Friends in high places

Carlos magazine has turned contract publishing on its head by creating an award-winning fanzine for Virgin Atlantic Upper Class. Sam Delaney checks in
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The Independent Online

In the magazine industry, most of the big awards are dished out to the editor with the biggest sales figures. But during the past year, the mag scooping all the big industry prizes is one that has no sales figures to speak of. Refreshingly, it's received recognition on the basis of a genuinely unique and innovative editorial proposition. Carlos is a bespoke in-flight journal produced exclusively for passengers of Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class cabin. A fortnight ago, it's editor, Michael Jacovides, added to his growing list of honours by claiming an award from the British Society of Magazine Editors (BSME) in the Customer Magazine category.

But Carlos's prestige stretches far beyond the narrow confines of contract publishing. For the past 12 months, it's accumulated admirers from across the entire industry and become the preferred name to drop in magazine job interviews to impress prospective employers. Contract publishing is no longer to be sniffed at by it's cousins in consumer magazines. "When John Brown Citrus [Carlos's publishers] first approached me a few years back I was hesitant about going into contract publishing because there is a bit of a stigma," says Jacovides, "but then I thought there was a lot less pressure because you don't rely on newsstand sales and you have a client paying for the whole thing."

Having previously written for men's mags, including GQ and Arena, Jacovides had grown disillusioned with the reluctance of consumer publishers to take creative risks. "I felt all the men's magazines were only interested in aping each other," he says. "When I learned that Virgin wanted a title just for their Upper Class passengers, I thought it might be an opportunity to do something genuinely different." When most editors use the phrase 'genuinely different', they usually mean a minor adjustment to the contents page.

What Jacovides has done with Carlos is rather more supportive of his claim. First there's the look: it shares the same dimensions as National Geographic, but with its 50, staple-bound pages and rough, cardboard-like cover, it carries the air of a village gazette. A very posh village gazette.

"We had the idea of making it like a fanzine," Jacovides explains, "because we were a small group of passionate people communicating to a small, captive audience." Surprisingly, Virgin were immediately responsive to the idea of a mag with no photos, loads of copy and minimal branding. Lysette Gauna, Virgin Atlantic's head of media, says: "Most in-flight magazines are trying to appeal to the whole aeroplane, which is a vast mix of demographics. They end up appealing to the lowest common denominator, but we were catering for a very specific clique in our Upper Class cabin. That meant we could be more daring. We were much more interested in something that would be an impressive extension of our brand than something that would generate revenue."

With a loose brief to create something like 'a combination of Private Eye, The New Yorker and Viz," Jacovides and his colleagues at creative consultancy Fifty-One (who collaborate with John Brown Citrus on the editorial of the magazine) produced a first issue that Gauna confesses was "out there" but "was everything [Virgin] could have asked for and more". It breaks all the rules that consumer magazine editors couldn't. It runs long, essay-type articles on business, fashion and travel, and is relatively celeb-free. The ads are grouped across eight pages in the middle of the book. These are the only colour pages in the whole mag - both Marc Jacobs and Paul Smith have produced special ad campaigns to fill them.

Eight quarterly issues later, Carlos has bagged seven major industry awards, including BSME's 2003 launch of the year -- beating Emap's multimillion pound consumer weekly, Closer. "Some people think it's indulgent and that it wouldn't last, but we think it works as a product," says Jacovides. "It's not esoteric - it follows a very conventional structure and the design is very traditional. It also flatters the passenger by assuming a certain amount of intelligence on their part. We give them a good read and don't try to seduce them with cheap library shots of celebrities. In fact, I think it's the absence of that sort of stuff that lends it a luxurious feel."

Is it esoteric? Well, Peter York wrote a six-page article on the wedge hairstyle in issue six. Could it survive on the newsstand? Almost certainly not: it's easy to envisage the glossy behemoths eating it alive on the shelves of WH Smith's. But Jacovides is unlikely to ever find out.

"What would it mean to our Upper Class passenger if their exclusive magazine was suddenly available in Smith's?" says Gauna. "Besides, it's not aimed at a mass audience. Our passengers love it but it took our cabin crew quite a while..."

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