Neither Claridges nor chip van: Happy's quiet launch

Its fate will answer the question – just how shallow is today’s British woman?I don’t know about you, but I’m all launched out.

One prestige glossy, two real-life weeklies and a hybrid, genre-busting glossy-weekly. And the year only a third through.

have to feel for Eilidh (pronounced “Ailey”) MacAskill, editor of
Happy, launching after the PR blanket-bombing of Easy Living and
Grazia. Particularly since her proprietor is Richard Desmond. The media
pages of the Evening Standard, Guardian and Independent, not wishing to
add to the Express owner’s coffers, have barely given hapless Happy a

What’s more, MacAskill was forbidden from speaking to me
because it seems a fatwa has been declared against Press Gazette over
its allegedly pro-NUJ coverage of industrial relations at Express

So Happy has launched without a trace.

Which is
a shame for MacAskill and her team, since the collective response from
the glossy world has been: “hmm, not as bad as we expected”. Indeed one
monthly editor even admitted to a momentarily worried: “damn, this is
actually quite good!”

Which may be faint praise. But it should be
remembered that in September, when Desmond declared his new launch
would compete with Vogue, one publisher remarked that this was “as
absurd as opening a chip shop in a lay-by and saying you’re going to
take on Claridges”.

Well, Happy is neither chip shop nor
Claridges, but more like an efficiently-run self-service cafeteria. Its
paper quality and production values are top end, photography is OK and
editorial shows diligence.

But it is still just a shopping
magazine – a catalogue of goods to buy – a genre which has hitherto
only been successful in the US, where titles like Condé Nast’s Lucky
and Hearst’s Shop Etc are sold almost entirely on cheap subscriptions,
the vast bulk of their profits earned from advertising.

Britain, where the majority of magazines are sold on the newsstand,
shopping mags suffer because they lack shelf appeal. NatMags’ Shop, a
spin-off from Company, died after two issues, as did New Woman’s

Happy, it should be said, is the first self-standing
shopping mag, with its own “multi-million pound” TV campaign. Northern
and Shell claimed last week the first issue had already sold 200,000.

one sense Happy’s fate will answer the question: “Just how shallow is
today’s British woman?” Every glossy promotes retail therapy, but Happy
actually uses the slogan “Who says you can’t buy happiness?”

TV ad, in which a woman becomes ever more “happy” according to the
number of shoes, bags etc she purchases, ought to provoke the Scouse
preacher who asks consumerist heathens on Oxford Street: “Are you a
sinner or a winner?”

to take his megaphone down to Happy HQ.

women readers, while partial to a handbag, flatter themselves they buy
their magazine for some slightly higher purpose. To read a Marie Claire
global report perhaps, or to nose around Teri Hatcher’s slightly naff
house in InStyle. For most of us, stuff isn’t enough.

A sprinkle
of stardust is the usual method for glitzing up shopping pages. But
Happy – most surprisingly for a Desmond title – has few of those
popular “get the celeb look” features. That seems ill-advised when
Happy has to compete with mainstream giants like Glamour, which has
bags of excellent shopping ideas plus the added allure of A-list access.

there is absolutely nothing to read in Happy unless you count beauty
guff on how lymphatic drainage can give you a “happy bottom”. So it
must be judged on one criterion: how good is it at editing down what is
available in the shops?

MacAskill has had a tough start. After
six years at the Express, ending up as group fashion director, she had
just returned to her native Scotland to revamp Scotland on Sunday’s
Spectrum magazine when the Happy job came up.

While serving
notice she often toiled Monday to Friday in Glasgow, then flew to
London to work at weekends. All this with an 18-month-old baby.

Jane Proctor was supposed to have prepared much of the groundwork, but
MacAskill arrived to find there wasn’t even a flatplan.

inside N&S say: “The place was full of rather air-headed beauty and
fashion people fannying around, unable to commit themselves to putting
anything on the page.”

MacAskill, a true hard-grafting newspaper journalist, soon had them knuckling down.

Rival publishers had, prior to launch, questioned Desmond’s commitment to Happy.

Would he do it on the cheap, with a skeleton staff and a half-cocked launch campaign?

answer to both appears to be “no”. But while Happy has had TV
advertising, little seems to have been spent on shelf displays – I had
to search for it in a big WH Smith – and it misses the slick marketing
support of Condé Nast or Emap.

For example, why is it not making
more of its price? At £1.80, Happy is 15p cheaper than Glamour but this
figure is in tiny writing, rather than the big boastful lozenge it
should be.

But Happy’s biggest problem is that it lacks authority
and cachet. This is partly because of its proprietor, but also because
it is not an international brand. When Elle recommends a £20 Primark
skirt, the shops are stripped bare. But will readers trust Happy with
their hard-earned?

The first issue seems confused about its
reader profile. There are a lot of very expensive goods. A feature on
the week’s wardrobe of an ordinary London PA has her wearing a work
outfit costing a total of £1,505. This is clearly to attract blue chip
advertisers, but will it irritate averageincome readers?

And are
grown women (target age 25- 40) really going to peel off Happy’s little
stickers and “bagsy” their favourite summer frock? Also, kids’ clothes
look incongruous among so much younger-end fashion and anyway, don’t
mothers read glossies to escape their children?

The oddest thing
about Happy is how photos of its staff are used everywhere in the
magazine. Junior beauty folk and features assistants smile from the
masthead and pop up on many pages. Accepted wisdom is that readers
resent seeing staff because they’re jealous of their cushy magazine

And the Happy lot are all so very pretty, one wonders if Desmond is using journalist body doubles.

they’re jolly helpful too. Happy’s website encourages you to write in
with fashion and beauty questions. So I tested it out, sending an
urgent query about what tights I should wear with this season’s
patterned dresses.

And the very next day, I received a bespoke
reply of 200 words on “transitional hosiery”, complete with stockists
and websites addresses.

Which is a huge amount of magazine
resources to devote to a single reader. But then in today’s ferocious
women’s market, Happy is going to need every one.

Janice Turner is a columnist on The Times

Next week: guest columnist Alex Thomson

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