Features

Tyler Brûlé, Media Maverick


In a modest, terraced mews building beside Marylebone station in West London, the offices of Monocle magazine are, on the morning I visit, a little bleary eyed and blinking themselves awake. Several staffers are just back from a bonding and brainstorming weekend in Beirut, treating their jet lag with a variety of herbal teas. The air is thick with rose hip and ginseng. At the reception desk a scrubbed young man in impeccable casual wear is on the phone, putting a distant hotel booking desk through its paces: "All I want to know are the dimensions of your single room," he says. "I mean, is it an absurd space? We really do not want something absurd."

Tyler Brûlé, the founder, chief executive officer, editor, and guiding tastemaker of Monocle, is running late, but even in his absence you sense him in the detail of his compact and carefully styled offices. Brûlé made his name as the editor of Wallpaper, once the house bible of loft dwellers and metrosexuals everywhere, a magazine with the subtitle, "the stuff that surrounds us." Brûlé became famous for letting nothing escape his attention. His vision is built on stern principles, such as an emphasis on natural materials and a disdain for laminates of any kind. You look, in vain, for a veneer.

The latest edition of Monocle is a fat book of a magazine that challenges just about every piece of received wisdom about what works in media these days, starting with the notion that this is no time to start a new print publication. Now three years old, Monocle boasts a global circulation nearing 150,000, a 35 percent annual increase at a time when magazine sales are supposed to be going in the other direction, and a rising subscription base of 16,000. If that sounds small, consider that these individuals pay $150 for 10 issues, a 50 percent premium over the newsstand price.

For their money, readers get a compendious global mix of reports on new thinking and trends from unlikely places. They get the inside track on the "heroes of hospitality in Basel" and the "movie moguls of Mexico." They find out why "German doctors are the most attractive doctors in the world." There's more coverage than is possibly healthy about matters such as the comparative virtues of various overnight bags and calfskin slippers and monogrammed stationery. Monocle has, too, cornered the market on model cities, fantasy aircraft, and camp jokes. The cover I'm looking at advertises a feature on startups with a picture of a square-jawed warehouseman beside a stack of cardboard boxes, with the headline: "Is your package fit for global consumption?"

While I'm contemplating this particular question, the mood in the office sharpens. Brûlé's assistant makes a theatrical point of unlocking both of the tall double doors at the entrance and, swinging them open, hurries out to receive his boss's bag; Brûlé bustles in and heads straight upstairs. The editor is the son of a Canadian professional football player—Paul Brule (no accents), once of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers—and Virge Brule, an artist. Tyler has reemphasized those genes in interesting ways: He combines no-holds-barred career momentum with an aesthete's playfulness, stubborn business judgment with an entrenched place on The Independent on Sunday's annual Pink List of the most influential gay people in Britain. He greets me with a linebacker's handshake and a somewhat ironic grin.

As soon as he's seated behind his desk, in carefully too-tight blazer and jeans, a just-so stubbly beard, and slightly oversized tortoiseshell specs, Brûlé is doing what he does best: pitching magazine philosophy, sharing trends from the cities that currently most excite him—Beirut, São Paolo, Seoul—talking about the opening party for a Monocle retail store/office in Hong Kong, and offering his response to the iPad: to publish a one-off, experimental newspaper for those who have no wish to take their technology to the beach.

Brûlé's magazine embodies the lifestyle he has been describing for the last six years in his widely read and often parodied "Fast Lane" column in the Financial Times. He likes to be thought of as a man who does much of his blue-sky thinking while above cloud level; his interests catch the slightly disconnected sense of scale that overtakes you on long-haul flights: He is passionately concerned both about hygienic headrests, say, and the Google-mapped chunk of earth that is passing 27,000 feet beneath; about business class china and the business class in China. In his world view, and in his magazine, all of these interests get pretty much equal billing.

In part, Brûlé discovered his philosophy while dosed up with morphine in a hospital bed in Afghanistan in 1994. He was 25, a freelance reporter working on an assignment with Médicins Sans Frontières in Kabul, when a jeep in which he was traveling came under machine gun fire. He was shot several times in both arms—his left remains pretty much useless—and, while recovering, had time to contemplate his priorities. He distances himself from hallucinogenic visions of angels bearing style magazines, but suggests that he did, lying there, come to see what mattered most to him. The list included "friends," "living in a great house," and "wanting to travel and see the world." The rest, he would argue, is magazine history.

Wallpaper helped define the tastes of the winners in the banking and technology booms. It combined an obsessive attention to the styling of household objects and hotel décor with an edge of distancing irony, a way of having it all. In 1997, after less than a year, Brûlé sold Wallpaper, begun on a shoestring budget, to Time Inc. (TWX) for a reported $1.63 million. By 2004, when he left, The New York Times could describe "the Wallpaper generation" and have people understand what it meant; Brûlé, at 33, had received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the British Society of Magazine Editors. After some acrimonious clashes, Brûlé says he was fired by Time over an expenses claim for a London taxi, while others recall it as a chartered plane; either of which is a little like disciplining Homer Simpson for eating a canapé.

He took with him most of his key editorial staff and Winkreative, a branding agency that had grown out of the magazine. (Wallpaper is still thriving under Brûlé's former creative director, Tony Chambers.) At Winkreative, Brûlé had taken on the rebranding of Swissair in 2001 after its collapse—calibrating the look and feel of what became Swiss International Air Lines—and assembling a client list that ranged from BMW to designer Stella McCartney. He planned Monocle, envisioned as "a trendy Economist," from the beginning, but competition clauses delayed its launch until 2007. The hiatus gave Brûlé a period to devise a new independent funding model. In the beginning he went to venture capitalists and private equity. They all said the same thing: If it is going to be something that drives Web numbers, then great.

"I got a bit tired of hearing from 24-year-old MBAs how the world of media was going to unfold," Brûlé says. "We had a Spanish client at the agency, and she came into the office one day. She is the Catalan matriarch of a family business, and she asked why there was a desk downstairs but no one working there. I told her about the idea for a magazine. She took the plan away and came back to say she would take 10 percent of the business on one condition: There had to be four other investors with similar stakes, they also had to run family businesses, and they had to be geographically diverse."

Brûlé, never a man to shirk a challenge, came up with the appropriate investors from Australia, Sweden, Japan, and Switzerland. They now form the board and expect steady, if unspectacular, growth. The cultural differences and familial spirit, are, he believes, indicative of Monocle's DNA. "They all had very different ideas of this global consumer we were talking about," he says. "We want the 19-year-old political science student or design student, as well as the investment banker or diplomat."

He is reluctant to disparage Wallpaper, still owned by Time, but does suggest that Monocle is for an audience that might have grown up with him. "After 2001," he says, "the international reader changed dramatically; travel became more complex, but more people began leading transborder lifestyles."

Although the soul of the magazine is, he says, mostly European, Brûlé finds himself increasingly drawn to the Far East. His passport reveals four times as many stamps from Hong Kong and Korea as from the U.S. "Asia is much more editorially interesting for us," he says, "and their companies and brands want to do more dynamic things." (By way of example, Brûlé mentions in passing that Winkreative has just won a contract "to rebrand the country of Taiwan.")

He sees himself as a salesman of ideas, and in this respect is relaxed—critics would say overly so—about the wall between the magazine and the agency. "Traditionally," he says, "editorial and advertising were always distinct in name. Church sat over here and state sat over there, but this is a new day. We are aware of potential conflicts but open to possibilities."

Although Brûlé does not run paid-for "advertorial" features, he does sometimes work closely with commercial partners on particular stories. If the editorial obsessions of Monocle and the clients of Winkreative do overlap, he suggests his enthusiasm for a particular place or product naturally finds expression in both branches of his business, rather than that he uses one to cross-pollinate the other. Research in Motion (RIMM), for example, has produced a $1,500 Monocle BlackBerry, and the company features heavily in the magazine's technology articles and sponsored podcasts. Singapore paid for a survey of the country. "Brands have been looking for better synergy and deeper relationships," he says. "In the past there was a lot of collusion in the background, I believe, between advertisers and editors. We are very clear where the boundaries lie."

One of the more unlikely ways in which Brûlé is looking to expand his operation is demonstrated at Monocle's new Hong Kong bureau. "We are financing that office by putting a Monocle shop out front," he says. The shop sells Monocle-branded items as well as selected goods from corporate partners like Japanese clothier Commes des Garçons, and of course, copies of the magazine. "We opened another in Tokyo two weeks ago. We are just taking a lease in New York. If we can create a model where we have a journalist, a researcher, and someone selling ads in the back, and a shop selling our stuff out front, then great."

Monocle, he says, has just turned a profit six months ahead of schedule. Given the fragility of the European markets, in particular, does he fear his readers might have more to worry about at present than, say, the highlights of this year's Milan furniture fair or which cars the Prime Minister of Malaysia has in his fleet? Brûlé points to a recent issue about entrepreneurs. "Our message is always that if you are not happy sitting at Deutsche Bank (DB), there has never been a better time to pursue what you really want to do," he says. "We have a lot of correspondence from people saying that they had finally opened the gallery they wanted to open, or taken on that vineyard in New Zealand, or whatever."

His own biography exemplifies what might become a more insistent narrative. "We feel a bit like those Japanese companies," he says, "who don't expect double-digit growth but whose CEOs have far more fun going into the office every day than in the States."

Brûlé loves the counterintuitive and the freakonomical. In Monocle's popular weekly podcasts he will champion the reemergence of Polaroid film to flout the digital revolution or promote the benefits of old-fashioned over online shopping. He places his faith in service rather than in technology. This intuition informs much of his decision-making.

"People are intrigued by how we manage to charge 50 percent more for subscriptions," he says. "Partly, the subscription gives people access to some Monocle extras, the website archive, and so on. But it is really based on the idea that people want to belong to something that says something about them." This is one of the reasons he remains skeptical about digital content. "People will choose what denim they want to wear, and they will choose what newspaper they want to buy, and they want other people to be aware of that, too. Until an iPad is backlit, no one will have any idea that you read Der Spiegel or the Guardian or whatever."

To back this belief, Brûlé is planning a one-off newspaper in the summer full of essays and reportage, all printed on luxurious paper. "It has already made a fortune in terms of advertising," he says. "But it brings up another thing. Would you take an iPad to the beach? To the pool? No. It's too precious. You can leave your newspaper on your towel and no one will nick it. And the thing about good newsprint is that it actually gets more tactile with a bit of sun and moisture." The code name for the paper is Monocle-on-Med; its distribution will be the coastal areas of Spain, Portugal, Italy, Egypt, Greece, France, and comparable spots in the U.S., such as The Hamptons.

The venture gets somewhere near the heart of what Brûlé is about: "Would I rather have a Monocle iPhone app than an office in São Paolo?" he asks rhetorically. "Absolutely not. I'd rather have the excuse to get out to Brazil."

A week later Brûlé is at a garden party in London to launch Monocle's annual survey of the world's most livable cities. The party is populated with stylish Danish and Lebanese diplomats and groomed men in slightly too tight seersucker jackets. Beakers of rosé wine are brought around by younger men in what appear to be cricket whites. If they have one thing in common, I'd guess it's a shared belief that in general São Paolo is more appealing than an iPhone app.

The winner of the most livable city is Munich, which is a surprise not least to the representative from Hamburg, who has been asked to receive it. The German attaché struggles for the combination of criteria that might have led to the unusual choice. "Number of men in lederhosen?" he wonders out loud.

"You never know," says Brûlé, quickly. The German settles on Munich's reputation for being both rich and relaxed. He is talking Monocle's language. Brûlé, who has been in California and Hong Kong since we last spoke, nods in approval and raises a glass to his world.


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