Once upon a time, the much-maligned lads’ mag was “the most profitable thing ever,” says Shortlist Media chairman Mike Soutar. Tastes have changed, maybe men have too – but are there lessons that could be learned from the titillating titles of old?
He admits the lads' mag was a licence to print money in the 90s. Having edited FHM and then Maxim, he was in the driving seat during an “amazing moment in men's magazines”.
Lads’ mags sales then evaporated. The rise of free internet porn, the proliferation of free, quality online editorial and the launch of the first iPhone have all been blamed. Either way, by 2007 the writing was on the wall for these titles. As a result Soutar, with help from Tim Ewington, Karl Marsden, Phil Hilton and Matt Phare, launched ShortList, a weekly magazine for men, not lads.
ShortList was immediately different from what had come before. Its strapline read: “For men with more than one thing on their minds”. Next generation James Bond, Daniel Craig, graced the first cover. 11 years later, ShortList boasts the biggest circulation of any men's lifestyle magazine in Britain. Detractors will note the title is given out for free on the streets of the UK by a network of staff; in doing so they may not give it enough credit for revolutionising distribution when print was lost on busy newsstands.
From January to June 2018, ShortList enjoyed an average free distribution of 502,667 a week, according to figures from auditor ABC. Soutar likens this to the old circulation figures from FHM. The comparison tells us a lot about how print media has changed.
At MagFest in Edinburgh, Soutar unearthed an FHM sales document to a roomful of gawping publishers and mag owners. It showed that in January 1997, the Gillian Anderson calendar issue sold 571,000 issues globally. Despite the £2.50 cover price, FHM reached 69,000 more paying customers than ShortList does free readers (and it is literally put into the hands of consumers on busy streets). Rather than a condemnation of ShortList, this serves as a reminder about the power of the lad mag in its heydays.
Have men changed since the 90s?
As print's peak diminished, lad culture was channelled through new social publishers like Lad Bible which published weekly features including Cleavage Thursday and Bumday Monday (reminders of a young brand which have since been expunged from its archives). Today the Lad Bible has swapped crudity for causes, such as taking a stand against plastics, and adopted the mantra: 'with great social power comes great social responsibility'. This may have something to do with the fact that more than a quarter of its ‘Lads’ are in fact women, but does it demonstrate the changing wants of the male audience too?
Asked if men have changed so fundamentally since Gillian Anderson graced the cover of FHM in her underwear, Soutar has some doubts. What he is certain about is that advertisers have changed, and they have more power now since ad-supported media depend upon them.
“Taking advertisers out of the agenda, you probably could still find the lads’ mag audience, but it would be a less profitable thing. You would have to create incredible value.”
He feels the market would never reach the same heights again as the likes of FHM, Loaded and Maxim managed in the 90s: “We had this brilliant thing, men were buying half a million copies of a £3-a-month mag – that was an extraordinary amount of money coming in. Against that, we had advertisers that were pulled into the whole thing even if they weren't quite sure whether they wanted to be up next to more risqué content, they felt like they had no choice.”
Back then, there were fewer channels for advertisers to reach audiences at scale. They may not have been the biggest fans of these titles' titillation, but they lapped up their reach and audience, recalls Soutar.
“What was brilliant about FHM and the other main mags was you had the best of both worlds, you had readers who were starved of that content in other places and the internet wasn't particularly a thing.
“It was phenomenally tame by modern standards. In my three years as editor of FHM, you could count the number of nipples that appeared on the fingers of two hands. It was provocative, tantalising and teasing rather than all out there. It was sexy but it wasn't dirty.”
Sexy's time had passed however. And like their readers, the mags had to grow up. When ShortList came to market, it was targeted at men, not lads. Gone was the scantily female cover star. In was the cool male role model. On top of that, the idea was to entertain, inform and stimulate readers while making them aware of things to do and buy. The ads paying for the whole operation also ideally served this purpose.
"Consumers are not dumb, they know when they are getting something for free that it is being paid for in some way. We have always been very straightforward, we bring you this high-quality content which we hand to you for free, it is the easiest thing in the world, we are funded by advertising, please look at the ads. That is honestly it. Just look.”
Editorial content has also helped attract commercial partners. Soutar tells an anecdote about a columnist recommending a pair of Marks & Spencer brogues – apparently, they were well-made and good value for money. So after going to print, the footwear ran out of stock in just two days. M&S tracked the spike back to ShortList.
“Two things then happened. M&S put the shoe back into production and they now referred to it as the ShortList shoe. Secondly, they then spent money with us due to our editorial impact. Since then they are among our top advertisers.”
2009: Stylist launches
Shortlist Media managed to bottle lightning twice. Two years after the launch of ShortList, Stylist came to print. It adopted the same model and format as its older brother – but was targeted at women. The goal was to ascend above the glossy mags “that didn’t really represent their readers' best interests”, much in the same way ShortList crawled out from a miasma of lads’ mags.
From January to June 2018, the ABC clocked Stylist at 403,855 per issue. Soutar and co positioned it to benefit from “the decline in women’s celebrity-type titles".
"They are declining because they’re doing the opposite of what their readers really want. Showing cellulite, making stories up about celebs, running people down and making women feel less certain about themselves. That is what we recognised on the launch of Stylist. We wanted to be a proper voice for that audience.”
Stylist is “becoming a voice for a really powerful need for change” according to its editor-in-chief Lisa Smosarski. She spoke to The Drum earlier this year about launching the title’s suffragette issue, a special edition eight years in the making. Helping edit the issue was Helen Pankhurst, women’s rights activist and great-granddaughter of the leader of the British Suffragette movement Emmeline Pankhurst. This served as a cornerstone of the title’s year-long VisibleWomen initiative.
Summing it up, Smorsarski said: “We really believe in talking about brilliant and empowered women, this has become more important than ever.”
The suffragette issue was designed to replicate a 1918 newsbrand to mark the 100-year anniversary of when women secured suffrage in the UK. The entire issue was styled to reflect this – including the ads funding it. Advertisers were especially keen to get involved. L’Oreal bought nine ads in that issue. It found a purpose and a platform it wanted to be a part of.
Without denigrating the work of ShortList, it is clear the male-orientated title has less of a grounding in brand purpose, a result of its audience. Nothing so grand as highlighting suffrage or addressing gender imbalance. ShortList differs from Stylist in this respect. But it still has a role to play.
Soutar says: “ShortList readers and men in general do not tend to be terribly unhappy, so its role is different. It is to entertain and inform and to stimulate and give them a bunch of ideas about things to do and things to buy… men, broadly speaking, don't have quite the same desire to come together as one pressure group.
“If Stylist didn't have a single audience that felt unhappy about things, then it wouldn't be able to do the amazing things that it does.”
That said, ShortList has been able to turn some heads with bold coverage, especially around London Pride. It freely distributed a cover with two men kissing.
ShortList co-founder Phil Hilton told Press Gazette on the title’s 10th birthday last year his view on men's purpose. It is still there. But it is more subtle.
“I think men are looking for richer more fulfilled lives, meaningful equal relationships with women and we are around to cater for that," he said. "And a lot of the traditional titles were stuck in a place that doesn’t mean anything to young guys now.”
To this end, Martin Robinson, former editor of ShortList, perhaps saw a gap in the marketing when he launched the Book of Man media title earlier this year. Robinson saw an opportunity to lean into men's wellbeing and mental health, attempting to stoke purpose in men in a way that his former title perhaps can't.
He told The Drum: "The media depiction of men is generally still about being strong, stoic, six-packed, unbreakable. By questioning that and subverting it, we will give a voice to all the men who do sometimes feel weak, and afraid, and insecure. Which, we're betting, is a lot of men."
Monetising male media
Like most print media, ShortList faces challenges. Display ad revenue is freefalling across the industry. Publishers instead have to leverage their content expertise to build bespoke brand partnerships, a shift which sees a stable of rival publishers all compete for a limited pool of advertiser spend.
“Revenues are moving much closer to content solutions or creative solutions," Soutar says. These partnerships once made up around 5% of ShortList's income in the early days, now they comprise roughly half. The work is compiled by content solutions team Shortlist Media Family. To date, this centralised creative unit has built lucrative campaigns for The Body Shop, Magnum, Nissan, Remington, M&S, Galaxy, Lynx and Ford - some of these brands have graced the cover.
“When they land it is brilliant, if you can take a half million block out of the market it is happy days, and it is very unhappy days for all the other people who were competing.”
Having strong purpose at the core of the publisher helps attract brands who are buying into cause marketing in a big way in the belief it will help them build a repertoire with the hallowed segment – the millennials.
“Consumer brands will buy into a really clear purpose or mission from a media platform, they will buy into audience and reach still. You can be the most wonderfully written and illustrated award-winning magazine on Earth but unless you have scale you won't win those big business. This is why ShortList and Stylist's scale in terms of print, digital and social is really important. We bring all of those into the party and at that point we are at a scale can win really big. You either win or you lose and it is a very binary thing.”
He hopes the dip in display revenue may plateau, but until then The ShortList Family team reportedly brought in around £10m in business last year so it will continue to pursue big clients.
Finally, Soutar makes a projection for the future of media funding. He sees a divergence coming.
“You are either free, funded by advertisers or you have got premium pricing with no ads with loads of value in it. It is the difference between ITV paid for by advertisers or Netflix paid for by you.”
He says that it will get increasingly difficult to inhabit the middle ground, taking money from consumers and advertisers with one caveat: “You must have content that you just can't get anywhere – just like Sky Sports. If you are a sports fan, you will pay for it because you can't get football anywhere else, and you will accept the advertising as well .”
Adhering to this model, Soutar hopes he will again strike gold and live in an era where his media is again “the most profitable thing ever”.