Is he the world’s smartest magazine publisher?

The twentieth century was “The Magazine Century”. Times when great people did great things with magazines, whose births and deaths tracked the lives of readers everywhere. Magazines will never again be so important, so profitable, so pervasive. Or so easily-defined. Even when we get used to describing digital editions as “magazines”, it will never be the same.

I cannot pass up an opportunity to celebrate the 400-year publishing phenomenon of magazines, before the blurring of digital media content spoils the fun. So, who is (or was) the world’s smartest magazine publisher?

There are a few candidates, all of them people of real achievement – and some idiosyncrasy: two Americans, a Frenchman and a Brit.

Man of ‘Time’

The Yale and Oxford-educated Henry Luce, who died 45 years ago, launched America’s most famous magazine Time, as well as Fortune, Life and Sports Illustrated. He was the country’s largest and most influential magazine publisher for almost 40 years. Time magazine had 100,000 subscribers within 12 months of launch in 1923. Luce’s pioneering news weekly is credited with inventing (or at least making common parlance of) words like socialite, pundit, kudos and tycoon. The Chinese-born son of a Presbyterian minister was described as the country’s “most influential private citizen” – despite reported 1960s experimentation with LSD during which he claimed to have talked to God.

First billionaire

Another American, the 23-year-old Bill Ziff, rushed back from studying philosophy in Germany to inherit his father’s hobby publisher in 1953. Although not at all prepared for a publishing career, the younger Ziff built two huge magazine groups spanning cars, sports, and computing. The publicity-shy William Bernard Ziff Jr has been described as “one of the great architects of special interest publishing”. And, perhaps, the first magazine industry billionaire. In 1978, he sold his specialist consumer magazines to CBS for $700m when he was diagnosed with cancer and told he had only a few years to live. But the publicity-shy Ziff didn’t slow down for a minute. The man whose Popular Electronics cover story on the Altair computer had, in 1975, inspired the 19-year-old Bill Gates to get into programming, piled into the technology market. By 1994, Ziff’s seven computer magazines had advertising revenue of $700m and 3 million readers in the US alone. His 1million-circulation PC Magazine had ad revenue of $280m making it the largest computer magazine in the world and the ninth largest magazine of any kind in the US. A full 16 years after his terminal diagnosis, Bill Ziff sold his fast-growing computer magazine group for $1.4bn to private equity, raising even more from his tech exhibitions and ZDNet online businesses. He died in 2006, aged 76.

Saviour of ‘Elle’

The completely self-educated Daniel Filipacchi is an 84-year old French former jazz and rock music promoter, art collector and historian, book publisher and DJ who was a typesetting apprentice at age 13 and post-War photographer for Paris Match. His eclectic career has spanned music, publishing, photography and surreal art. He produced French tours, TV shows and records for Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Thelonius Monk; published books on surreal art and magazines on cooking, boats and photography; and French editions of Playboy and Penthouse. Filipacchi launched the country’s most successful teenage music magazine in the 1960s, Salut Les Copains, which raced to a million circulation on the back of his own music TV show (based on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand). He bought and revitalised the legendary Paris Match in the 1970s. In the 1980s, Filipacchi (at age 53) and his friend Jean-Luc Lagardere transformed (and internationalised, with 25 editions) the then struggling Elle, as part of their acquisition of venerable French publishing house Hachette. Along the way, they crossed the Atlantic to acquire the former Ziff Davis specialist magazine business (Car and Driver et al) which had been bought and sold post-Ziff by CBS and, then, Peter Diamandis. Like the worldwide editions of Elle and Hachette’s one-time status as the world’s largest publisher of women’s magazines, the US business now belongs to Hearst.

Larger than life

However, my choice as “The world’s smartest magazine publisher” is another larger-than-life character who has brought passion, energy, adventure, huge creativity, and some eccentricity –  to the world into which he stumbled 40 years ago.

Felix Dennis left art college in the North London suburb of Harrow to be a not-so-hot drummer in rock bands. It was the end of the

OZ: famous trial of Felix and friends

1960s and he moved from job to job, dressing shop windows, cutting grass and eventually graduating (as a high school drop-out) from a street seller to becoming co-editor of the edgy, satirical magazine Oz, which had been transplanted from Australia by Richard Neville. He was jailed along with his two colleagues after an infamous obscenity trial over the magazine’s Schoolkids’ Issue. The three were freed on appeal in 1971, a replay of Neville’s experience in Australia eight years previously.

Two years later, Felix launched Kung Fu Monthly. Bruce Lee was hot but the new poster-magazine (pin it on the wall after reading) had a budget of just £50. He need not have worried: profits reached £60,000 within six months as the fledgling Dennis Publishing racked up 14 international licenses – including a Cantonese edition in Hong Kong. The new company followed up with fan titles for Star Wars and ET movies.

The search for more durable magazines led to the acquisition and launch of young men’s hobby magazines in bikes, cars, music, computer games and gadgets. Felix was looking everywhere and listening to anyone who had a magazine idea. In 1978, he struck gold with Personal Computer World (PCW), the UK’s first ‘microcomputer’ magazine.

It had been launched (believe it or not) by a Croatia-born newsagent, Angelo Zgorelec. PCW‘s first issue cover model was the NASCOM-1, a long-forgotten British home computer kit costing £197.50 and employing a 1HMz processor with 2Kb of RAM. Zgorelec had read all about it on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

PCW: xxx

PCW: sold to VNU for £3m

Dennis paid the grateful newsagent £100,000 for PCW and then flipped the booming magazine to Dutch publisher VNU the following year for a cool £3m. His new company was up and running.

That was the start of a pattern for Felix Dennis of being into markets early, forming productive partnerships, being focused on what readers most wanted, always passionate but never slow to sell a much-loved asset if the price was right. Another part of the pattern was a relentless enthusiasm for the American market, graveyard of many another UK company. Dennis’ success across the Atlantic started with Kung Fu Monthly when he teamed up with New York-based Peter Godfrey and Robert Bartner, introduced by longtime friend and Time Out founder Tony Elliott. In 1985, he launched Mac User – just 21 months after the world was introduced to the Apple Macintosh computer. Within three years, Dennis had sold the magazine’s US and worldwide rights to Ziff Davis for a cool $23m. The buzz was getting louder.

In 1987, just as Felix Dennis gratefully banked Bill Ziff’s cheque, he and his American partners launched MicroWarehouse. It rapidly became the world’s leading direct mail catalogue retailer of IT products and services to business. At the height of its dominance in a pre-internet, computer-frenzied world, MicroWarehouse had 3,500 employees in 13 different countries. By 2000, it had worldwide sales of $2.6bn. But, by then, Felix and his partners had cashed in on a successful Nasdaq flotation, making him at least $100m richer.

Meanwhile, he had continued his Anglo-American strategy by launching his own Computer Shopper in 1988 (same name, same formula as Ziff Davis’s winning US monthly). By the 1990s, the UK magazine was selling over 120,000 copies and regularly publishing issues of more than 500 pages, the majority of them ads (arguably, what the readers most wanted).

Maxim etc

Maxim: global men’s mag

For his next trick, Dennis jumped into men’s lifestyle magazines. We will one day have difficulty believing exactly what happened for the brief, shining moment (well, 10 years, then) when men’s monthly magazine profits dwarfed most others – and then all but vanished. Part of it is a tale of leapfrog, springing from the UK.

First came Loaded which roared into life from IPC in 1994 and leapt to sales of 450,000. Hot on its heels came EMAP’s relaunch of FHM whose UK sales reached almost 50% higher and then added 31 editions around the world. And, in 1995, along came Maxim, Dennis’s clever international brand, no.3 in the UK but which scored biggest in the US and, within 10 years, had a combined 3.8m circulation through international editions in 19 countries.

By 2007, when the men’s market was in sharp decline, Felix Dennis sold his US magazines (Maxim, Blender and Stuff) to private equity firm Quadrangle for a reputed $300m. By then, he was already on his way to a new publishing fortune, courtesy of a brilliant weekly.

The Week has many claims to be the world’s most successful magazine. This clever, well-written news digest (“All You Need to Know About Everything That Matters”) was launched in the UK by a former Daily Telegraph newspaper editor in 1995. Dennis was an early investor and subsequently bought the magazine outright. Another great deal.

The Week has just celebrated its 28th consecutive increase in half-yearly audited circulation which is now over 190,000. It sells as many copies in the UK as The Economist. The US edition, launched in 2001, is selling more than 500,000 copies, has just notched up its 15 consecutive increase, and is the fastest-growing American magazine.

The Week:

The Week: success in print

This is not what is meant to happen to magazines in the 21st century, with hard copy in continual decline. But, then, that is the Felix Dennis way. He has built a fortune (he is one of the UK’s 100 wealthiest people) by flipping media business backwards and forwards across the Atlantic. Publishers as diverse as Richard Desmond and the late lamented EMAP could warn you of the perils of even trying to be that clever. He has taken on challenges that initially looked at least dubious (Auto Express had failed when he bought the licence from Axel Springer, and of course, there was The Week). And, for an ageing hippy, he succeeds in motivating a painfully young team even while looking after long-term partners, friends and employees.

But that is only part of the story. In case you had missed it, this publisher-above-publishers writes some pretty powerful and evocative poetry which he has performed with actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company, throughout the UK; and also coast-to-coast in the US. In 2006, he wrote a bestseller “How to Get Rich” which, among much else, describes his crack cocaine addiction (and abrupt ending of it) and an admission that he had spent over $100m on drink, drugs and women.

Then there is his forest. Dennis began planting trees in the late 1990s, and has since cemented his passion for British forestry by setting up a charity dedicated to planting a substantial native broadleaf forest (mostly oak and ash trees) around his home in Warwickshire. Between his country estate and the Heart of England Forest, over 1,874 acres of woodland have been planted, and continues at the rate of 300 acres per year.


Dennis: the magazine champion

Today, however, the gutsy, opinionated, ever-active magazine champion is preoccupied by something else. A few weeks ago, he wrote this blog on his web site:

“Grateful to be alive six months after a diagnosis of cancer; five months after surgery; nearly three months after the completion of a long course of radiotherapy. I should learn to live with or ignore side effects, lasting or temporary. I should ‘consider the alternative’, (in that grim but universal phrase often in the mouths of cancer surgeons, doctors and radiographers). Above all, I should compare my lot with those poor buggers for whom there is little hope; who know they are about to die and yet who face their destiny with courage, with dignity and, above all, without whining. Yeah. Right.”

Get well soon, Felix. The world needs you.

The lovely, infuriating Felix Dennis died on 22 June 2014, aged 67. He lived at least three lives as a publisher, poet and performer. And he made magazines great. RIP Felix 1947-2014. 

From The Guardian, 23 June 2014: Felix Dennis – cackling laugh, roistering humour, ribald in appetite, loyal and immensely generous – has died aged 67 from cancer. One of the richest men in Britain, he made his money in magazine publishing, and was ruthless to the core when it came to pursuing a business opportunity: “I’m an amoral sod,” he said. He was unembarrassed by a decade of excess in the 1980s, during which he spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on drink and crack cocaine, with “14 naked hookers catering to my every whim,” he boasted, and “partying like a lunatic”. In later years, he wrote poetry and, following the publication of his first collection, A Glass Half Full (2002), undertook reading tours like a rock star, travelling by jet or helicopter to gigs. Yet he joked that he would be remembered above all as one of the three young editors in the Oz obscenity trial of 1971. Felix credited the counter-culture magazine Oz with teaching him how to be an entrepreneur. It was a talent that he developed with spectacular success, establishing one of the world’s leading independent media companies, with a current turnover of £100m a year.

Felix Dennis picture courtesy of
[ do default stuff if no widgets ]

4 thoughts on “Is he the world’s smartest magazine publisher?

  1. arifdurrani

    Aug 28. 2012

    Hi Colin, nice considered piece. You’ve nicked our photo of Felix from my 2009 Media Week interview but I’m inclined to ignore that as it was such a good read –

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  2. arifdurrani

    Aug 28. 2012

    Hi Colin, an enjoyable romp – you’ve nicked our photo of Felix from my 2009 Media Week interview but am inclined to overlook.

    Reply to this comment
  3. Andy Cowles

    Sep 01. 2012

    Fine post. I didn’t know Felix was ill, which makes his appearance at this year’s PTC Awards all the more notable. He spoke compellingly for about 45 minutes, a mixture of poetry, sound advice and sharp insights. I’ve seen and heard a lot of publishers, but he was genuinely inspiring.

    I wish him well.

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