The World: Desmond's celebrity-friendly OK! hits the US

Will OK!'s sympathetic stance on the stars catch on in a market dominated by more scurrilous titles, Emma Barns asks.

Richard Desmond is never one to do things quietly, and his arrival in the US with OK! magazine is no exception.

The ad announcing OK!'s launch is the first attempt to ruffle a few feathers. "Avoid Dull People", it reads, taking an obvious swipe in the direction of OK!'s competitor, the Time Warner-owned People magazine. That ad was backed with a stunt in Times Square last week - a newsstand decked out to look like a film premiere, complete with a red carpet and a throng of adoring, screaming fans.

Christian Toksvig, the head of international expansion at OK!, denies there's an aggressive strategy against the competition, however.

"The ad brings a bit of British cheek to the market to get trade buyers interested in the product. We're not actually trying to steal other magazines' readers, we're going to get our own," he asserts.

And the way OK! is planning to do this, the party line goes, is by offering the celebrity magazine-buying American a very different proposition.

OK!'s US editor, Sarah Ivens, explains. "Celebrity magazines in the US have a very negative slant. They're all 'you're too fat, you're too thin, you're getting divorced' type stories. Celebrities and their publicists hate them."

In contrast, the US OK!, like the UK edition, is an unashamedly pro-celebrity magazine, its pages filled with paid-for interviews and flattering photography.

"There will obviously be a bias towards the US stars, with some Catherine Zeta Jones and Orlando Bloom thrown in," Ivens says. "It will be similar to the British version in the way we shoot the celebrities, but the font will be bigger and the magazine will be bigger and glossier than other OK!s."

The US edition, which launched on 4 August, will also differ in its additional, non-celebrity content, with larger information sections focusing on travel, health, beauty and fashion.

With its pro-celebrity slant, there will naturally be some overlap with People, but even media buyers concede that OK! is unique.

The MediaVest USA senior vice-president and director of print investment, Robyn Steinberg, says: "People has human interest and entertainment information as well as celebrity. OK! is a totally different magazine.

"It's a viable product and it's highly successful overseas, which gives it credibility," she adds.

But there is a caveat. "The celebrity market here is a cluttered environment and we don't know whether the US consumer will be as engaged with OK!'s sympathetic take on celebrity. We are interested in it but as far as buying it, we're waiting and seeing," she cautions.

Desmond and his cohorts are evidently more confident. Instead of going into the US on licence, as OK! has done in other markets, Desmond owns a majority share in US OK! Some of his staff, including Stan Myerson and Martin Ellice, the joint managing directors of Express Newspapers, have also invested in the launch.

And they aren't doing things by halves. The launch is backed by a $100 million-plus spend and the initial print run will be 1.3 million copies. Desmond is aiming for a weekly circulation of 500,000.

"It's always been an ambition of Desmond's to take on the US with OK!" Toksvig says. "The US is a very attractive market, so there's a big upside to doing it on our own. We have a similar culture and understand the language, which makes going it alone far simpler."

The OK! team seems to think it understands US consumers and is confident that the new magazine will resonate with them.

Ivens claims focus groups of older, educated and better-off readers said they were embarrassed to buy the tabloidesque celebrity magazines but had little alternative. "People loved OK! and said they would pass it on to their friends and family ,which is the way the magazine works elsewhere," she says.

The US distribution network certainly seems to have bought into it and has allocated OK! 110,000 of its elusive "retail pockets". Toksvig draws the comparison with two recent launches, Inside TV and Life & Style, which were given 60,000 and 40,000 pockets respectively.

"Retailers get OK! They are clearing space for us and that's confirmation they think it will pay off," he explains.

The advertising community may take a little longer to convince but it is unlikely to stay aloof if the title proves popular.

"If the consumer demand is there, advertisers will gravitate towards it," Steinberg says, adding that the fact that Desmond doesn't have any other magazines in the US will not be an issue.

Even if it were, it is unlikely that OK! will be alone for long. Both Toksvig and Ivens are expecting another US launch once OK! is fully established.

So now it is all down to what the American public thinks. A lot of people, like Steinberg, will be watching and waiting to see whether OK! will sink or swim.

She sums up: "OK! is the tenth book entering a crowded category. It's down to the consumer to decide. It's a question of whether nice will sell."