Is This the Future of Magazines?
Martha Stewart sells order and comfort. Hugh Hefner sells hedonism. Tyler Brûlé sells the ideal of a life in which every aspect is excruciatingly curated and significant. This worldview formed the basis for Wallpaper*, the iconic design magazine he founded in 1996 and sold to Time Inc. (TWX) shortly thereafter. It also underpins Winkreative, the branding and strategy agency he founded. Brûlé, who lives in London, left Wallpaper* in 2002 (though he's still with Winkreative) and earlier this year launched the monthly Monocle. In it you find a carry-over of his stylistic obsessions, fused onto a fascination with life and opportunity in regions so emergent that you've probably never heard of them. To name two: Breakaway Georgian republic Abkhazia and the Swedish-speaking Finnish archipelago—got that?—Aland.
The lens—sorry!—through which Brûlé views the world is so singular, so coolly global and far- reaching, it all but invites parody. Monocle is unquestionably the only publication to cover Taiwanese retail design, life in distant Arctic regions, and Swiss college architecture. It costs $10 per issue, and assumes of its audience a certain degree of wealth, and, perhaps above all, formidable travel habits; in the felicitous phrasing of London's Guardian newspaper, it appears to target "departure-lounge divas."
No Brûlé piece is complete without some mention of his own diva-esque moments, so here goes: At Time Inc. his expense reports were notorious for including helicopter travel. By way of defense, he says such travel was approved by his superiors.
All right, I can practically hear you rolling your eyes over all this. But Monocle is unusually—even refreshingly—ambitious, especially considering its print run doesn't yet exceed 150,000. It's something of a test-case for a different publishing model. Most individual magazines focus on one country's readers. Monocle eyes an audience that's much farther-flung; Brûlé says its 5,000 subscribers—who pay $150 a year—are spread across 79 countries. In a manner almost wholly lost at American magazines, it cherishes the primacy of a print publication as physical object. Each issue contains startling photography, multiple kinds of paper stock, and, somewhat discordantly, concludes with a manga comic. Monocle is either prescient, or steering sharply toward an audience that doesn't exist.
But Monocle and Brûlé raise two key questions: Can rarefied information be sold like a luxury product? And why does some of the most out-there global coverage and trendspotting come from a tiny new magazine masterminded by a branding agency's creative director?
The answer to the second is easy, says Brûlé, who cites shrinking international coverage in outlets ranging from the Los Angeles Times to the BBC. This gap allows idiosyncratic and smaller media players to plunge in, particularly in online realms where distribution costs are minimal. Among the new breed of internationally minded Web players is monocle.com, which smartly sidesteps putting its magazine articles online in favor of a video-heavy strategy. Another is potty-mouthed hipster title Vice, whose newish vbs.tv just parlayed a report on Iraqi metal bands into a full-length documentary.
As to whether rarefied information constitutes a luxury product, well, that's the notion that will determine whether Monocle takes off. Its advertisers already tilt toward the seriously high-end: Prada, Gucci, and the private wealth-management arm of UBS (UBS).
Still, maybe Monocle is an ill-conceived vanity play with no chance for traction beyond the few fortunates who live like Brûlé and share his painstakingly assembled interests. Or perhaps Monocle evinces a next generation of magazines: higher-end, aimed at much smaller audiences, and with a Web component more like TV than print. Brûlé's 250 days of travel a year give him a catholic sense of media possibilities. He can rhapsodize about how the digitized citizenry of South Korea and Japan still patronize newsstands crammed with sharp-looking magazines, or muse as to why German newsweeklies are more ambitious, ad-fat, and glossy than their British or American counterparts. (Weekend newspapers in Germany are less of a big deal.) An ultra-stylish and ultra-global future has already arrived for Tyler Brûlé and the lucky few like him. But for Monocle to succeed, that future will have to arrive for many more.
For Jon Fine's blog on media and advertising, go to www.businessweek.com/innovate/FineOnMedia