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A Maxim of success

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Having been present at the revolution, I can tell you: The outcome was far from certain at the time. What revolution am I talking about? The revolution in men's magazines that has seen upstart British import Maxim surge to the top of the category with a circulation of 1.6 million and growing, leaving big-name men's titles Esquire and GQ reeling, and actually killing off P.O.V., Icon and (at least temporarily) Details.

Meanwhile, would-be Maxims including Gear and British rival FHM have opened for business, along with Stuff, a Maxim spin-off aimed at a slightly younger demographic.

The first issue of Maxim appeared a mere three years ago. How did this major market shake-up happen in such a short time? Is Felix Dennis -- chairman of Dennis Publishing, the owner of Maxim -- a genius of unparalleled proportion? If sex sells, why didn't it sell for Details, which nabbed Mark Golin, an editor of Maxim, to try to capture the Maxim magic, only to watch circulation and advertising take a dive?

As Maxim's first editor, I have a particular take on why this whole thing played out the way it did. And, while my affection and my respect for my former colleagues remains, I know and they know that we never imagined Maxim would do so well, at least not this quickly. What I carry away from the launch of Maxim and all that has followed is the sense that successful magazines are a blend of art and science, that being first is better than being best, and that you have to be true to yourself -- even in the magazine business.

A dearth of choices

Back in the winter of 1995-1996, a Dennis magazine executive named Stephen Colvin came over to New York from London to take a look around. What he found was a dearth in the offerings of magazines for men: GQ and Esquire on the one hand, Playboy and Penthouse on the other, but nothing too exciting in the middle.

Rodale Press' Men's Health was scoring impressive circulation gains with it's get-six-pack-abs-overnight formula, but the magazine always ran a photo of a man on the cover and seemed kind of wimpy in comparison to the sexy, testosterone-fueled "laddie" magazines that had begun flourishing in Britain.

Dennis Publishing, in fact, owned one of these lad's publications, Maxim, but it had been overtaken by the competition, FHM (For Him Magazine). FHM had pushed the sexy element further -- putting better babes wearing fewer clothes on the covers, and featuring more outrageously macho doings inside -- and as a result was rocketing ahead on the newsstand, while Maxim was just building steadily.

In retrospect, Colvin's recommendation, that Dennis Publishing launch Maxim in the United States, seems like a no-brainer. But at the time, hands were wrung, even at Dennis. What about the well-known Puritan strain in American culture? Would a stateside Maxim be shelved with Penthouse and Playboy? Would American advertisers shun a book that focused on a man's interest in sex, beer and off-color jokes, rather than his taste in books and ties?

These are the questions we all struggled with in the months before the launch of Maxim. I had been hired in August 1996 as editor, and proceeded to assemble a team and produce the first issue. Our first Maxim included some very funny writing, a rather tame interior design, and, on the cover, a picture of "The Drew Carey Show" star Christa Miller that had been doctored to make it look less salacious.

Treading carefully

Yes, less salacious. The advertising staff had convinced Colvin that we needed to tread carefully as we introduced Maxim on this side of the Atlantic. Owner Felix Dennis agreed, but insisted on a sexier look inside the magazine, and shipped over an art director from the London office to spice it up.

From the moment the first issue appeared in April 1997, sales were brisk, and letters poured into the office from guys thanking us for producing a magazine they could enjoy and relate to. We had struck a chord, and had defied experts who opined that men don't consume magazines with the enthusiasm women do.

These experts -- market researchers -- are the scientists of the magazine business. They can tell you who reads what, and how readers feel about what they read. But they can't tell you what's not there: how to reach people who are dissatisfied with the available choices and opt out of buying magazines altogether. That's where art -- and luck and timing -- comes in.

The formula that proved successful wasn't something we exactly stumbled upon; U.S. Maxim, after all, was a recasting of what had already proved successful in Britain. But what we had done was to disregard all the talk about American Puritanism, about men not reading, and gone ahead.

We had a particular world view to express -- a vision, to use an arty term. Over the next year, confident we were on to something, we sexed up the covers, pushed the attitude and the humor, cut anything that reeked of earnestness. I decided to leave Maxim at the end of 1997, but my replacement, Mark Golin, continued to make Maxim more Maxim-like.

Felix Dennis likes to say Maxim succeeded because "We were the first beer truck to arrive in a desert." That's just a laddish way of saying Maxim was different, and different in a way that consumers embraced -- a basic formula for success for any magazine, TV show, movie or soda pop.

Other people had noticed the paucity of U.S. men's magazines in the mid-'90s, just as Colvin had. But they went about filling the void with products that lacked mass appeal: P.O.V. focused on how to get ahead at work, and Icon ("the thoughtstyle magazine") offered intellectual explorations of what it means to be a man. (Yawn.) Both publications died in 1999, victims of the new Maxim-dominated universe.

More competition

In 1998 Bob Guccione Jr. started Gear (a rather cold version of a sexy lad's magazine, if you ask me). Late in 1998, the British publishing giant E-map announced plans to bring FHM to the States, although why the company then waited more than a year to bring out its first issue (FHM's debut happened this past February) is a mystery. But it's hard to imagine Gear or FHM enjoying Maxim's explosive growth rates -- last year circulation went up 127 percent.

The most wrong-headed effort to play the Maxim game was undertaken by Conde Nast, the fancy magazine publishing company that owns Vogue, Vanity Fair and GQ.

Its young men's magazine, Details, had a brief period of success as a hip music-fashion glossy in the early '90s but has struggled to find an audience ever since. In February 1999, at the height of the hoopla about Maxim's success, Conde Nast hired away Mark Golin to re-create Details in Maxim's image. But just a year and a month later, Golin was fired and the magazine was shuttered.

Details will be brought back to life as a young men's fashion title this fall, with a target circulation of 450,000. Trying to be Maxim didn't work for Details because consumers like magazines to be distinct from one another. Magazines can evolve -- even Maxim has to some degree -- but it's extremely difficult to graft on a whole new identity.

Helen Gurley Brown, the long-time editor of Cosmopolitan, is one of the only people ever to accomplish this task. In the mid-'60s she took a dying literary monthly and turned it into a sex-love-work-beauty manual for young women that today sells 2 million copies on the newsstand each month.

I think Maxim will hit the Cosmo heights, but then level off. That's what happened with FHM in Britain, the bellwether market for this sector of the publishing world. I think the other Maxim-like magazines will flourish too, though never getting quite to where Maxim is; it was the first and only long enough that it has too big a head start as the ultimate "real guy's" magazine.

No one is sure yet what the impact of the Internet will be on print products, but Felix Dennis is investing heavily in a Maxim Web site, so whatever happens, he'll be covered. And he can afford it: Maxim is more than a magazine, it's a phenomenon, and in the still staid and slow-moving world of print publishing, you don't get many of those.

Longtime Baltimore resident Clare McHugh has been a magazine editor since 1992. She is currently developing a new women's magazine for Time Inc.

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