Making magazines for men is even more difficult than publishing for women. Identify a niche men find interesting and they'll flock to the newsstand. But the moment they can see that content elsewhere for free, or something better comes along, they'll ghost you in a heartbeat. A great example of this over recent decades is the content category "boobs".
Men's magazines were the canary in the coalmine of Australian publishing - the successes more extreme and short-lived and the failures more brutal.
But in the fraught business of making a magazine men might buy, there were some clear lessons for the broader industry. If only someone had been paying attention.
Instead, it was the same old problems: short-term focus and failure to capitalise on big surges in growth.
And those surges did come, because when a publishing idea matches what men are interested in at any given moment, the result can be dynamite.
"I remember working in an agency in London when a team from IPC Media magazines, a big company like Pacific or Bauer, came to see us," says Havas's Mike Wilson.
"They said, 'We're going to present a magazine concept to you which is of the moment, it's captured the zeitgeist. You won't see anything else like it.'
"They presented it to our executive team and they were right. That magazine was called Loaded.
"I lived through the birth, growth and phenomenal success of what became known as the 'lads' mags'. It was an extraordinary, if brief, cultural moment."
Loaded, which launched in 1994, did the heavy lifting to prove that men would buy a magazine, if it's funny and irreverent enough and has just the right balance of tastefully presented half-naked women.
"Loaded is a new magazine dedicated to life, liberty and the pursuit of sex, drink, football and less serious matters. Loaded is music, film, relationships, humour, travel, sport, hard news and popular culture.
"Loaded is clubbing, drinking, playing and eating. Loaded is for the man who believes he can do anything, only if he wasn't hungover," wrote James Brown, the notoriously hard-living launch editor, in the first issue.
It paved the way for Ralph, FHM, Zoo Weekly, GQ Australia, Inside Sport, Men's Style, Men's Health and Alpha, by proving to advertisers that men would engage with a printed magazine.
It also was first to capture a particularly British social phenomenon which never really took off in the same way in Australia: the rise of "laddism".
It's difficult to describe if you didn't live through it - sort of a weird combination of "be yourself" but also only be heterosexual, football-obsessed, even more sex-obsessed, a borderline alcoholic and up for anything as long as it's "a laugh".
Paul Merrill couldn't be prouder of Zoo Weekly, which he launched in the UK in 2004 and in Australia in 2006.
"It was the most-confiscated magazine in Australian schools, which I was delighted to learn. It meant I was doing my job," he says.
"It was the sweet spot when lad culture was at its height. No one could work out why no one had done a weekly men's mag before, because it seemed such an obvious thing. It was basically about doing anything that wasn't character forming. Zoo was about having a laugh, taking the piss, for men with a short attention span," he says.
Merrill is adamant the title's success was more about the humour than the girls.
"It struck a nerve. It was very successful, very quickly and very high profile. We were on the TV news and in the papers. We were even on The Guardian's 'power list' in the UK, which was all a bit ridiculous."
When Merrill was approached to launch Zoo for EMAP in Australia, it was very hush-hush.
"If ACP got wind of what we were doing then they'd rush out a spoiler. It was cut and thrust; you'd do anything to screw the opposition.
"With just three weeks' notice, we were on a plane. My wife was three months pregnant. We couldn't tell friends what we were doing. Even the Australian FHM staffers didn't know what we were doing. To recruit people, we had to tell them it was for FHM. Only when they turned up were they told it was actually an interview for Zoo magazine. One guy walked out because he was so horrified he wasn't going to be working on FHM.
"We did some research groups and hired a room in a pub and would sit around a big table with potential readers. We showed them the UK version of Zoo and the Australian boys were quite shocked by it. They thought it was a bit much. They said, 'I wouldn't want to read this in front of my mum or girlfriend.'
"So the local version was very toned down. There were no topless girls, no swearing, it was quite a benign, vanilla magazine in some ways. But it seemed to work. We made sure there was nothing homophobic, nothing racist, nothing nasty or bullying or controlling. The focus groups loved it when we showed them Australian content. The Australian male they admired most was Shane Warne, so we stuck him in there as much as possible."
Zoo had a $10 million launch budget, "completely unheard of now. It was the biggest launch in the Australian market. EMAP did a good job of putting some funding behind it," Merrill says. "For a few years it was barnstorming. Everyone was talking about it."
In fact, it was part of Zoo's strategy to make sure it was talked about.
In 2009, Zoo hired French "Spider-Man" Alain Robert, famous for scaling skyscrapers around the world without safety equipment, to climb the 41-storey Royal Bank of Scotland building on the corner of Bent and Phillip Streets in Sydney. Robert did, in this case, have some safety equipment - four "Zoo girls" holding the corners of a sheet at the bottom of the building in case he fell. He was fined just $700 and interviewed by TV and press outlets, all while wearing a Zoo T-shirt.
It's interesting that the stunts and headlines Merrill lists as Zoo's proudest moments are exactly the same as those held up as its most disgraceful when it was closed in 2015 after a dramatic freefall in circulation.
"It probably wasn't a title for the post-#MeToo world," admits Merrill, who happily concedes changing societal tastes were as responsible for the mag's demise as the internet.
Zoo certainly purposely nudged the blurry line between hilarity and bad taste.
It was sued by Lara Bingle soon after the much-maligned "Where the bloody hell are ya?" tourism campaign for putting a speech bubble over her head that said: "I'll make you come," but unfortunately forgetting to add the words "... to Australia."
Zoo was topical, too, in its own way. Just before Julia Gillard was sworn in as prime minister in 2010, it ran a photo of her partner's daughter Staci Child in a patriotic bikini, draped in an Australian flag.
There's a little deep-etched shot of Gillard popping out from behind the headline with a speech bubble saying "Members be upstanding", which is incredibly puerile, massively silly and outrageously inappropriate.
"Why aren't women's mags funny?" asks Merrill. "For men's mags, humour is the price of entry. Car and sports mags all had humour all the way through."
Some of the humour in Zoo was very clever. It was satirical, smart and topical, and one of the reasons for its success. Even then, you could get pictures of girls in lots of different places. But it's much harder to find genuinely funny things...
"We had a system to keep it fresh and funny. Putting out a weekly mag means you have to come up with lots of ideas, again and again. So, we'd put random words on a wall and writers had to throw darts until they hit two." Speeding nuns! Exploding sharks!
Mike Wilson was involved with the launch marketing of Zoo in Australia but even then, he could see the writing on the wall. "It was really obvious that eventually, because the foundation of any good lads' mag was attractive women, that the audience would migrate online, as indeed they did."
The tide had turned on the new wave of men's magazines, with one falling after another. The brands weren't able to pivot into something new to counter dramatic circulation collapses.
By late 2014, Zoo Weekly was in freefall, experiencing a year-on-year circulation drop of over one quarter, from 40,282 to 29,035. Over the same period Woman's Day dropped only 5.88 per cent and New Idea just 2.16 per cent, according to Audit Bureau of Circulations figures. "Sooner or later Bauer will cancel the title. I can't imagine they can make money out of that title a year from now," Steve Allen told Mumbrella on May 16, 2015.
It was gone in less than six months. When Ralph magazine was closed in July 2010, it had experienced a circulation drop of 47.9 per cent from its considerable peak of 93,409, in 2006.
"If history is any guide, the men's category has had a new leader every six or seven years since 1980," Phil Scott, group publisher at ACP in 2010, told the print industry website Sprinter on June 8. He blamed "regular shifts in taste" in the market.
FHM, famous for its 100 Sexiest Women in the World, has the unfortunate honour of suffering "one of the biggest circulation drops in Australian media history". Falling from 50,154 to 26,026, it lost "half its circulation in the final six months of last year, compared to the same period a year before", Tim Burrowes wrote for Mumbrella on February 10, 2012.
In a statement at the time, ACP said it had no plans to close the title "for the foreseeable future". It closed the title a month later.
It's absolutely astounding that Australia's soft-to-medium core magazines, The Picture, which had launched in 1988, and 69-year-old People magazine - known at ACP as the "P" mags - lasted as long as they did. Bauer Media didn't put them out of their misery until late 2019, when they lost supermarket ranging then were finally banned from service stations.
The mags were on display beside copies of Woman's Day and Prevention with headlines like "I have no gag reflex" and "Public nudity! Barbara loves outdoor action!" in full view of children and people who are easily offended on behalf of children.
In the mid-1980s, People had a circulation of up to 250,000 and was at times Australia's fourth-largest-selling magazine. They may have had pages of topless models, the "home-girls" - readers' wives and girlfriends - and lots of weird crime stories as well as puzzles, but the "P" mags were also very funny.
It was also well-known Kerry Packer loved the "P" mags as much as he loved his Fanta and burgers. They were authentic, Aussie and, for a long time, made a lot of money.
If David Naylor is as far from a People or Picture editor as you can imagine, then "Tubs Grogan, Australia's leading investigative drunk", is exactly what you'd imagine. Tubs Grogan was the alter ego of writer Pat Sheil, who tells the story of his first meeting with Kerry Packer in the Park Street lift in the early 1990s.
Sheil was "dressed" as Tubs Grogan, clutching a stuffed goat and with a huge squid tentacle draped across one shoulder. He was accompanied by a diminutive stripper with fake breasts who seemed to be "undergoing severe amphetamine withdrawal".
"Kerry got in. He looked at me. I looked at him. He looked at the girl, then looked at me. 'Who are you?' he asked.
"Tubs Grogan, Mr Packer, Picture magazine. There was a short pause. 'Carry on,' he said," Sheil wrote anonymously on December 28, 2005, in The Sydney Morning Herald.
Peter Holder, these days the managing director of the Australian Daily Mail Online, was once a People staffer and wishes there'd been a woman in the room the day they projected the cover with a woman on all fours, wearing a dog collar, onto a wall. "We all looked at it and went, 'Yep, that'll sell,' he says. "But if there'd been a woman in the room that day, she would have seen it for what it was - and what it was wasn't good."
The issue was banned by the Office of Film and Literature and withdrawn from newsagents by ACP.
But time was inevitably called on the "P" mags when they too were unable to survive the cultural shift that had claimed Australian Playboy as early as 2000.
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