Launch timing improves after five-title 'land grab'

Brooklands Group, the organisers of A Place in the Sun exhibition, could not have timed it better. It is grey, wet and windy down at the megadome ExCel Centre in London's Docklands — perfect weather to motivate you to buy abroad at their three-day overseas property exhibition.

Timing has been crucial to this Surrey-based independent publishing company. For all the benefits of stepping into consumer publishing by a tiein with the Channel 4 property abroad brand, there have been notable losses from subsequent Channel 4 deals.

It launched Property Ladder, Location, Location, Location, You Are What What You Eat and Supernanny in 2005 — but closed all of them late last year. Now in its 15th year, Brooklands is hoping to have got the timing right on its latest foray into consumer titles — a weekly music magazine and C4 TV offshoot, Popworld Pulp.

Most researched launch The new mag is part-owned by Channel 4 and the TV show's production company, run by pop Svengali Simon Fuller. He launched a Popworld magazine in 2003 but the monthly glossy didn't last the year. Brooklands chief executive Darren Styles says Popworld Pulp is Brooklands' most researched launch — the subject of focus groups, almost a year of pre-planning, two dummies — and at launch, 130,000 copies on the newsstand.

Popworld Pulp is some way between Smash Hits! and NME — targeting mostly boys between 14 and 19. With a deputy editor, Colin Hubbuck, from the launch team at Zoo, the cheap, disposable lads weeklies seem an inspiration.

"Yes, there are plenty of knob jokes", says Styles. Is it Zoo without the boob count? "It possibly is; there's a little bit of that kind of humour. When you read NME they are very judgemental — they adopt the position of experts, the coolest kid in school." Popworld Pulp will be more about "sharing the music".

Despite the NME comparison, Brooklands is clearly not gearing up for a newsstand stand-off. "We have set ourselves fairly modest targets — we'd be happy with 40,000," he says. "I don't think the bigger publishers would be interested in a title selling 40,000, but we just believe the market is there."

It's difficult not to overstate the effect a big launch like this has on a smaller publishing company.

Brooklands has spent approximately £1 million on the Popworld Pulp push; annual turnover is £15 million.

Having trained as a journalist on Surrey & South London newspapers, Styles' job as press communications manager for Renault resulted in Brooklands' first contract — to do its customer magazine — in October 1992.

Since then Brooklands has published customer titles for a number of car manufacturers.

But contract publishing "ebbs and flows" according to Styles, a situation which encouraged the company to go into consumer magazines and licensing the Channel 4 brands.

A Place in the Sun took 18 months to negotiate with Channel 4, but was launched in March 2004 and is now the best-selling UK overseas property mag, with an ABC of 35,818. It is putting on four exhibitions next year instead of the current two, and an online extension is on the way. Its success encouraged Brooklands to branch out in licensing other TV brands.

A separate impetus was the Broadcasting and Communications Act 2003, which gave production companies the right to launch broadcast spinoff products such as books, DVDs and magazines. Brooklands made "a land grab" for five titles to corner the market in C4 spin-offs, says Styles.

Styles says that with A Place in the Sun Channel 4 was "a willing ally" but with the new deals they were not "terribly co-operative".

"The TV trails, the discount advertising we get for A Place In The Sun wasn't available," says Styles. "Although the channel wasn't in the way, they weren't four-square behind it and in the end that made quite a significant difference to the levels of circulation we were able to attract."

In May last year Brooklands closed its three spin-off titles to A Place in the Sun, blaming changes in the international property market and a decline in advertising in traditional holiday home destinations. In October, it cut its losses and closed the four other C4 tie-ins.

A fifth, Ten Years Younger, never made the newsstand.

Brooklands made 28 job cuts out of a total staff of more than 100. Styles says they lost "a couple of million quid" in the foray. He adds: "Because there was a land grab, we tried to do too much too quickly, so instead of doing two things quite well, we tried to do four or five things not very well. So readers, advertisers, our own people were thin on the ground."

Redundancies averted The Daimler Chrysler deal came up and between that and expansion at A Place in the Sun, the company was able to keep on 14 or 15 of those due for redundancy. It has just secured the deal to publish FlyBe's customer magazine — a move which Styles says, in addition to its six car manufacturing magazines, has "put the gloss back on our contract business".

The only niggle about contract publishing must be how the industry itself views it as a poor relation to consumer magazines. It is frustrating, says Styles, especially when their contract portfolio uses newspaper and consumer magazine journalists. Besides, readers understand the nature of a customer magazine.

"The Renault magazine says Renault on the front," he wryly states.

A competition to win a car in Renault elicited 107,000 postal entries from readers, but advertisers are turned off by the contract titles, says Styles, who relates how BMW pulled its advertising from the 10,000 circulation Food Illustrated when it became Waitrose Food Illustrated and circulation rose to 250,000.

"There is a deep-seated prejudice among advertisers towards customer magazines, which is mad. We have seen the data over 15 years through Renault."

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