The weekly fashion and celebrity magazine ‘Look’ made its final visit to the nation’s newsstands last week.
Launched in February 2007, it is easily forgotten that Look was an enormous hit at launch, selling over 300,000 copies out of the blocks and becoming profitable in months rather than years. Its mix of celebrity gossip and an edit of the latest, must-buy, fast-fashion was - then - fresh with some streaks of originality.
Young women loved the simple, comprehensive approach to affordable fashion glorying in the latest products to hit the shops / websites and its fusion with the still powerful celebrity magazine phenomenon established by Now and Heat. This is hard to remember when everybody now turns to Mail Online’s sidebar of shame.
Today, 11 years on, with instant edits of the latest fashion delivered direct to consumers by brands via Instagram, inboxes and through every possible influencer and social feed, this sounds like a product from ancient history. Selling less than 50,000 copies per week, Look was an inevitable casualty of fast declining magazine sales; another cost-saving closure gift from Time Inc to its new private equity owner, Epiris. The gift was just as well wrapped and easy to open as the NME print closure a few weeks before.
Seven years ago, Look still sold over 300,000 copies each week; just five years ago, a substantial 200,000 copies. Change has come with brutal speed.
Advertisers’ behavioural change has been equally savage. Surviving, young women’s lifestyle magazines have lost over 40% of their advertising volumes over the last 4 years. Declines in the price paid per page have increased the impact. Add in the closure of Glamour and Look and the market’s display advertising revenues must have fallen over 60%.
This speed of change is not uncommon. In Australia, advertising spend on lifestyle magazines fell almost a half in just 2 devastating years. In Canada it took 3 years. The effects of digital change are erratic and lumpy and as difficult to predict as they are to deal with.
Which women’s lifestyle brand will be next to “focus on its digital future” by closing its print edition? It is easy to list nervous candidates.
Some women’s lifestyle brands have established profitable digital businesses. Cosmo has a powerful position with the next generation through Snapchat. Stylist created Emerald Street, its daily email. But the growing squeeze on the industry’s broader digital future from the data-driven titans is palpable as they work hard to develop fresh revenues from a growing range of sources.
There are some unavoidable truths. The FAANG titans are not only winning the lion’s share of new, digital, advertising spend but are often gatekeepers to digital audiences of sufficient scale to achieve commercial scale. Many publishers have no option but to pay a costly stipend to reach audiences that were, until recently, theirs to access freely.
But this post is not just about the pain of digital change; it is also about the opportunities that such rapid digital change creates.
In particular it is about two members of the original team who created Look – Ali Hall, the Editor, and Julie Lavington, the Publisher – who from their offices up in Manchester are quietly showing the publishing industry how radical reinvention can be achieved.
Ali and Julie quit Look and the world of media in 2015 to work on a new project, one they believed would take advantage of the brutal digitally-enabled change they saw eating deep into Look’s business model. They had watched, frustrated, as hugely successful new e-commerce businesses such as ASOS and Boohoo were created, their growth helped through editorial coverage as well as advertising within the pages of Look itself.
They immediately began work on creating the concept for a new, women’s clothing, e-commerce brand. While at Look they had co-created capsule ranges with retail brands that gave them the knowledge and confidence to take the plunge. They raised money from investors and launched their fast-fashion brand for what they believe is a gap in the market - the woman who wants on-trend clothing at reasonable prices but cut to flatter rather than reveal.
They called their new brand ‘Sosandar’.
These are still very early days for Sosandar. The brand launched in September 2016. In its first full financial year to April, turnover will be around £1.34m. This is not a big number but at the same point in ASOS’ life back in 2002, its turnover was £1.7m.
Perhaps more importantly at this early stage, Sosandar is moving its gross margin upwards – a key financial indicator that profitability can be achieved. A year ago Sosandar’s gross margin was a concerning 38% but now it is over 49%, not far off the 50% achieved by ASOS or the 53% by Boohoo.
Scale is the critical next step - something that can only be achieved with time, even if that time period can be dramatically shortened in the digital era. The numbers are moving in the right direction. Over the last year:
- Web sessions have almost trebled
- The customer database has increased 7x
- Order numbers are up 3.5x
- Average basked size is a respectable £94.18
ASOS grew its revenues 48x over during the comparable next 5 years of its life as it gained the scale to make the business sustainably profitable with a clear market position. So Sosandar has a frantic few years of growth ahead if it is to follow the same path.
Awareness and marketing is the challenge for all e-commerce start-ups. Relationships established at Look have helped to bring strong coverage within the women’s press and also on ITV daytime programming with Sosandar clothes being worn by celebrities such as Holly Willoughby and Fearne Cotton, always favourites of the Look reader. These endorsements are then be followed up with targeted email and digital advertising.
Perhaps the biggest concern is Sosandar’s social presence, which remains small with 41k Facebook and 10k Instagram followers. Instagram is fast becoming a primary search tool for so many young women and this habit is rapidly spreading way beyond the young. Is this weakness a reflection of print media brands’ struggles to get to grips with social media?
Sosandar is the daughter of Look in so many ways. It has been created by the same people. Its development was built on lots of the same skills of consumer focus, fast decision making, celebrity relationships and imagery carefully created to entice a particular type of woman. Ali and Julie’s creation is so heavily influenced by their long immersion in the worlds of fast fashion and celebrity through Look.
I wish the Sosandar team all possible good fortune as the brand reaches for the skies.
Look is dead. Long live Sosandar.