Has Monocle brought a corrective lens to the business of magazines?

His critics said he’d fail but Tyler Brûlé is growing circulation, opening foreign bureaux, moving into retail and planning a radio network. Ian Burrell finds out how

Monday 17 August 2009 00:00 BST

It is no surprise to find such an arbiter of taste as Tyler Brûlé resting his coffee cup upon on an elegantly crafted Swedish-designed wooden saucer. It was Brûlé, some will recall, who enchanted guests on his short-lived BBC4 media show The Desk with the “warm and woody” scent of a budget-defying set made from solid oak and solid ash and absolutely “no veneers”.

But smell is not the sense which is foremost in Brûlé’s sensibility right now and neither is it sight, in spite of the famous eye for detail of the man who founded not one but two style bibles, Wallpaper+ and then Monocle.

No, Brûlé is thinking sound. After the success of Monocle’s weekly podcasts, which have become a favourite download on iTunes, he wants to take that experiment further. “We know what brands look like on a page or on television but I’m not sure how a lot of those brands sound commercially,” he says. “My feeling is that there is something there in terms of demand. You could be in Buenos Aires or on a beach in Ibiza. The World Service doesn’t do that much, we would like to have something a bit more toe-tapping.”

While other media entrepreneurs obsess over video, Brûlé, 40, says such content is of little appeal to consumers who are “listening with your eyes closed and lying in the sun”. Such jetsetters have already been able to enjoy five editions of Monocle’s Summer Series of podcasts, which are billed as “your audio travel companion over the holiday season”, “a global road trip” in the company of such luminaries as Savile Row tailor Patrick Grant, Icelandic singer Yohanna, retail guru Priscilla Carluccio and, inevitably, Brûlé himself.

There are those who like to scoff at Brûlé. His globe-trotting lifestyle and fascination with airline uniforms and airport architecture (which he details in his Fast Lane column for the Financial Times) is lampooned in a blog: Being Tyler Brûlé (“writing inspired by the fabulous lifestyle of Tyler Brûlé”). When he founded Monocle, one American website sneered at his aim of selling 200,000 copies within six months (“Ah, little Tyler”) and suggested he was headed for the rocks.

But it has not turned out that way, and maybe other, bigger, media companies could learn something from the Brûlé approach. Monocle, not yet three years old, is a beautifully produced briefing on international affairs, business, culture and design, retailing at a premium price of £5. It is selling 150,000 at news stands. Subscribers pay £75 per annum, which at 10 issues a year represents a 50 per cent increase in cover price but includes a digital version of the magazine and unlimited access via the website to the full Monocle archive, which sits behind a pay curtain. Across 85 countries there are 12,000 subscribers (double last year’s figure) and Brûlé says they’re all at full price (“no tricks, no discount”). Circulation is up by 22 per cent year on year and advertising sales are up by 18 per cent in the same period. Staffing at the head office in London has grown from nine to 42 and there will soon be 13 foreign correspondents from Tokyo to Bogota, with one of the latest recruits joining from the Boston Globe.

Furthermore, the Summer Series ventures, which included bespoke musical performances recorded at the Hospital Club in London, were funded by sponsors BMW. Everything at Monocle washes its face. “Everything we do always has a sponsor attached, we took the view very early on that we were not going to expose ourselves by developing a ton of things online and then having this massive sink hole.”

So carefully has Brûlé nurtured the Monocle brand, with its distinctive M logo, that he has been able to grow a new revenue stream in retail. Already there are three Monocle shops, one near the office in Marylebone, central London, and the others in Los Angeles and Palma de Mallorca. They sell such rare items as Artek stools, Orlebar Brown swimming trunks and Valextra notebooks. New stores are set to open in Toronto, Seoul and Hong Kong.

Brûlé admits retail was not in his original business plan, when he set up the venture (“I’d thought it would be lovely to have a little shop somewhere someday but I didn’t think then it was a realistic idea or that it would be a profitable one”). But he says Monocle is built on strong retailing foundations. His own company has 70 per cent of Monocle with the rest divided between five family businesses based in Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, Australia and Japan. These familes, he says, “have made money the good old-fashioned way. They are not just people who play the markets every day.” They have yet to be paid a dividend, however.

The retail element of the business emerged with a special offer in the magazine’s inaugural issue offering readers the chance to buy branded bags. It’s clear that bags are big in Monocle’s world. “There was a tote bag, a shoulder bag and a Boston bag,” recalls Brûlé. “Then we added this smaller bag for 72-hour trips and this shorter-haul bag which was for when you’re going overnight, you want to pack your laptop, you want one shirt, one pair of underpants, your socks and your toiletries. We’ve sold over 5,000 bags – it’s a huge business!”

Then there is the magazine itself, the very core of the business and a wonder to touch as well as to behold thanks to its five different paper stocks. Worth every penny, says Brûlé. “Media owners around the world are scratching their heads, asking why magazines and newspapers aren’t selling anymore. Why? Because you’ve downgraded the experience. When you are competing against digital, which can zoom in and animate… then your print experience needs to be tactile and exciting and, for magazines, a bit collectable.”

Through the downturn he has not cut spending, with ad sales staff and journalists being almost as airborne as Brûlé himself. An editorial team were embedded with the Danish Navy for a cover story on counter-piracy that ran to 16 pages and was a big hit with readers.

No one could accuse a futurist like Brûlé of being a new media refusenik. But he believes the success of Monocle, backed by its five traditional family businesses, has disproved those money men who warned him that the days of magazines were over. “We decided early on that we didn’t want to present this project to a bunch of solely digitally minded 27-year-old whippersnappers who thought the world was only going to exist on a flat screen.”

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