After 11 years, ShortList, the pioneer of free, quality high-volume magazines, will close its print edition at the end of this year. When the news was announced, Joe Mackertich’s editorial team turned to Monty Python to express their sanguine view of events.
ShortList is the latest of many men’s lifestyle magazine brands to “face the curtain with a bow”. Over the last 25 years, the market first rose dramatically from a small, specialist sector to become a cultural phenomenon and big business. Now it has collapsed back to where it started.
In the beginning there was GQ and Esquire with their glossy offerings of tailored fashion, cufflink advice and named columnists, much enjoyed by the fashion industry, super-stylish men and flicked through by the rest of us while waiting for a haircut.
Then the explosion came with the new breed of monthlies in 1994-5. Loaded launched under James Brown, FHM went from niche style magazine to mainstream juggernaut led by Mike Soutar and Maxim copied quickly in the UK before launching in the US driven by the powdered fuel of Felix Dennis to achieve success at an even greater scale. UK monthly sales peaked at over 1.5m in the pre-internet late 90s and cash gushed in, driven by chunky cover prices and exploding volumes of premium advertising. FHM alone pumped out almost £20m of EBITDA at its peak.
Great ‘magazine’ brands with longevity have traditionally been built on enduring, deep-felt needs. What had these brands tapped into to create such a big market so quickly? Loaded, FHM and Maxim included thoughtful articles, interviews, fashion coverage and stories of derring-do but the real driver was women – not just big-name stars and models but also lashings of girl-next-door pictures served up in endlessly inventive, visual ways. Many middle-aged men will fondly remember High Street Honeys and 100 Sexiest Women in the World. In those pre and early internet days, the men’s lifestyle brands suddenly became the acceptable place where men could admire a scantily-clad girl-next-door and the formats were packaged so carefully that they sat happily in the living room next to Marie Claire.
But then men started to get a bit bored. Sales started to slacken after 2000. Publishers, addicted to the super-profits, demanded solutions. The only possible answer was more girls and less charm. The slide had begun.
The monthlies’ green run turned red when the weeklies, Nuts and Zoo, arrived in 2004. They killed off the monthlies by focusing even more brutally on young men’s most visceral needs – mountains of large breasts (often displayed by Lucy Pinder and Michelle Marsh) broken up by gaping wounds, TV and boys’ own, real-life stories. A new wave of copy sales revenue gushed in, creating attractive profits but advertisers struggled with the eye-popping editorial environment. The advertising dollars never followed and margins never climbed to the stratospheric levels achieved by the monthlies.
It was into this gap that ShortList launched in September 2007. The founding team, Mike Soutar, Phil Hilton, Karl Marsden, Matt Phare and I created an aspirational, men’s brand designed to hoover up the advertising that had nowhere else to go as monthly sales collapsed and the weeklies inflated their advertiser-unfriendly breast count.
Shortlist was a brand crafted for the young urban professional man. It was flattering, bitesize and easy to pick-up and consume as you blasted to and from work. Men always liked ShortList but for too many readers it was always enjoyed rather than adored. The brand lacked a visceral, enduring need at its heart.
ShortList had a great run but was always dependent on a single revenue stream. The last few years have seen a landslide change in advertising as the cash has been diverted online to reach young men where they spend ever more of their media time. Google, Facebook (including Instagram) and, to a lesser extent, the Lad Bible Group and the new world of influencers have been the beneficiaries.
Which almost takes us back to where we started. GQ remains the daddy, its gently slipping print scale propped up by an increasing proportion of free copies but Esquire is feeling the heat. Almost all ABC1 men under 50 now prefer their media on screen and both brands are struggling to find their online raison d'etre.
What about the rest of the magazine industry?
I am a strategist so I turn to Michael Porter’s Five Forces to understand the future of an industry. The concept is simple – the greater the pressure from each force, the more pain that industry faces.
Threat of Substitutes
Substitutes that satisfy the same needs as lifestyle magazines are emerging on all sides in a borderless, digital world. They take consumer time and advertising dollars. Social media platforms carry global quantities of lifestyle content from bloggers, vloggers, brands and a plethora of media owners, eating deeply into the once, near-exclusive realm of lifestyle magazine brands. The quality of content created by experts, influencers and celebrities matches and often betters that of media owners and they are powerful commercial competitors as a result.
The digital giants allow advertisers to target consumers with spooky accuracy far greater than the magazine brands who once dominated mass, 'targeted' communication. Consumer data and platform reach, not content, are the sources of competitive advantage.
Content start-ups powered by Venture Capital, particularly in the US (from Buzzfeed to Refinery 29) and media companies whose history is in TV, radio and elsewhere are all converging on internet advertising dollars. The collapse of traditional geographic boundaries and lower costs of start-up media production mean barriers to entry have been shattered. More advertising inventory, greater buyer power and greater competition for market share are the results.
Consumers have limited power so paid-for publishers have the strength to push up cover prices to their dwindling numbers of buyers. But advertising is dominated by a handful of buying agencies, who use their oligopolistic positions to demand equal or better terms while spending less money with publishers.
Powerful suppliers use their negotiating leverage to charge higher prices. Paper, print, people and tech platforms dominate publisher costs. The paper industry steadily consolidates and is rapidly increasing prices. Publishers compete with global corporations and VC powered start-ups for the best tech and sales people, who are essential to create the future. Cost inflation adds to the pain.
Rivalry Amongst Existing Competitors
The magazine publishers have traditionally fought like cats in a bag, trying to drive agency share deals in direct competition to the others and copying formats from other titles that seemed successful. Porter argues companies should aim ‘to be unique, not best… to create value, not beat rivals’. Only recently have publishers truly got away from seeing competition as a zero sum game.
What does all this mean?
Lifestyle publishers face a perfect storm. The lifestyle media market is heavily oversupplied, many of the brands are weaker than they look from the outside but VC money continues to be poured into launches. So the storm will rage for some years while winners and losers are sorted and a new equilibrium emerges between the content brands, the advertising focused FAANGS and socially driven influencers. Profits will often be elusive for even the most powerful brands as the needs for investment become clear.
Which brands will definitely make the cut in the long-term?
Brands that are distinctively different and plugged into enduring, visceral needs will survive and prosper. Consumers need them. Advertisers want a little of their fairy dust to rub off on their own brands. Their future may or may not include print as a platform.
Icons such as Vogue, Wallpaper, Country Living and Good Housekeeping should emerge stronger but will often need years of investment to get there. Quality news brands should prosper in an era when truth is fluid.
The specialist titles with truly deep roots into their communities also have the opportunity to prosper if managed carefully into a wider range of revenue streams.
For a large group in the middle without clear digital options, expect more years of cost-cutting to preserve profitability as traditional readers die off. One day, probably sooner than expected, Eric Idle's plaintive song will visit them.
I believe that ShortList's sister brand, Stylist, with its powerful lock on modern feminism and its careful twist on women's staples, will weather the storm. The brand is differentiated and responds to a clear, enduring need deep within its consumer base. Stylist's longevity will still depend on constant innovation and regeneration.
But I am biased.
I wish the ShortList editorial team, all those at Shortlist Media and the teams spread across the country who are affected by Shortlist’s closure the very best.
There are 5 more issues of ShortList magazine to go and I look forward to seeing covers that are as memorable as the ones below. My favourite? A spaced-out Woody Harrelson on that kid's bike.