The Independent Nomad
Tyler Brûlé is the magazine maker who challenges. Again.
IT’S 72 HOURS to the deadline. Tyler Brûlé knows what he has to do. Despite that, he gives Holmen Paper 30 minutes of his life.
“We’re in the middle of finalising the April issue of Monocle. It’s our second biggest issue ever. 400 pages,” he says in a phone interview.
400 glossy magazine pages filled with interesting and inspiring quality journalism on their way out to almost 81 000 readers. This is still what Tyler Brûlé is all about. This is still what drives him. Although the magazine he started nine years ago is now so much more – book publishing, a round-the-clock radio station, shops, cafés, conferences. Who would have thought it back in 2007? Not even Tyler Brûlé himself, he says. Two things have steered the course of his business development. The first is the core of the magazine he had “always wanted to make” about “global business, culture and design”, as he put it when he started Monocle in 2007. The second is readers’ needs and behaviours – which leads to advertisers’ willingness to pay. Where the majority of media companies have gone for numbers – circulation, viewing figures, audiences in the millions – Tyler Brûlé and Monocle have held true to their specialisation: a fully paid magazine for a target group with plenty of purchasing power who value the product. For a target group of urban intellectuals who are interested in what is going on around the world in business, culture and design.
“We don’t give discounts,” he says. “We take payments. 150 dollars for an annual subscription.”
Monocle has 18 000 subscribers. The rest of the print run, about 63 000 magazines, is sold as individual copies at newspaper stands around the world. And in their own shops and cafés.
HOW CAN A magazine turn into a chain of stores? Tyler Brûlé seems to have found a way of carving a golden calf out of a paper product. He himself says that the paper product is the cash cow, bringing in the most money:
“70 per cent of Monocle’s revenue comes from the magazine, 30 per cent from the radio, the café and the other businesses,” he says.
The recipe for success is quality. That’s something you don’t cut corners on for reasons of cost. Precision, style, caring about the reader and the product and constantly putting in the effort to make good journalism that gives readers real value. It’s a job where you can’t take shortcuts, he thinks.
“A print product has to deliver not only good texts but a good whole product. Many people in the media industry today are trying to pare it to the bone in various ways to cut costs and they think no-one will notice. But consumers aren’t stupid. They recognise quality, you can’t fool them,” he says. “We want to deliver brilliant journalism every month.”
MONOCLE HAS A website but doesn’t come in a digital version to read on a tablet or computer. The website has the radio channel and podcasts, you can watch filmed reportage and get an inspiring two-minute video contents page showing what’s in the magazine. You can see what’s going on in the stores and in the cafés, while subscribers have access to the magazine archive and every article ever published. You can order a subscription but you can’t buy individual issues online, there’s no PDF version or any other kind of digital magazine. And definitely no free material.
“It’s just common sense. Why should we invest in getting good journalism and amazing stories, only to annoy our paying core readers by giving it away for free?” he has said in interview after interview.
“Many people in the media industry today are trying to cut back in various ways to cut costs and they think no-one will notice. But consumers aren’t stupid. They recognise quality, you can’t fool them.”
“THERE’S NO MONEY in digital tablet editions” is another often repeated mantra. This kind of double publication just costs money. Monocle’s readers appreciate the physical paper magazine and he can’t see why they should have to pay for the “efficiency investments” through a worse product to finance digitalisation.
“So far no print medium has managed to make a profit on digital business,” he says uncompromisingly.
TYLER BRÛLÉ WAS born and brought up in Canada and is the only child of Paul and Virge Brûlé, who originally came from Estonia. The family moved around the country but wherever they lived, the house was full of newspapers and magazines.
“My parents had a great passion for newspapers and magazines. We took three daily papers and lots of magazines, and TV channels from the USA and Canada.”
But it wasn’t the magazines that attracted him to begin with.
“In those days TV was the most interesting medium for me.”
So in 1989 Tyler Brûlé moved to the UK and became a journalist for the BBC. It was his professional training ground. But he discovered that television involved a lot of hierarchies, complicated decision-making channels, lots of people and lots of technology. He is a pragmatist and wanted greater freedom and flexibility in the way he worked. So he left the BBC and set out on his own – as a freelance journalist and foreign correspondent for a number of newspapers. A life on the move began. That was what attracted him about becoming a journalist – seeing the world as it truly is and telling people about it. And that still defines his life:
“I travel a lot, I’m always on the way somewhere.” The other driving force is being able to talk about what he sees. Or report it. “Having a voice, being able to express yourself,” he says, pointing out that this is not the same thing as the currently popular expression ‘storytelling’. “That sounds more like telling children fairytales, delivering a bundle of well-worded lies.”
AND THEN THE thing happened that was to change the direction of his life. In 1994, on an assignment in Kabul, Afghanistan, for the German magazine Focus, he was shot. Two shots which meant he lost part of the function of his left arm and had to spend a lot of time in hospital.
“I’m right-handed now. Before it happened I was left-handed,” he says.
The story is relatively well-known but let us tell it anyway. His stay in hospital meant that he suddenly had an unusual amount of time for reading magazines. And by no means everything he read was to his liking. The idea for the style magazine Wallpaper was born, and with a small company loan, he started the magazine in 1996. This became his business training ground:
“I learned everything there. How to lead an editorial team, how to make a budget, how to recruit good people. How to run a media company. It was more like going to business school at the same time as making a magazine.”
IT’S NO EXAGGERATION to say that the project was a success. Wallpaper was the great media success of its age, and a year later he sold it to Time Warner for a million pounds, in the middle of the dawning internet boom. So as well as providing basic training, Wallpaper was the financial basis of his future independence as a businessman, which he himself sees as an important success factor for his companies. If he wants to do something, he can. If he has doubts, no-one is able to force him into a deal he doesn’t believe in or see the point of. And the luxury of never having to compromise has paid off. But we mustn’t get ahead of ourselves. Tyler Brûlé promised to stay as editor-in-chief at Wallpaper for five years and he did. However the entrepreneurial spirit still pulsed in his veins and in parallel with his day job, he started the advertising and brand agency Winkreative, which he still owns and runs.
“We’ve got about 45 projects and around 30 customers today. So we’re quite busy,” he says about the business on the second floor of the ‘Monocle building’, Midoroi House in Marylebone in central London. In 2002 he left Wallpaper to run the agency fulltime, travel and write his columns. Tyler Brûlé has been writing his Fast Lane column for the Financial Times for many years now, with reflections on what he experiences in his life on the move. His job may be in London, but he lives in Switzerland with his partner, Swede Mats Klingberg, who founded and runs the men’s fashion company Trunk Clothiers.
AFTER FIVE YEARS, the time came to embark on “the media project he’d always wanted to make”. The magazine Monocle saw the light of day on 14 February 2007. Since then its growth rate and increase in value have been impressive. He started out with £3 million and when he brought in the Japanese media company Nikkei as a minority shareholder in 2014 the company was valued at £70 million. Now, 92 issues and nine years later, he has 75 journalists out around the world – 35 freelance correspondents and 40 editors – constantly on the look-out for interesting news stories and reportage to tell Monocle’s readers about.
“I want my staff to see the world they’re reporting on – not sit at home doing ‘google journalism’.”
THIS IS WHAT he’s most proud of out of everything he’s done so far. Being able to offer young journalists an interesting job. Giving them secure employment and a clear and exciting brand to write for, letting them grow as professionals and creating interesting and valuable journalism.
“I’m proud to have created a space where young journalists can develop. We don’t have ping pong tables or skateboard ramps in the office. All the companies that offer their employees all those toys for grown-ups...” He sighs. “It’s because they have such boring jobs to do. Sitting writing code all day... We offer people an interesting and fun job: being able to travel the world and report on real life.”
This ties into the answer to the next question: what inspires you? He doesn’t think that’s a very easy question to answer.
“But part of it is working with a good team.” A team that’s always out there. “I want my staff to see the world they’re reporting on – not sit at home doing ‘google journalism’.”
PHYSICAL PRESENCE SEEMS to characterise the whole of Tyler Brûlé’s career. That’s what he does, despite the fact that he’s always moving. He’s lived with predictions of the death of paper magazines ever since he started Wallpaper.
“It’s so short-sighted. People see what they want to see. They think that being digital makes them look young and cool. They all say that the profits will come in eventually. But it hasn’t happened. No-one has managed to transform a print business into a digital business. Many people have tried to prove it can be done and it’s true that they’ve got readers. But no money.” The physical quality magazine, however, is alive and flourishing like never before. “You just have to walk into any newsagent’s in the world and see the number of magazines. There have never been as many specialised magazines as there are now.”
That brings us naturally back to the question of how you build a chain of stores out of a magazine. The start of that movement is a typical example of how Tyler Brûlé’s commercial independence as the sole owner of the advertising agency and majority shareholder of Monocle allowed him to follow his gut instinct.
“Independence is really incredibly important to us, and has allowed us to be in the luxurious position that we’re in today, where if we decide to do a café, we do a café — because we think it’s the right thing to do from a brand point of a view, and also from a revenue position. Whereas often times people will say that maybe that’s not core to a digital strategy, or they would be arguing that people aren’t going to be drinking coffee anymore because people are going to be consuming it digitally,” he said in an interview two years ago.
HE WAS TIRED of hearing that every aspect of life needed to go digital, so when his favourite florists was forced to shut down, he felt how sad it would be if that lovely little place got turned into a chain store like all the others. Couldn’t he rent it short-term to create a pop-up store, just for a while before Christmas? No sooner said than done. And the project turned out to have several advantages. The store became an interesting test lab on how to increase sales when you own the sales channel yourself. Monocle suddenly gained a direct contact with its readers and customers. The store stayed, and now there are another five of them, in New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Toronto and Singapore. They sell the magazine and other products in line with Monocle’s brand philosophy and readers’ taste. You can buy things relating to the magazine’s lifestyle such as cardigans, travel socks, pens, radios, and Yoshida bags, which Monocle started selling on its website before the physical stores existed. The stores are now out of the experimental stage and form a fully-fledged part of the business that contributes financially, although the physical customer relations are still an important point. They tell Monocle who its readers are.
“I don’t know what the future will look like, but we’re seeing what’s happening today – the magazine is getting increasingly ‘bookish’, more specialised, fatter and longer lasting.”
THE LATEST PROJECT is a newsstand at Paddington Station in London, where people can buy a selection of quality magazines and daily papers, including international papers printed at the newsstand itself. Customers register on the site and can order everything from Aftenposten in Norwegian to The Australian, which they then collect at the newsstand. And the cafés? They came about through a partnership with a Japanese company that was going to start a new store for men and “would love to create a Monocle café”. The ideas began to buzz: if Monocle was a café – what would it serve? What would it look like? Monocle did all the design itself, and “because it was in Japan,” says Tyler Brûlé, “it was perfectly executed”. Business went well so when a property fell vacant on Monocle’s street in London, they started another. And it’s not the last...
ANOTHER BRANCH OF the company that has just started to blossom is its conference business. Last year’s Quality of Life Conference in Lisbon brought 180 readers together for a weekend with 25 experts predicting future lifestyle developments in everything from architecture to media. That project produced a taste for more and in April this year’s conference was held in Vienna. Tyler Brûlé seems to be a true nerd about everything he does. He digs deeper, tweaks more, specialises and refines. Nothing seems to be good enough until it is perfect. He has been called elitist – and countered that by saying that he is serious. He wants to find out how things really are. Get his hands dirty, sift through the topsoil: is there anything of value there? Or is it just hot air, digital buzz and corporate bullshit?
THE COMBINATION of a fine-tuned sense of quality and a direct commercial attitude – “cut the crap and show me the figures” – makes one wonder how he sees the future. What’s in store for magazines? What will a magazine look like in ten years’ time? “I don’t know what the future will look like, but we’re seeing what’s happening today – the magazine is getting increasingly ‘bookish’, more specialised, fatter and longer lasting.” So book publishing is definitely in his line of sight and one of the company’s growing businesses. Monocle’s publishing arm began in 2013 with The Monocle Guide to Better Living. It was followed by The Monocle Guide to Good Business and The Monocle Guide to Cosy Homes. A series of travel guide books is an obvious path to take and the range has a long way to go. “We published 20 books last year alone,” says Tyler Brûlé.
HE DOESN'T SPEND MUCH TIME DREAMING ABOUT THE FUTURE, and thinks he’s already living his dream with travel, the advertising agency, the magazine and constantly developing the business.
“But it might be an idea to write another book,” he says. “Today I rewrite more texts than I write my own. I look at and read all the pages of the magazine before they go to print and rewrite them or ask others to rewrite them. I just have to find the hours and someone who can push me towards the deadline.”
But at the moment Monocle issue 92 April 2016 needs all his attention. It’s 71 and a half hours to deadline.
ON TYLER BRÛLÉ'S CV
- 1989: Moved to the UK and started working for the BBC. Then freelance journalist for a number of international papers: The Guardian, Stern, Vanity Fair, The Sunday Times.
- 1994: Shot by a sniper in Kabul when covering the war in Afghanistan and spent several months in hospital. Read lots of magazines of varying quality, which gave him the idea for Wallpaper.
- 1996: Started the fashion magazine Wallpaper, which was an instant hit.
- 1997: Sold Wallpaper to Time Warner for £1 million and was retained as editor in chief. Simultaneously launched and ran the advertising and brand agency Winkreative. Started as a columnist for the Financial Times.
- 2002: Left Wallpaper.
- 2007: Started Monocle, “the media project I’ve always wanted to make”. The company has risen in value from £3 million at the start to £70 million in 2014, a valuation made when Tyler Brûlé sold a minority holding to the Japanese media company Nikkei. Today Monocle is 85 per cent owned by Tyler Brûlé, the rest by Nikkei and three families from Sweden and Switzerland. He is the sole owner of Winkreative. He employs 170 people.
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When everyone thought the paper magazine was nearly dead, he started Wallpaper. It was the biggest media success of the 1990s and 20 years later Tyler Brûlé is still taking the industry by storm.
His lifestyle magazine Monocle has now burgeoned into a media company with radio stations, guidebooks, shops, conferences and cafés. This expansion has impressed across the globe, but the magazine is still where the passion, and the money, lies. At least for a while to come.
We ask the man who seems to be able to predict the future of the media landscape whether it’s hard-hitting journalism in book form that we should be focusing on.
Jayson Tyler Brûlé
DOES: editor-in-chief, CEO, founder and main shareholder of the media company Monocle. Sole owner of the advertising and brand agency Winkreative.
BORN: 25 November 1968, Canada.
LIVES IN: Switzerland.
FAMILY: partner Mats Klingberg.
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Text: Ulrika Fjällborg Photo: Sebastien Agnetti/Figarophoto/Contour by Getty Images