By  on September 28, 2007

For men's magazines, the ground has shifted from the lad to the dad.

Across the category, men's titles are adapting to a field swept clean of most laddie magazines and men's shopping titles, where luxury is king, and where reaching the older man is now a desirable proposition. GQ, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and Esquire, which will celebrate its 75th next year, used to be cast as stodgy by the British lad invasion, and both resorted to copying their formula of gross-out humor and barely clothed starlets. (The latter have remained, but other traces are gone.) Now those two are being pegged as having gone too young by new entrants like Condé Nast's Men's Vogue and Rodale's Best Life, which clamor for the older, sophisticated man — and ads for the luxury and fashion brands they claim he cares about.

Competition for those ad dollars is becoming ever more fierce: Both newspapers and business magazines are looking more to glossy fashion and luxury ads for survival, since those advertisers still firmly believe in print. And that competition will only tighten as The Wall Street Journal launches a weekly glossy magazine next year.

The taboo of seeming old hasn't totally lifted — there's a fine line between sophisticated and dull — nor has the fear of being pigeonholed by fashion. For instance, Men's Vogue publisher William Li says he likes to isolate the cover lines of his magazine and ask potential advertisers to guess their origin. "They ask, is it Fortune? The Economist?" he said. "We never overtly call out fashion."

It's a compensatory measure for a magazine carrying the Vogue name — iconic, especially to luxury brands, but possibly alienating to an older, affluent guy, his sexuality notwithstanding in a magazine sector perennially dancing around the gay-or-not issue. "We have never positioned ourselves as a fashion magazine," Li said. "We position ourselves as a style magazine."

Even Maxim is trying to shed its rep as a laddie beacon (publisher Rob Gregory now refers darkly to the "L word") by repositioning itself as a more upscale — and perhaps older — title under its new owner, the Quadrangle-backed Alpha Media.

It's no coincidence the men's general interest launches of recent years have skewed older: Men's Vogue pointed to Mediamark Research Inc. figures that showed a 250 percent growth between 1994 and 2004 of men over 35 with a household income of $100,000 and up. But not everyone agrees on how to reach them."You respect the older guy by catering to how old he feels, not how old he is," said GQ publisher Peter King Hunsinger, whose magazine has emerged as the market leader in ad pages. Though conventional wisdom says editor in chief Jim Nelson has made GQ younger, Hunsinger points out its median reader age of 33.5 has barely budged. (However, its 18- to 24-year-old readers have grown by 30 percent in the last three years, according to MRI.)

Others argue that fashion, however downplayed, won't draw an older reader accustomed to flipping through boating, golfing or travel magazines, scotch in hand. "Does the average affluent 48-year-old guy actually care about style anymore as a defining topic in his life?" wondered Details publisher Chris Mitchell. "Or has he actually set it to, 'I know what I like, I know what looks good on me.'" (Of course, that's a convenient argument for a publisher of a fashion-oriented magazine aimed at men in their early 30s.)

Nonetheless, luxury marketers are intrigued by both Men's Vogue and the less fashion-oriented Best Life, said Jamie Rhind, senior vice president at Zenith Media, whose clients include many luxury watch brands. They can present "a synergy between the content of the magazine and the advertising they're placing. I think we're seeing that more than ever." And few advertisers are flush enough to be in all the specialist magazines, making one-stop-shopping more appealing.

Whereas Men's Vogue has leveraged existing fashion and luxury contacts at parent company Condé Nast (which also owns WWD), Best Life was launched by a company more known for wholesome health-consciousness than glamour. But as the magazine has begun hitting its stride and grown its total circulation to 450,000, it's created what Rhind said was "a better environment" for luxury advertising, and year to date, has added 65 new advertisers, including Gucci, Prada and Ralph Lauren, and is up 35 percent in paging. Luxury advertising has also picked up significantly in its brother title, Men's Health.

Best Life is betting the service-oriented formula that worked for Men's Health — not to mention women's titles — can go upscale, coupled with a new emphasis on fatherhood and marriage. "Men's magazines to date have been a bit more comfortable approaching the style side in a vacuum, or the intelligence side," said publisher Michael Wolfe. "They haven't been as aggressive in saying, 'You know what, you're busy. Let me help you be a better man by not only inspiring you through better visuals and a representation of the good life, but also the information you need to live it.'"Left standing alone in the lad-mag rubble, Maxim still guarantees 2.5 million readers, but fairly or unfairly, they aren't known for their upscale sensibilities. As Wolfe puts it, Maxim and its peers had "identified a niche that was actually the opposite of a niche — that was a mass. There was a huge market of men who were interested in it, but over time people learned that because it was so big and so broad, it had no defined brand power."

Maxim is hoping to change that. Said Gregory, "We're not going to turn into Details or Esquire, because that would be a huge mistake. But within our comfort zones — big reach, young guys — we are definitely moving more upscale."

Though Maxim points to research showing its demographic is more affluent and status-conscious than believed — quietly deemphasizing the 18- to 22-year-old by talking about a high-spending 18- to 34-year-old group — some are skeptical. "Even though an audience may be likely to buy a product, we have to be careful that for true luxury brands, we don't denigrate the image of a brand by placing it within a context...that will actually pull down the image," said Rhind, adding, "[Maxim] can't do it. They've got three million readers. The readers aren't going to change."

This is not the best moment to be a large-circulation magazine of any kind, considering even Gregory cites "The Long Tail," the best-selling book arguing that blockbuster culture is being undermined by technology bringing segmented and targeted media. Maxim's new editor in chief, Jim Kaminsky, acknowledged, "Magazines have to be better and they have to be smarter. They have to be more on target to their demographic....it isn't enough to take a magazine and slam dunk it into the market, the way it would have been a few years ago, when there was a boomlet."

In this age of targeting, it's convenient for the new entrants to peg GQ, and to some extent Esquire, as one-size-fits-all. "The era of one magazine for all men doesn't exist anymore," said Men's Vogue's Li. "The male population is too fragmented."

So where has that left them? GQ's circulation has steadily grown since Nelson was named editor in chief in 2003, with newsstand and subscription growth bringing total circulation to 931,694 in the most recent filings through June. And that's despite resisting too-specific age characterizations: Nelson calls GQ "a gateway into adulthood — it takes you from high school into your 40s and 50s. That's the way I always saw GQ." He argued that a too-mass sensibility is fended off by having a strong personality and being a "considered read" in an ephemeral culture.Esquire hasn't had as much success — its circulation, both newsstand and subscriptions, has essentially remained flat since 2003, at just over 700,000, and while its median age is about a decade older than GQ's, its median household income is substantially lower, according to MRI data. Some have seen Men's Vogue as a calculated move by Condé Nast to exploit that vulnerability, and Men's Vogue's circulation filing for part of 2006 shows newsstand sales comparable or better than Esquire's — the average was 139,307, though it was skewed by issues that spent months on the newsstand, and Esquire's total circulation is far higher.

Into his 10th year as Esquire's editor in chief, David Granger said his magazine is for "the high normal American man." Esquire, he said, "isn't made for the crème de la crème. It's made for a successful, but not crazy successful, American man."

Trouble is, it's that "crazy successful" man advertisers want. To which Esquire publisher Kevin O'Malley responds, "What I like to remind [advertisers] is, 'OK, try Best Life. Hope they're here in three years. Or, why don't you buy Men's Vogue, because [Condé Nast] had such success with Cargo and Vitals.'" O'Malley accused Men's Vogue and its editor of ripping off Esquire. "You would want the editor to have some original thinking, where there was a real point of distinction," he said, adding of the magazine, "It's a little bit of the emperor has no clothes."

So the new landscape has been mapped: the new desired man wants style, not fashion; he's old, but young at heart; he's moneyed, either comfortably so or beyond one's imaginings. And he, it's hoped, wants a general interest magazine about those Gucci suits, Prada shoes and Rolex watches he's supposedly snapping up — but also about sophisticated matters and his inner life.

That's a tall order, and the magazine publishing skeptics who have seen trends come and go are waiting to see what strategies will last, especially if the economy takes a turn for the worse. Looming above the perpetual chase for more fashion and luxury ad dollars is a possibility the luxury boom might deflate.In which case editors and publishers are ready to trumpet their recession-proof editorial and advertising mix. Li contends, "I think ultimately the rich stay rich and they weather the storm." And there's the claim that these magazines are about more than just buying stuff à la The Robb Report. As Men's Vogue editor in chief Jay Fielden says, "I would worry if I were editing a magazine that was purely materialistic. I hope that the magazine has a kind of soul to it that isn't simply about exotic and luxurious items."

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