young age group and the publishers have struggled to get the slightly older demographic that we tend to be more interested in. Perhaps that is something they should think about." - Rod McLeod communications manager, Volkswagen

- "It's about the ebb and flow of fashion, the growth of digital and changing social values. Where's Ralph Lauren today? Nowhere. Regrettably, some men's magazines may suffer the same fate. It's a lesson in the theory that brands have to keep moving forward." - Simon Mathews partner, Rise Communications.