Free mags aim to prove their worth

As ShortList makes its debut, Ben Bold reports on the prospects for high-quality free men's titles.

This month marks a milestone in the evolution of publishing. Last week, the UK's first high-circulation quality free men's mag, Sport, celebrated its first birthday - in rude health and apparently well on target to achieve its three-year break even plan.

And this Thursday, former FHM editor Mike Soutar's high- circulation premium free men's magazine, ShortList, launches.

Sport's and ShortList's controlled circulations mean that they get into the hands of 320,000 and 500,000-plus readers respectively. Although some question whether these figures actually represent the genuine readership, they are clearly big-hitters.

"It's giving us a way to reach a large number of men quickly," says Alan Brydon, head of press communication at media agency MPG.

"Even if you are very cynical and take 25% off those circulation numbers, you are still getting a very hard-hitting magazine."

But, as befits a new phenomenon, free magazines have not yet pushed their way to the top of media buyers' press schedules - at least, "not at this early stage in their development", according to Anthony Gibson-Watt, buying director at Zed.

However, media buyers are clearly excited about a new model that is giving the men's magazine market some much-needed pizzazz.

Different approach

Julia Hutchison, who, as chief operating officer of the Association of Publishing Agencies, understands the value of free magazines, says: "It has to make buyers think about magazine media in a different way."

Brydon supports this.

"What both are doing is great for advertisers," he says. "It's added to - and won't impact on - existing titles. People will still buy GQ."

Soutar insists that Sport and ShortList plug a gap. "It's difficult to reach premium young men - in scale and at frequency - because other routes outside print tend to be very expensive and very inefficient."

So has Sport's successful year boosted confidence in the concept of the free magazine among buyers? "Absolutely," says Gibson-Watt. "Sport spotted a gap in the market - a general men's sport mag. This was something that had not worked historically, as men were only willing to pay for a niche sport title such as FourFourTwo or Rugby World."

But media buyers still question the value of free magazines. "Free magazines haven't yet established a degree of indispensability," says Brydon. "Clients still see free as less value than paid-for. If The Times went free tomorrow, people would not read it as attentively."

Unsurprisingly, Soutar contests this. "This is an audience that does not link paying for media with engagement," he says.

"Older consumers think free stuff is 'cheap' and paid-for is worth something, but it's a lazy assumption. People don't engage more with the BBC than ITV because it is paid-for."

While Sport is a relatively safe bet for agencies and advertisers, ShortList is an unknown until it starts landing in consumers' hands on Thursday.

Its commercial success hinges on it appealing to young men every week: its content must deliver.

Soutar says: "It needs to work on two levels - for people on short commutes, but also for those who want to fold it up and put it in their briefcase."

History, though, is not short of men's magazines that have initially targeted more mature readers only to take a dive downmarket.

One example is Nuts, which was then edited by ShortList's editorial director, Phil Hilton.

Soutar explains that this was the result of a fight for supremacy at the news-stand between the IPC title and Emap's Zoo.

"There's pressure on news-stands to homogenise and get the lowest common denominator in content," Soutar says. "We're liberated from those rules and that pressure. It would be commercially naive of us to pile a hundred pairs of breasts into this magazine."

Common denominator

MPG's Brydon envisages another threat. "If it's a success, there's no guarantee someone won't launch on the back of it," he says. "That would be an issue for ShortList and its investors, but not for its advertisers."

Soutar acknowledges the prospect of competition, but is not overly concerned. "There is room for two," he says. "There is room for more - 65% of all daily papers in Spain are free."

But Sport's publishing director, Greg Miall, is less enthusiastic: "I don't think there is room for three. If someone else comes into the game, they are never going to be profitable and they are going to reduce our return."

As the only two free, high-quality men's mags in the market, Sport and ShortList have an obvious appeal to advertisers.

It remains to be seen whether new entrants to the market will, in time, threaten their sole revenue stream.



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