Media 1986: The rise of 'Panzer publishing'
30 years ago, competition was heating up in the UK magazine market. Here, Torin Douglas charts the history of some of the titles that are still going strong today.
If October 1986 was memorable for the launch of the Independent, it also marked the debut of another publication which proved equally groundbreaking - and which, unlike the Indy, has survived to celebrate its 30th birthday as a print publication.
To mark the occasion, it invited its readers to bake a birthday cake.
Prima magazine was a phenomenon, blowing open the cosy world of UK periodical publishing. It was the first UK title to be launched by Gruner & Jahr, the mighty German publishers, and its first issue - which had a circulation guarantee of 400,000 - was a complete sell-out.
The second issue's print run was increased to 650,000 and within a few months Prima had overtaken Family Circle to become the UK's biggest-selling women's monthly. At its peak, Prima sold over a million copies a month.
"To call Prima a success is a massive understatement," Brian Braithwaite and Joan Barrell wrote in their book, The Business of Women's Magazines (published by Kogan Page).
"It is one of those launches, like Cosmopolitan back in 1972, which not only creates its own success but has a remarkable impact on its market and conventional thinking."
Prima was already a success in France, where it sold 1,400,000 copies a month. It had then been launched in Germany and quickly reached a circulation of 700,000.
The formula of cooking, sewing, knitting and gardening - as well as fashion and beauty - proved eminently transferable to the UK too. The editorial emphasis was on practical ideas with how-to-do-it features, step-by-step guides and cut-out-and-keep recipes.
The big plus was a free paper pattern in every issue. The MagForum website carries a page-by-page breakdown of the first issue.
Prima was launched with a huge £1.5 million ad campaign on TV, radio, posters and full pages in the Daily Mail and Daily Express.
"The advertising emphasised the practical approach, to distinguish it from the gossip, horoscopes and royal family approach of the other titles," wrote Braithwaite and Barrell.
But the magazine itself carried relatively few ads - and this was seen as another plus for the reader. Its German publishing executive, Rolf Paltzer, was quoted as saying that G&J was content to wait for seven years before seeing a return on investment.
Prima's first editor was Iris Burton, poached from IPC Magazines, where she had been editor of Woman's Own, one of the 'Big Four' women's weeklies. She had left the publishing giant in December the previous year - and she wasn't the only one.
In 1986, IPC (which still dominated the UK market) was cutting costs and titles and staff, as it made clear in a hard-hitting edition of its company newspaper, IPC News.
"The Naked Truth" blared the front page headline in January. "Slump in Consumer Publishing Group profits triggers-off major staff cuts".
And under another headline, "Here's to a more prosperous 1986", the paper wrote: "With the current economic and industrial climate, Christmas took on a bitter-sweet taste for many of us...It's a sad fact of life that when you're carrying excess weight you become inefficient and the only solution is to shed that surplus.
"That slimming down process is already well under way - as we went to press, no fewer than 12 IPC titles had already been sold."
And one well-known title had been closed, as Braithwaite and Barrell recorded with regret: "The saddest event of 1986 was the final death of IPC's Honey. The circulation had taken an almost totally downward plod reaching a low of some 118,000 in 1985. But it had survived 26 years, the grandmother of the young titles."
Over at G&J, Iris Burton didn't stay long at Prima. Having launched the monthly, she took on the challenge of creating the company's first weekly, Best, and this was to have an equally dramatic impact on its market.
"The publishing world, and the advertising industry, were taken by surprise with the almost overnight launch of Best in August 1987", wrote Braithwaite and Barrell. "It was considered rather unBritish, a bit unsporting and certainly very unconventional to launch in August when Britain is half-closed for the holidays.
"The actual notice of launch given to the news and advertising traders was a breathtaking two weeks. The 'goal posts' were positively moved, according to the pundits, by the speed of the launch, the accent on circulation rather than advertising, and the guarantee of a fixed cost per thousand based on projected sales of 500,000."
Braithwaite and Barrell concluded: "This was Panzer publishing - taking the enemy completely by surprise by the sheer nerve and rapidity of movement."
Like Prima in the monthly market, Best was very different from the existing IPC women's weeklies, eschewing the royals and the gossip in favour of short sharp features on health, cooking, fashion, advice, diet and knitting. Its circulation rose quickly to a million copies, nudging those of the long-established IPC Big Four.
And there was more to come.
Almost immediately, another German weekly was launched, this time published by H Bauer, Germany's biggest publisher.
The new title was Bella, a British version of a magazine called Woman's World which Bauer had launched in the USA. It had similar covers and features to Best, but also carried real-life drama ("She took revenge on a sex abuser") and royalty ("The taming of Princess Michael").
And this was just the start. In the space of a year, Best and Bella were followed by New Woman from Rupert Murdoch's magazine stable; More, a fortnightly from EMAP Metro, aimed at Cosmopolitan; the original celebrity magazine Hello from Spain; Marie Claire from IPC (in conjunction with its French publisher Groupe Marie Claire); and Riva from Carlton.
Perhaps most significantly, IPC was to hit back at Prima with the launch of its own craft-based monthly.
Essentials was the biggest launch in IPC's history, backed by a £2.5m ad campaign, and it aimed to out-Prima Prima with 48 specially designed file pages, ready-punched and perforated to put in a three-ring binder given away with the first issue.
In the memorable words of Braithwaite and Barrell: "it was to be a full-frontal assault - the RAF was at last to take to the skies to repel the Luftwaffe."
Post script: Prima and Essentials are still going strong, but having shaken up the UK market so profoundly, Gruner & Jahr withdrew in 2000. It sold its titles to National Magazines, leaving the field to H. Bauer and the two US-owned companies, Time Inc UK (formerly IPC) and Hearst (formerly National Magazines).
Next month: Radio '86 in Marbella lifts the industry