G. Jr. on
what did in Gear
Sucked in, then spit out, of the lads wind tunnel
By Jeff Bercovici
Launching a successful magazine is as much about building a perception as it is creating a product.
Gear magazine founder Bob Guccione Jr. says that he more or less succeeded at creating the product he had in mind when he started Gear in 1998.
Where he failed was at letting advertisers, and, to a lesser extent, potential readers, know what sort of magazine he had created.
"What we were trying to do is establish ourselves as existing in the middle ground between the lad books and the older guy books," says Guccione, who announced last week that he was suspending publication of Gear and laying off most of its staff pending an autumn relaunch.
"But there’s a gravitational pull from the laddie books" -- sexed-up humor titles like Maxim and FHM -- "that is destructive to Gear. We kept being pulled in. We were in the orbit of a place we didn't want to be in orbit, and our orbit was degrading."
In articulating his vision for Gear, Guccione has often talked about establishing it as a younger-skewing successor to Esquire and GQ, two men's titles that have continued to publish top-notch long-form journalism alongside their celebrity profiles and fashion advice.
"We're producing a magazine that's perhaps the most literate of them all, including GQ and Esquire," he claims.
But too many advertisers didn't see it that way. Responding, perhaps, to Gear's covers, which typically featured a starlet or model in a skimpy outfit and a compromising pose, they assumed Gear was just another lad title, albeit one with a much smaller circulation (500,000) than Maxim (2.5 million), Stuff (1.1 million) or FHM (1 million).
"The fight was being forced on us," says Guccione. "We were going to be characterized as a failure in the lads category. That meant that with the ad community we were spending more of our time debating about what we weren't than we were spending time proselytizing and expanding on what we did well."
A shortage of ad revenue led to other problems, forcing the magazine to cut back on its marketing efforts. That, in turn, contributed to Gear's circulation falling just short of its rate base in the first half of 2002.
"When you're going hand-to-mouth, you really can't build, and your problems start being compounded," says Guccione.
Finally, with the war in Iraq casting a chill over an already sluggish ad economy, he decided to put Gear on hiatus.
"It just seemed to be the perfect time to take a break from publishing to give us time to reposition and to raise capital to expand the company as a whole."
The plan tentatively calls for Gear to publish its next issue in September, in time for the five-year anniversary of its launch.
Between now and then, Gear will get a makeover intended to make it instantly clear what kind of magazine it's not.
"I have 75 to 80 percent of all the thoughts about what I want the new book to be," says Guccione. "It's not all that different from what we are, but it will look different."
The most obvious difference will be on the cover, where there will be fewer women. Gear had already moved tentatively in this direction last year, with covers featuring actors Elijah Wood and Christian Slater. Although the Slater cover sold poorly on the newsstand, the Wood issue was one of the year's best sellers, according to Guccione.
His model for the repositioning is Details, which, after a brief but disastrous run as a lad title, spent half a year on hiatus and returned with a sophisticated new identity that has fared better in the marketplace.
"It's gotta be the fifth incarnation of their magazine, but it's the one that worked," says Guccione.
Other plans include signing up a humorist and a political writer as columnists, upping the number of fashion pages and bringing on a well-known creative director, whom he has already selected but declines to name. Overall, Guccione says he would like to achieve greater editorial consistency than in the past.
"It's not like I have to completely reinvent a new magazine," he says. "I'm only further amplifying the magazine I created in the first place. I wouldn't come back otherwise."
April 8, 2003© 2003 Media Life
-Jeff Bercovici is a staff writer for Media Life.