The ladies who launch

THERE ARE
so many options for the anecdote-stuffed interviewer of David Hepworth
and Mark Ellen that it can be hard to know where to begin. It’s
tempting, for example, to start on that afternoon in 1985 when the
startled eyes of the former bulged almost as large as his horn-rimmed
spectacles after Bob Geldof interrupted him to berate Live Aid’s
millions of live TV viewers: “Fuck the address, give them the phone
numbers.” Delving back still further, there’s the latter’s university
rock band, Ugly Rumours, which featured an ambitious young guitarist by
the name of Tony Blair. Then there’s their stint as presenters of the
seminal ’80s BBC TV music show The Old Grey Whistle Test. Or perhaps
more instructive would be a run through the rather astonishing list of
A-list magazines that they have launched between them in the past 20
years: Just 17 , Q, Empire , Heat , Mojo to name but a handful.

We
can come to these all in good time. Instead let’s open with a scene, a
little more than two years ago, in which two men are walking around the
courtyard of the British Museum in earnest conversation.

One is
Hepworth, who has recently quit Emap, his employer of the past 20-plus
years, to set up a company called Development Hell with a colleague
Jerry Perkins. The other is his old friend Ellen, still a senior Emap
executive, whom Hepworth is trying to persuade to join them.

The
only difficulty is that, despite their friendship, Hepworth is
reluctant to reveal exactly what his idea is, in case Ellen should leak
it back at Emap.

“Mark was saying: ‘well can you tell me what it is?'” Hepworth recalls. “And I was saying: ‘Well no.

You’ll
have to trust me that it’ll be fine.’ There was still that cussed
professionalism that I couldn’t bring myself to say: ‘this is what it
is but you can’t tell anybody.'”

To Hepworth’s disappointment,
Ellen declines. But as they make their way back up to Tottenham Court
Road tube, they see three resting actors promoting a new brand of
toothpaste with the aid of a giant toothbrush, and two 5-foot long
tubes of the stuff.

Two of them, Ellen notes, are dressed as squirrels.

“Dave
said to me: ‘Well don’t worry about it mate, it probably won’t work
out,’ and he nodded at these individuals as if it was the lowest of the
barrel-scraping low in terms of employment: ‘That’ll be me and Jerry in
a couple of years’ time.’ Then he said: ‘I don’t know what you’re
laughing at, you’re the one without the squirrel suit.'”

That was
the moment that Ellen began to change his mind. “I handed my notice in
at Emap – which took some doing after 21 years – to take a job that I
was completely in the dark about. It’s frankly idiotic isn’t it? He
could have said he’d opened a cattery.”

The cattery turned out to
be Word, a magazine that turns two next week. It’s the latest
collaboration from a friendship that stems back to Salford University,
where the pair met in the 1970s, and a professional association that
dates back to the NME.

Their descriptions of each other come in
various degrees of accuracy. “Ill-shod Victorian urchins”, despite
fitting their image of minnows swimming against the corporate tide, is
physically and historically wrong. Similarly “Morecambe and Wise”,
although they do often interrupt each other with the punchline.
Finally, Ellen hits the jackpot with “we’re the Hinge and Bracket of
magazines”, although he doesn’t specify which of them is Dame Hilda and
which is Evadne.

This is good on a couple of counts. First it
saves me the embarrassment of describing them as the Lennon and
McCartney of magazine launches, a trap I was in danger of falling into.
Second, it means I can instead justifiably refer to the pair as the
Ladies who Launch.

More difficult to avoid is the image of them
as a venerable rock act that’s still touring after a quarter of a
century. In the office, Ellen introduces his fellow Word workers
exactly in the manner of a lead singer naming the band members just
before they play The Big Hit as an encore. The only surprise is that he
doesn’t finish with “Thank You Islington!” but instead suggests we
repair to the local pub for a chat about how they’re faring on their
new indy label, two years after leaving the safety of the giant
corporation where they’d enjoyed so many number one hits.

This
kicks off with a minor admonishment. “Ooh,”says Hepworth as my tape
recorder is plonked onto the table. “Analogue.” Carefully, he proceeds
to explain why I should really be using an iPod for such purposes. I
feel like the kid with the market-stalltrainers being mocked by
Nike-wearing fifth formers.

Yet as it turns out, this is somewhat
contrary to their view of contemporary magazine culture, particularly
in the music sector, which they feel is wrongly obsessed with trying to
define what is cutting edge.

“A lot of magazines make you feel
old fashioned or behind the scenes,” says Ellen. “You feel they might
be making funny faces behind your back.”

Hepworth agrees. “If I
had one criticism of music coverage generally – and this would apply to
radio, television and newspapers – it’s that it suffers from this
complete misconception that there’s a right answer and a wrong answer.
And that the right answer is ‘right now.’ It’s all a question of
whoever’s happening now – if you’re not with this, you’ve completely
missed it.”

By now I’m starting to feel a bit better about my
Olympus Pearlcorder S713 with its fast rewind system and counter reset
function.

Busted flush

Word’s manifesto, then, is based on a different view of the world.
Where other magazines tend to focus on “haircuts and trousers and the
career graph,” they say, Word is more interested in the art, in
enhancing its readers’ enjoyment of their entertainment.

“There’s a bit of a feeling, rightly or wrongly, that the classic
rock band interview is a busted flush, and probably has been for seven
or eight years,” says Hepworth. “They’re like political parties; four
guys sitting round a table trying to decide if they mean the same
thing. It’s a hideous, tortuous grotesque compromise between four
blokes who aren’t really a band anyway, because one of them has got all
the talent and the other three are just luggage, the back end of the
pantomime horse.”

Ellen picks up the theme: “We had a
conversation about this the other day and came to the conclusion that
our readers have grown out of groups. We tend to gravitate to solo
artists.

“You find yourself thinking about Eric Clapton or Joni
Mitchell, you know they’re in their 60s. They’ve got a life. It’s a
life story.

“We’ve started saying to contributors when they go
off to interview young artists that we want to know where they went to
school, what their mum and dad did for a living, whereas the average
rock journalist tends to take the propaganda out of people’s mouths.”

So
is this a criticism of music journalism in general? Hepworth says
there’s pockets of exceptionally good stuff around, but then there’s
loads of people just filling pages, shunting the clichés around.

It’s also why Word contains vital components from the entertainment world outside music – from books, film, theatre and comedy.

“With
authors, they may all look like librarians, but they’ve very often got
something interesting to say. So that’s a very important part of the
mix.”

Right direction

All of which sounds perfectly reasonable. But is it working? Well,
sort of. The numbers would be probably described as “modest” by an Emap
exec in a more kindly moment. Word’s January to June ABC was a notch
above 30,000, around a third of which fell outside the “actively
purchased” category.

But they’re moving in the right direction.

Hepworth says he
expects the July to December figure to be nearer 32,000. And he says
the relationships they have with advertisers is healthy and getting
stronger. (This despite an earlier characterisation of a typical
advertiser as an “Edwardian aristocrat who wants to have his wicked way
but still wants you to be a virgin in the morning.”)n Subscriptions,
which have to be a vital factor with competition so tough on the
newsstands, are looking up too.

Where it’s undoubtedly working is
in the less tangible measurement of job satisfaction. Ellen is a
glasshalf- full kind of bloke at the worst of times, and he’s
positively glowing with the excitement of it all. Even Hepworth’s
slightly dourer northern front can’t hide the buzz he’s getting from it.

The
nub of it seems to be this: everything they now do makes a difference.
“I don’t mean this to sound disrespectful to my former employer,” Ellen
says, “but by the time I’d left, I found a great percentage of my time
didn’t really result in anything.

Now, 98 per cent of what I do
now is either published or put into the pool and develops as an idea,
and in some way is part of the creative process.”

There are only
five full time members of the edito-rial team, one of whom, Paul Du
Noyer, never intended to stay much beyond the launch, and is leaving to
go back to writing books. He’s not being replaced.

This means individual productivity has to be high.

They
both agree that the project has enabled them to rediscover their love
of the thing that got them into the business in the first place:
writing. In their later years at Emap, when they were senior
executives, they found they’d been promoted away from that part of the
coal face: you don’t tend get asked to write for a magazine of which
you’re the editorial director.

Both are relishing the sense of
liberation. Ellen even admits to monitoring his personal word counts in
each issue. He’s just beaten his previous best with a new record of
14,600.

Somehow they’ve still found time to write for other
titles too. Hepworth tells a story that for some reason puts me in mind
of an old episode of The Good Life, when Barbara discovers Tom has been
moonlighting back at his old office to earn a bit of pocket money.

“Marie
O’Riordan, the editor of Marie Claire asked Mark to do something on
George Michael, and when I heard how big the cheque was… awesome.
Next time I saw her”… (Ellen interrupts: “He got his mouth organ out
and threw his hat down”)… “I said, ‘what about me?’

“The
following day she rang and said: ‘I know this sounds silly, and you
might think it beneath you, but you wouldn’t go and interview Denise
Van Outen, would you?’ I asked: ‘when is it?’ She said: ‘tomorrow’.

So
I went along, interviewed Denise, wrote it that night and sent it to
her the following day. Both parties absolutely thrilled. I used to be
editorial director of Elle and New Woman and nobody would ever have
considered asking me to do that sort of thing.”

This gives him a
chance to warm to a theory that if you want to get something done, ask
someone who’s busy. He says he feels like someone who has stopped
having a job and has instead become a farmer. You don’t, he points out,
ever have to ask a farmer if he’s busy. “Now we soak up every split
second of our time doing something that has value. I know that sounds
corny but it’s incredibly satisfying.”

Brave new world

The same applies for their regular contributrors, Ellen says,
recounting how he once rang Stuart Maconie on his mobile to find he was
live on stage.

Maconie still accepted the commission. Likewise, newspaper writers
like Jim White, Mick Brown and John Walsh can be relied upon because
they’re used to pressure.

“But if you ask people from the monthly magazine world they can be some of the idlest people on earth.

“The days of being able to sit and think beautiful thoughts for a month are gone,” opines Hepworth.

“Magazines
in the future will be run on much lower overheads. We’ve seen the glory
days of Talk magazine, florists accounts, they’re gone.”

Ellen interjects, archly. “Are you saying this is a brave new world of magazine publishing, David?” “I am, yes.”

The
brave new world, or at least Word’s corner of it, is financed by a
group of investors, mainly what Hepworth calls high net worth
individuals – although Guardian Media Group recently took a stake. Part
of his and Perkins’ pitch was that the bigger publishing companies are
doing fewer, bigger, less interesting things.

Yet their belief is
that the magazine industry is somewhere you can get an interesting
idiosynchratic idea, “plant it in a little corner of the garden and
keep it away from the nasty north wind, and eventually it will grow a
bit. Once it acquired its character and personality then it could grow
quite a lot. But that wasn’t going to happen in the factory farming
atmosphere of the big publishers.”

“If we have a rough kind of
direction, then it’s the older market. Everybody’s going hell for
leather slugging it out for the 17-year-olds. Best of luck. Whereas
everybody knows intellectually that the growth is older. Our challenge
is to make that more than just intellectual. I think Word’s a start in
that direction.

“40s and 50s – upmarket, sophisticated, a bit
glamourous and all that – that’s the patch that we started, and what we
want to grow on, using our competence in certain areas, and our
familiarity with a certain audience.”

That growth might come from further launch ideas – all they’ll say is that a few ideas have been kicked around.

The
unstated template that Perkins and Hepworth had in mind is what Nick
Logan did with Wagadon – but in a different market. “What Nick did with
The Face , Arena , Arena Homme Plus, was say: ‘I’m the man for this
kind of market.’ What do we call it – Shoreditch?” Ellen corrects him.
“Hoxton. Whereas with us it’s Muswell Hill.”

I point out that Logan eventually sold his titles to Emap.

“Oh
ho… well… We look forward to the day when four men come banging on
the door carrying each corner of a large cheque. You can’t be thinking
about that.”

For now, neither has any regrets at all, despite the
risks they’ve taken, or the salary cuts – Ellen mentions his dropped by
two-thirds on leaving Emap. In fact they’re perfectly happy to play up
to a cartoonish image of former high-rolling execs making ends meet. “I
haven’t seen the inside of a taxi for two years,” says Ellen, and
recalls that associate editor Andrew Harrison sent out an email to
various PR firms trying to blag some festive season hospitality,
entitled Feed The Word – Let Them Know It’s Christmas.

Hepworth
points out that they don’t even have an editorial assistant, which
would be unheard of at Emap (where his daughter works, as, erm, an
editorial assistant). One of the lessons he’s learned is that when you
launch a magazine, certain departments grow like topsy. “When you get a
picture editor, the first thing he or she does is appoint a deputy
picture editor, who thinks that returning pictures is a bit beneath
them. You end up with a vice president of picture returns.”

Ellen adds: “GQ has a vice president of socks, doesn’t it?”

“You
realise working for big publishers that what these companies do is
finance a lifestyle. And it depends on how much you fall in love with
that lifestyle. There’s a guy who works in the repro house we use, who
has a motto: eat shit, drive a Ferrari.

“Well, we don’t want to drive Ferraris.”

Somehow
we never do manage to get around to Live Aid, or the Ugly Rumours, or
the Old Grey Whistle Test come to think of it. Still, at least there’s
room for one last story that Hinge – or is it Bracket?– reckons sums up
their relationship quite neatly.

Hepworth: “We were both working on Smash Hits, and sharing an office.”

Ellen: “It was the launch of Q actually.”

Hepworth: “Was it? And I got a call from one of the big ad agencies who had the Martini account.

They said: ‘We’re doing some new commercials.'”

Ellen: “Key point, key point – we were sitting in a room with one telephone between us.”

Hepworth:
“And they said your name’s been put forward to do a test for a
voice-over. Well we’d been working with a producer, Tom Corcoran, who
was renowned for his practical jokes. So I said: ‘Corcoran, fuck off,’
and put the phone down. But all the time there was a little flicker of
vanity and the thought that there might be some riches involved. Anyway
they kept ringing back and said, are you going to do this or not? Just
send me a VHS. So I went and dropped it through their letter box.”

Ellen:
“I said, at this point: ‘Martini? Have they changed their image? After
a hard day down t’pit I come ‘ome in me hobnail boots for a large pint
of mild Martini? I don’t think so.'”

Hepworth: “A few days later
I get a phone call from this woman. She said, I’m terribly sorry, but
there’s been a bit of a mix up… Erm… Do you someone called Mark
Ellen?”

Golden Rules

THE CHICKEN ENTRAILS TEST

Back in 1991, Hepworth told a publishing conference his formula, for
gauging whether a launch would succeed, that was more reliable than any
qualitative or quantitative studies, focus groups or distribution
models. “We take a chicken onto Dartmoor at midnight during the full
moon, slit its throat and read the entrails.”

The method has served them well, judging by their track records.
But, chicken giblets aside, are there any other golden rules for the
would-be launcher?

Of Word , Ellen says: “There are elements –
not directly from Smash Hits – but bits on the flatplan that are very
similar actually, basic ground rules.

“The
front section has to work pictorially, it has to be universally
interesting. You shouldn’t have to spend a lot of time to make yourself
think you’ve got your money’s worth.

“Those kind of principles are no different to what we did on Q magazine, or on Mojo, or on Select .

“Also
there’s that feeling that you’re not just some cold magazine. I haven’t
had this sort of relationship with a readership since Smash Hits. I
don’t think it’s the same kind of conversation going on: ‘More Adam
Ant! I want his telephone number!’ But the feeling that they can write
to you is just fantastic.”

Hepworth says it’s tougher than ever
to launch since there are very few Greenfield sites left. He cites an
example of someone approaching him with a football and music magazine.

Well
it might make some sense in theory, he says, but here’s the key
question: where are you going to put it in the newsagents? “Seriously,
that’s the key discipline. Don’t fool yourself that you’ll get it in a
new place. You won’t.

“The big challenge in trying to grow the
market is that the categories have become increasingly iron bound. With
glass and barbed wire on top of them. That’s why nobody’s launched
anything that’s read by men and women. Because you’re either over
there, with Jade Goody on the cover or Brad and Jen. Or you’re over
there, in Abi Titmuss land.

“There are two kinds of launch. One is where you go and ask the market what it wants and you go out and provide it.

The
other is where you think of something you want to read and see if you
can persuade a load of other people out there that they want to read it
as well. Word sits in that camp.”

But how does it feel when so
many of the titles with which Word is essentially competing for readers
are magazines that they once put so much of themselves into?

“I can be utterly dispassionate about it,” says Hepworth.

“Genuinely.
When you’re competing all you want to do is win. When Stephen Gerrard
moves to Chelsea, he’s still going to want to score against Liverpool.”

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