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FEATURE magazines

Spinoff. Across between Viz and The Spectator

"Trying to get young people interested in politics is like pushing water up a hill." These words belong to Chris Powell, chairman of BMP DDB, and brother of Downing Street chief of staff Jonathan Powell. They were his response to the news that we were planning to publish a politics magazine and website for students.

They were also, we found, untrue. The problem was not getting students to read the magazine, but rather persuading advertisers to take a chance on a new publication.

The publication in question was called Spinoff. A cross between Viz and The Spectator, it presented politics in an authentic, youthful voice, referencing pop culture and mixing up interviews with politicians and celebrities.

It was glossy and fun, and distributed inside university unions in central London. Thanks to the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, which invested £23,900 and granted £5,000 to our nascent company, and the Prince's Trust, which loaned us £5,000, it was also free.

When we heard, last January, that our applications for funding had been successful we were ecstatic. Nearly two years of planning, designing, and building up contacts had finally paid off. Up until then we had been three people (myself, Jay Elwes and Holly Kirkwood) with a great idea and no money.

Now we were a publishing company about to launch a title. But the ecstasy was tinged with a tingle of fear: the editorial was going to be great - we were all professional journalists - but what about the 28 pages of advertising we had pencilled into our business plan for the first edition? Having set up phone lines in the Brixton flat that Jay and I shared, armed with a list of marketing contacts and an endless supply of coffee, the three of us began making calls. Paul Kay, a former sales director at FT Knowledge, had told us that "building up a rapport with the client is the key to making sales".


We soon discovered that there are many different levels of rapport. Jay tried to pitch the magazine to a wellknown pizza company only to be told, before the phone was replaced with a violent click: "There's nothing political about our pizzas."

Nick Spong, The Spectator's advertising director, sympathises with the difficulty of persuading people to advertise against political content: "I think initially planner buyers might be put off by a magazine such as The Spectator because of the perception of what it is, but it's our job to go out and tell them that because it is perceived to be a right-wing magazine doesn't necessarily mean that we are."

But persuading advertisers to sit next to political content was only half the battle. Over that first month of selling the magazine, we heard just about every objection under the sun - there's a recession on, there's no budget left, students don't have any money, the magazine isn't national, my wife's having a baby - and had to learn to counter them all.

It was a steep learning curve, made easier only by our decision to employ a sales manager in the form of Ezekiel Headley, former sales manager at International Thomson Business Publishing.

So what did we learn? Overall, we found that approaching marketing managers was more productive than going through agencies.

In some cases, it felt as though agencies actively hindered their clients' interests. Having agreed with the marketing manager at a major music retailer that our 18- to 25-year-old readership was the right market for them, he asked us to call his agency, briefing it about us and putting us onto the relevant buyer. After a cordial chat to the agency we offered a significant discount from the ratecard.

We received a call an hour later saying that HMV would place an advert, but only for half the amount offered. We had to refuse. It felt as though the agency had disagreed with the client and offered us a dealbreaker.

Sam Alim, commercial director of Whatsonuk, a 10-year-old student listings magazine, is scathing about the agencies' techniques: "We find we're more effective when we contact the client directly. Often the agencies are hampering - they're the gatekeepers that you have to pass through to get to the real promotion managers.

Agencies who helped Not all the agencies hindered us though: a meeting at Manning Gottlieb about Virgin Retail paired us up with Duncan Snowdon, a "20-something" snowboarder enthusiastic about the marketing potential of the website.

A meeting with Marcellus Boyce at AMS Media Group about Rizla went similarly well, while Carat's Tristram Wyse and Blake Seabrook were both very positive in our talks about Topman, despite having been taken out drinking by Emap the night before and looking distinctly the worse for wear.

It seemed that agency professionals who were the same age as our target readership, or at least under 30, understood the product and responded accordingly.

Everyone, though, wanted to see a copy of the magazine before they advertised.

It was now late February and we had to bring out an edition in March. We made a decision to bring it out as an advert-free pilot and to use it to coax advertisers into our next edition.

This would also get round the student unions' restrictive policies on advertising which banned anything that might compete with their services. It transpired they could be equally cagey about editorial.

30,000 pilot editions After distributing 30,000 editions of the pilot around London campuses, we received a phone call from London Metropolitan University: they didn't like the fact that we had included links to the BNP and the British Nazi Party in a feature about fringe politics.

Could we please remove the magazines? But the publication of the pilot proved to be the tipping point we needed to sell the title. Having an issue out made it instantly more attractive.

Holly found out that the Tate galleries were targeting students and quickly secured an advert. Ezekiel persuaded Sony to advertise and, after a slightly shadyfeeling meeting with a mysterious German called Max whose three mobiles went off simultaneously when he sat down, we had a run of adverts with a mobile phone gaming business.

Unfortunately, just as the advertising tide was turning, our company ran out of money.

Six months on, although we haven't brought out another edition of Spinoff, we have decided to keep the company alive.

There are several reasons for this, one of them being that there is still a degree of interest in the title from both investors and publishers.

Another being that the student market is still there and still largely untapped and one day, when we have enough money, we will revive the magazine and capitalise on it.

We remain convinced that water can travel uphill.

 

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