Much has been written about the lad book category. From the meteoric rise in readership to the controversial covers to the circulation dips of late, the category has experienced a bubble of activity not seen in the magazine business for a long time. RAZOR Magazine, a men's lifestyle magazine, is sometimes lumped into this category but doesn't really fit. It's not all about skin with mindlessly short articles and cover models wearing string. Like Esquire used to be, it has intelligent, in-depth articles on serious issues of importance to men who, while they do appreciate a woman in a bikini, don't spend every waking minute thinking about it. Like GQ used to, RAZOR gives men, who find style more important than a backward baseball cap or trucker hat, proper advice on gentlemanly fashion. And unlike Playboy, RAZOR gives readers a reason to appreciate women for their natural beauty rather than seeing them as overly airbrushed, fantasy caracatures.
RAZOR Magazine has seen its circulation double from the first half of 2003 to the second with subscriptions increasing 78 percent over the past 12 months. Clearly the magazine is serving a need. This growth has led to the magazine to open a New York City sales office to tap the advertising and fashion capitol.
In a press release, RAZOR Publisher Richard Botto said, "The time has come for us to immerse ourselves into the center of America's fashion industry. Expanding our operations in New York demonstrates our dedication to the magazine?s growth in every area. In our fourth year of publishing, this is the next logical step in the evolution of RAZOR."
Curious about the move and RAZOR's growth, I asked RAZOR Publisher Richard Botto a few questions.
Steve Hall: Penthouse is re-launching with toned-down format more like Playboy but even closer to that of the lad books such as Maxim. RAZOR is in a separate niche from the lad books having far more intelligent editorial but will Penthouse pose any threat to RAZOR or the lad book category?
Richard Botto: If 2003 and the early part of 2004 has been about anything, it's been about the reconstruction of established brands. GQ has done it, Playboy has done it and now Penthouse is doing it. They all have bowed to what is perceived to be the power of the laddie books. But this is a knee jerk reaction that appears to be two to three years too late. And they are all doing this at the risk of screwing their core audience, the dedicated reader who has bought into a philosophy that the brand has been selling for years.
Has this worked for anyone? You reinforce an established brand, you don't redefine it. That lesson was taught by Coke in the early 80's with New Coke. Nobody wanted it. They needed to reinforce their brand, not alter it altogether. In my opinion, I don't know what GQ is today. Who the hell are they speaking to? When I was growing up, it was the men's fashion bible. Athletes and A list celebrities in cool clothes, intelligent articles, profiles of men that were an inspiration and were models of aspiration. Where is that now? Johhny Knoxville of wife beater t-shirt fame? Ashton Kutcher who wears trucker hats and washed out jeans as a second skin? These are the GQ cover models of today? These are the guys setting the fashion trends? By dumbing down, GQ has turned their back on their core reader and sending the message that they are chasing the beer and babes crowd. I can't imagine how the people at Boss, Claiborne, Armani, Perry Ellis, etc can be happy about that. I spoke with a friend who attended GQ's sales party in Manhattan the other night who mentioned that the staff doesn't know what they are selling - signals are crossed, the message is not defined. I don't doubt that to be true. Because as someone who has perused GQ for twenty years, I don't know what they are selling either or who they are selling to for that matter. They should have stayed the course with that brand. Instead they have gone astray, which in all reality, is great for Razor.
What's even more intriguing is the business rational behind following the laddies. It is clear that the trend is cooling off. Let's look at the facts...From the first half of 2002 to the first half of 2003 Stuff has seen a decrease of 24% on the newsstand. Maxim was off 6.7%, which on their volume is a tremendous loss and FHM was down 2.8 percent, again on high volume. Why do plastic surgery on the face of your brand to make yourself less attractive?
The model didn't work for Ramp, Gear, Tongue and a number of others who jumped on the sinking ship. I don't know where GQ is going and I don't know how Penthouse plans to differentiate themselves from everything else out there, but it all works in RAZOR's favor.
Steve Hall: A recent story in Ad Age spoke about the "pornolization" of American media. With nudity and sex becoming more commonplace and readily available to all with an Internet connection, will this make magazines that feature this sort of thing less popular? Would this affect RAZOR even though your focus is not in this area?
Richard Botto: It's one of the great mysteries to me why people would invest time with the laddies when similar images are available on the internet. Magazine reading is an experience, not much different than reading a good novel. You want to spend time with it. You want to enjoy it. The experience of the laddies is airbrushed skin, which really is not all that sexy, and bad puns. Log online for 5 minutes and you can find beautiful women in bikinis, so why sit with a mag showing barbie dolls and vapid articles? I don't get it. Even more so, I don't get why GQ and Playboy are trying to copy it.
I don't think this phenomenon will effect RAZOR negatively. In reality, I think it helps us. Our sales have proven that people still want to read something of quality.
Steve Hall: Will the newly appointed New York sales force also handles sales in categories other than fashion?
Richard Botto: Yes. James Navarette, previously of Blackbook and Detour is our new Fashion Director. Joining him is Deanna Zamora, formally of Gourmet. She will be handling Import Auto, Electronics, Pharmaceuticals, Men's Grooming and Package Goods. And Amy Leiberg has moved over from Nylon to handle Liquor, Entertainment, Tobacco and Gaming. All three are well known in New York and bring a world of experience and talent to Razor.
Steve Hall: RAZOR has been successful. An entrepreneur such as yourself wants continued success. Where will you take RAZOR in the future to continue that path of success?
Richard Botto: We continue to grow in every aspect of the business. We have recognized growth in newsstand sales and ad revenue quarter by quarter. You need to believe in your message and then you need to bring that message to the people and I believe we have done a good job at doing that. I think the instability within our category only plays to our advantage. I think the repetition of the laddie books has caused some of the defection away from the juvenile titles. Men are looking elsewhere. They don't want to see the same girl on the cover month after month. They don't want to read the same dumb jokes month after month. After a while, really, the laddies become a parody of themselves. Mad Magazine with girls in bikinis.
We feel we bring a hell of a lot more to the party. We are more socially conscious than the laddies whether we're talking fashion, politics, finances, night life, cars or anything else that encompasses the lifestyle of the mature, educated, ambitious, successful male. We are more relevant than the titles that sit next to us on the shelf. And, I don't think anyone could argue that our message and our branding has been more consistent than the other non lad titles in the category. Our message and our dedication to the brand, and therefore to our readers as well, has been the same and is constantly being reinforced.
Launched in November 2000, RAZOR Magazine is "the definitive men's lifestyle magazine for today's ambitious, style-concious, success-driven male." The magazine will, doubtless, find success in its separation from the abundance of lad magazines and the scrambling of older titles struggling to find new direction.
UPDATE: Gawker offers commentary on the spiraling PR tactics this interview has spawned. Funny thing. A PR pitch started this whole thing.