Felix Dennis, the larger-than-life publishing magnate who founded Maxim magazine and nurtured some of the biggest names in media, died Sunday at his home in the U.K., according to a statement posted to his website. He was 67 and had battled throat cancer since 2012.
"Felix was a real swashbuckling innovator," Steven Kotok, CEO of Dennis Publishing in the U.S., which owns The Week and Mental Floss, told Ad Age. "He was willing to try new things and take wild chances."
Those wild chances began in 1967, when Mr. Dennis co-founded Oz, a counter-culture magazine that sparked a high-profile obscenity trial in Great Britain.
Mr. Dennis and other Oz editors were charged with obscenity and conspiring to "debauch and corrupt the morals of young children" after its "School Kids" issue let 20 teenage editors publish their views on topics including drugs and sex. The Oz editors lost the trial, though the verdict against them was later overturned.
"He was a true product of the '60s," said Drew Kerr, a PR consultant who worked with Mr. Dennis from 1997 to 2009. "He grew up very poor and then outwitted everybody."
In 1974, Mr. Dennis founded Dennis Publishing with the rollout of Kung-Fu Monthly. The idea for the magazine came to him after walking past a movie theater where a Bruce Lee movie was playing, according to Mr. Kerr. The line for the movie, Mr. Dennis had noticed, stretched down the street.
The idea was a success and he extended his publishing empire in the late '70s with technology magazines including PC World and MacUser. Mr. Dennis ultimately became one of the richest people in Great Britain, thanks in large part to his founding of the mail-order company MicroWarehouse.
A portion of the profits from Dennis Publishing go toward a trust supporting Mr. Dennis's Heart of England project, which aims to plant 10 million native trees to create the largest contiguous forest in England.
In 2002, Mr. Dennis published a book of poetry, "A Glass Half Full."
His biggest splash in the United States came in 1997 with the rollout of a U.S. edition of Maxim magazine, which initiated a boom in so-called lad magazines aimed at young men and throwing a scare into traditional men's magazines. The laddie books were a kind of young men's service magazine, with a strong voice, an arguably juvenile sense of humor and plenty of images of scantily clad women.
"What people forget now is that the conventional wisdom was that this kind of magazine wouldn't work in the U.S. because it would be too racy for advertisers," recalled Mr. Kotok, who has worked at Dennis Publishing since 1996. "But he believed that if you created a brand that connected with people, it was the silver bullet and the rest was just details. He was proven right, again and again."
Mr. Dennis wrote about the high-flying early days of Maxim in a 2009 column published in The Week.
"On All Fools' Day 1997, Maxim U.S. sprang into existence with a cover price of $2.99 and a total print run of 200,000 copies," he wrote. "Within three years, Maxim was selling five times that number of copies. Within six years, it was selling ten times that number. Its relentless rises in circulation ripped apart the existing US men's lifestyle category and our stalwart publisher, Lance Ford, poached from Condé Nast, began finally to reach advertising clients who had kept him waiting in the lobby for months on end. Advertising dollars rolled in and we were off to the races."
Maxim became a powerhouse in the magazine world, inspiring several spinoffs including another Dennis Publishing title, Stuff, as well as competitors like FHM and Gear. Its success inspired Conde Nast to adopt a similarly cheeky approach to Details, which raided Maxim in 1999 for its then editor Mark Golin. The move led to an incident that illustrates Mr. Dennis's own cheekiness.
Instead of issuing a standard press release wishing Mr. Golin good luck, Mr. Dennis had his company issue an announcement saying Sammy the office hamster would take over as editor in chief of Maxim, according to Mr. Kerr.
"We issued the press release and The Wall Street Journal published a story about it," Mr. Kerr said.
Maxim's U.S. circulation grew to more than 2.5 million, and in 2007 Mr. Dennis sold the U.S. edition, along with Blender and Stuff magazines, to investors led by Quadrangle Partners for about $250 million. Facing economic headwinds affecting the magazine industry, the buyers shuttered Stuff immediately and later closed Blender too.
Although Maxim's circulation remains high, at just over 2 million, its fortunes have dimmed, with print ad pages off 32% this year, according to Media Industry Newsletter. Its total paid and verified circulation fell 20% to just over 2 million last year, with single-copy sales declining 22%, according to the Alliance for Audited Media.
Bilgari Holdings, a restaurant holding company that includes Steak 'n Shake, bought Maxim from Alpha Media Group earlier this year.
"Felix used to say, 'I know what people want two minutes before they realize it,'" said Mr. Kerr. "And he really did live up to it."
Dennis Publishing now owns The Week and Mental Floss in the U.S. The company's employees met Monday morning, when they were told both magazines will continue on their current course.
Mr. Dennis was not involved in the day-to-day or even month-to-month operations of the titles, according to Mr. Kotok.
"We will continue to invest in and grow both The Week and Mental Floss," Mr. Kotok said in an email sent to Dennis Publishing staff Monday. "We are still expanding the scope of TheWeek.com; we are still taking additional space for Mental Floss on the 6th floor; we are still hungry for new launches and acquisitions."
"Felix was proud of all that we had achieved and wanted this to continue," he added.
There is no plan to sell the company, he noted in the email.
"All of us here are realizing what a privilege it was to know him," Mr. Kotok said. "He was a wildly original person and lived life on his own terms and conducted his publishing company the same way."
A number of people in the publishing community posted notes and remembrances of Mr. Dennis to Facebook and Twitter, including Bloomberg Media CEO Justin Smith, who was president of The Week from 2001 until 2007.
Sad to learn of my former boss Felix Dennis' passing. He was a great teacher of the magazine business and truly one-of-a-kind character.— Justin B. Smith (@Justin_B_Smith) June 23, 2014