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The Future of Publishing: An Interview With Tyler Brûlé

The Future of Publishing: An Interview With Tyler Brûlé

Every once in a while, we speak with key figures in the publishing world about how they see their industry’s future. Today we’re catching up with Tyler Brûlé, founder and editor-in-chief of the international magazine Monocle.

In German we have a saying: “Der Fisch stinkt vom Kopf.” In English, this would be something like, “a fish rots from the head down.” It’s used when talking about the leadership style of a company or brand’s head, and how this trickles down to every level. Ideally, it even reaches the way employees talk to each other, their customers, and everyone else whose lives they touch.

No matter a company’s style–whether gentle or not–it often stops at press officers and personal assistants, and their style usually resembles that of a Rottweiler because they function as gatekeepers to the people they guard. This is not the case at Monocle. Here, nothing is rotten. Instead, it’s rather a well-balanced scent: understated and precise, gentle yet decided.

Founded by its editor-in-chief, Tyler Brûlé, Monocle is a pan-regional magazine about political affairs, business, culture and design, and is a perfect example of how to properly create and run a publishing brand. From the first point of contact, its staff’s choice of words and gentle manliness represent the values of the brand they are part of.

We sat down with Tyler and had a conversation about flesh and blood social media, ventures into retail, and paper.

What are the values of your culture?

First, I would say that we really endeavour to have an international team. I think that comes first. It allows us to maintain a certain tone of voice that does not become too English, nor is it really Australian or North American. It’s our own voice. I think that’s key.

Second, I think that having a sense of humour, be that the raise of an eyebrow or being slightly tongue-in-cheek, is important, that the people who work here are not too po-faced. We see it as an essential part of our culture that people are able to have a bit of a laugh.

The third thing is a curiosity to challenge things. That doesn’t mean ripping up the story plan and starting again. It’s more the curiosity to challenge what can become received wisdom. Speaking in a media context, people always ask us, “why aren't you more active on social media?” Well, why? There are 40 shops on my local street, but that doesn’t mean I want to shop at all of them. Just because all of these channels are there doesn't mean I want to use all of them. That sort of curiosity, call it confidence, to challenge the way things are done.

How do you get into a dialogue with your reader without the use of social media?

Every single editor’s email address is on the masthead of the magazine. If you have something to say, you can write to me. Not every discussion needs to be in public. There are salons and there are doors in the world because some things only happen between two people, or five or six of them.

At our core we are quite an intimate brand. I think people really like that intimacy; they like it when the editor-in-chief writes them back. I might not agree with you. I might even say you are being ridiculous. But I’ll still write back to you.

You also extend the brand to the cafés. There are conferences, so I am sure there’s dialogue happening as well. Will the printed magazine remain the core of the business, or is that going to change anytime soon?

People have been asking “is print dead?” for almost two decades now. It’s getting a bit old. So, how soon is soon? If I look at our five year business plan right now, there’s nothing which removes the printed issue of Monocle from the core, not just as the spiritual home of the brand, but I think also as the big money maker. It’s still where the core profit for our business resides.

But you’re right, we’re always game and we never say never, so if I look at retail, by the end of this year retail will make 17 percent of our turnover. That’s not small. 80,000 people buy the magazine every month, but they're not all going online to shop, or they don’t want to buy anything from us. They just like the magazine and that doesn’t mean they want to have products from us. And then there’s the reverse side of it: some people don’t read the magazine, so I don’t get too carried away with what retail can become.

Do you market Monocle and extend your readership through these methods? Is that a conscious decision?

No, it never was. It wasn’t our business plan; we didn’t sit down and plan a shop. There was a shop available around the corner from us and we thought, hey, maybe instead of it becoming something else that we wouldn’t like in the neighbourhood, why don’t we try our hand at retail? There is this emotional component to it. But there was another thought behind going into retail: to control the experience.

We do 60 to 70 events around the world every year. That’s our social media. That’s us getting out and being social, as people have done for millennia.

The shops are an extension of that, because people drop off portfolios, and they start to engage with whoever manages the store. The manager says “I’ll pass your comments on to the local correspondent,” and so it also becomes an informal news gathering network as well.

Why did you opt for a supposedly “old” medium like radio, and how does it contribute to your revenue stream?

We had a long hard think about where digital was going: where do we need to play, and where not? What we were confronted with five or six years ago was the rise of the tablet: what it was going to become, and how people were going to be using it. What would advertisers and readers want from it? I just had a reaction to it. I was watching that first wave of people using tablets and seeing how disruptive they were, and not in the tech-speak sense of disruptive. I was sitting in Honolulu watching a couple of early users, just weeks after the first tablet came out, and these couples couldn’t go in the water because someone had to stay and guard the technology. To me, that was just ridiculous.

A magazine or a newspaper, you just take them to the beach and I think they even get better when they’re a bit water logged or get a bit of sunstroke during the day. You get a great sort of texture and the paper smells different.

I just thought we don’t want to be there. And then that whole discussion about texture and all these things really made me think about what we could do digitally that is close to paper, and gives you texture, and we wound up with audio.

We haven’t nailed it 100%, you know, and we are over three years into the project now. What is great is that it brings in well over a million pounds a year in revenue for us, and there’s nothing we could do at Monocle online that would make that kind of money. It’s something that we are really committed to. It’s part of the family and the furniture now.

What’s interesting about it is the immediacy and speed. You only need to call someone on the phone and don’t even have to clatter away on the keyboard. If someone is a great narrator, if they are a good reporter, their urgency and their tone of voice, their pace of speech, it just starts to paint pictures in your head. That’s why we like radio.

How important is it today to have a specific target group or readership in order to be able to work profitably?

You have to have an idea in your head about who you are talking to. You have to have a target out there–this is who they are, this is what they do–and hopefully that sort of prototype target reader you build in your mind comes and finds you at the newsstand, and chooses to subscribe. I think you do need that. It helps to guide your business discussions, and of course it helps inform what is going on in your pages. When you’re nine years into a project it becomes different, and it challenges you because it becomes much wider.

I always say to people, there are 80,000 plus people who buy the magazine every month now and it is a pretty mixed bag of people. Within that, for sure, there is a core which is largely male, entrepreneurs or guys who work in finance, men who are working in design, think tanks or whatever. There is definitely a core, but then I say the periphery is bigger than the core.

Do you know how old your core reader is?

The last time we did a survey they were 39 years old.

Do you think that younger generations might not have that sentimental connection to paper? Might paper die out with the generations?

No, because I think it’s not about whether it’s paper or stone or scissors. I think it’s about a physical connection and wanting a diversity in textures that you come across each day, and a physical experience which is maybe not electronic, that’s not tethered to a network, that doesn’t need to be plugged in.

In fact, I like to sit on a plane and I’m quite–not to say that I’m proud–but I’m happy to be seen reading a certain publication, because it defines who I am as much as my eyewear says something about me, or the suitcase that I put in the overhead bin. These are all a sort of choice, whereas if I just got a Kindle or a tablet, well, yes, maybe I bought it from Amazon or Huawei, but that doesn’t really say anything about my taste in media and what turns me on editorially.

Obviously we are in an interesting time right now, because we’ve had this self publishing boom which is quite remarkable. All of these new magazines come out, and they launch, and then they go away. Who’s making all these magazines? They are potentially not people who are sentimental, like I am. I would say this is part of a post-print generation.

Monocle is the perfect read for the plane–perfect for a four hour flight–including the lightness of the paper. Is that something you had in mind when you first designed it?

For sure. When we set out to do something, I always knew it was going to be a magazine. I started to think about the first advertising meetings I would go to, and what I was going to say to people, and how I was going to convince them to be in this magazine. I remember I was in Terminal 4 at Heathrow and I went into WH Smith. What I was struck by was the amount of people–men more than women–who would come in and grab their copy of Business Week, or The Economist, and then they would also take Vanity Fair or Tatler or GQ. So there was this mix of business, culture and media, design and fashion, and all in one magazine.

The FT does that every single Saturday, as does the New York Times almost every day. You get all these things in a newspaper and that’s quite funny, because I think maybe looking from a German context you wouldn’t have those questions. Der Spiegel is obviously a bit heavier on Politik und Wirtschaft, but nevertheless, if there’s a good design story to be done, the Spiegel would do it, and they do culture and everything else.

Funnily enough, general interest was very out of fashion a decade ago. You had to be super niche. With Monocle, you might perceive it as being niche in the sense of who it’s talking to, but the editorial landscape is quite expansive. We have our views on how we cover things, but we can tackle a really broad array of topics. Coming back to your question: how could I prevent people having to buy five or six magazines? Could I somehow come in between The Economist and GQ, maybe with a bit of Vanity Fair–even though we don’t do celebrity—with one pick at the newsstand? I think we’ve come pretty good on that promise.