On balance, Cabal Communications’ decision to take part in BBC2’s
Trouble Between the Covers series was probably a mistake. You can always
argue, of course, that any publicity is good publicity and that Cabal
had very little to lose. Fly-on-the-wall business docusoaps can be
accidents waiting to happen, though. And Trouble was horribly compelling
- the sort of TV you have to squint at through your fingers.
Here were shameless ad sales executives offering to give blow jobs to
clients, and editors with questionable features ideas and even stranger
notions of making an exhibition of themselves in the pursuit of
And here was the Cabal founder, Sally O’Sullivan, a Patsy-like figure
who seemed to spend her life swanning into champagne-saturated
receptions and then staggering around Soho in search of a taxi.
It came across as a parody of a pastiche of ideas that were dropped from
Ab Fab scripts for being just too obvious. There are those in the
publishing business who felt it seriously undermined Cabal’s credibility
- a notion they believe is not unconnected to Cabal’s recent troubles,
the latest of which was the departure of the company’s managing director
and co-founder, Andy Sutcliffe.
A rival publisher comments: ’The programme seems to have confirmed
everyone’s worst suspicions about what goes on in publishing. It gave
you the impression that the business isn’t terribly professional - which
is what a lot of people want to believe anyway. Everyone knows that
Sally O’Sullivan is incredibly bright but all you saw here was her sat
behind her desk, a glass of wine in her hand, having all these blue sky
thoughts. I don’t think it did anyone any justice at all.’
The programme also helped shed light on the real nuts and bolts of the
problems faced by Cabal. When it opened its doors in 1998, Cabal
announced that it would launch 12 magazines a year. As of last week, it
had a portfolio of four consumer titles - Front, Real Homes, The
American Globe, Pro Cycling - plus a contract magazine called Voice.
And it seems to have found a surprising number of reverse gears. At the
beginning of this year it closed Maximum Mountain Bike and sold Good
A number of launches have been either postponed or aborted; Sutcliffe is
by no means the only senior departure.
Many people in the business are desperate for Cabal to succeed. As Vicky
Robinson, the press buying manager at New PHD, puts it: ’Companies like
Cabal are very important to the business because they keep everyone on
The magazine market surely needs new and ambitious outfits bursting with
good ideas - the big problem, seemingly, is getting those ideas to
Are Cabal’s troubles evidence that it has become impossible to take on
the Emaps and the IPCs of this world?
Not necessarily, an agency source says: ’Publishing is run by massive
egotists and Cabal made the mistake of coming along and saying that it
was going to change the world. The big egos at existing big publishers
obviously said, ’Oh no you’re not.’ That’s human nature. Cabal made a
big fuss of itself and now it’s being bullied. If you’re going to change
the world, you should do it by stealth, like Attic Futura.’
Chris Shaw, the joint managing director of Universal McCann, tends to
agree with much of that: ’Cabal has far better ideas than its rivals but
it shows that ideas aren’t everything if you can’t get distribution and
a relevant marketing package in place. Cabal has had its ideas stolen
and all sorts of spoiling tactics thrown at it.
’It has to go for a huge number of launch projects that will totally
confuse the opposition or focus on a small number of intensely guarded
projects. But maybe it should look more radically at the distribution
problem. Perhaps Cabal should look at its business in a different way
and consider using different media - and obviously that would include