Founding editor of Loaded James Brown has become a name synonymous with ‘lads’ mags”, so for Joe Barnes, editor of men’s magazine market underdog Front, it was a magic moment when Brown called to tell him how much he liked the magazine. In fact, Brown was so impressed with Front when he picked it out to read on a train journey to Manchester, where he works as an editorial consultant for Daily Sport publisher Sport Media Group, that he recommended they buy the title. They did.
‘He rang me out of the blue and said he’d picked up the magazine and loved it,’says Barnes. ‘James Brown has got an amazing reputation – he started the genre. I was 15 when I first bought Loaded, so he’s a bit of a hero.”
For the Front team the buy-up was the reward for sticking by the magazine in what Barnes says they call ‘the dark period”. The title had gone into administration under its third owner SMD at the end of 2006 and missed three issues before head designer Richard Olsen led a staff buy-out. Sport Media Group bought Front in June this year.
Barnes started with Front doing work experience with first owner Cable Communications, which launched the title in 1998 with editor Piers Hernu. Barnes ‘got his foot in the door and wouldn’t leave’with second owner, the now defunct Highbury House, and when the title was sold on again, he became editorial assistant.
‘From where I was I could see opportunity after opportunity to make the magazine something. It wasn’t focused and there wasn’t a target audience,’says Barnes. Three issues were missed before the staff buy-out rescued the title and Barnes became editor.
Times were hard for the team, which went three months without pay. There were massive cutbacks, but Barnes says the desire to turn the magazine into something they really believed in kept them all going.
‘I was given the green light to relaunch the magazine and we tried to do something really different. We took it away from that chavvy look and made it a bit more alternative.”
The new Front that appealed to James Brown still has the traditional lads’ mag format of girls, beer and jokes, but has a twist – pitched at music-loving students, who Barnes says aren’t catered for by mainstream titles.
‘We were failing and everyone was saying we were going to close and we had to rethink the product. We couldn’t do the same thing as Nuts and Zoo, as they offer it cheaper, and we haven’t the budget or resources of FHM or Loaded, so we worked out a plan that gave Front a reason to exist.”
Barnes says that there was one big advantage of not being backed by a big publishing company such as FHM’s Bauer Consumer Media or Loaded owner IPC: ‘It allowed us to be freer and take some risks. Bigger mags are more limited, they have loads of rules on their shoots, but with us the photography could be a bit cooler, a bit more erotic.”
The new Front is produced on a shoestring, using photographers straight out of college for shoots and new models rather than established costly ones. Shoot catering is modest, from the nearest supermarket. It’s all a far cry from the times under launch editor Piers Hernu, who documented his party lifestyle in a TV series.
Barnes says Brown has asked him about the crazy times they have making the magazine. ‘But its not like in 1994 when he [Brown] was selling a million magazines and had huge budgets. It’s quite a hard time now for journalism, but I don’t see it as a bad thing; it’s about adapting, now the internet has really started to have an impact on journalism.”
The original monthly lads’ mags – Front, Maxim, FHM and Loaded – now sit in a difficult market and have all seen declining circulation, partly due to the emergence of weeklies Nuts and Zoo and partly from the explosion of online content.
Maxim and FHM have reacted by going more upmarket, with FHM having a 1.1 per cent rise period on period in the February ABCS – the first in six periods. Maxim has fared less well, with its April issue selling just 24,000 if reports on Brand Republic are to be believed.
‘You can do nipples without it looking tacky,’says Barnes. ‘Maxim took out the nipples and overnight their sales went down, and our sales went up as soon as they did. FHM and Maxim have moved out of our audience, but there’s always a new crop of 20-year-olds.”
Front hasn’t been ABC audited since its SMD days, and Barnes – who says its circulation is around 50,000, with no bulks – is keen to be audited again to prove that sales are going up: ‘It would be nice to show that even though we haven’t gone up massively, while others are struggling we’ve plodded on and built up our sales.”
Front now has SMG’s support behind it, including IT and an accounts department, and access to pooled rescourses such as image banks. Brown is on hand as an adviser, and will help push subscriptions.
For the first time since the relaunch it has marketing budget and initial plans include targeting music festivals, with free copies being handed out at The Carling Weekend in Reading and Leeds for starters.
‘The team are really excited about SMG buying us. I think we thought we’d all get new chairs and new mouse mats, but that’s not happened yet,’says Barnes.
Spirits are high, and in the office are photographs of a reader with the magazine’s logo tattooed on his leg. ‘That says it all,’says Barnes. ‘Our readers are fans of the magazine; Front expresses what their lives are about, living on shitty estates in Swindon – going out with mates and listening to music.”