Published on August 14th, 20090
Blog: Godfather of men’s mags eyes return to publishing
v with James Brown, founder of iconic lad’s mag Loaded, who went on to edit GQ and launch his own publishing company, I Feel Good (IFG). What has hebeen up to over the past few years and what are his plans for the future?
James Brown, the UK publishing world’s last great trailblazer has his sights fixed on a return to the men’s media marketplace – one that he largely created more than 15 years ago.
“I’ve started thinking about working properly in the media again. I sold IFG (to Dennis Publishing for £6.4m in 2003) and found myself in a position where I didn’t really have to work. Since then I’ve spent a few years focusing on family stuff, like taking my son to school for the first four years of his life.”
But Brown has been a long way off early retirement. “I’ve been working with a lot of media owners,” he reveals. “I like having the freedom to do work I find really enjoyable.” This consultancy work has included strategic development stints for Live, Time Out, Quintessentially, Reader’s Digest, Disappear Here and Jamie magazine. ” It’s a measure of Brown’s reputation in publishing that polar opposites feel they can benefit from his creative spark.
“Going back to when I first started consulting I helped the Indie launch its media section and worked with the Mail on Sunday in changing the Night & Day supplement to ‘Live’ and I’ve done about 30 talks for companies as diverse as advertising agencies, Kraft cheese, and Classic FM!
When you’ve had fantastic jobs like NME, loaded, Leeds United and Jack it’s not always easy to maintain that standard without creating new things all the time. So I went off to explore very different but very successful companies and it was interesting, I sat with the editor of the Mail on Sunday at the time when all that scandal was brewing about drugs and David Cameron and he was deliberating how to handle it, and at the other end I’ve worked near the heart of that brilliant whirlwind that is Jamie Oliver and his company. And then at another extreme I’ve sat in Pleasantville and talked about how Readers Digest needs to become younger to capture the new middle aged. And between all that I still get to write about Leeds for FourFourTwo, Primal Scream for the Observer Music mag, boxing for Men’s Health and fantastic hotels for Quintessentially. So it’s been low profile but it’s been stimulating and at my busiest it was only ever a three day week.”
His corporate speaking engagements have led Brown to appear at business leadership conferences alongside the likes of Cameron and former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan. “I talk a lot about transformation in businesses and markets. People forget that although Loaded has now sold over 30 million copies, we were outsiders – outsiders within a big company. Felix Dennis said in his book ‘How to get Rich’ that the greatest triumph of Loaded was managing to get IPC to produce it.”
Although public speaking and publishing consulting is clearly something he enjoys, Brown’s love of writing has also clearly not diminished over the years. “I really enjoyed writing the Men’s Health column. It’s about being a 40 year old guy who didn’t drink and had a kid rather than being a 28 year old guy who drank heavily and behaved like a kid. I’ve also just written a piece for FourFourTwo about Leeds United. That’s a great magazine I’m lucky enough to be able to write about things which are my passions really.”
Browns lower profile in recent years appears to have as much to do with his changed lifestyle than his business dealings. “I’ve been quietly working. People can only understand abstinence if they have experienced excess and Loaded was a very, very excessive personal time. I just needed some time away.” So much did Loaded form the zeitgeist of the time that Brown was approached by Hello to photograph his wedding. But being a celeb is anathema to a private family life and Brown chose not to take up the offer.
So what does UK publishing’s enfant terrible think about the current men’s magazine sector? “The media market has changed and magazines haven’t. I think what we did with Loaded – which FHM and Maxim followed – has had a massive influence on today’s television. If you turn on channels like FX and Bravo, Sky and ITV 4 they are full of that kind of content for men. On TV, men are fantastically catered for.”
And how about the vaunted demise of the men’s monthly magazine? Brown feels that TV, the internet, freesheets and weeklies are all decimating the market once ruled by Loaded. “You get a free men’s mag with The Mail on Sunday. You get a free men’s mag from the guys at TalkSport. You get a free men’s mag in ShortList. Then you’ve got weeklies. If you are a young guy coming into the market you may pick up Nuts or Zoo. The monthlies have just become old fashioned. They haven’t changed. Why would you want to go around in a horse and cart when people have got cars? The publishing houses’ biggest mistake was not developing complementary titles.” He warms to his theme. “They just haven’t gone out there and said, ‘Lets have a proper go at producing more magazines that cater for men’. I get so many men telling me they have nothing to read. There’s lots of media choices for young men out there but nothing anyone would want to wear as a badge. I don’t think anyone would pick up ShortList or Live – as good as they are – and go: “That’s my magazine”. People used to feel an affinity with Loaded or FHM but they don’t any more.”
We ponder the latest ABC figures, showing drops of between four and 20% in the sector. As bleak as the numbers are, Brown reckons they may be padded. “I think a lot of publishers today are rather economical with the truth when it comes to ABC figures. I was recently on Radio Four discussing the demise of Maxim with a publisher who was claiming one of his titles was selling 130,000 copies when everyone in the publishing business knows that it’s doing about half that number in reality. You talk to people who work for that title and they are ashen-faced! Just look at how thin the mags are now. The advertising has disappeared, too. I feel sorry for them because it must be so hard right now working in those businesses; watching your advertisers disappear. If you work at the big mags like FHM and Loaded you are seeing the audience disappear and if you look at the likes of GQ and Esquire the advertisers are struggling. It’s a really tough time.”
One senses that Brown is itching to make a play: to show that the man who defined the lad phenomena of the nineties still has what it takes. Family aside, then, why hasn’t he staged a comeback in the market sector he still clearly loves? Clearly, the Dennis deal still rankles. “It was like an aggressive takeover with a smile. They said we’d all keep our jobs and then turned around and let the finance director, the creative director and myself go… so that was frustrating. In retrospect I perhaps should have had another crack at doing it again right away, because I really enjoyed doing Jack.”
Then came the surprise of our conversation. Despite the changes in his own lifestyle and the bottom dropping out of the magazine market, a twinkle appears in Brown’s eye and he drops a heavy hint about when that comeback could be. “Next year is a World Cup year. It’s a good year for men. You’ve got to know when to move. I do wish there was a great men’s mag. I’d have done it earlier but the ad market’s f**ked. But you’ve got to be bullish. I’ve got two creative ideas ready to go: one’s a magazine; one’s an internet proposition. It’s very exciting – they look great, people I’ve explained them to want to invest! I’m going to write my book. And then I’m going to get back in.” I can’t resist pressing for more details. “I’m on fifth album syndrome. NME was my first album – that was great. Loaded was the second – that was great. GQ was the difficult third album – perhaps the wrong style… The fourth album (IFG Jack and Viz) was just good fun. Now I’m sitting in a weird wood with some folk music!”
So what about the format? Surely a new mens title would be much more integrated in the digital space than the current crop. “The flagship brands on the internet – Google, YouTube, Facebook and MySpace before it have replaced the social glue that magazines once offered. Loaded used to bring all men’s interests together in one place – today a search engine does that. Let’s say you want to know more about Johan Cruyff. Today you type it in, and see footage of him playing, footage of him as a manager. You can read opinions about him, interviews with him, his biography… and it’s all instant. One of the things that made Loaded successful is that we told a lot of guys about a lot of people they had never heard of. For example, when we ran a 4,000 word article on Oliver Reed there was a good chance that around half the younger readers had never even heard of him, as his heyday was in the 60s and 70s.” “All magazines ever did was deliver information that allowed people to bond. Guys used to share this info in the pub or on the way to a football match or a weekend away. Now it’s all instantly accessible through social networking on the PC or handheld device. We’re hooked on it because you get everything you need. You get company and stimulation.”
Brown is perhaps sketching the outline of a new breed of magazine that will be fully integrated with a vibrant online community (maybe using the blueprint of Brown’s existing low key message board onemickjones.com) rather than treating digital as a bolted on afterthought. As ever, the touchstone will be great content.
Can Brown make a spectacular return with his ‘fifth album’? You wouldn’t bet against him.