For years, people have been calling Jackie Newcombe a safe pair of hands, little realising there was a time when she was indeed a formidable last line of defence. These days, the closest she gets to sporting endeavour is playing in goal for her two teenage sons in knockabout games of football out in the garden, but there was a time when she was a serious player.
At netball, not football. If things had been different, Newcombe would have become a PE teacher following her degree in Sports Science and History at Loughborough University, where she was an accomplished goal defence for the netball team. On one occasion, the team beat Aston (University not Villa) by 60 goals to one.
Afterwards, the mood was more sombre than you'd have thought and there was an inquest about Newcombe's miserable failure to keep a clean sheet. That early introduction to the relentless pursuit of perfection has probably stood her in good stead down the years.
Her latest task represents a slightly more awkward sporting challenge. Newcombe was given the job of publishing director at Marie Claire last September, so her first major public task was to explain a set of ABC circulation figures for 2003 that were down around 10% year on year.
There were even mutterings that perhaps Marie Claire was a phenomenon whose time had come and gone. It was launched at the end of the 80s as a magazine for women who realised being interested in fashion didn't mean they had to be ill-informed about the global socio-political issues of the day. Or, conversely, for readers of The Guardian who aspired to something sexier than dungarees.
A decade or more down the line and the target market has not just lightened up, it has threatened to become completely empty-headed in its obsession with celebrity froth. Marie Claire's status as one of the market's most iconic brands (and it remains a market leader in the women's monthly sector in advertising pagination terms) has never seriously been challenged, but Newcombe's task has been to reinvent that brand for a new generation.
The redesign, in a slightly smaller format and featuring a similarly reduced cover price of £2.50 (50p less), is out this week. Inside, there has been some tinkering -- different running order, some new typography and a rethink of the colour schemes. An evolution in the balance of the magazine's ingredients, under way for a while now, will continue in the new format.
If press planners are uncomfortable about anything regarding Marie Claire, it's that evolutionary process. As one observer puts it: "Classically, Marie Claire was a magazine with substance at the front and style at the back but it was unambiguously a magazine for intelligent women."
Now the intelligent stuff is interspersed throughout with fashion editorial. Some find it jarring to turn the page from the situation in the Sudan to something frivolous about fashion. Newcombe says she understands this sort of worry and insists she's damned if she seeks to re-engineer the title and damned if she doesn't. She's also slightly irritated by some of the coverage about circulation, insisting that the magazine's position is by no means as fragile as some have implied. Which is slightly on the disingenuous side: numbers matter, as any decent goal defence will tell you.
We can trust her with the brand, she insists, and she says she is well aware that Marie Claire is one of the few titles to have a clear USP. It will remain true to that proposition even if it is inevitable that we might see a few more celebrity mugshots creeping in.
Sources at IPC say that the title's circulation figures in the next set of results (out next week) will look good and Newcombe is confident the cover price cut will work wonders: all indications, especially as regards other European markets, suggest cover price is a key factor in influencing sales.
So, all in all, things could be looking up. Newcombe will not be regretting her decision to return to IPC after a period in contract publishing that, according to some sources, was not the best canvas for her talents. Before that, she had been at IPC since joining as a graduate trainee in 1988.
But is this a true return? While she's been away, IPC's old owner, the technical publisher Reed-Elsevier, has been replaced by Time Inc, an outfit that knows a thing or two about consumer publishing. It has moved furniture around but it still feels like home for Newcombe. "Consumer publishing was never a core thing for Reed-Elsevier and it was always extremely cautious. There's a very different attitude now and a willingness to invest. It's familiar enough here not to feel strange but it is different enough to feel refreshing," she says.
The Newcombe file
1988 IPC, trainee
1996 IPC, various positions leading to publishing director of IPC Connect
2000 Associated Newspapers, managing director of contract publishing
2003 Marie Claire, publishing director
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