When James Brown sold his failing AIM-listed venture, I Feel Good (IFG), in 2003 for £6.4 million to Dennis Publishing (DP), there were plenty of people in the media industry glad to see him fall on his backside.
Looking back, he doesn’t think IFG’s failure has necessarily done him any harm: ‘I sometimes think your ego and career need a big fxxxing trampling. What I’ve got now is the best thing and that’s freedom.’
It’s a Tuesday afternoon and Brown is picking his son up from school as we talk. His life seems a world away from the boozy bedlam of over a decade ago, when he reinvented mainstream publishing with, Loaded magazine.
Through Brown’s media consultancy, Black Ops, he gets paid to provide what he’s always excelled at giving: his opinion.
He’s worked on various projects, such as advising Jamie Oliver’s talent management agency, Fresh Partners, and revamping the Mail on Sunday’s Night and Day supplement and renaming it Live. Incongruously, he’s also spent a year and a half with Reader’s Digest in the US and the UK. ‘I try to limit myself to two major projects at a time so I can also do TV journalism,’ he says.
In 1999, Brown launched IFG, bringing adult comic Viz, film magazine Hotdog, the avidly perverse Bizarre and paranormal Fortean Times under one banner. However, something was missing, and Brown can now see where he went wrong: ‘We were two years in and we hadn’t launched a men’s mag. I think we didn’t get our priorities right when choosing the best things to do.
‘Retrospectively, I should’ve just put my business head on and said we’re going to repeat elements of Loaded and GQ. If I’d have gone straight into that, I’d still have £4 million in the bank.’
In 2002, he launched Jack. ‘It was pitched somewhere between National Geographic and the old Esquire,’ he says.
The size of the mag was A5, the logo was down the side and illustrations were used. ‘We made it quite hard for people to like,’ Brown admits. It was a no-nonsense, two-fingered salute to Loaded and its imitators like FHM and Maxim: ‘I deliberately gave it a boy’s name, rather than some macho title.’
Brown observes that Jack had £1 million worth of ads booked and that 70,000 copies of the first issue were sold. However, by the time DP’s seasoned owner, Felix Dennis, came in to buy the titles, Hotdog had already been flogged and Jack’s readership had thinned to around 30,000.
The notion of an alternative publishing house with a mass audience hadn’t captured the public’s imagination. ‘Jack didn’t fit into the mainstream. In business, you shouldn’t forget that. It’s not art and sometimes I think I behaved like I thought it was,’ he reflects.
It’s understandable that Brown thought that whatever he touched would turn to gold. After making his mark as a journalist at the music journal New Musical Express, he set up Loaded in 1994 with his deputy editor, Tim Southwell.
The magazine, with its articles about lap dancing clubs, packets of crisps and interviews with the likes of actor Gary Oldman and cult writer and “gonzo” journalist Hunter S Thompson, chimed perfectly with the times.
Football featured heavily – Brown is a diehard Leeds fan – and the UK even had the European Championships as a backdrop in ‘96.
Mixed in with it all were girls, lots of them, from the face of Boddingtons bitter, Melanie Sykes, to adult industry stalwart Jo Guest.
As a mag, Loaded has sold over 30 million copies. The formula has been copied to death, although now the mags concentrate solely on the ladies as opposed to the literature. What appears like a no-brainer was ridiculed in the beginning.
‘It was against the odds that the title got onto the shelf,’ says Brown. As part of IPC Media, Loaded didn’t figure as too high a priority, he recalls.
‘We shared an office with the classified ads team of Amateur Gardener,’ he says. ‘Even up to the launch I had to send faxes and at the top of each fax there was a dot matrix print-out saying: “Sent from the offices of Amateur Gardener.” And I’d be sending faxes to Paul Smith asking for suits or going to Liverpool FC asking to interview Steve McManaman.’
Along with the cynics, people appeared to be willing it to fail. Brown says: ‘A publisher sent in a mock award for the magazine most likely to lose you your job. Everybody in the industry that cared to comment said that it would never work.’
Around a fortnight after the first issue went to press, Brown says he was sitting in the office and chatting to Southwell when a mail sack was dropped by the doorway. They assumed it was mistake.
‘We were like: “What’s that?”
“It’s your post.”
‘The sack was hip height. It was full of fan mail that’d been building up for a couple of weeks as the postmen couldn’t find where we were in the building,’ he notes. The penny dropped. They realised they were onto something.
Brown stayed at Loaded for four and a half years. He says he left after IPC pulled an article about him and staff writer Martin Deeson standing for parliament against John Major and Alan Clarke. ‘[IPC] said it lacked political balance,’ claims Brown. ‘They took it seriously.’
There was, he notes, ‘other stuff’ going on too, citing disagreements over matters like pay and repetitive covers: ‘I like to do new and different things; probably too much. When I left the NME they said I was mad, but I like to stay ahead of the game.’
So he was lured to Condé Nast – ‘they dangled a bag of cash at me’ – charged with raising GQ from the dead, which he did, changing the team and starting the successful Men of the Year awards.
One of Brown’s skills is getting teams of people together: ‘I know that I’m a good talent spotter. I’m good at nurturing people and bringing them through. The thing that I’ve always done is to try and make people who work for me feel like they’ve got the best job in the world.’
After 18 months, he was gone and he’s proud of what he achieved: ‘We helped to make GQ international, setting up in countries like Australia and Italy. It was different to staying in the Loaded offices, eating crisps.’
It takes a large ego to try and take on the publishing giants with a company worth £12 million, but that’s precisely what he went and did with IFG: ‘The big boys out there were trying to stamp us out. Compared to IPC, Condé Nast and EMAP, we were a very small company,’ he says.
And he got the backing to try and make it happen. When it came to taking the City route and raising funds for the AIM float, Brown describes it as ‘an educational and enjoyable experience’.
That doesn’t necessarily make it conventional. When meeting with an investment bank to discuss bringing IFG to market, Brown twigged that ‘something was going on’. He says: ‘My FD was about to get the spreadsheets and laptop out when I realised [the brokers] were drunk.
‘So I got some Viz comics out and spread the pages for them to see. They laughed their heads off and we told them we wanted to re-energise the comic. That was the presentation really.’
A silver lining
As a venture, it may have ended poorly but, since IFG was sold, Brown’s been his own boss: ‘I now earn more money for less work than I’ve ever done. I have a lot of friends who are very wealthy and successful people but they don’t see their kids. I never wanted to do that.’
Describing himself as ‘unemployable’, Brown does his stints of consulting work, appears on TV, and will be shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Kofi Annan and Al Gore at the Leaders in London Summit in November.
Don’t expect him to stay on the sidelines for much longer. Inevitably, he mentions an autobiography but, more interestingly, he says he’s ‘started to develop a new business’ this year.
He’s keeping his cards close to his chest about what it is, hinting only at an acquisition in the offing. After the IFG ‘experience’, Brown is finally ready to prove himself on the bigger stage once more.
‘If I am to really get going on something, I have to be inspired,’ he says. ‘There isn’t a lot of halfway houses with me.’