This month, Maxim magazine announced its first-ever drop in rate base, the paid circulation it guarantees advertisers. The former titan of the men’s category took a 20% hit, from 2.5 million to 2.0 million. That’s a big deal in magazines, where downscaling the rate base is avoided like the last third of a “Godfather” marathon.
What the hell happened?
I was deputy editor of Maxim when we launched that busty, lusty rag in 1997, and was editor-in-chief from 2001 to 2004, the period where we raised the rate base to 2.5 million. It’s been a few years now, but maybe I can shed some light. So travel back with me, if you dare, to a simpler time, when Howard Stern ruled the airwaves, and the Internet was for porn, and if you kept your cellphone on the table during lunch you were almost certainly a douche bag.
We were coming out of a long period of political correctness in the late ’90s, and male pride was at an all-time low. TV dads were neutered doofuses, colleges required male students to ask female students if it was okay to kiss them, and everyone was signing Promise Keepers pledges and various other acts of idiocy. Maxim was the perfect fearless, scantily clad, meat-and-potatoes antidote to all this ridiculousness. And before you knew it, we were America’s fastest-growing magazine, with TV and movie deals and a radio channel on Sirius.
So how did Maxim go into retrograde? Lack of vision, pure and simple. The times suddenly started to change very quickly, and Maxim couldn’t adapt its business plan. The perfect storm looked something like this:
1) On the tech side, connection speeds stopped sucking, men discovered the Internet and mobile, and ad dollars began to follow them over to digital solutions.
2) On the business side, Maxim couldn’t break its addiction to print ad revenue, and couldn’t fold its experiments in digital (Maxim Mobile, a reinvigorated website, etc.) into a working business model.
3) On the corporate side, Maxim was passed around like a Miley Cyrus fattie, running through five CEOs in three years. Every Friday there was another editorial layoff, with shaken survivors huddling under desks dressing their wounds, and every Monday a cheery press release about “right-sizing” the company and announcing this week’s creditors. Good times, good times.
Maxim and its corporate overlords never quite got just how big digital was going to be, how it was going to change everything. The business side failed to see that this was the beginning of the end of all inefficient media—that once everyone could publish to everyone, it smashed all the old distribution bottlenecks. Successive owners mired Maxim in a downward spiral of creative resource retrenchment at precisely the moment where they needed to be investing in owning the future.
Maxim was the perfect mix for a pre-digital age—genuinely useful and genuinely entertaining information, lovingly frosted with girls in their underwear. But digital upended all of that, as guys embraced instant connection to information and to one another, and gravitated toward local and interactive and social solutions. Men didn’t stop liking girls in their underwear—they just stopped settling for a static broadcasted monthly recap.
I’m rooting for Maxim, don’t get me wrong. But there are a lot of beer trucks in the desert now: younger men’s brands born to digital and social and mobile, staffed with cut-rate smart-asses dedicated to providing men with exactly what they want right now. If Maxim’s rate base reversal is a logical acknowledgement of the diminished future of print, repositioning the print edition as the marketing wing of a digital brand, it could survive, I think.
But if this is the beginning of a long slide into the abyss, for God’s sake don’t let it happen: Maxim deserves a better fate. Current owners, please: Burn up whatever cash is left in a giant fireball of glory, with one last all-night mega-party blowout of mustard-wrestling supermodels and flamethrower trampoline fighting, breaking the laws of every decent society on Earth.
You owe us that much.