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Some magazine experts insist a magazine needs four years to establish itself and become a hit. For British-born Maxim, it only took about four seconds.

"Four seconds is all the lifetime you get on the newsstands in Britain," says Stephen Colvin, president of Dennis Publishing, which produces the so-called "laddies" book. "If you can't tell people what you're about and make them want to read you in four seconds, you've failed."

SOARING NUMBERS

Since Maxim made its U.S. debut in 1997, the only thing that's become more popular is Pokemon and the only thing that's grown faster is the Internet.

The title launched with a rate base of 175,000 and rocketed to 1.5 million by the end of 1999. In the second half of the year, Maxim's subscriptions spiked 102.3% and overall average circulation jumped 126.7%, according to Audit Bureau of Circulations.

The rate base will hit 2 million by the second half of 2000, says Mr. Colvin.

"We were hoping for 500,000 by 2000," says a bemused Mr. Colvin.

Lance Ford, group publisher, says ad pages for Maxim's four issues in 1997 totaled about 241. With 10 issues for each year, ad pages climbed to 629 in '98, then up to 956.34 for '99, according to Publishers Information Bureau. Ad revenues for 1999 were about $46 million, a 210.8% change over 1998.

New advertisers in 1999 included Adobe Systems, Calvin Klein, Chrysler, CNET, Diesel, Nautica, Levi Strauss & Co.'s Slates and Sony Electronics.

What makes the magazine's target demographic, U.S. males aged 18 to 34, reach for Maxim over its competitors?

The easy answer is the beauty on the cover and the creed that's spelled out above her in six simple words across a black strip at the top of every issue: "Sex. Sports. Beer. Gadgets. Clothes. Fitness." It sounds like the national anthem for frat houses.

MAGAZINE'S SOUL

"That's the magazine's soul," Mr. Colvin says. "We talk to guys in a language they understand."

But there is much more to understand about Maxim's language than a cover model hotter than a George Foreman grill and the young-stud mantra above it.

"We saw a huge, untapped universe of men that weren't being served," says Mr. Ford.

That universe is made of what could be termed "adultescents," 18- to 34-year-old guys who cling to the trappings of youth culture. By 2005, there will be almost 33 million of them.

"I think a circulation of 5 million by then," one Maxim staffer says, "is not out of the question."

If other publishers have been perplexed about what men really want, then the answer is elementary to Maxim: It's the tone, stupid, Mr. Ford says.

"The tone of old guard, the GQs, the Playboys, is snooty. They speak down to their audience. All they really do is deliver an exclusive band of readers to an exclusive band of advertisers. They think it's really something when you hit 700,000 in circulation," he says. "We designed Maxim to be irreverent first -- to embody the kind of humor you saw in `Seinfeld.' And it had to be informative in a very entertaining way."

SNACK-SIZE READING

That chat would be irreverent -- think snarky talk-show host Craig Kilborn writing every piece -- and yet informative in snack-food size mini-articles, like those in the "How To" section ("Survive a Nasty Avalanche," "Pick Up a Woman While Cruising on Horseback"), "Circus Maximus" ("Penis-cloning Kits," "Valentine's Day Zoo Sex Tour") and "Grinder," where everything from desensitizing sprays to men's jeans to videogames are reviewed for readers, or scanners -- a more apt description.

"We're moving from a nation of readers to a nation of viewers," Editor in Chief Mike Souter explains. Mr. Souter, who took over the reins in April 1999, admits he delegates text-editing chores to others. "I'm photograph-obsessed," he laughs.

Mr. Souter says he spends perhaps two-thirds of his budget, beyond staff and rent, on artwork. The result is memorable photography that defines Maxim's attitude as confidently as Walker Evans' photos capture the Depression. Shots include Pierce Brosnan spitting out a martini, Dennis Hopper lighting up a stogie with a blowtorch and Drew Carey bathing like a Cleveland Cleopatra in a tub of beer.

Maxim may be the alpha male in a pack of like-minded titles. Details, Gear and Men's Journal feature covers with sexy models and slap-and-tickle article blurbs (from Gear: "The Man Who Sells Models' Eggs").

Meanwhile, Maxim spun off Stuff, a brother publication for a twentysomething audience. It appeared four times in 1999 and will publish eight times this year, with a first-half guaranteed rate base of 550,000.

"I can see it hitting a million, perhaps a million and a half circulation within a couple years," says Carolyn Kremins, associate publisher of Maxim and publisher of Stuff.

Potential Maxim competitors such as Icon and Bikini bit the dust. Even successful British imports such as Emap USA's FHM may have to fight hard to win over readers. Unlike Maxim, FHM hasn't changed the U.S. version, says Samir Husni, professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi and a close magazine industry observer. He points out that while Maxim changed the graphic design, type of paper and size of its U.S. launch, FHM has not.

PERFECT NET MAGAZINE

"When will the other editors and magazines get it?" Mr. Husni asks. "Maxim found the three secrets to success for a magazine today: Give people more information in less time and less space. That's why Maxim will also be the perfect Internet magazine."

According to "The Lycos 50," a feature of the search engine that tracks the 50 most popular searches on its service every week, Maxim cover girls usually spark a stampede of search queries.

After pumping in about $1 million, Dennis Publishing relaunched Maximmag.com last year with original content. Top10Links.com lists Maxim as the No. 2 most popular men's publication online behind Playboy.

"You know," muses Mr. Ford, "in many ways, we're more of a Web magazine. I wonder how long it will take us to be successful there, too?"

Four seconds would be a good guess.

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