Maxim, the wayward child who conquered the world
Maverick publisher Felix Dennis remembers the glory days of the genesis of the ultimate lads' mag
We needed a name and we needed one fast. Never a company totally comfortable with focus groups or the expensive impedimenta of professional 'brand consultants', we set about choosing a name in time-honoured Dennis Publishing fashion. We went to the pub.
So it was that one evening in early 1995, various members of Dennis staff gathered at our local hostelry, The Ship, located in an obscure corner of London's Fitzrovia district. After a round or two of drinks, (paid for, of course, by the chairman and owner of the company), we began scribbling names on slips of paper and tossing them onto the beer-soaked table around which we were noisily gathered. Suggestions were also being called out by those at the bar. Alistair Ramsay, our long-suffering MD, attempted to bring some kind of order to the proceedings - with little noticeable effect.
To this day, nobody can say who came up with the name of what became (and remains) the biggest-selling men's lifestyle magazine on the planet; but then, success has a thousand fathers while failure is always an orphan. I guess he or she knows who they are, but no one will ever believe them.
I can recall only a few of the names we rejected, ranging from the innocuous Men's Life through the sycophantic Felix to the mundane Score and the bizarre Gotcha! My own contribution never even made it past the first cull.
Nobody knows who named what became the biggest men’s magazine on the planet
As the sole shareholder of Dennis Publishing I got to choose from the last three or four names that had made the cut by general acclaim. One name leaped out at me. It was simply head and shoulders above anything else on the list. We had our name.
What I did not know, in fact what nobody knew then, was that the winning name combined all the necessary elements for a brand to succeed globally. The name Maxim works everywhere, even in countries where alphabets differ from Western Europe, like Russia and China. It is short, distinctive, easy to pronounce and excellent raw material for designers and typographers - the 'x' in the middle and the 'm' at both the beginning and end are especially appealing. The name also lends itself easily to editorial departments and marketing: 'Circus Maximus', 'Maximum Impact' etc.
Maxim magazine, which in the UK has just gone exclusively online, was launched in April 1995. Its prelaunch consultant editors, Matt Snow and Lloyd Bradley, working with project leader Bruce Sawford, were swiftly followed by Gill Hudson as Maxim's launch editor-in-chief - readers of the Reader's Digest today might be surprised at their newly appointed editor’s antecedents!
Gill and the other early editors of Maxim subscribed to the theory that they were producing an 'upmarket' men's lifestyle monthly - more edgy than Emap's advertiser-friendly FHM but a tad less puerile than IPC's Loaded, the title devised by James Brown which had begun the whole lads'-mag phenomenon in the spring of 1994. In my experience, any new launch into an emerging market always tries to convince itself (while desperately attempting to convince advertisers and consumers) that the new rag will be more upmarket than the existing competition; this is an understandable knee-jerk defence to trade accusations of 'me-too-ism'.
To be honest, I have never cared a jot about being a 'me-too'. Many of my own ideas for new titles have been swiftly and ruthlessly appropriated by rivals. Who cares? It's all part of the entrepreneurial rough and tumble of launching new brands and new brand categories. Any 'me-too' product or service merely flatters by imitation, indicating general industry agreement that a particular approach is valid.
We were sure a formula of beer, babes, gadgets and fashion would workIn any case, I had a cunning plan for Maxim; a plan which could not easily be replicated by large corporate rival publishers. So convinced were we early on that a formula consisting of beer, babes, general hilarity, gadgets, fashion, adventure and bad-behaviour would work in Britain that we immediately set about planning global conquest with Maxim. Which was a bit cheeky, since we were definitely the No.3 title in the UK and likely to remain there for some considerable time.
Nearly all plans for world-domination fail, whether in real life or in James Bond movies, but just occasionally it can be pulled off - at least for a while. The trick lies in timing, speed of execution and the confidence to make a huge investment in a product or service which few others believe will find a ready audience. Leaders may be 'dealers in hope', as Napoleon put it, but winners are believers in dreams.
I suspected that neither Emap nor IPC, both large corporate beasts, could move quickly enough to establish beachheads with their lads' mags around the world, especially in the lucrative North American market. Such a move within a corporate environment requires painstaking analysis, hours of debate in marketing and editorial meetings, executive board approval, commitment of funds from central finance departments and, finally, main board approval. And all of this has to be completed before you can hire a single foot-soldier on the ground to begin the long trek to glory - or defeat.
The joy of an independent company is its ability to turn on a sixpence
In contrast, the joy of an independent company with only one shareholder lies in its ability to turn on a sixpence once management and owner agree upon a particular course. I won't try to pretend that I had complete agreement from my managers, but what the hell; it was my money they were risking. Better still, I already had a functioning office in New York City, headed up by an ambitious young Northern Irishman, Steve Colvin, who had spent several years cutting his teeth at our London company before transplanting himself and his family to Manhattan.
Steve set to work while I frantically commuted back and forth across the Atlantic on Concorde. Initially, the signs were not encouraging. Both my long-standing American partners were lukewarm about investing in a US launch of Maxim and ended up taking only a 12.5 per cent stake each in the new enterprise. The most prestigious magazine circulation consultant in the US, whose name and blushes I will shield from judgement, was categoric: "This is a bad idea and is likely to fail catastrophically. I urge you to shelve this project. Young American male readers will reject it out of hand and you will be slaughtered on the newsstands of America." Strong stuff from the American 'guru of circ'.
I remember sitting with Steve the night after our meeting with this Cassandra of doom. We were in a dingy Irish bar on 39th Street toying with a pint of Bass apiece. Steve was somewhat downcast. His own search for an editor-in-chief and publisher (in the US, a 'publisher' is the man or woman who sells the advertising) was not going well. Now the guru had spoken. Older or wiser managers might have balked, but the stamina and eternal optimism of youth have their own impetus: "Screw him," muttered Steve. "Let's ratchet this up a notch." I gulped and agreed. Perhaps it was the Bass that emboldened me. More likely, it was my belief in Steve Colvin and in the potential of Maxim.
In the end, we got it done. True, there was a blip in the desperate countdown to one of the biggest financial gambles of my publishing life. The blip? That would be the design of the first issue. It went like this:
We'd decided to hire a woman as editor for the US edition, just as we had in the UK. Clare McHugh had, as one interviewer later put it: "a tree house sense of humour; that is, [a girl who] could hang out and be accepted by your average bunch of guys, talking sports, knocking back a few...." Er, quite.
Clare had great editorial credentials, too, at magazines like the New York Observer, New York magazine and the launch of the US Marie Claire. But she was unable to convince our new art editor that a fresh approach to design was required for Maxim in the US. When Clare brought the first proof pages over to me in London in February 1997 to look at, I hit the roof. They sucked. They looked like the New Yorker meets Guns and Ammo.
A tall, handsome, bloody-minded (but trusted) British designer, Andy Turnbull, was crammed onto the first plane leaving for the East Coast to take over the design of Maxim. In my view, he saved the launch - Andy still lives in NYC and has carved an impressive reputation there, not to mention having bedded one of the most famous models ever to appear on the front cover of Maxim. And no, I am not telling you her name.
On All Fools' Day 1997, Maxim US sprang into existence with a cover price of $2.99 and a total print run of 200,000 copies. Within three years, Maxim was selling five times that number of copies. Within six years, it was selling ten times that number. Its relentless rises in circulation ripped apart the existing US men's lifestyle category and our stalwart publisher, Lance Ford, poached from Condé Nast, began finally to reach advertising clients who had kept him waiting in the lobby for months on end. Advertising dollars rolled in and we were off to the races.
With the sensational success of Maxim in the US, global editions began springing up everywhere. Kerin O'Connor and, later, Richard Bean, barely stopped stepping on and off aeroplanes with licence agreements in their pockets: Russia, China, India, Germany, France, Holland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Israel, Mexico... even Bulgarian and Ukrainian versions of Maxim rolled from the presses in a relentless stream.
Meanwhile, the web onslaught had begun. Huge numbers of young men (and women) began to flock online to the Maxim banner. It was almost as if Maxim had been built for the internet, mixing a relatively short attention span with celebrity models, 'hot lists' and humour. That happy union is still very much alive and kicking today.
The office hamster was editor-in-chief: "Three squeaks, she’s on the front cover."
Then there were the licensed spin-offs: Maxim music CDs, Maxim furniture, Maxim Zippo lighters, Maxim television programs, Maxim books, options on Maxim gambling casinos (never quite made it), Maxim posters, Maxim approved movies, Maxim bar ware, Maxim hair care products, Maxim greeting cards, even a Maxim satellite radio station... Everywhere we turned, there was coin to be made and fun to be had.
Fun? Oh yeah! At one time, we appointed Sammy the office hamster as the editor-in-chief of the US edition and the Wall Street Journal printed our press release announcing the story, stony-faced, with the caveat to its readers: "This is the Art of Spin." As indeed it was. I wrote that release myself hours after discovering Condé Nast had poached yet another Maxim editor-in-chief. Sammy reigned happily as editor ("two squeaks and she's in the book; three squeaks, she's on the front cover") for a couple of issues. Even rivals laughed their head off at this prank and clamoured for one the Maxim hamster hand puppets with which we had swiftly swamped the advertising agencies.
Hamsters aside, Maxim parties became legendary. One even made prime-time television news slots across America as it brought city traffic to its knees with tens of thousands of readers jamming the streets. A fire chief ended the chaotic proceedings, helicopters circling overhead, with the deathless words, captured on CNN video: "Shut it down! Shut it all down! And get those dwarves on the trampolines out of the bedrooms!" I guess you know you have arrived in America when the heads of huge corporations call you up and demand tickets for their daughters to the Maxim Superbowl party.
The offices of Maxim were where young people in the industry cut their teeth
For two or three years, the offices of Maxim just about anywhere in the world were where young men and women in the magazine industry cut their teeth and made their reputations. Rivals poached our staff almost as soon as we had hired them, desperate for a dusting of the Maxim magic. They tore up the formats of their own rags and slavishly began decorating their covers with girls in bikinis. This was not a smart move.
Some editors in chief of other US men's magazines resigned in fury, spitting bile and nails, as their owners demanded they replicate the Maxim model. But nothing worked for them; Maxim's circ rose and rose while their own sales stalled. They could copy our front covers, but they just couldn't copy our attitude, and it was the attitude that was driving us through the half-million mark, then the million mark, then the two million mark and beyond each month. Maxim finally settled at 2.5m copies per month in the US, more than the total circulation of all its rivals combined.
Of course, we weren't as good as we thought we were; or even as good as our rivals thought we were. In reality, we were simply the first beer truck to arrive in what had been a desert for young men in the US. That’s a hard truth, but is is true. Mind you, we served damn good beer.
I remember a senior staffer on Britain's Loaded moaning ruefully into his glass: "The minute I saw that massive Maxim poster outside LAX (Los Angeles airport), I knew it was too late. You'd cracked it and now we would be the 'me-too'. I don't think we'll ever take you on in America now." He was right. Loaded never did launch in America, despite eventually being sold to the giant US conglomerate, Time Inc. FHM did launch against Maxim, but perhaps the less said about that the better. You cannot succeed in the States by filling nearly every key position with British personnel.
What it all amounted to was riotous, glorious, inventive mayhem. For me, it was like a second childhood, with the added bonus of coining huge amounts of cash. And just how much money was that?
Very conservatively, I estimate that, world wide, Maxim has produced over three billion US dollars in profits for its publishers, distributors, licensees, licensors and owners. Such a figure could be far higher in reality. That's an astonishing chunk of change for a rag born in a smoke-filled pub with slops of bitter squelching underfoot and cigarette butts swamping the ashtrays.
Of course, it got serious when the real loot began piling up.The suits took over, as they always do and as they always must. After all, I employ the suits as well as the creatives. I knew the party was over the first day a Human Resources department smiled and genuflected its way into our Sixth Avenue building. Human Resources in the Maxim parking lot? Excuse me?
But by then, I was beginning to lose interest. Other websites, magazines and business opportunities were rearing their tempting little heads. That's part of the glory (and the sadness) of being a serial entrepreneur.
In many countries and territories, Maxim will continue to shower her golden rain of useful know-how and irreverent idiocy on readers, as well as making its publishers and licensees a ton of money - especially, I suspect, online. Both the Russian and Indian editions of Maxim, for example, have far exceeded the expectations of their licensees.
But for me, my greatest memory of this anarchic, wild-child brand will be of visiting a Midwest printing plant in the US and watching millions of ink-fresh copies thundering towards the binding line as a master printer roared into my ear, his callused hands raised in supplication: "God bless her and all who sail in her. To tell you the honest truth, sir, in this town, Maxim has saved our bacon. You want my advice, you should introduce a section or two on hand guns and automatic weapons. Now that'd be real popular, sir."
I'm sorry to say we disappointed him!
All in all, I guess I have produced four or five magazines which truly changed the lives and careers of those they touched. Maxim was indisputably one of them; and certainly the most fun to be around.
She did all of us proud. A wayward child of Gargantua, perhaps, but I loved Maxim dearly. ·
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