World of contractual obligation

At the judges’ meeting to decide the winners of this year’s British Society of Magazine Editors’ awards – five solid hours yakking with only a single fag break – one category took longer and was more fiercely debated than any other. It wasn’t the high profile sectors such as men’s mags or women’s monthlies. It was, in fact, little old contract magazines (consumer).

If, like me, you have only ever worked for news-stand titles, you may regard contract magazines as the poorest of relations. I mean, people don’t even buy them. They just come free with your storecard or because your details are logged on some database.

They fly from doormat to bin without leaving their cellophane, a tree felled in vain.

So judging this category was an eyeopener.

Here was Army – the military’s recruitment title for 13 to 15 year olds – with exciting action photography, dramatic first person accounts, dynamic design and sexy typography. Most surprising was the humour, such as a Dad’s Army quiz to find out which military career would best suit you.

Army’s principal rival for the BSME was O, the magazine of Orange mobile phone company. This is a quirky, almost ethereal magazine. A rendition of Romeo and Juliet in txt msg spk or a feature on the wolf-ridden wilds of Romania was enough to make you forget this was, at heart, a glorified brochure flogging you Orange products.

Only after a right royal ding-dong between us judges did Army win, a special highly commended going to O.

But then during the prestigious launch of the year category, Carlos, Virgin Upper Class’s in-flight title, seemingly printed on recycled paper towels, beat off Emap’s £10m celeb launch Closer.

What is going on? When did contract publishing get so exciting and imaginative? Because looking at the covers on the news-stand – the posh monthlies with the same half dozen celebs used in rotation or the men’s mags with TV totty morphed into babedom – it is they who look indistinguishable and innovation-free.

Indeed as the glossies chase a shrinking advertising market and are forced to play safe, shoving in as much client-friendly product as possible – 503 Great Handbags, 57 Skin Solutions – they have rather started to resemble old-style cataloguey contract titles.

A magazine like Carlos, although a bit pretentious pour moi, has a more distinct and uncompromising voice than, say, Arena or Esquire. News-stand magazines are forced to use tried and tired formulae to attract a jaded, promiscuous buyer.

Carlos doesn’t have to struggle for attention: its audience is sitting with a glass of champagne for nine hours with nothing to read. So the magazine can relax, be itself, experiment with a few off-the-wall ideas and thus ends up way cooler because it doesn’t have to try too hard.

So would it be more fun to edit a contract title than a consumer mag? Imagine: no ABC figures to sweat over, no luxury advertisers reining in editorial, fewer Hollywood PRs to fellate to bag a cover star, no enslavement to movie release schedules.

But then of course there is The Client: your magazine is his train set and he won’t let you forget it. If you think your publisher is an irritating meddler, imagine being Dan Linstead editing O, where until recently Orange’s brand police dictated what weight of Helvetica could be used, which features required upper case headlines or went through every word of copy to make sure it was true to the touchy-feely future’s bright Orange tone of voice.

Because the only factor differentiating Orange from every other mobile phone operator is pure brand: services are the same, clever new tariffs are soon ripped off by rivals. Its identity is a fragile, nebulous construct and the main way to make it concrete and real is through a magazine.

Other clients, however, seem less insecure. Sam Upton, editor of Army magazine, says his military bosses are surprisingly relaxed: it seems a case of let those magazine chappies get on with it.

His team draws up a list of features and an army PR rings round regiments to facilitate, for example, access to jungle manoeuvres in Belize.

Contentious issues such as, well, killing people, are down-played. A recent issue on Iraq focused primarily on the forces’ post-war peacekeeping role. But the magazine is no whitewash: one issue contains a gripping feature about what it feels like to be bombed or shot, told in Bravo Two Zero style first person: “There was an explosion, and a shock wave that felt like hammers hitting my helmet. I thought we would brew up into a funeral pyre…” “The army’s only concern is that we are not flippant or glib,” says Upton, 33, who was recently turned down by the Territorial Army as too old. “We cover the dangers of war because the reader is no fool and if we address these issues they will feel more confident about joining up.”

The chief pleasure of his job, says Upton, a former music journalist on Select, is that Army has a broader purpose than merely being read: it is actually designed to make people do something.

At Carlos too, editor Michael Jacovides praises his client: “Virgin are like the Medicis,” he raves, “they sponsor great art.” In fact Carlos’s strange brown pamphlet format is publishing’s finest example of necessity being the mother of invention.

After September 11, with ticket revenue plummeting, Virgin was forced to can its in-flight glossy Hot Air. It had a tiny sum to put together a new magazine and left it to the imaginative John Brown Citrus to come up with a concept.

It made the revolutionary – and economic – decision to not use photography or glossy paper. So Carlos- named after an imagined über-trendy, transatlantic Virgin passenger – took the form of a cross between a fanzine and Dave Eggers’ literary oddity McSweeney’s.

Somehow this eclectic, left-field journal with its line drawings and 4,000-word essays melds perfectly with Virgin’s funky self-image. And, like many of the new breed of contract titles, it is not compromised by endless hard sell. In fact it feels less of a corporate whore than your average Gucci-grovelling, Prada-pimping glossy.

For any young journalist starting out today, this is an exciting and increasingly respectable place to be. (It doesn’t pay badly, either.) And any newspaper executives trawling for bright editors for their weekend supplements should first take a good look at the guys with the contracts. 

Janice Turner is a columnist for The Times on Saturday and former editor of That’s Life! and Real. She’ll be back in four weeks

Next issue: Bill Hagerty

by Janice Turner

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