Jack: James Brown
I Feel Good Founder James Brown shares his new men's magazine Jack, discussing investment tactics and an unusual management approach
Not your conventional businessman, but one with a track record for innovation, leadership and living the life of a Lord, James Brown is notorious. The man behind Loaded and the ‘new lad’ phenomenon that beset the nineties is taking his current company, AIM-listed I Feel Good, to new heights. He’s shaken up the men’s lifestyle sector again with the launch of Jack – a half-pint size magazine straddling the divide between Loaded and National Geographic – and sweating all he can out of on-the-edge titles Bizarre, Viz and Fortean Times. He tells Growing Business about his approach with investors, his unique management style and the career that’s got him where he is today.
You’re not the bog-standard CEO. So what does the role mean to you?
My focus is on the creative end, profile and vision. It’s run by a board of four men and one woman. I’m a bit like the lead singer in that I’m the one you see at the front who attracts attention. I have the reputation as a magazine maker, but people on our board are successful magazine executives in their own right.
How important is that personality in pushing IFG forward?
I suppose without me IFG would be different. But without other guys – Tom, Anna, Jason and Bruce – I wouldn’t be able to do IFG. It’s important in business to have people who think a bit differently. We want to be commercially successful as well as creating things that are innovative, or challenging, exciting and revamp the market we work in. I’ve learnt a great deal without traditional business education. It’s important to be seen at the right times and leading the charge. I’m seen as credible, exciting, high profile journalist able to attract the best talent. It’s probably the most important thing for me in the business. Others can provide financial structure.
How does notoriety help grow a business?
That thing with Trinny and Susannah I did that. Their agent was harassing us so I rang The Sun to tell them that they were the first celebrities ever to try and sue Viz. At the end of the week I was at the in-laws watching Have I Got News for You and there were questions about it, which was funny. It’s good to be able to do things that raise profile. I’ve got no control over the cartoonists at Viz. You try to give them publishing structure and commercial awareness about what to put on the cover, but they’re pretty much a law unto themselves, which I’m fine with. If it sells great. If not it hurts them as well as us. Not sure about management, for me it’s more about leadership.
At West LB you used two cartoons to secure funds. Do you always opt for the alternative approach?
We had a massive presentation with slides and stuff, and I just decided we didn’t need to do it. We’re selling things. When we see investors we do a structured formal presentation of how the company’s developing. I spread the mags out on the table and the figures show that the company’s growing. If you’re selling apples, let them take a bite. Rather than explaining what an apple is, where they’re bought and how many people might buy them. If someone buys it and likes it, crunch, you’re in!
So is it all about selling then?
When I was managing a band I got a publishing deal. My mate had a deal with this guy, Lucian Grainge, who runs Polydor. I went to see him and my mate had said what Lucian does. He said: “He’ll listen to your pitch, stand up, go to the window and play with his ring on his finger and think about it.” So I went in, sat down, and before he’d finished telling me who he was I got up, walked across the room, stared out the window for ages listening to him and playing with my ring. Then I sat back down and we got the deal. I just said ‘I’m not gonna f*** about’ and it worked. We didn’t accept it basically because we were stupid and thought we’d get a bigger deal somewhere else. But it’s all about selling things. The best businesses historically usually came from someone who was a brilliant salesperson or someone with great ideas, like the Jewish rag trade’s influence on Hollywood.
Do you still think journalists have to live the lifestyle?
You couldn’t live the Bizarre lifestyle becasue it’s full of murderers. They’d be coming in with an axe in their back. The Loaded success set a level of unreal expectation for involvement in the subject matter. You can talk to sports journos who live and breathe sport, but I don’t think you could meet people more committed to boozing, partying and self-destruction that was adhered to 24 hours a day by 15 or so guys. I don’t think it’s healthy. You really want some workaholics and obsessives.
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The name IFG isn’t a reference to James Brown, the soul singer, according to you. So what was the reason behind it?
It’s an obvious association. You can’t be disingenuous and say there’s nothing to it. In all honesty, I’ll tell you the truth if you want, it was the process of recovery I went through from my excessive lifestyle of drink and drugs. I was surrounded by lots of people getting better and all I kept hearing was ‘I feel good’ and I kept laughing because nobody knew my second name. And it goes back to needing a bank account for the money from Leeds United and I named the bank account I Feel Good. If we wanted to change it I wouldn’t be bothered. It’s not an emotional attachment.
How do you deal with the City now and the age difference?
The guys are mostly my age – in their late 30s, early 40s. Most are familiar with the mags I produce. I rarely meet someone from an institution who doesn’t know what Viz is because they read it at college. I had three meetings with potential investors recently that have members of staff buying the mag and thinking it’s good. When I left Loaded and said I wanted to set up my own company after GQ my lawyer Julian said I should stay there five or six years and see what I want to do after that. Then, he said, we’ll get some money because you’ll be about the same age as the people you’re raising money from and you’ll have gone through the same life experience, which was good advice. I only stayed for 18 months though, but didn’t buy Viz until a couple of years later, so it was perfect.
How do you keep moving forward at IFG?
For the moment I’m absolutely focused on Jack as a growth driver. I’m comfortable. I have other ambitions and am interested in newspapers, but I don’t have ambitions to work for any other publishing companies. I like the people I work with more than anywhere else. Before I was itching for somewhere else, but now I’m happy. The challenge is to reach profitability in the next 18 months. By 2004 we’ll start to be profitable.
Are you satisfied with what you’ve achieved?
I’ve had a phenomenal career. Lee Chapman once said to me “the high point of my career came at the end of it when we won the championship at Leeds”. A year later they let him go and he dropped down from West Ham, Portsmouth, Ipswich to somewhere in Wales or Bristol. Mine’s been the other way round. First job on NME – dream come true. Second job setting my own mag up, worldwide phenomenon – dream come true. Third job – working at the most luxurious publishing company in the world, having four cars and Savile Row suits made, living the life of a Lord – just fantasy. So that’s actually quite difficult to keep up with. I’m now very happy when people come up and say “that was the best Christmas party I’ve ever been to” or “thanks for giving me a chance” – I sound a bit like David Brent now – but I’m happy with that.
What do you regret in your business life?
People talk about the impact, fun and effect Loaded had. I invented the bloody wheel and didn’t own the copyright. Look at history and people are crippled by that kind of mistake. The guy who invented the television was from somewhere like Russia or Sweden. He didn’t protect it and you never heard from him again.
Who are you following in terms of running a publishing company?
We’re doing it our own way is based on expertise of four or five different companies we’ve come from. Felix and Alistair Ramsay, who runs Felix’s company in the UK, are there as guides if we need them and were instrumental in setting up services and infrastructure, so we didn’t have to invest huge amounts early on. I think Conde Nast was a huge influence – a selling environment to advertisers and readers and that’s what we want to do here. When I was younger thought it’s us against the world – part of what made us successful. I can now sit down with people who want to put you out of business. You can sit and learn.
Does that drive you on?
Absolutely. A really big player in the magazine industry asked our printer not to print the magazines. I just thought ‘great, we’ve really irritated them’. Pathetic that was.
So there are dirty tricks going on against IFG?
Totally. It’s business isn’t it. Jack stimulated the market, which has been doing better since it launched. I don’t think about firebombing anyone’s house anymore, whereas I did three years ago. I’d get angry if people were trying to stop us from starting. That’s what our aura was then, but now I see it as a sign of their weakness. If they’re trying to stop us working I’m not trying to stop anyone else. I’m just trying to make mine really good.
Felix Dennis says you’ve got the Midas touch. Is that true?
He gave me half a million pounds – he’s got to make me look good. It was nice of him to say that but it’s a bit of a curse at times as people expect you to do something brilliant every time and it’s just not like that. I’m good at magazines. Jack’s working – stimulating readers, advertisers and the market. Acquisitions like Viz and Bizarre give you structure – they were strategic moves. And you do things that don’t work, like Hotdog. If everything turned to gold it would be boring. That’s what I always tell myself. If I’d owned Loaded I’d have probably killed myself because there was no structure. If we’d had the money or been given basic royalties we’d have probably bought jets and things. Ironically I had a mad vision of me flying a jet into the Eiffel Tower – not on purpose, just by mistake. People ended up in mental hospitals. It was so successful, so fast – a classic crash and burn situation. Luckily I walked off to a nice environment at Conde Nast that helped me grow a bit as a person. I basically stopped killing myself.
You’ve said you’re not into customer demographics. Do you consciously think about your customers or is your assumption that if you and your team enjoy it, so will the customer?
My motivation is to make money. If I wanted to have fun I’d do a fanzine or a website at home. It’s a living and a business. I used to think about what the readers like at Loaded and listened to what they said. One of the talents of a good journalist is the ability to listen. I don’t give that impression at times because I tend to talk over people and get over-excited about things in an exciteable way. But I do a lot of listening, whether in bars, taxis or radio or reading the business pages, which gives you a great lead on loads of stories.
How has listing so early on AIM affected IFGs growth? You didn’t have that period of organic growth.
It was just a necessity to list on AIM. We wanted the money to launch mags and that was a way to get it. There were still major investments in the internet, but it was coming to an end of investing in startups. You’re asking that question from the perspective of someone who deals with business people all the time. I went in from the aspect of doing it for the first time. I wanted the money in the bank. The only thing I did know was that I wanted a relationship with another publishing company that was constructive rather than proprietorial. Big publishing companies were offering to pay but wanted 51%. What Felix did was put in 500,000 for 10% and he’s not all over us. Great.
James Brown CV
1987 First job as live reviews editor of NME. Sounds magazine.
1994 Creates Loaded for IPC
1997 Joins Conde Nast to edit GQ magazine
1999 Resigns by ‘mutual consent’ after an article appears listing Field Marshal Rommel as one of the Sharpest Men of the 20th century, infuriating Jewish groups. Launches Leeds Leeds Leeds, a Leeds United fanzine. Founds IFG
2000 Lists I Feel Good Holdings Plc (IFG) on AIM in May raising 3.6m. Launches film buff title Hotdog. Backers include Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood and Felix Dennis, founder of Dennis Publishing
2001 Raises 7.3m via rights issue. Buys Viz, Fortean Times and Bizarre from John Brown Publishing in 6.4m deal, increasing staff from 18 to 65. Launches Jack magazine. Felix Dennis resigns as non-executive chairman, with Alistair Ramsay, managing director of Dennis Publishing taking over
2002 Sells Hotdog to Paragon Publishing. Four of the five magazines are profitable on sales of close to 500,000 in the men’s lifestyle sector, with Jack due to make profit by the end of 2003. Turnover for first six months to June 2002 at 3.5m
I was surrounded by lots of people getting better and all I kept hearing was ‘I feel good’ and I kept laughing because nobody knew my second name.