Doing it by the Brûlé book
After two iconic magazine launches, Tyler Brûlé knows all about building brands, says Anna Healy Fenton
The Canadian-born journalist and entrepreneur Tyler Brûlé has re-written the rule book on what is possible in modern publishing.
Journalists, like chefs, often make disastrous entrepreneurs, but Brûlé, 44, has turned perceived wisdom on its head.
Many people know him as the Weekend Financial Times' waspishly dry columnist, brand name-dropper and style arbiter, but that is just one facet of his persona.
He kicked off his career as a BBC reporter in London, before switching to print, writing for Stern, Vanity Fair, The Sunday Times and The Guardian.
In March 1994, he was shot twice by a sniper in an ambush in Kabul while covering the Afghanistan war for the German news magazine Focus. He lost partial use of his left hand, resulting in a long hospital stay, which provided ample time to dissect stacks of home-design and cooking magazines. These he found uninspiring, but nevertheless they lit a spark that prompted Brûlé to launch the magazine publishing sensation of the 1990s, Wallpaper. It rapidly became an international style and design bible.
After selling his stake in the magazine to Time Inc in 1997, Brûlé stayed on for a while as editorial director, while also starting a global branding and advertising agency, Winkreative. Numerous industry accolades followed, and he was the youngest-ever recipient of the British Society of Magazine Editors' Lifetime Achievement Award, in 2001.
He went on to design the look of the relaunched Swiss International airline, after Swissair's demise. In February 2007 he launched Monocle, his second magazine start-up success. Now a media empire with distribution in 65 countries, Monocle combines an international briefing on current affairs, business, culture and design.
It prints 10 times a year, with two seasonal newspaper spin-offs, and has now spawned television and web-based radio, plus a retail arm selling Monocle-branded items. It boasts 25 correspondents, stores in five cities (London, New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo and a shop-in-shop in Osaka), a Monocle Cafe in Tokyo and an e-commerce site on monocle.com. Brazil and Australia are next to get the Monocle retail experience.
His FT column readers will know that Brûlé is officially based in St Moritz, Switzerland, and London, but spends an inordinate amount of time airborne on business trips.
Although he flies to Asia 12 to 14 times a year, and says he is 'constantly' in Hong Kong, he has yet to touch down on the mainland. 'We took a different view of Asia and we cover China from Hong Kong,' he says unapologetically, admitting that he is 'much happier to fly into Tokyo than Beijing, read into that what you will'.
A self-confessed Japanophile, he flies the flag for all things Japanese. Brûlé says everyone has forgotten about Japan and he is yet to be convinced about China as a style and brand centre. As Monocle editor-in-chief, he is business-driven, which means driven by advertising. Explaining his focus on Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea, Brûlé says: 'Think of China and the list of great brands is rather small.'
In this respect, he thinks China has a long way to go. 'Of course it will happen,' Brûlé concedes, adding that everyone talks about the 'long burn' on China, with great brands just around the corner, but it has not happened yet. It comes down to the development of creativity, media and marketing, Brûlé stresses, pointing out that he employs several of the Chinese diaspora on the magazine, so it is not a 'people problem'. But global brands need to be driven by marketing, to complete the chain. 'I know Haier makes white goods, but Lenovo is not Dell or Samsung or Apple.'
China is not on his map, yet, so he feels no pressing need to go. 'Lots of meetings are held in Hong Kong. It doesn't mean I don't want to go, but Tokyo, Hong Kong, Taipei and Singapore get in the way of doing business in Beijing and Shanghai.'
Getting magazine distribution in Beijing proved an insurmountable hurdle. Beijing was closed to Monocle. 'We could not sell our magazines, could not get permission. There were two ways around this apparently - wait for years, or pay someone.'
This was not Brûlé's style. 'As journalists, we're straight shooters. That's not the way we do business.' Monocle could not be sold at street level in their shop. Everyone is dazzled by big numbers in China, but even something as fundamental as opening a shop is problematical. 'The line is, 'Oh it's too early, it will change',' he says. 'Some people have time to wait. I'd rather go to Seoul, Singapore and Hong Kong, where we don't run into these complications.'
Discreet though it is, the Hong Kong shop in Wan Chai's Star Street outperforms the London and New York outlets, attracting loyal pan-Asian customers. Business depends largely on long-weekenders, pulling in shoppers from the mainland who discover the brand through Monocle discussions on Chinese websites. Brûlé attributes the Wan Chai store's regional pull to not yet having stores in Taiwan or Seoul. 'That is the role of the shop and that's why we drive big numbers there.'
By launching two successful print magazines, Brûlé has gone against the tide of digital media spelling the death of print. The rush in the United States to go digital around the clock - does it make sense? 'Probably not,' he says, predicting a big moment of reckoning and reassessment. We may live in the world of the iPad, but on a recent trip to Berlin, Brûlé noted that many of the 80 million people in Germany were still buying CDs and DVDs, amid a prominent market for print media.
He saw 'a real dynamism and revitalisation with the German dailies', putting out new supplements which are well supported. Der Speigel, for example, regularly launches spinoffs in technology or specific subjects and there is great cash to be made in that model, Brûlé observes.
Brûlé sees folly in being wholly driven by the US west coast's obsession with new media. It is not one size fits all, he stresses. 'And it's not just based on the fastest iPad or best screen. It's not just follow the American way. It's a fallacious model. They've well and truly stuffed themselves.'
He sees little virtue in no-charge online media. 'You are giving your assets away for free, all round the clock. With that you've killed the business model.' Brûlé also sees scepticism in the face of new media as healthy. 'I believe having a bucket of cold water to throw on what comes your way is no bad thing. Look at Germany, they stood back and took a more cautious view. I think that's sensible. It's more interesting when you can have everything as part of the wider media landscape.'
In the US, unless it is back-lit, it is not exciting, Brûlé says. He finds even the New York newspaper scene a bit depressing. 'They've talked themselves out of paper - so everyone gets downsized on the newsroom floor.'
Does tweeting news snaps as tasters for the full story make sense? He is unconvinced. 'Should journalists be tweeting all the time? Especially if you're a news brand, I don't think so.' Does it not drive numbers to the web and print versions? 'No. With Twitter I now know what's going on in 140 characters, so have little incentive to go and read the full story. It's naive if everyone thinks this feeds the main news brand.'
Brûlé spends a lot of time in Hong Kong. Does he think it's cool? He sighs. 'One thing worries me: the pace of change, the ongoing eradication of old Hong Kong. Chinese walkup buildings, the cosier corners of Sheung Wan and Wan Chai. These are what make Hong Kong cool, and that sense of real life on the streets, as opposed to air-conned shopping malls.' The more you have clinically designed buildings, with hermetically sealed interiors, it makes such street life even more important, Brûlé believes.
Since he spends so much time in Asia, why not buy a property here? He's considered it. 'I often daydream on flights: should I base myself out here? Hong Kong might make sense and it would be good to have a place to hang a couple of shirts and blazers.' But for now, home is London and St Moritz. 'St Moritz has a village feel.' And it's not just Russians going there. Rich Asians - Chinese and Indonesians - flock there to ski too, he adds.
Brûlé has seen a complete inversion of his travel schedule in recent years. From once a month, he is now only three or four times a year in the US. He is a huge fan of Asian airlines, especially Cathay Pacific. 'Cathay Pacific got rid of those stupid business class seats, so we gave them an award this year. It's good they had the courage to do that.' People hated those seats, and it was a good example of listening to customers. 'What I like about Asia is it's a pleasure to fly around on big aircraft with pleasant crew and efficient airports. It's a joy to do business in Asia.'
Their efficiency is outstanding compared to creaky US airports, he says. The US is his biggest market, 'but it's somewhere I want to do business, but not fly there to do business'. People outside Asia should realise there is an alternative to US airlines and that Asian airlines also fly to the places they want to go, often via Hong Kong and Singapore.
The future is bright, and it is Japan, Brûlé firmly believes. 'I used to go three or four times a year, now it's once a month.' He sees Japan taking its own direction and becoming an outstandingly functional place, 'like a functional Italy'. Brûlé's admiration is boundless: Japan lost the second world war yet staged a spectacular economic recovery in half a century. 'You name it, they bought it, invented it, reinvented it, rebought it. It's all about the way Japan asserts itself.'
He sees Japan as having a heart, in part from the luxury of having a deep and particular history. It suffers from some of the same hang-ups as Germany, Brûlé says, adding that it is not a nice history in terms of wars but good in terms of industry and manufacturing.
Deep traditions, including the mixture of old and new, have not been lost. 'Look at their economy - it's service-based, but still they have industry, they make things.' Brûlé sees Japan's influence increasing in Hong Kong: 'It's already happening - an invasion by Japanese brands. Hong Kong and Chinese consumers are increasingly falling under their spell.'