The man who edits The Lady describes taking 130-year-old from 'pantomime dame' to 'serious enterprise'

The Lady magazine had double cause for celebration last month: it turned 130 years old and bucked the circulation trend by attracting 3 per cent more sales (28,537) in the second half of 2014 than in the same period a year earlier.

It’s the perfect peg for an interview which, truth be told, is primarily motivated by my desire to take a look inside The Lady’s distinctive Victorian office in the centre of London's Soho.

It doesn’t disappoint. The sales and advertising team are based on the ground floor, behind a shop counter entrance equipped with a service bell for attracting attention. Beneath is the grubby (and rat-infested) cellar, which houses the magazine’s archive. The first floor is a higgledy-piggledy mess of rooms and computers where the 12 editorial staff are based. And above this is the home of Lady owner Ben Budworth's uncle Tom.

The Lady doorway on Bedford StreetThe magazine was founded in 1885 by Budworth’s great grandfather, Thomas Gibson Bowles. He also founded Vanity Fair, in 1868, but sold his take in that title in 1889. As well as having a male founder, The Lady has also had four (out of ten) male editors, though the latest – Matt Warren – believes he is the first for around 80 years.

Warren was brought to The Lady as assistant editor by his predecessor, Rachel Johnson, in late 2010 and took charge when she left in January 2012. He was previously commissioning features editor at the Daily Mail, after worked his way up from being a £70-a-day picture researcher for the travel desk, and was headhunted by Johnson after he ran a feature by her husband, Ivo Dawnay.

As a man, did he have any reservations about joining a magazine called The Lady? “To a degree. When I first told people I’m going to join the title, most people would go: ‘What!? Really?’"

But he adds: “I suspect it’s one of the few women's titles, despite the name, that a man could edit, because it’s not really a magazine strictly for women, but for people. And I don’t believe there isn’t room for just a magazine that tries to entertain people, men and women alike.”

Sitting in The Lady’s grand first-floor meeting room, equipped with old photographs of the owners, Warren describes the readership demographic as being generally women in their mid-50s, but says the age has come down “dramatically” in recent years. He adds: “I know we’ve got readers in their teens, and I know we’ve got readers in their late 90s.”

He describes the title of the magazine as “a blessing and a curse”. “I think if you were launching a magazine now it’s not a title you’d use,” he says. “It’s a blessing because people know it, it’s a strong brand, and we would never lose that brand obviously. But a lot of people see it as terribly anachronistic and we’re only about twitching net curtains and the like – and people will occasionally walk past the building and go: ‘Ooh, The Laaaaady!’

“Actually, [Little Britain’s] David Walliams walked past here once and the owner, Ben Budworth, shouted across: ‘Oy! David Walliams! You’ve ruined our reputation with your 'Laaady' joke!’ Because there is an element of that.”

Warren says that changing the image of The Lady has been a big part of his job, and was started by Johnson when she was at the helm between September 2009 and January 2012. One of the ways Boris Johnson’s sister attempted to raise the profile of the magazine was through the fly-on-the-wall 2010 Channel 4 documentary, The Lady and The Revamp.

Broadcast in March of that year, it appeared to do the trick initially, with circulation rising by around 7 per cent year on year to 30,769 in the first half of 2010. However, circulation dropped off to 27,940 again in the last six months under Johnson.

Johnson described The Lady as a “piddling little magazine that no one even cares about or reads” in the documentary, and faced criticism for the way she conducted herself in it from, among others, the owner's mother. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Julia Budworth said: “I can’t understand why my son Ben didn’t sack her on film when she was so disparaging of The Lady and of him personally.”

Asked about the “piddling” quote and how Johnson changed image of the title, Warren says: “She began to change that, she got it out there.

“The Lady has 30,000 sales, it’s a small magazine. It has been around for 130 years, though. That’s good. And most people know its name. It’s very easy for us to get publicity. It still is and certainly was then, when Rachel was here.

“The problem is that to get the publicity you had to play the role of the pantomime dame. ‘We’re a stupid, quirky thing where we still get monogrammed hand towels' – which we did then – 'and nothing works, and everything was all a bit batty.'

"And that’s great. But the trouble is with that kind of publicity people want to read about you but they don’t want to read you. You become the subject of endless stories which you can generate yourself, but no one actually then goes: ‘Ooh, I wonder what’s actually in the magazine?’

“So I suppose what I’ve tried to do is make The Lady a more serious enterprise, to try and get its name in papers because there are stories in The Lady that are then reported on by newspapers, to give it a more serious edge as well.

“And it does appear to be working. It’s about: Yes, we’re funny, and we can be quirky and eccentric in that sort of way, but at the same time we have been around the block, we know a few things and we’re still going and people still want to be in The Lady.”

A tour of the magazine’s archive shows how much the magazine has changed over the years. When it was launched, with a circulation of 2,361, the magazine looked like a broadsheet newspaper, with a dense front page of text (below, left).

The Lady's first edition, 19 February 1885, and an issue from 28 September 1967

Warren estimates that the title peaked in terms of circulation, at around 70,000, in the 1960s (above, right) when it was mainly devoted to classified advertising.

He says that not much changed with the title between the 1970s and around ten years ago: “That’s when you’re used to seeing a kitten in a plant pot or a vase of flowers – it’s the magazine people recognise from doctors’ surgeries.”

Back then, he says, people “thought it was only ever something read by their gran”. But he adds: “And I think also the world was then and remains an extremely ageist place. And something that old people read is often dismissed, which I think is very sad and wrong."

He says: "But The Lady then really hadn’t evolved and changed much in a while. It really did need a makeover, and it had obviously just got a bit of a bad reputation among advertisers and publicists.”

Today Warren believes things are looking up for The Lady, which he says is still “read by a lot of people who work downstairs, or live upstairs”. In addition to the circulation increase celebrated last month, he says the title has gone from losing £1m a year four or five years ago to being “in the black” now. Plans are also afoot to launch a new Lady website, which he says will be aimed at a younger audience and feature stories with headlines such as “Five ways to find a perfect butler” and “16 ways to make your silver sparkle beautifully”.

What’s the secret of The Lady’s recent circulation success (albeit from a low starting point as the smallest women's weekly audited by ABC)? “I think with The Lady it’s because it doesn’t try to be like other magazines.

“To a degree you occasionally need a big name on the front, you need food pages and house pages, and a bit of style or fashion. But I think a lot of women’s weeklies basically offer the same thing – there’s quite a lot of celebrity gossip, there’s a lot of worrying about your weight and diet.

“And The Lady doesn’t really go in for that at all. It exists in its own little bubble. The loyal readers always say that they go to The Lady because it’s an oasis, it educates them, it informs them, it surprises them occasionally.

“But it’s somewhere that they can go, it’s their own space – we don’t try and emulate the rest of the market, we just accept what we are, we know what our USP is, and we stick to that, and as a result we keep our readers, and happily pick up a few as well. I think the key to The Lady’s success at the moment is its difference, it’s the fact that it’s not like the rest of the market.”

He adds: “A lot of magazines try to become increasingly alike, even though all the evidence is there telling them that people are going off magazines as they are.”

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