'OK' Publisher Lashes Out at Magazine's Doubters

Boasts Circulation of 500,000, Attacks 'Shifty' American Media Chief

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Watch out U.S. magazine business: Dirty Des is here, and he's starting to enjoy himself.
Richard Desmond
Richard Desmond Credit: Reuters/Ian Waldie

U.K. press baron Richard Desmond -- dubbed Dirty Des by the British press because he used to own a handful of pornographic magazines -- this week struck back at rivals and skeptics who said his OK magazine wouldn't make it in the States. Among other insults, he dubbed American Media chief David Pecker "shifty," and in a statement of the somewhat obvious, he noted that WPP boss Martin Sorrell -- with whom Mr. Desmond was recently engaged in a legal spat -- is "short."

Specific accusations
In an interview with Advertising Age, his more specific accusations included a statement that Time Warner was trying to protect People magazine by "putting out a lot of shit" about OK. And, surprisingly, he claimed that OK will report average paid circulation of 534,000 for the first half of 2006 in its inaugural publisher's statement to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. That would be an astounding success for a new title moving into a crowded market.

What about reports on both sides of the Atlantic that OK sales were soft and uneven? "You can tell all those wankers to f--k off," he said cheerily, "because these are the figures."

Though early sales did disappoint, the magazine made several changes, including cutting its cover price to $1.99 from $3.29 for an indefinite period, and now has about 700,000 paying readers each week, he said.

Larger rivals
Time Inc.'s People remains the undisputed category champ with average paid circulation of 3.7 million, according to its publisher's statement for the second half of last year. Wenner Media's Us Weekly reported 1.7 million; American Media's Star, 1.4 million; and In Touch Weekly from Bauer Publishing, 1.2 million.

But OK may find doubters when it files its sales figures. One media buyer, when told what paid circulation OK estimates it will report, called the number hard to believe. "From what I've heard from the competitors who look at their numbers, they're tanking," the buyer said. "They should say 'Goodbye, mate' to the U.S. market."

Mr. Desmond, chairman of media conglomerate Northern & Shell, has heard worse -- like when he bought the Express Group, publisher of the Express and Star newspapers. Before the government approved the deal, Mr. Desmond was attacked as unfit because he published the British edition of Penthouse and owned pornographic TV stations.

'Penthouse' publisher
"'This is a Penthouse publisher,'" he recalled opponents saying. "'He locks people in cupboards, he swears at people, kills people, beats people up, mafia, what else.' The only thing they didn't call me was a burglar."

There was more of the same when he started OK in England 13 years ago. But OK grew into a juggernaut and launched editions all over the world; its next stops are Mexico and Turkey.

In the U.S., plenty in the industry have doubted OK was even delivering its rate base of 400,000. But Mr. Desmond also said last week that OK will raise that rate base to 750,000 for the second half of the year instead of 450,000 as planned.

Anemic ad-page sales, a glaring weakness at America's OK, are largely the result of potshots from rivals and a focus on building circulation, Mr. Desmond said. "The people who are advertising with us, which there aren't many, are getting the bargain of a f--ing lifetime."

WPP dustup
Then there was the dustup with WPP -- in February, Northern & Shell North America filed a $5.5 million lawsuit in London alleging the advertising conglomerate didn't meet a promise to deliver 15 ad pages from its clients to early issues of OK in the U.S. WPP, which has said no such guarantee was made, declined to comment.

Looking forward, however, Mr. Desmond remains positively positive of success. "What we want to do now," he said, "is get the sales to a million, get the advertising in, and progress and start more magazines." He said OK spent about $45 million in its launch year, is budgeted to spend some $25 million in 2006, might break even next year and should turn a small profit by 2008.
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