Shortlist turns ten: Phil Hilton on how his free weekly survived the meltdown of the lads' mags

A sign of the times since Shortlist magazine’s launch ten years ago is the fact its co-founder and editorial director Phil Hilton now sees any media brands competing for men’s attention as a rival – even Netflix.

“There are only so many hours in the day for our guys, they are very busy,” he tells Press Gazette.

“So we consider pretty much every medium on Earth to be a rival for their time and we are happy to battle it out to create something that is more interesting and original.”

Asked which other men’s magazine titles he sees as Shortlist’s main competitors, Hilton says it is “no longer really a relevant question”.

“I think of places that men go and the voices they can appreciate, so in a way it’s all about brands and ideas for me,” he says.

Today Shortlist distributes around 500,000 copies a week, up more than 40,000 since its debut in September 2007.

When the first issue of Shortlist was published (pictured below), Daniel Craig graced its cover as the new James Bond and the world was still getting used to the iphone.

Since then the paid-for mens’ magazine market has gone into freefall with FHM, Zoo, Loaded, Nuts, Maxim, Front and Arena all biting the dust.

Shortlist published its 491st issue today and last week celebrated its 10th anniversary with ten different male cover stars ranging from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua (pictured below).

Hilton, a former editor of now defunct lad’s mag Nuts, said there had been a “sea change” in “the kind of men that men admire and the kind of stuff they feel comfortable enjoying” over the past decade.

Referencing the recent death of Playboy owner Hugh Hefner, he said: “That model of success that [Hefner] showed people – living in a vast mansion slightly emotionally isolated and surrounded by women a quarter of your age – just doesn’t work anymore.

“I think men are looking for richer more fulfilled lives, meaningful equal relationships with women and we are around to cater for that. And a lot of the traditional titles were stuck in a place that doesn’t mean anything to young guys now.”

Shorltist’s current editor Joe Mackertich, who made the move from editing the group’s daily men’s lifestyle email newsletter Mr Hyde to the main magazine in June last year, tells Press Gazette there are “certain eternal truths when it comes to men’s publishing”.

Shortlist editor Joe Mackertich

He said: “I think the onus is on us to make things as exciting as possible,  as funny as possible whenever possible and I also think that men respond to things that have a spirit of mischievous adventure as well.

“I think those things never die and yet on the other hand mainstream men’s publishing has changed so much.

“I think men are more discerning now when it comes to those things. We want content that makes us feel good to look at. I think men take the stuff that they’re into more seriously.”

Mackertich says his approach to editing is to look for “anything that will connect with the reader”.

“You think of this person picking it up and you just want something that really makes them feel part of it – that they identify with it and feel that connection,” he says.

“I want to clap them and I want to entertain them as well. I want to make them feel good. I kind of feel that with Shortlist a nice side-effect of the magazine should be to make people’s day go a bit better, especially if they’re picking it up on public transport.

“And one way to do that is to make the thing itself joyful.”

Mackertich and Hilton together head up an editorial team of about 18 for the print product, with a separate five-strong online team for Shorlist.com and a video team of 19 people who work across Shortlist and its female counterpart Stylist magazine.

Shortlist Media announced earlier this year that it was pushing to make half of all its revenue income from digital by 2018. So how does Shortlist factor into that?

“It exists as a brand,” says Hilton. “And what you find is the voice, the character that Joe puts into the print magazine then moves around all these other platforms.

“So what commercial partners want to come and do is share in that voice and have that relationship and endorsement for their product.

“So it works very well digitally, to have a clear, characterful brand at the centre of it that you can then ideally make into car stickers and umbrellas and anything you want.”

Shortlist co-founder and editorial director Phil Hilton

He said the “big push” digitally for Shortlist was around video – “people see us as an expert in making video for our young prosperous urban men and not everyone knows how to do that” – with “a lot of money” having been invested in that department.

Amid all this investment in digital and the ongoing, industry-wide decline in print advertising revenue, does Shortlist still have a future in print?

Hilton says he has seen no plans to stop printing the magazine, adding: “Shortlist is a lovely print product.”

“Where I see print going is in those who innovate survive… I think what you are seeing is the middle ground, the traditional, glossy, monthly magazine, the Marie Claires etc, they will need to adapt quick if they are going to survive in a different market,” he says.

“I think print has a tremendous future. It’s a lovely discovery medium. If someone hands you a magazine in a place where you’re passing through anyway, if you turn those pages and when you trust the title as a whole, anything can happen in those pages, which is fantastic.

“If you’re searching for the 25 rooftop bars or the best black shiny shoes, you will find rooftop bars and black shiny shoes, but you won’t find any surprises during that process.

“Whereas the magazines Joe and his counterpart Lisa [Smosarksi] on Stylist put together are full of incredible surprises every week and people love that and that will keep print going.”

Hilton says that “overall business is doing extremely well”, but adds: “What’s happening is the way in which the money is being spent is changing from traditional display into much more complex and engaging ways of speaking to your audience.

“The money still comes but there’s a lot more creativity involved than there used to be which for us in editorial makes it all the more fun.”

Hilton says  the bulk of Shortlist’s revenue comes from sponsored content and “big commercial partnerships with people who want stuff going on across all our platforms”.

He adds: “I think the whole industry is going to be focusing on that [sponsored content] because it’s no longer as easy – especially when people are absorbing so much content through the small screen of their mobile phones – to capture them anymore with traditional display advertising.”

Is there a risk that with more sponsored content and creative advertising partnerships Shortlist’s editorial independence could be compromised?

“The editorial that Joe puts together every week is untouched by commercial influence,” Hilton says. “We label it clearly, it’s all about being transparent with your reader about what’s been paid for and what isn’t and they are very comfortable about that.”

He adds: “You have to have brand rules around tone, around the things you do and don’t do and the brands you do and don’t interact with.

“You have to have your voice very clear so it doesn’t get knocked around, but on the other hand, once you’ve got that in order, it can be very exciting because you can do things with your audience that you could never have done on the budgets that are there to put words and pictures on a printed page.

“Normally Joe would not have the budget to put on a large film event, for example, with celebrity speakers but that’s a possibility now with commercial funding, so it’s brilliant.”

On commercial influencing editorial, Mackertich says: “I’m as stubborn and as obstreperous as any other editor and I wouldn’t stand for that kind of thing.

“If things were trying to be pushed through that I thought weren’t in keeping with the mag’s voice I would stand up and I would say it, honestly, there’s no sleight of hand at all.”

Hilton says he “couldn’t put a percentage” on how much of Shortlist’s content is paid-for each week, but he says: “It’s not a particular worry or anything we count desperately. There’s lots of editorial in there.”

Hilton says that Shortlist’s future is safeguarded by its ability to “adapt” in a changing marketplace “because it is a very flexible product, yet it has a strong voice and a strong character”.

“Joe can write about pretty much anything he likes because he knows how Shortlist sounds, how Shortlist speaks to its audience, and that will survive in any medium I think,” he says.

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