Magazines: the new Woolworths?

Pile of magazinesIn the last few weeks I’ve found myself having numerous (nay, endless) conversations with colleagues about the magazine industry. Titles, even those that only a year ago were doing pretty well have seen devastating plunges in circulation which, let’s call a spade a spade here, means their readers are actively rejecting them.

As a former editor myself, I sympathise hugely with the people who helm today’s magazines. In my day, the internet was still its infancy, the market was still bouyant and the hot topic in the industry wasn’t survival but whether you should really stoop to sticking sunglasses on your cover to boost sales.

Much is made, of course, of how the internet has utterly decimated the industry (to a degree it has but then, did no-one in the big publishing houses see that coming?) but let’s not make out print media itself is blameless here. Whilst pioneering and offering an entirely different business model to conventional magazines and newspapers free titles like Shortlist and Stylist (and then the Evening Standard) didn’t just shake up the market, they mortally wounded it in the process.

Don’t get me wrong, all three are excellent publications but, to me, the fact that they are handed out like club flyers devalues the idea that journalism and photography have an intrinsic value. After all, if there were people standing outside your local train station handing out free household cleaner every week would you ever consider paying for it? Unless I wanted really good household cleaner I know wouldn’t.

So how do magazines survive? In truth, I don’t have the answers and I share the pain of those who are expected to come up with them – especially as they’re increasingly expected to offer more bang for a diminishing buck (and with fewer staff too).  I suspect the glossies will hang on in there because they’re still able to do what most websites, blogs and free publications can’t – they can provide luxurious, decadent content, spread over numerous pages. Vogue can still do the indulgent 12-page fashion shoot in Machu Picchu with three world-class supermodels and Men’s Health can still do a six page in depth-feature about men and mental health. At some point we’ll get sick of the two-paragraph stories magazines are so fond of feeding us these days and will demand the read again.

Or maybe the industry survives by stealing some tactics from the music industry, with which is largely comparable. In the same way the music industry has responded to falling sales and pirating by turning music in to an artefact –  producing high value special editions, boxed sets and collector’s sets – I can see some magazines producing high-price issues and limited editions (Vogue logo in real gold anyone? Limited edition Lady Gaga cover signed by…Lady Gaga?). Certainly more will have to do digital (I subscribe to a couple of digital editions of popular magazines so can’t see why people won’t cough up if the content and – crucially – the interactivity is there). Others will have to think out of the box – not replicating what the internet can offer (that USP is taken) but delivering what it cannot.

As for the weekly gossip titles I honestly don’t know what the future holds for them. I loathe the Daily Mail‘s website but as much for its genius as what it stands for. After all, if a reader wants to see what shoes Helen Flanagan is ‘walking out in/showing off’ on any given Tuesday why would they wait until the following week to find out when the Daily Mail is scrutinising her every move on an almost hourly basis?

There are those that advocate a charity-like approach to the salvation of the magazine industry, imploring us to ‘use ’em or lose ’em’. I sympathise with the sentiment but that’s an awful lot like saying we should have shopped in Woolworths just to save it from closure. Yes it was a dearly-loved institution but it closed because it couldn’t keep up with its customers’ changing needs and, as a result, was fundamentally…rubbish.

If magazines are to survive they have to earn our love again. Though I work mainly in the digital arena these days I spent half of my working life in magazines and have a real and genuine affection for the format. And I really hope they make it – or at least that the deserving ones do –  as much as anything because I don’t want to see all those talented journalists, subs and designers out of jobs, not to mention all the other creatives who rely on their existence. But at the end of the day, there might well be a case for doing the decent thing and putting some titles out of their misery. When your number’s up, your number’s up – especially when that number’s down 40% year-on-year.

Storm in a shaving mug – Asda slashes Gillette prices

Guess what? These people get paid to endorse Gillette!
Guess what? These people get paid to endorse Gillette!

We all know how much the beloved Daily Mail likes to champion a cause. And having thoroughly exhausted the debate on Wheelie bins the paper has now turned its guns on men’s number one grooming product – the humble razor. The company that has done most to outrage the paper’s sense of fair play (I know, don’t laugh) is Gillette. The thrust of the argument is that (shock of shocks) Gillette is making a huge profit on its Fusion razor and accompanying blades.

Earlier in the summer the paper claimed that the mark up on some shaving items was more than 4,000%. Seemingly, instead of keeping the costs down Gillette is forcing customers to pay for celebrity endorsement from the likes of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer instead. Blimey, what a surprise to discover that we’re not just paying for the raw materials themselves but for the advertising campaigns, the multi-million pound research that goes into creating the products and, to cap it all off, celebrities to endorse it too. I know, I was shocked too.

But not as shocked as Asda is it seems. The supermarket giant, jumping on the Mail’s bandwagon (and with absolutely no thought of shifting units or creating publicity you understand) are helping the British consumer out by slashing the price of their Gillette razors by up to 40%. Will King, the man behind Gillette rival King of Shaves and champion of the recession-hit man on the street, has waded in on the debate too, claiming his cheaper Azor razor is a much better deal for consumers (partly because of the very lack of the expensive research, ad campaign and celeb endorsement I suppose). Like Asda, he’s outraged that a company should make such a huge profit out of the average working man. Touching innit?

Dear readers, never have I heard such a bogus debate (or, if you prefer, such absolute bollocks) in all my life. So, there’s a huge mark-up on razor blades? Well, Gillette are the market leaders and they got there not just by creating a product that men keep buying because it works but because they spent money creating an identifiable, sexy brand. It’s what brands do. The consumer pays for this. We all know that, right? When I buy a £300 pair of Prada shoes am I under any illusion they cost a fraction of that price to make? When I buy a £35 bottle of fragrance advertised by a A-list celebrity am I so deluded I think it cost £33 to make and the endorsement came free? And why do I continually buy Kellogg’s cornflakes instead of as Asda’s own? Because, through bitter experience, I’ve discovered they taste better and sometimes you have do have to pay more for a quality product.

But it’s not just the ridiculousness of the argument that rattles me it’s the hypocrisy of those that spout off about it. Asda’s toiletries buyer, Graham Speak, for example, is quoted as saying: ‘Instead of lining the pockets of Federer, Henry and Woods, we think companies like Gillette should ditch their razorsharp pricing and put customers first, charging a fair price for an everyday product that doesn’t cost a lot to make.” So who the hell paid for Sharon ‘mum in a million’ Osbourne when she appeared in those Asda ads then? The tooth fairy?

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