Pint-sized men's title looks to bigger brother for a leg up

Jack's new owner plans to cross-promote the A5 title with Maxim, writes Ian Darby

Publishers of men's magazines react with horror when you speculate that the bottom has fallen out of the market. It's like suggesting to Heather Mills that Paul McCartney is too old to play Glastonbury.

And, to an extent, they're right to feel aggrieved. The likes of Emap's FHM, IPC's Loaded, Dennis' Maxim and Condé Nast's GQ still pull in large circulations. Not as high as in the heyday of the lads' magazine but pretty respectable nonetheless.

But what seems undeniable is that this market has become hard to launch into and that creating new products, or a point of difference, is incredibly difficult. Men like beautiful women and publishers ignore this at their peril. But beyond that they don't seem to know what to base a new title around.

All the major publishers look at launches but aren't about to risk a packet on another Later, the IPC title aimed at men in their 30s that folded in 2001.

In this context, the launch last year of Jack was a brave one. Backed by a small publisher, James Brown's I Feel Good, it had little support other than the self-confidence and maverick instincts of its founder.

Jack has struggled in circulation terms, managing around 30,000 in sales according to industry sources (it is yet to post an ABC figure). Sales of around double that would place it on a more secure footing.

And advertisers and agencies are calling for change. Nik Vyas, an associate director at ZenithOptimedia, says: "Jack had a lot of goodwill towards it when it first launched because it had a good proposition and advertisers and agencies where looking for something new to rejuvenate the declining older end of the market. The James Brown brand was also used effectively as a powerful selling tool. The current uncertainly surrounding it and the fact that they've declined to release an ABC despite registering with them is damaging. The goodwill is rapidly evaporating and clients are getting twitchy. We need to know what we are investing our money in and that means reliable circulation and readership data."

But Dennis, which recently acquired Jack as part of its takeover of IFG, has signalled its intention to invest in the title. From November, its pagination will increase to a minimum 308 pages (its July issue runs to 272) and it has installed a new senior editorial team headed by the former Maxim executive editor Michael Hodges.

Brown will still be involved as a consultant editorial director and Hodges has another old hand at his disposal in the former IPC editorial director Alan Lewis, who launched Loaded and Uncut.

And Hodges is determined that the magazine will continue to strive to be different and to target men in their 30s rather than 20s. "It's the holy grail of men's magazine publishing. Creating a magazine that is older in character but doesn't confuse this with being boring," he says.

Hodges remains tight-lipped over the details of any changes. He rates its fashion coverage but it seems that he wants to give the title more of an edge and a more distinct attitude: "There will obviously be changes but it's the only men's magazine that isn't suburban in its attitudes. It has to develop its voice of being clever and funny. Men in their 30s have fun but they're wiser."

Hodges agrees that Jack needs to build awareness. It has won plaudits from critics and at the industry awards but is relatively untried by many potential readers. A Dennis man for several years, as executive editor of Maxim Fashion as well as the main brand, Hodges argues that Dennis' "resources will open up a whole set of new opportunities".

Cross-promotion is one area but, more importantly, agencies say, Dennis will be able to offer Jack as part of a package alongside Maxim. It also has elements of difference in its advertiser base (you could use the phrase "more upmarket") that could take Dennis into new areas.

Jack's A5, or "handbag-sized", format also raises questions. Members of its launch team had urged Brown not to go with the format, fearing IFG lacked the clout or budget to secure the expensive newsstand promotions secured by Condé Nast for Glamour. They also pointed out that the deluxe National Geographic-style photography might look better on larger pages -- and that few men carry hand-bags.

But will Hodges keep the smaller format? "It's a great format," he says. Do you think it works? "It's a great format," he says. So for the time being, anyway, it seems Jack will continue as the Ronnie Corbett to Maxim's Ronnie Barker.

Hodges, who before joining Dennis worked as a writer for the sports pages of national titles including The Sunday Times, started in his role at Jack last week. He faces a difficult challenge but if he can hone the title's original proposition of "an orgy of war, animals, fashion, genius and cool" for an urban, bar-hopping crowd of thirtysomething men, he'll have pulled off what other editors have tried and failed to do. Dennis' rivals will be watching with interest.

The Hodges file

1997 The Sunday Times, writer

1999 Maxim, deputy editor

2001 Maxim and Maxim Fashion, executive editor

2003 The Observer, writer

2003 Jack, editor

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