Behind the Cover: An Interview with Monocle Magazine’s Tyler Brûlé
Early last year, as we strolled the streets of London, we decided to take the opportunity to sit down with a series of editors that are, in our young Gopher-peepers, some of our most admired peers. From these meetings a series of interviews, videos, print projects and – why hide it? – a bit of a taste for scotch resulted. Not all of these face-to-face encounters will end up here or in the pages of the print edition, but if there is one conversation that we wanted to share as the first on this series of meetings with the ink-and-paper glitterati, it is no other than the one we had with Tyler Brûlé, the founder of Monocle Magazine.
Monocle is without a doubt one of the most influential magazines of these past few years, both in terms of its design and the content it presents. Its business model has been a topic of frequent commentary in media gatherings and an example of a counter-current initiative that has shaken the publishing world with its successful implementation of a counterintuitive revenue structure. Brulé’s credentials include funding and directing Wallpaper* magazine for half a decade, and heading up Winkreative, a multi-pronged agency that focuses on branding, publishing, advertising and design producing high-quality material. We got together with Mr. Brûlé at their old Boston Place offices [ they’re now based out of the Midori House ] last summer and talked about the upcoming plans for the Monocle brand, his outlook on the publishing market nowadays and about why he doesn’t care all that much about twitter, facebook or all that social media that is social inasmuch as it is virtual.
Let’s begin with the boring question: digital, print, web, free… Would you give your two cents on the future of publishing, of magazines?
I think that the future belongs to the courageous, particularly if we’re talking about the print context. I don’t think that there are that many courageous people out there anymore. To put it in context, I don’t this should be a digital versus print discussion and I don’t say that for reasons of diplomacy, I don’t give a shit. I think that the problem with a lot of media companies predates the situation that we’re in today, which predates economic collapse and all of this predates the arrival of the iPad or the rise of the web.
I go back to perhaps the late 80’s and certainly through the 90’s when we saw a significant change, primarily in the United States – and of course the United States being the premier media market the other countries and other markets follow. Everything we saw in the United States then was the corporatization of the editorial floor. We saw the consolidation of a lot of magazine businesses and a lot of newspapers. Family publishing companies selling up to bigger corporations, bigger corporations of course worried about shareholder value and to bring in shareholder value you need to bring in more consultants, consultants suggests that we should replace editors with accountants and that’s where we are today. So I think that the situation we’re in is really one that started two decades ago. But the problem is [ the lack of ] courageous people running most of the world’s biggest media companies and even small media companies as well; so I think that’s really the issue here, not one about whether we’re going to be reading off of paper or whether we’ll be reading off backlit screens or whether we’re going to be reading on the moon. Is not about that.
We need to see a situation where there is power on the editorial floor – or tv control room, or radio studio or monthly women’s magazines. We need to see visionary and courageous people who are willing to go and have a fight, who are able to construct a persuasive and convincing argument and convince their management as to why there needs to be some significant serious changes made.
Beyond your editorial role, you have developed Monocle into a brand that has a wide-ranging series of spin-offs: shops, trousers, candles, furniture. Is this brand diversification something you planned when conceiving the Monocle brand or has it grown naturally since the success of the magazine?
I think that there was always a vision and we were always quite clear about, let’s say, what our core editorial strategies would be; so it wasn’t really much of a discussion if the magazine was going to be in one format or another. We already knew in the year 2005 when we were raising money to do the magazine that it was going to be collectible, something bookish, tactile. We knew that whatever we did on the website couldn’t be a re-hash of the magazine, it couldn’t repeat the magazine and that’s when we took a broadcast strategy and focused on video and audio. And I guess that the only area of surprise – which we never had in our business plan – was shops, or significant web sale business. So that’s the part that has been a positive surprise and positive evolution of the business. [ The shops ] allowed us to create a sense of community and clubiness around the brand which probably wouldn’t otherwise been there and that has manifested itself in a lot of different ways. It also became our response to social networking as well. A lot of people ask us “Oh, you know, you are not on twitter on facebook, you don’t do this, you don’t do that”. And we don’t need to because we have shops where our readers gather and meet each other, we have cocktail parties in those shops or adjacent venues where people can meet each other. We do do social networking, it just doesn’t have to be hosted or facilitated by MySpace, Facebook, Twitter or anybody else.
In one of your editorials you played with the idea of newsstands. Is this an area that Monocle plans to work in the future? Is retail another part of the publishing production chain that will be address by the Monocle team?
As much as we can complain about and feel sorry for the state of print media it is not an area that is just down to “let’s blame it to a digital explosion or publishers”: it is also the distribution chain. I think that one of the biggest areas that is flawed at the moment, and not just flawed but collapsed, is our proper venues, [ we need ] passionate venues that sell magazines, so one area that we’re looking at is, as you rightly brought up, is kiosks. You know that we launched our stores, and occasionally we do sell our magazines, we sell books we like, but there are 200, 250 magazines that we buy every month in this company and that we like. Should we be featuring these magazines in a kiosk format? Why not? And should we have a wonderful environment to consume that media? Why not!
So, we’re looking right now at how the business plan is, to have our own Monocle Kiosks – not to be confused with our own stores, we don’t want a different Monocle Shop, it wouldn’t have wooden blocks or anything like that. We would have other things that you could find in a kiosk to buy, which would be designed by us or they would be curated by us but it would have a different price point, and yes, it would be aligned with the expression of our brand, so is something we’re looking at the moment.
Any release dates for this project?
No, it’s like when people ask us “when are you doing something in the iPad?” We’ll do it when we’re ready. We’re in no rush. When we’re ready to do something in the iPad we’ll do it, or any pad for that matter and likewise when the shop concept is ready to go. So it could be next spring, it could be this time next year.
The magazine’s subscription strategy is very different from most magazines, which lure readers with the offer of a discount. Monocle is the opposite – offering more content for more money. Has this worked? Have you achieved the expected subscription numbers?
Yes, it has been interesting how other media companies have wanted to know who the consultant was. But it was just common sense to us. Of course: why should you give a discount just because you’re solely loyal or something? We still have to mail it around the world in fact it costs more money. And people might think otherwise but I think we really deliver great content and it’s expensive content and it’s all original so why shouldn’t we charge a premium for that?
You’re not only the editor of Monocle but also the head of Winkreative. How close is your involvement with each edition of Monocle? Do you select designers, studio, illustrators, photographers?
Well, a shoot or a fashion shoot doesn’t happen without me seeing who the photographer is going to be. I don’t come up with the final selection, that’s up to the Photography Editor to do, but even the models we use, I see them all in advance. There is nothing – and I don’t want to sound arrogant – but there is nothing that you read or see in the magazine that I haven’t had a say in or approved. That’s my job and I’m always surprised by editors who don’t do that. You can say it’s great if you’re a huge magazine that you give autonomy to lots of people, and I kind of feel the same about a daily newspaper where you can’t read every word, but we’re only doing [ the magazine ] ten times a year plus Monocle Mediterráneo and Monocle Alpino. There are enough hours in my day and I think that I owe it to our readership that I should be looking at every page.
Finally, beyond the magazine, what specific project / collaboration are you most proud of?
I’m happy that in the period of time that we’ve been doing this, we have reached a level of influence or even political influence. If we say something about a city, about a government, a point of view about a policy, people take notice, and that’s a big change from what Wallpaper* was for example. Wallpaper* was certainly centered in design and fashion and maybe some travel circles but this has been a significant and surprising change in terms of how people take note of our opinion and what it means. I guess that’s one element that I’m very proud of. Also, just being able to actually create a media brand in a very difficult climate and have it grow and to be able to invest in bringing young talent. I think that you know that we tend not to work with predictable photographers, that the staff that works downstairs or in Tokyo or New York or Hong Kong are all in my opinion superstars in their own right, so we don’t have to go out with the big fat checkbook and just go and hire the best on the market or the most established in the market. It is great that we’ve been able to build a brand that invests in young talent and allows them to have a chance. And finally to create a very diverse environment, we’re we have around 80 staff today, 21 languages, 19 different passports, I think that’s sort of testimony of what we want to do.
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For more information on Monocle Magazine you can visit monocle.com
Special thanks to Jerome Huffor at Bookpeople for production materials.