Commentary

Men's Magazines are Smokin' Hot

Until a few years ago, media buyers had very little to say about men's magazines. Their enthusiasm for reaching spend-happy 20- and 30-year olds was tempered by a single long-held belief: men don't read magazines.

Whether this was true or not didn't matter. The point was that the category had become as neatly manicured as a suburban lawn, and nobody really seemed to mind. You had your sports titles (Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News), your clean general-interest reads (GQ, Esquire), a music book (Rolling Stone), a bit of spice (Playboy) and a ton of niche publications targeted at auto and outdoor-life enthusiasts. Surprises were kept to a minimum, and readers and advertisers alike knew exactly what they were getting.

Then came Men's Health, which proved that a self-help mag for men could be every bit as successful as similar titles for women, and the so-called laddie mags. And while it's not entirely accurate to say that these titles trampled everything in their path, their success has made nearly every publisher reconsider his or her mission.

"What you used to hear was 'men don't want to read magazines besides Sports Illustrated,'" recalls Rebecca McPheters, president of publishing consultancy McPheters and Co. "Now, you've got to give the Dennis [Publishing] and Emap people a lot of credit -- they sure figured out how to reach that audience."

Indeed, you'd be hard-pressed to find anybody in the media community who doesn't share McPheters' enthusiasm for the men's magazine category. Granted, some of the racier titles aren't going to appear on Wal-Mart shelves anytime soon, but that hasn't stopped buyers and planners from enthusing about their performance and potential.

"The magazines, especially Men's Health, have been able to attract [advertising] categories that traditionally hadn't done much with men in print," says Beth Fidoten, senior vice president/media director at Initiative Print & Convergence. Eric Blankfein, Horizon Media's vice president and director of media planning, agrees, saying, "There aren't too many advertisers who don't want a piece of that audience."

Perhaps a better question, then, is why it took so long for everybody to jump on the men's mag bandwagon. After all, it's not like advertisers woke up four or five years ago and suddenly decided to target men between the ages of 21 and 34. The aforementioned thesis that young men don't like to read was obviously a big part of it, but that still doesn't explain it entirely.

Maxim Magazine and Maxim Brands general manager Andy Clerkson theorizes that men's titles never paid much attention to their readers. "The magazines existed for their advertisers," he suggests. "The editorial was aimed at creating a good environment in which fashion advertisers and others could exist." FHM president and executive publisher Dana Fields takes that theory one step further, saying, "There was nothing particularly fun about GQ or Esquire. What magazines like ours have brought to this category is fun, and we did it while making the category much more desirable for all kinds of advertisers."

Those advertisers, card-carrying men's mag disciples one and all, have fueled the category's quick ascent. Sure, nearly every title offers a different editorial twist on the trusty formula of gals and gadgets, fashion and fun. But the men's mags are first and foremost, marketing machines, offering a desirable venue for advertisers in nearly every sector.

Of the 12 advertising categories tracked by the Magazine Publishers of America, ten have a sizable presence in men's magazines (automotive, apparel/accessories, technology, food/food products, transportation/hotels/resorts, drugs/remedies, toiletries/cosmetics, direct response, media/advertising, and financial/insurance/real estate). Of these industries, several sub-categories have proven especially kind to men's mags in recent months, most notably fashion, liquor, and fragrances. "They're a natural fit," Clerkson says, adding, "What better place is there for them to be?"

Not surprisingly, nearly every one of the publications wants to expand its relationship with auto manufacturers -- already an enormous supporter of the category -- and most are hoping that pharmaceutical manufacturers will increase their presence in the months ahead. Even the fastest-growing titles in the market have their Holy Grails. "I'd give my right arm to get the Calvin Klein fragrance business back," admits Fields.

While every magazine publisher spends at least a few minutes waxing philosophically about the value of luxury-brand advertisers, the success of FHM, Maxim, and Stuff has largely been driven by middle- to upper-middle-market advertisers, especially in the coveted fashion segment. "That's where the money is," Fields says. "Few guys in this audience wake up every day with Gucci or Prada on their mind. They want Tommy [Hilfiger] or Ralph [Lauren] or Levi's or Diesel. These companies have been woefully underserved over the years by GQ and Details."

Even more promisingly for the men's titles, the media community believes that they could see an influx of new ad categories in the months ahead -- assuming the economy cooperates, that is. Blankfein predicts that investment and financial companies will plunge into the category deeper than ever before: "The E*Trades and [Charles] Schwabs, they're going to want to tackle this segment." Beth Fidoten, pointing to the successful Men's Health model, anticipates a greater presence for pharmaceutical companies.

Of course, all this isn't to say that men's mags don't have more than their share of challenges to confront. Several of the publications in the category are struggling to refine their editorial voice and value proposition for advertisers -- which, predictably, has not gone unnoticed by rival publishers. Clerkson subtly points to MRI data revealing that the Maxim reader boasts a greater household income than the GQ or Esquire reader. Jaqk publisher/founder Brett Garfinkel either intentionally or unintentionally gives Men's Health and Maxim the ultimate backhand compliment -- "they're fine for what they try to do" -- while Razor publisher Richard Botto says of Details: "I have no idea who they're trying to speak to."

And then there's the economy again, which has forced even the category's preeminent titles to battle for dollars. "So many advertisers are making their decisions on a month-by-month basis, which obviously isn't the best thing for any of us," notes Stuff general manager Mark MacDonald. Similarly, there remains substantial concern that marketers attempting to reach young men, look first to broadcast or cable TV, thus leaving fewer dollars for magazines. "Even the men's magazines, which are doing well from a circulation standpoint, aren't getting the depth of dollars they once did," Blankfein said.

The likely consequence of this? The lesser titles -- or at least the ones that are perceived as lesser by the media community -- won't exactly be teeming with top-flight advertisers. Of course, according to Rebecca McPheters, these titles might have bigger issues with which to contend. "Everybody seems to be using the 'established formula,'" she notes. "What exactly is an 'established formula'? The key to successful magazine publishing is differentiation. Unless you're the leader in a given category, you have to be demonstrably different, and I'm not sure if we're seeing that from some of the magazines in this space."

Another pressing problem is newsstand sales. To put it succinctly, men's mags aren't flying off the racks at their former pace, which Fields suggests has contributed to the recent spate of turnover within the category. "The more traditional books have been getting killed on the newsstand for the last few years," she notes. "And those are the ones who have new editors -- what does that tell you?"

Indeed, for a supposedly robust category, men's mags have endured more than their share of editorial musical chairs in recent months. GQ pushed long-time leader, the late Art Cooper, out the door, and is currently in the laboratory brewing a new editorial mix, while Playboy boasts relative newcomers in the posts of editor-in-chief (Jim Kaminsky, who arrived from Maxim last October) and vice president/publisher (Diane Silberstein, who joined the bunny in February, and was promoted to replace Jim Dimonekas last month). Stuff, despite its surging numbers, recently bumped editor-in-chief Greg Gutfield over to a vague brand-extension post.

With those shakeups have come a flurry of intercategory movement. Given that men's mags grew their readership during the economic malaise of the last few years, it's no surprise that several outsiders want in. Jaqk, described by founder Garfinkel as "a magazine for the gambling lifestyle, a magazine for the guy who would remortgage his house to fund a wild business venture he dreamed up in the shower," will debut either later this year or early in 2004. In a development that surely has He-Men around the world gagging on their domestic beer, Conde Nast is birthing a male companion for its women's shopping title, Lucky. Skeptical? Fidoten points to the initial prognoses for both Lucky and Allure. "People said 'are you kidding? Magazines about shopping and makeup?' But I think [their publishers] have long since been vindicated."

Similarly, some within the category are waiting for a distinct sub-category to evolve -- or are attempting to invent one themselves. The reasoning goes something like this: Maxim, FHM, and Stuff are taking care of younger readers, while older ones are more than adequately served by GQ, Men's Health, and Esquire. But what about the guy in his late 20s who has advanced beyond the fraternity, but isn't yet making enough wonga to patronize the Guccis and Movados of the world?

Into this supposed market void have stepped Razor and Ramp, both of which promise a more sophisticated take on the lad-mag formula. While conceding that "in a tight ad market, there's not room for advertisers or readers to go three magazines deep," Ramp president and publisher Richard Amann says that advertiser response to his newly revamped book has been promising. "One fragrance advertiser told me, 'It's so hard to find that [25- to 35-year-old] guy in print. If you deliver on your promise, it'll be a home run,'" he recalls. Razor's Botto sings a similar tune, saying "There's a place in the market for a magazine that aims substantially higher."

The question may not be whether the titles have stumbled onto a virgin niche, but whether any publication without a corporate sugar daddy like Conde Nast can survive during these lean economic times. According to the Magazine Publishers of America, 60 percent of all new magazines fail within five years. "If you're independent and small, it's tough out there," says Dana Fields, whose comments are echoed by Andy Clerkson: "There might be a bit of a gap between Maxim and GQ, but is there enough of a gap to plant a magazine that will be successful? I don't think so."

As for the future, media buyers and planners are awaiting the revamped GQ and Playboy with bated breath, and are eager to evaluate the staying power of newer titles like Ramp, Razor, and Jaqk. "Obviously there's going to be fallout down the road with some of these [titles], but anybody who says they know how it's going to play out is probably lying," says Fidoten. Adds Eric Blankfein, "Everybody's paying very, very close attention. [The men's magazines] are entering a critical stretch."

Clearly, the established mags will try to get younger. Sports Illustrated might be aging quite well editorially, but the climbing median age of its readers (at 38.1; while ESPN The Magazine's average reader is 30.7) has led Time Inc. to plan a controlled-circulation spin-off, SI onCampus, for distribution at universities across the country.

Another possibility for the months ahead are further brand extensions. Given the success of ventures like GQ's "Men of the Year" awards and Maxim's forays into entertainment (NBC aired "Maxim's Hot 100" on June 14, while Maxim Goes to the Movies hit newsstands in May), look for the men's mags to attempt to migrate their wit and style to other media. FHM has already pressed forward successfully with FHM Collections. Stuff's Greg Gutfield is now a full-time brand-extension scout.

Of course, the newer and smaller players in the category may not have the manpower or the cash to expand their empire anytime soon, but remember -- neither did Maxim a few short years ago. "There's more diversity and more options than ever before," Fidoten says, then adds with a laugh, "That means there's more room for us buyers to negotiate."

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