At the Making Magazines conference in London last March, Cathy Olmedillas, creator of the successful children’s magazine Anorak and its sidekicks Cagoule and Ploc, talked about The Face, a magazine that had a huge influence on her as a teenager. “The Face didn’t have a blinkered vision of what people liked,” she said. “You could like sports, but you could also be into music or film stars. It was very well researched and it really respected its audience. It also understood the taste and the contradictions in somebody’s personality.” Thus, it did something no other magazine managed to do for Olmedillas at the time: it provided a spiritual home, it attributed identity and it created a community. It also made sure people didn’t just read it: The Face reached cult status because its readers loved it.
Well-made magazines have always been more than a collection of texts and photos, however informative. They’re objects of love, desire, respect and sometimes even hate, objects that evoke emotions in people. Lately magazines have used this power to expand their reach into ‘the real world’ with events ranging from conferences to supper clubs, thus further strengthening the communities around them. Many magazines, especially independent ones, have effectively become launch pads for multi-layered enterprises.
It may seem strange to many of you that people continue to make print magazines in the first place, considering the prevalence of digital communication that efficiently connects like-minded people and serves us bite-sized pieces of quality journalism and photography for free. Maybe it’s proof that we humans aren’t purely rational beings, but driven by our gut, or heart, as much as our brains—and that would be true for magazine-makers as much as for magazine buyers.
It all makes much more sense, however, when you consider that magazines are uniquely suited to become instant brands. That’s something Tyler Brûlé understood perfectly when he launched Monocle, which in a sense serves as an elaborate business card for his advertising agency Winkreative. (Although I’m not alleging that it was his primary motivation for making it.) But Monocle was never just a magazine: it was designed to be the centre of a world vision—the aspirational idea of the 21st-century gentleman: cosmopolitan, educated, wholesome with a fervent admiration of craft. That’s why almost from the start, Monocle endorsed, co-branded and sold products suiting that vision, created spin-off publications and content collaborations with other media outlets, set up the Monocle 24 radio service, and organised events such as the recent Country Fayre, which showcased the magazine’s favourite British retailers. Monocle wants to be much more than a product. Like a brand, it set out to embody a sentiment, and it succeeded from the start.
Of course, maintaining a magazine’s brand cross-media and off-media can take hard work and careful planning. Already on its way to becoming a vast media empire, between 2006 and 2007 the cheeky glorified fanzine Vice decided to curb the editorial independence of all editions outside the USA and UK in order to streamline the message. By now, Vice is a digital creative agency first and publishing company second, but there don’t seem to be any plans of scrapping the print magazine. It’s still the face of the operation and today much more highly regarded, journalistically, than it used to be. Maybe it’s because the kids all went to play online.
The examples of Monocle and Vice illustrate why magazines would choose to function as platforms from a business perspective. As many mainstream titles have had to learn lately as they watched their advertisers migrate online, it’s become ‘really hard’ to make money with a magazine—and it’s probably only going to get harder. Therefore, branching out is the way to turn your magazine into a business, using that powerful brand you’ve got on your hands. Just ask WIRED and their highly praised, star-studded and very expensive conferences.
Yet it’s fair to assume that most magazines aren’t launched with a business perspective in mind, but because the people behind them feel very passionate about a certain topic and decide that a print magazine, for its permanence, status as an object, and the creative freedoms it allows, is the best way of expressing that passion. What comes after is the result of the magazine’s ability to attract and motivate people who feel represented by it.
Take Sang Bleu, a magazine about body arts and body modifications. “It started with the ambition to document underground practices relating to the human body as well as the possible descriptions or representations of those phenomena,” Jeanne-Salomé Rochat, its editor-in-chief, told me recently in an interview for the Tinta de la Casa blog. “This ambition first took the shape of a magazine, but throughout the years Sang Bleu has become a multi-layered platform that today also includes books, objects and four-dimensional creations such as art shows, events and performances.” She described the people around Sang Bleu as a “complicated and ambiguous family” and added: “In general, Sang Bleu is about that family.”
Sang Bleu didn’t create the community it serves, but it certainly strengthened it, just like The Face did for Cathy Olmedillas and her peers thirty years ago. And when the magazine serves the reader, when it knows and understands her, it often so happens that the enthusiasm, the energy and the creative input that comes from attracting like-minded people result in further activities outside the magazine.
Thus, Apartamento’s fascination with a certain lifestyle and artistic vision has led to them launching not just art projects but also communal meals, from a cooking class for children at a Barcelona bakery to an exclusive supper club during the Milan Furniture Fair. It’s Nice That’s love for design and inventiveness has turned them into prolific and sought-after organisers of conferences and exhibitions on creativity and beauty. They also recently launched a podcast. La Fábrica’s Eñe magazine spawned literature festivals in Spain and Latin America. Little Joe and The Church of London’s magazine Little White Lies have both led to cinema clubs and become the basis for a series of film-related events. Football magazine 11 Freunde organised public viewings, victory celebrations and lectures that sell out in record time.
This list could go on for pages, but let’s stop here to examine the curious—and rather wonderful—case of Little White Lies, a magazine that brought about a whole creative agency. The Church of London’s flagship title was launched because a couple of people were really quite disappointed with the film magazines on the British market at the time, and because they had no money they had to be very imaginative with content and design, which in turn generated interest and business opportunities. Nowadays The Church of London still publishes, but they’ve added custom titles like “Google’s Think Quarterly” and “Playstation’s Access” to their rota, have an exhibition space, make film posters, produce videos and encourage their employees to launch their own creative projects and magazines on the side. Little White Lies is still being published, subsidised with revenue from commercial projects, and The Church of London could by now probably open a fan club since they have become so popular in the British creative community.
The reasons why print magazines give rise to such emotion, especially compared to digital publications, are not entirely clear to me, but I’d venture to say there’s something tender about the touch of paper and the immutability of a magazine (including its mistakes) that make them more endearing. That may be why the makers of Offscreen should have chosen a print publication to give a personal and affectionate insight into the world of web developers and designers, even though their target audience resides mainly in the digital sphere.
But the way in which magazines can foment community and act as a platform is maybe best seen in local publications that take a geographic area, not a shared interest, as their starting point, resulting in a much more versatile audience and a greater challenge in bringing people together in spirit. Der Wedding, a magazine about a Berlin working-class neighbourhood, serves as a courageous platform for debate about gentrification and tradition and encourages people to value the apparently unattractive. Boat magazine, which converges around a different city each edition, teams up with local organisations for competitions and other forms of storytelling, thus integrating residents into creative processes. Spanish magazines Madriz and Barcelonés managed to engage especially younger residents of their respective cities in critical discourse, often through blogs and social media, thus helping to establish a sense of responsibility and community that was sorely amiss before.
Finally, taken these community-building powers, it’s not surprising that companies use print magazines to foment brand loyalty. It’s the magazine-as-platform process in reverse: a larger enterprise leads to a magazine, because why shouldn’t it? Virgin Atlantic’s late Carlos or The United Colors of Benetton’s magazine Colors, especially the older editions, are prime examples creativity put to good use (especially when that creativity doesn’t have to worry about money), and Opening Ceremony have announced they’ll join Commes des Garçons and Joe Kenna as a hip fashion brand with its own, at least equally hip fashion magazine.
Because they unite people, travel well, create emotional attachment and loyalty, and because they’re something people keep—and keep looking at—print magazines are the perfect launch pad for wider operations, whether it be online or in the real world. Instead of supplanting that power, digital communications have actually strengthened it by making magazines and their message more widely available. Because printing is actually getting cheaper, distribution is easier and graphic design tools are more widely available, I predict that print magazines’ role as platforms and rallying posts is actually going to become more important—even if the rallying post in question doesn’t make it past its fourth issue.