Media Headliner: Hello! fights back and examines a digital future

Katherine Levy meets Hello! publisher Charlotte Stockting, the driving force behind a strategy designed to overtake OK!

Charlotte Stockting, the diminutive and glamorous publisher of Hello! in the UK, is understandably happy. The latest set of Audit Bureau of Circulations results saw the celebrity title regain ground on its arch-rival OK!, in a battle that has lasted 17 years with OK!'s proprietor, Richard Desmond, who Stockting diplomatically describes as having "real chutzpah".

OK! launched in 1993, five years after Hello!, and began to overtake its competitor in 2002, holding a circulation lead ever since. Yet thanks to Hello!'s 3.7 per cent year-on-year circulation increase to 412,195 and OK!'s crash of more than 20 per cent year on year to 478,878, that gap is closing.

Hello!'s publisher attributes OK!'s decline to a lack of investment ("They've downgraded the paper - it's grainy," she claims). She also argues that its strategy of multipacking the title with New! and Star has been ill-judged: "The consumer sees the same pictures appear in all three and thinks: why not just buy Star, which is cheaper?"

Stockting says Hello!'s resilience in a turbulent market is down to "not slavishly following the people who don't have a story". She argues that this stands in contrast to titles such as Heat and Grazia, which, she claims "have the stock five stars they can pull out their bottom drawer at any moment". Hello! prides itself on attempting to tell "real human interest stories" from European royalty, celebrities and socialites.

The typical Hello! reader is an ABC1 female and, Stockting claims: "A 46-year-old who thinks she's a 36-year-old. She'll have the wherewithal to put together a Chanel jacket with Next jeans." Hello! is not interested in running pictures of circled sweaty celebrity armpits. Prince William and Kate Middleton's romance, however, is very much where its focus lies.

Vanessa Clifford, the managing partner at Mindshare, agrees that OK! and Hello! are "very different magazines". She adds: "Hello! has a more upmarket audience and, by definition, a smaller market. It has a different heritage and history."

Hello! is also renowned for kowtowing to celebrities: the Spanish founder, Eduardo Sanchez Junco (who died in July), described it as a "kind magazine", which pitches it far from the camp of other celebrity weeklies. Stockting claims that Hello! will never steer away from its respectful stance. "This is something Eduardo Jr (Junco's son and the current proprietor) viciously protects," Stockting says.

Stockting is an experienced magazine operator. Before her decade with Hello!, she was the sales and marketing director at Conde Nast and the publisher of Hachette Filipacchi's Elle. Stockting now works with the third generation of the Spanish family who founded Hola! magazine in the 40s. The advantage of working in a dynastic publishing empire, Stockting says, is that she can send a text message at midnight to her boss: "I can say 'We've got a great opportunity, shall we do it?' and he texts back. There are no boards to get through."

But does the fact that Hello! has no stablemates make it vulnerable? "It makes you incredibly nimble," Stockting says. "Uniquely, we are able to work with any partner we like." She is referring to recent multipack activity that saw Hello! distributed with other titles, such as IPC Media's Look and Now, and The National Magazine Company titles Good Housekeeping, Harper's Bazaar and She.

Despite criticism from press buyers that multipacking gives a false impression of a product's singular strength, Stockting is pragmatic: "They allow us to put our product in front of people who we might not otherwise reach." But she admits: "Nothing is as successful (in terms of generating sales) as discounting your own brand."

In the previous ABC period, Hello! discounted two issues, dropping the coverprice to £1. "We felt we needed to reinvigorate our reader and remind them that this is their fix. They need to reconnect with that Monday-morning high," Stockting argues.

The "Monday high" was engineered by Stockting in May 2009. She cut ties with the distributor Comag and secured a tie-up with Associated Newspapers, to reach shelves a day earlier through its distributing arm, Advantage. This effectively pitted the owner of the Daily Mail against its arch-rival Desmond. It also meant that Hello! reached readers a day ahead of its competitors OK!, Heat and Now.

It will be interesting to see if Stockting and her team can continue to build Hello!'s increased momentum and she is working hard to explore new opportunities for the title. She sees the iPad and other tablet devices as a good bet for the brand. "You could spin off a hundred different Hello!'s," she says excitedly. "You could have Hello! Baby, Hello! Travel, Hello! Food."

However, Hello! has elected not to create an app for the iPhone. Stockting says: "Hello!'s USP is its size; to reduce it to palm size is to miss an essential point of the magazine."

And despite the move of Desmond into television, a Hello! TV channel also seems to be out of the question: "We've always been cautious. How far can you stretch a brand? Once you start repeating the same stories, it's damaging."

For the time being at least, this caution appears to be paying off as the tone of Hello!'s celebrity coverage, combined with some canny use of discounting, has proved successful. One thing's for sure, though: OK! will come out fighting in the months ahead.

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