There is something almost indecent about the time it took Conde Nast to launch Trash, its magazine for the jaded post-clubber – just six weeks from editor-in-chief Rachel Newsome entering Vogue House to Cheryl Tweedy pouting from the first cover.
No focus groups, no market research, no dummy, no pudgy management fingers poking around in the pie. Just a terrific young ed with plenty to say, a bunch of equally creative buddies, huge amounts of instinct, energy, caffeine and whatever else got them through the long nights.
Of course in Trash, Conde Nast has far less to lose than, say, its uber-successful launch Glamour which it researched with laboratory thoroughness. Trash is only bimonthly and is entering a niche where a six-figure circulation is a wild fantasy. And, since it is funded by Ministry of Sound, it is the dance club, not Conde Nast, that will lose a £1.5m wedge if it fails.
But as someone who has now launched three magazines, I cannot help but gawp enviously. Because in that great hole in the space-time continuum known in publishing as Special Projects, six weeks is but the blink of an eye.
The first thing to remember about special projects is they are, largely, not at all special. Every magazine company is constantly working on a number of potential launches. But, like myriad sperm rushing to the egg, few achieve conception and the vast majority have a wholly futile existence.
Indeed, you can tell how special they are by the offices they occupy: poky, unloved corners where the MD wouldn’t store his golf clubs. When I launched That’s Life!, our first “project room” was about two metres wide and my only staff member had to share her desk with a scanner and the kettle.
A project begins with the editor begging decent staff to leave real magazines to join a theoretical concept. The secrecy surrounding a new launch – the fear that a competitor will steal the idea and publish first – means you cannot even tell your mates what you are doing. You will be invisible to the industry, your career in suspended animation.
Then, assuming you work for a giant like IPC or Emap, the process goes like this: first dummy, research, report to the board who say more research, more research, board, more research, board and if successful and if the launch requires a sum greater than, say, £3m, it goes to a higher board who may say – yup – just a bit more research.
And so, finally, after more than two years, the editor – if he isn’t by now rocking backwards and forwards, muttering about how he used to be a journalist – will see his beloved magazine born. Not that it will look, after 356 focus groups, much like his original idea…
But is endless research valuable in creating a new magazine? Or is it a huge management arse-covering exercise, so that if the title subsequently fails, a publisher can flourish a pile of pie charts and say: “The groups loved it. What more could I have done?”
They say an animal created by a committee is a camel. Well, a magazine created by focus groups is Eve. Or perhaps the original incarnation of Heat. It is hard to remember now that Heat was launched as an entertainment title for the kind of dull, provincial male who likes magazine titles to start with “What” (Car, Hi- Fi, PC, etc). Research said do it like that. The editorial team, who wanted a girlier, more gossipy title all along, were ignored. Instinct, a mad hunch that something will capture a current mood, isn’t much understood by the boys with the beans. Just occasionally they do show a little courage: Loaded bombed in testing, Sugar research suggested a glossy teen title was doomed.
Focus groups are excellent barometers for existing mags. Meeting your readers stops editors, particularly of mass-market titles, from getting too la-di-dah.
But they are less useful in testing original, groundbreaking ideas: people will inevitably be suspicious of the new, being more comfortable with the familiar.
And for a project editor, research is a matter of creative life or death. Sitting behind the glass screen in Birmingham while your accompanying suits crunch on the complimentary mints, you must endure a random bunch of women trashing your exquisitely honed pages. “What the hell do you know?” you want to scream.
You can protest that the miserable bitch in the corner is not within the target demographic, that two others lied to the recruiter just to get their £20 inducement and their weight in Danish pastries. But a report will be written and another three months will be added to your sentence.
Returning to your cupboard office, your little team will look to you expectantly. Somehow you have to motivate them – and yourself – to redo the contents page in three different new ways to show 11 women in Newcastle in two months’ time.
Oh the boredom, the frustration, the sheer soul- and confidence-destroying horror. Journalists are fuelled by adrenalin, decision-making, fast-moving events and a show-off’s desire for people to see and admire our work. Special projects is publishing purgatory styled by Samuel Beckett.
Never was the clichÅ½ that time expands to fill the work available more true. If the art director has six weeks to design the health page, that is how long he will take. The features editor will stare at the same piece of copy for so long, she starts to cry.
There are various strategies for coping. One editor told me she would drift into reveries about what she’d wear at her launch party or imagine herself graciously receiving awards for her acclaimed new title.
Maddened with boredom while launching That’s Life! – and by now residing in a huge, empty floor away from the main building – my team of six used to cycle round it on the picture editor’s bike.
Of course the process is different in smaller companies who, given that a set of focus groups costs £10,000, can’t afford much research. The Face, Junior and the new, very wonderful Word were all launched on enthusiasm and vision alone.
Meanwhile, in the bigger companies there seems to be some attempt to abbreviate and intensify the launch process, particularly at the IPC think tank under Mike Soutar. And now that most proper of publishers, Conde Nast, has shown it can be done.
Trash isn’t perfect, but it is a living, breathing thing that can grow and evolve. It is not pinioned like some butterfly under the microscope of research. It has the chance to fly.
Janice Turner is a freelance journalist and former editor of That’s Life! and Real. She’ll be back in four weeks
lNext week: Alison Hastings