Many publishers will refer to advertisers as business partners. Tyler Brûlé, the founder of Wallpaper* magazine and editor in chief of Monocle, calls them “patrons of Monocle’s approach”.
And he means it, too. In the US, magazines abide by the rules of the American Society of Magazine Editors, which call for clear, bright lines between advertising and editorial. But for Monocle, a globe-trotting magazine for what Brûlé calls the “Lufthansa audience”, the only bright line is the one separating lively from dull.
“We are a global magazine and I think that approach is beginning to go sour in the fridge,” Brûlé said.
In the September issue, for example, there is a large insert on Singapore, with a survey paid for by its government and several large companies there, but articles generated by the magazine staff. Brûlé dismisses talk of conflicts as a false choice. But of course, when someone runs a magazine and runs his own ad agency, you have to wonder which hat he wears when.
“Rather than some boozy lunch with editors and sponsored parties, we cut right to the chase. We have editorial integrity, we don’t accept freebies and we make the final decision about what is worthy,” he said. “But as publisher and editor, I’m part of the religious and secular worlds, and I make the decision. No offence, but I think the whole church-and-state thing is a very tired, US concept.”
But then, life is a bit of a caper if you are Brûlé. A little over a week ago, Brûlé flew from Helsinki, Finland, and we met in the lobby of the Four Seasons in New York. When he called a few nights later, he was visiting with a “leading Japanese underwear company” in Osaka, “a classic second city”. In the next few weeks, his itinerary will include Rome, Milan, Switzerland and Paris.
Those of us who are currently fighting to find a week for a rental at the shore might find it easy to hate Brûlé. At 40, he is handsome, bordering on dashing, and he knows most of the world as well as the back of his left hand, which, by the way, he has limited use of after he was shot by a sniper in Afghanistan when he was working as a correspondent there.
As a writer, he has picked up exotic datelines for The Guardian, The Sunday Times and Vanity Fair (along with The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune) and is currently a columnist for Financial Times. He famously invented Wallpaper*, a very outre design magazine that was bought by Time Inc. in 1997, and he went on to found an ad agency, Wink, that is now Winkreative.
Brûlé’s status as a tastemaker was assured when he was hired in 2001 to design the look of Swiss International Air Lines. After leaving Wallpaper* and waiting out his noncompete with Time, in 2007 he created and financed, along with some investors, Monocle, a 10 times-a-year printed infomercial based in London on living the good life, one first-class flight at a time.
The September issue is a deep consideration of the growing use of so-called soft power, but chiefly Monocle renders the world as a giant boutique, full of hand-crafted coffee, hand-built bikes and an endless array of handsome destinations full of shiny, happy people who try to keep their carbon footprints to a minimum if you don’t count all the jetting around.
The editorial tone is the opposite of jaded, with a relentless optimism that suggests we can build a better world if we just think creatively about intractable global problems and buy the right stuff along the way. It has become something of a cult artefact among wealthy itinerants in its two-and-a-half year existence, with a distribution of 150,000 copies in 82 countries.
The magazine is still looking for a profit, but Brûlé said advertising is up significantly over last year during a stretch when magazine advertising is vanishing. “I think part of what is happening is that so many other media outlets have pulled back on travel in editorial and advertising,” he said, taking a sip of his wine at the Four Seasons. “You have to be out there. Even in this day and age, you are not going to finish a deal in Seoul without having a couple of glasses of wine and singing some karaoke with the clients.”
The Tyler Brûlé lifestyle could be a cartoon—there is that accent-annotated last name (circumflexed u, acute accented e), which seems more brand than appellation, and there is even a blog that apes his global galavantings called Being Tyler Brûlé. But as a native of Winnipeg, born to a football player and an artist, Brûlé manages to pull it off with the intrinsic decency of many Canadians. It helps that while he lives in London, there is none of the borrowed lilt in his speech.
Building a luxe global magazine in the teeth of a far-reaching recession would seem to be counter-intuitive, but then everything about Monocle goes against some grain or another. The magazine itself has a whopping $10 (Rs485) cover price (back issues cost double that). In an era when publishers have taken to printing on paper that is one step removed from tissue wrap, Monocle feels and looks like a slab of printed dark Belgian chocolate.
And the magazine has direct relationships with advertisers, including the government of Taiwan, Rosetta Stone and Absolut Vodka, which comes up with advertising that mimics the look and ethos of Monocle. And it doesn’t end there: the magazine has two retail outlets, in Los Angeles and London, and a temporary pop-up store in Spain, where customers can shop for branded merchandise such as bicycles and cologne.
“That conflict is of less concern to readers than one might hope,” said Norman Pearlstine, the former editor in chief of Time Inc., who is now chief content officer at Bloomberg Lp. He is an admirer of Brûlé’s from the Wallpaper* days, calling him a “brilliant editor” who is always working, but he wonders how a magazine with global franchise will find an advertising base when most of the buys are regionally controlled. (He noted wryly that Brûlé had expansive tastes as the editor of Wallpaper*; he once chartered a plane after he missed a commercial flight.)
The better question may be whether other publications follow suit. If you have trouble understanding the power of a magazine endorsement, think about what might ensue if Anna Wintour of Vogue put her imprimatur on a line of accessories.
Todd Wood is the vice-president of industrial design at Research in Motion Ltd, the maker of the BlackBerry, which has sponsored Monocle Weekly, a podcast of the magazine. He likes Monocle’s approach precisely because of the lack of conventional boundaries.“Tyler and Monocle are at the leading edge of innovation in terms of their industry,” Wood said. “Their approach to information and intelligence is a very good fit for us.”
So far, the willingness of Monocleto kick down the walls in terms of real partnership with its advertisers does not prevent it from being a highly readable, thought-provoking magazine. But you have to wonder how it might look in less nimble, more craven hands.
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES