A bold move to publish a day earlier than the competition, a firm commitment not to discount ad rates, and a steady eye on core brand values has helped Hello! weather a year its UK publishing director, Charlotte Stockting, readily admits has been the worst in living memory. "Life has been really tough," she says. "We have all resorted to things either we might not be proud of or thought would never happen, and Monday on sale was part of that."
Out there first
The idea to bring the publication day forward pre-dated the recession. "It's been an ambition of mine for three years. I'm a marketer at heart, and I believe if you can steal an advantage on the competition then you need to explore it," she smiles. "Every magazine that has launched into the weekly market has come in with a Tuesday on sale day. We felt we were getting crowded out."
Fulfilling her ambition was not easy, though. Stockting had to find a distributor willing and able to get the magazine into trucks and shipped out on a Sunday. This requirement led her to terminate the contract with Hello!'s previous distributor in favour of Advantage with which she'd worked just four years previously. Advantage rose to the challenge and Hello!'s editorial, advertising and production teams adjusted their deadlines, systems and procedures accordingly.
"My editorial team loved me," she says. "Because they now close at midnight on a Friday rather than the small hours of Saturday morning, though we will stay open for a big wedding on a Saturday and go back to being on sale on Tuesday if the story's big enough."
Partnering with Associated
The new partnership with Advantage's parent, Associated Newspapers, offers other benefits, too. "If you are competing with a national newspaper owner that has OK! as its main magazine then everything helps."
This is a reference of course to Express Newspapers owner Richard Desmond, proprietor of OK! magazine, which launched in the UK in 1993 five years after Hello!. The two titles are close competitors, and latest ABC figures (Jan-June 2009) show OK! market leader in the UK celebrities weekly market with weekly sales of 599,847 and Hello!, with weekly sale of 397,634, ranked number five after Closer, Heat and OK! stable mate New!
Now, the partnership with Associated allows Hello! to benefit from cross-promotions with the Mail on Sunday and Daily Mail, and editorial collaboration on major stories will follow at some point. The net effect, says Stockting, is that newsstand sales for the second half of 2009 look set to match those of the second half of last year - a period before recession really bit hard and Hello! enjoyed a sales boost with coverage of the Brad & Angelina twins.
It's not just Desmond's cross-promotion of OK! Hello! must contend with, however, but his desire to dominate the celebrity weeklies' top three rankings. In a bid to boost sales of New! and sister title Star Magazine, N&S is now poly-bagging both with OK! every other week. Not that Stockting seems unduly bothered. Naturally, she is committed to driving up Hello!'s sales - price promotions, home delivery offers and even chocolate on the cover are all within her armoury - but she remains adamant this will not be at the cost of the Hello! brand.
"We've always said Hello! is not about who we cover, but how we cover them," she begins. "We are always positive. We do not have yellow circles around sweat spots or bad skin, or people falling out of taxis or behaving badly. We are often criticised for being the celebrity's friend but that's tough because that's what we are." Something else Hello! isn't is a celebrity mag, it seems. "Celebrity is our low hanging fruit - the point at which everyone else starts. We do royalty and society. Which is why we sell fewer than they do. The more upmarket you go, the fewer you sell."
The distinction may seem clear to Stockting, but it's less so to readers who, she readily admits with tangible regret, tend to put Hello! alongside OK! in qualitative research. "They see, though I don't necessarily agree, Hello! and OK! up there - together, expensive (which is annoying). Then they see Grazia and Look, because they're both high street fashion and beauty. Then they see the rest - Closer and Reveal, Heat, New! and Star." The good news is that despite the recession many readers have continued to buy not one celebrity weekly but two. "It's what happens when there is one very strong magazine in the market: we all benefit. It's a bit like puzzles magazines."
Hello!'s royals/society/celebs agenda is maintained by the title's idiosyncratic Spanish owner Eduardo Sanchez Junco, publisher of Hola! magazine which was originally founded in 1944 and has since given birth to 13 editions in five different languages. Though the UK title is edited in the UK, the British operation is closely monitored by its flamboyant owner who, in recent years, has evolved a sophisticated syndication model to help re-coup some of the money paid on securing headline exclusives. This involves exclusives being syndicated both internally across different editions and to third party publishers.
Stockting, who has been Hello!'s publishing director since 2000, is at pains to describe her boss as egalitarian and inspirational. "When we have persuaded him to let us do things our way, invariably we've not done it any better than his way, and have eventually gone back to that," she laughs. That said, other battles have been won. The magazine proprietor's society lifestyle - which, in its early days led to regular coverage of European socialites many British readers had never heard of - now less directly influences UK content thanks to the new generation of young and attractive British royals now available to fill its pages instead.
The importance of the cover
A big part of success in the celebrity weeklies market is driven by who's on the cover. Also important, however, is tapping into the zeitgeist, Stockting says: "We cover the whole of life - everything that effects people." Which is why Hello! was the only title in its marketplace to feature the White House on the cover in the aftermath of 9/11, and why OK! saw sales rise so sharply with its extensive coverage of the final weeks of Jade Goody's life. "Who could have thought a dying girl could sell 1.5m copies of OK!" she marvels. "I have never under-estimated Richard Desmond - he's a craftsman at selling his product. But he has taken the easier path appealing to a much wider audience on a much baser, human emotional level. He would not be able to do what he does with Hello!"
Hello! just doesn't have the desire to sell 700,000 one week then half that the week after, she insists, warming to her theme. "Our ambition is to offer value in the marketplace consistently, week in week out, so we aim to have no more than a 5-8% shift in copy sales week by week to offer our advertisers, brands like Estee Lauder, stable circulation that helps them manage their brand.” Hello! has also resisted cutting its ad rates during the recession, taking the hit on volume instead to keep the price per page high and maintain the look and feel of each issue with pagination finalised each Thursday night according to confirmed advertising volume.
Another way Hello! is working to satisfy advertisers, Stockting adds, is online. www.hellomagazine.com is a seven day a week online publication complementary to the magazine. The two products share stories only on Mondays, the print publication day, and the website is tailored to appeal to a female audience in their early thirties - around ten years younger than the average age for the magazine. "We've seen no evidence online has cannibalised print, but we do know it has brought us in subscriptions," she says. "The integrated marketing platform it enables us to offer advertisers, meanwhile, is also working well."
That said, Stockting admits to being worried about the sustainability of the advertiser-supported, online publishing model. "Eighteen months ago we were getting around £15 per 1,000, now we're lucky to get £3 per 1,000," she reveals. "Mr Murdoch is right, there has to be a paradigm shift. Another problem we face is that 18 to 24s don't necessarily understand that while Perez Hilton is a blogger, hellomagazine.com has an editor editing comment and there are inevitable costs associated with that - they take both as equally valid." The future, she adds, has to be paid-for content.
Dealing effectively with such challenges will take confidence and vision as well as a passion for words and pictures and how to combine both to create something people want to read, Stockting believes: "I became a young and inexperienced publisher in the earlier 90s at Elle. Then I went to Conde Nast (as sales and marketing director) where, I realised, although my instincts were right, as a woman in a board room I felt I wasn't given the gravitas I wanted to put across. So I left to do a Masters in marketing before returning to the industry I love with new tools - an ability to look at problems from a higher place, to see which to panic about and which will fade away, a clearer vision. It was a pivotal experience."
Looking ahead, she is optimistic - both about the current uplift in weekly magazine sales and the further development of the Hello! brand in the UK. Five years down the line, she hopes Hello! will be available on a variety of new platforms. "There's still radio to investigate, and masthead programming to stretch the brand," she says. "Meanwhile we haven't even begun to look into branded events. There's a wealth of opportunity out there. No one aspires to an OK! lifestyle, but everyone aspires to live like Hello!"