Monocle magazine and the art of bucking the trend

Tyler Brûlé’s media empire makes a point of avoiding the path that its contemporaries in print have taken over the past five years. Instead of investing in magazine apps, a social media presence, or web content strategies, Monocle, the magazine he launched in 2007, doubled down its analog output and now has two resort newspapers, stores in three continents, a cafe, and a 24 hour radio station.

The luxury business and current affairs magazine sold over 70,000 copies last year, the majority from newstands in over 100 countries. It has a core subscribership of around 12,000, each paying around $150 per year for 10 issues.

Speaking at the first of Colenso’s speaker events for the year, in Auckland last week, it became quickly apparent that he is also a bucker of trends.

The 44-year old Canadian started his career in media at the BBC. While working for the broadcaster in the early ’90s, he was shot twice covering a story in Afghanistan. After some time for reflection, he started the design magazine Wallpaper in 1996, and a year later it was bought by Time Inc.

In 2001, he became the youngest editor to receive the British Society of Magazine Editor’s Lifetime Award, shortly after which he left Wallpaper to work at his creative agency Winkreative, which he still leads today.

Brule doesn’t have a Facebook or Twitter account. It’s not unusual to go without one or the other, but completely cutting off from both seems anachronistic in this modern era.

“I don’t need a Twitter account to talk to people, I have a weekly [Financial Times] column for that. Twitter becomes a distraction,” he says.

Brûlé says he has very little patience for web developers, especially those working on a recent Monocle website redesign, chiding them for being unable to stick to a deadline. This comment had some of the Colenso digital creatives in the audience squirming in their seats awkwardly.

In many ways, Monocle shares this almost luddite view of media with its founder. The magazine doesn’t have Facebook or Twitter accounts, although it hasn’t stopped fans from creating them. It doesn’t often post full content from print on its website in order to maximise the effectiveness of the print product. There’s no immediate rush to move to iPad versions, because it “isn’t something you can read by the pool”. Brule says he’s been able to keep this focus on print because Monocle’s high end audience brings with it high end advertisers, who are looking to reach the right audience not the most people. Quality, not quantity.

“We’re not chasing the numbers. It’s much more interesting for [an advertiser]to know that you’ve got a paid up audience, shelling out $150 for the magazine. Then there’s something like Newsweek, where you’re getting 52 copies a year for 12 bucks, and still get a complimentary clock radio,” says Brule.

“That’s why we’re able to attract those types of advertisers, and demand the rates we do.”

However, there is one aspect of the online world Brûlé and Monocle have embraced whole heartedly: digital audio. Monocle has several podcast shows on current affairs and design, most of these are ad supported by big brands like Rolex, GE, and Midori. In late 2011, the magazine launched Monocle 24, an online radio station which is now syndicates to other more traditional radio networks like ABC in Australia.

“A lot like how paper has texture, sound and voice also has texture,” says Brûlé.

Other revenue sources help subsidise the editorial and production costs involved with maintaining bureaux aroud the globe. Selling merchandise like travel bags and clothing online started out as a joke (“it was always the last slide in the board meeting”) but Brûlé says this now accounts for 18 percent of Monocle’s business.

Monocle has been able to thrive because it’s been thinking outside of the box when it comes to money, but this involves very cosy relationships with advertisers, and selling the kind of merchandise that’s reviewed or written about in the magazine’s lifestyle sections. There’s the risk of blurring editorial integrity with the quest for revenue, but Brûlé says journalism is still the heart of the product, on which every other part of the Monocle brand stands.

“It’s a very clear line … It’s something our readers would see through in a second. We have a very intimate contract with them, on which our business lives or dies,” he says.

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