By David C. Cosgrove
Everyone’s on the lookout for a hooligan come the first of April. Whether a bucket of water lays in wait above your boss’s office door or you’ve moved a co-workers car around the corner, we’ve all pulled a leg or two to incite hysteria.
Such was the case in magazine publishing when, on April 1, 1997, Dennis Publishing president Stephen Colvin — a former advertising salesman and Belfast-born band member — unveiled Maxim magazine to the United States. Readers cheered the magazine’s irreverent humor just as they did the year before when Colvin launched the inaugural Maxim in the UK.
Young starlets appeared on the cover, turning heads, but the reaction from journalists and magazine competitors was less enthusiastic. Maxim was unequivocally cast off as an April Fools joke, a maverick destined for failure and rapid collapse.
“When I was at Wenner, we laughed about it [Maxim’s launch],” said former Wenner Media CFO John Lagana, who came to Dennis Publishing in November in the same capacity. “Our research analyst gave Maxim six months to a year and it would be gone.”
Wenner Media, founded by Jann Wenner, publishes Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal and US Weekly.
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New York Times media reporter David Carr was another to be caught in Maxim’s exotic headlights. “I, along with a million other people in media, had no understanding of it,” he said.
Lagana and so many others felt the message the book was delivering — a guy’s guide to life spun in a humorous, self-deprecating tone, displayed through photo intensive, short-story form — was not journalistically sustainable.
“We thought everyone would lose interest in the edit, so we didn’t consider them a viable competitor, and, needless to say, we were a little off base,” Lagana said.
A little off base? Try the other side of the moon.
Colvin took Manhattan and America by storm, spurring the creation of four other rapidly successful titles in Stuff, Blender, The Week and Maxim Fashion. Maxim launched at approximately 140,000 copies a month, and in just five-plus years, stands atop the magazine world with a circulation of 2.5 million, according to Capell’s Circulation Report.
“I think it’s brilliant,” ESPN the Magazine editor John Papanek said of Maxim. “It found a way to relegitimize the favorite subject of young men . . . after sports, of course.”
Throw in the fact that Stuff magazine, Maxim’s soon-to-be 4-year-old little brother at a 1.1 million monthly circulation, is the hottest magazine going, outselling FHM, Esquire and GQ, and you’re probably asking yourself, “How did this former band member-turned-publishing president created such a phenomena?”
Colvin simply recognized that a gargantuan demographic of young American males with disposable income was not being served in the men’s magazine market, so he, with the backing of CEO Felix Dennis, offered them something new: “a clearly defined magazine for men that’s funny, sexy and useful,” as Colvin describes it.
Maxim prides itself on giving guys a competitive edge in everyday life, whether they’re looking to take charge in the boardroom or bedroom, impress friends with barroom banter or simply to be entertained. Among the hundreds of never-before-seen stories found in Maxim include how to jump-start a car, how to pull a girl at the airport and honest sex and relationship advice to complement the standard coverage areas of music, movie and book reviews, sports columns, investigative features and celebrity interviews.
No one deals with the guts of the magazine world as intimately as Mediaweek reporter Lisa Granatstein, so the fact that she professes Maxim to have “revolutionized” the men’s category speaks volumes. “It’s turned it upside down,” Granatstein said. “It’s given younger men an option that wasn’t there before, an option to laugh at things. It carved out a whole new niche.”
As it stands, the self-proclaimed “Best thing to happen to men since women” has 14 worldwide editions, stretching from Spain to South Korea.
“Colvin was the guy who arrived here in ’96 with nothing more than a British copy of Maxim and a couple of million dollars from Felix Dennis and he blew it up into this huge business,” Carr said. “You’ve got to hand it to the guy.”
For his vision, leadership and hard work, Adweek magazine did just that, handing Colvin the 2001 Executive of the Year award last March, while also naming Maxim the Hottest Magazine of the Year. Among a long list of accolades, Colvin was recently named one of New York’s Rising Stars in Crain’s New York Business “40 Under Forty” feature.
“Even though I’ve done this [having been interviewed] quite a bit, for a humble Irishman, it’s still pretty self-indulgent to me,” the 39-year-old said from his modest Sixth Avenue office. To Colvin, he’s simply doing his job.
“Perhaps one of my failings is that I don’t appreciate some of the success’s we’ve had,” he said. “I’m always about the challenge as opposed to the success.”
One such challenge, in the form of a New York magazine article, was dropped off on his desk in the spring of 1997. Colvin recites a sentence from the piece like it was yesterday: “I’m glad you’re willing to put X million dollars in it [Maxim] because you’re sure as hell going to lose it!” By charting the growth of Dennis’ titles, the only money Colvin could have conceivably lost over the last 64 months occurred when a defective vending machine on the 14th floor swallowed his change.
Fifteen-month-old Blender — Dennis’ music title that follows Maxim’s credo to talk to the reader and not at the reader –was recently bumped up to monthly status and will raise its rate base from 350,000 to 410,000 in January.
The widely applauded news weekly digest The Week (headed by Pulitzer Prize-winning editor Bill Faulk) was launched in the spring of 2001 alongside quarterly luxury goods magazine Maxim Fashion. The latter’s early allotment of top-tier advertisers, such as Versace, Burberry and Calvin Klein, is indicative of the company’s highly sought-after ad pages, which fuel the Dennis machine.
Maxim accumulated an eye-popping $152 million in ad revenue for 2001, tops in the world, according to the Publishers Information Bureau, and despite the faltering economy of 2002, Colvin’s numbers show a 10 percent year-to-date climb in ad revenue.
When asked how he feels about competitors adapting many of Maxim’s trademarks into their own layout, such as women on the cover, he answers succinctly, “Good on them for reacting, and the way I feel about the men’s magazine market is there’s room for us all to do well.”
Try telling that to the likes of former competitors P.O.V. (Point of View), IconThoughtStyle and Details, all of which were so outclassed they folded. Details is the only of the trio to have made a comeback, albeit a weak one.
Colvin possesses all of the characteristics you’d expect of a successful entrepreneur: intelligence, diligence, determination and charisma.
“He’s a warm, friendly, straight-up guy, someone who returns phone calls,” Granatstein said.
But what sets this happily married father of three apart from the next businessman — aside from his good nature and Irish wit — is his ability to truly listen and learn, as well as his ability to overcome adversity.
Hearing the needs of the American male reader, Colvin was inspired and determined enough to leave his post as Publishing Director at Dennis U.K., boldly going where no man (or publisher) had gone before. Having lost his father at the age of 10 to a heart attack, Colvin learned what it meant to provide for a family through the tireless actions of his mother.
Bombs and Belfast
Iris Colvin, who has since moved to the seaside town of Bangor, Co. Down, raised Stephen and older brother Howard amid the random bombs and constant military presence in Belfast in the late 1960s and early ’70s. And although Sept. 11 struck terror into the hearts of all freedom-loving people, it didn’t have as traumatic an effect on Colvin.
“I grew up in Belfast, for God sake,” he said. “There were car bombs everywhere and that’s not to belittle Sept. 11, but that’s reality. Believe you me, I’ve physically been a lot closer to bombs than I was on Sept. 11. For a lot of people here, that was the first time they had experienced death through terrorism. But that wasn’t for me.”
Colvin’s father was an accountant for Ulster Transport who left his job to open a grocery chain. Soon after he died, Stephen’s mother managed the two stores he operated, and at 15, Colvin left Belfast for an English boarding school and later went on to study economics and politics — “which means not very much,” he said, joking — at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England.
In England, Colvin’s lifelong love of music — he could spend hours discussing favorites U2, Thin Lizzie, Van Morrison, Rory Gallagher, Star Sailor & the Dave Matthews Band — developed into a full-time gig with the band Sam & Galore, which conveniently featured his future wife on keyboard. Aside from playing guitar and providing vocals, he also managed the band.
“I grew up ensconced in the Irish rock scene,” said Colvin, who traveled to Culdaff (Donegal) every summer to see Horselips.
Although Sam & Galore signed a small record deal and even played on tour with Sinead O’Connor at one point, his early 20s produced few pounds and far more failures than presumed. After working for the accounting firm Ernst & Young for a year, which he “hated,” Colvin’s need for steady income led him to drop the band altogether, heading for the world of ad sales and Dutch media conglomerate VNU.
“At 23, I didn’t intend to do that [publishing ad sales] full time, since I was going to be a rock star,” Colvin said. “It just so happens, thankfully, that I failed to be a rock star and dedicated my time and energy to publishing.”
Within VNU’s graduate training program, Colvin grew an insatiable appetite for the magazine publishing industry, and by 1988, Dennis Publishing’s Alistair Ramsey recruited Colvin as sales manager of Computer Shopper in London.
Colvin scaled the corporate ladder to become publishing director of all Dennis newsstand magazines from 1992-96, during which time he also served as company board director. He was directly involved in running the company, and launching magazines, among them PC Pro.
One of Colvin’s closest friends since childhood, Simon Turtle, remains in contact with him and visits his mother, Iris, to this day.
“His mom is fantastic, you couldn’t speak highly enough about her,” said Turtle, a London-based freelance photographer. “And the main thing about Stephen is he’s very consistent. He’s a nice guy, someone with whom I’ve always got on with, never had an argument with and always could always talk to.
“The way both myself and Stephen felt about our childhood, and still do to this day, is that you’re made aware of a society when it gets divided and, it if you have any intelligence, that it’s not a good way for a society to proceed. It makes you aware of what can happen.”
Despite the Troubles that plagued Northern Ireland, Colvin is proud of his roots and will always love Belfast. This is evident in the fact that he brings his wife (a former book editor) and children, Joseph, 8, Natasha, 5, and Harry, 19 months, home to County Down at least once a year to visit their grandmother and relations in the area.
“We had a wonderful childhood, finding happiness in the simple things that kids do, like soccer and bows and arrows,” said Colvin, who names Crawfords Burn (outside of Dublin) and The Crown (Belfast) his favorite pubs in Ireland.
“The paradox of the Northern Ireland situation is that it created a really strong sense of community, from the local church you went to, to your friends; just a really great sense of family,” he said.
It is with that sense of belonging that Colvin assembled a home away from home in Manhattan with a young, talented and ambitious staff. A unit that has stayed, for the most part, consistent over the years, a rarity in the revolving door that is magazine publishing.
In Colvin’s image
Dennis Publishing’s office, which is around the corner from the vibrant Bryant Park, sharply contrasts the stuffy, clinical climate of so much of the competition. Staffers are free to wear what they please and are assembled over six floors in open space. This includes Maxim editor-in-chief Keith Blanchard, who has no walls to separate him from his team.
According to Blanchard, every large organization takes on the qualities of its leaders.
“Playboy is old and intransigent and sort of sleazy like Hef; TBS is a whip-smart maverick with Southern charm like Ted Turner, and so Dennis Publishing in a very real sense reflects Stephen absolutely,” Blanchard said. “We are young and flexible, we have a great sense of humor, we’re intensely driven and intensely successful. And chicks dig us.”
And although Dennis Publishing is known in the industry as a frugal, flat management unit relying on the creative talents of a small staff, Colvin rewards his troops for their dedication. He signed off on 40 round-trip tickets to Jamaica for Maxim’s entire staff last spring to discuss how Maxim achieved its success.
Colvin and his family live on the Upper East Side. He spends his spare time taking them sailing in Connecticut, coaching his daughter’s soccer team, playing tennis and socializing.
“When you have three small children, you don’t really have much spare time,” Colvin said. But he’s still able to rent “real guy movies” like “The Godfather,” “Swingers,” “Rear Window” and all Hitchcock flicks, reading non-Dennis titles such as The Guardian Weekly, New York Times, New Scientist and novels.
“Behind that devilishly cute veneer beats the heart of a die-hard, Protestant-work-ethic workaholic,” said Blanchard, a Princeton graduate and native New Jerseyan. “He refuses to recognize the passing of the 11th hour, makes editors lives hell with last-minute changes that are tough to swallow from a production standpoint but never fail to improve the product in question. He’s definitely the best boss I’ve ever had.”
When asked how he defines success, Colvin wastes no time in volleying a point-blank answer. “Setting goals and achieving them, and also realizing not to set your expectations too high, to be realistic. Success is managing your expectations.”
Taking a look into Maxim’s crystal ball, Colvin says for readers to expect more of the same, but is wary of overextending the brand.
“It’s just a matter of making sure it remains relevant and developing the title,” he said. “There’s no secret agenda, and in this economy, it’s very important that one sticks to what one knows how to do.”
Colvin says to expect new titles in 2004, but won’t comment on what the content area will be. A women’s version of Maxim? An irreverent look at American sports? We’ll have to wait and see.
So, how does one go about working for Dennis Publishing, or magazines in general you ask?
“No one really knows how to get into the world of magazine publishing; you just drift into it,” Colvin said. “And even if you know how, getting in is almost impossible because it’s so competitive. So I got lucky, I got in, was good at it with the gift of gab, obviously I’ve kissed the Blarney Stone and one thing led to another.”