Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Monocle Miracle

In 2007, Tyler Brûlé launched one of my favorite publications, the culture magazine Monocle. He couldn’t have chosen a worse time. The publishing industry, as it is today, was scrambling for a strategy for remaining lucrative in the face of the internet’s free-content revolution. Meanwhile, the global recession was about to strike.

All signs pointed to imminent failure for the magazine. Adding to the challenge was the fact that, at $150 a year, Monocle is far more expensive than traditional glossy magazines.

And yet, against impossible odds, Monocle has thrived. As this recent BusinessWeek profile of Brûlé points out:

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.

What accounts for Monocle’s unheard-of success? Simply put: priceless value. As with most magazines, Monocle isn’t an essential product. For households looking to cut corners, buying fewer magazines and newspapers is a no-brainer. According to the annual State of the News Media report, between 1998 and 2008, the number of magazines sold on newsstands dropped by 35%. In the last six months of 2009 alone, circulation for consumer magazines was down by 2.23%, while newsstand sales were down by a staggering 9.1%.

But there’s something about Monocle that thousands of people can’t live without; it’s a local/global thing in a completely original way; it’s surprising, unusual, welcome, useful, collectible, irreplaceable. It’s post-materialist, pro-sustainable and when you think after five minutes of watching CNN that the world is going to hell in a handbag, Monocle shows that life in a lot of places in the world is sane, progressive and cultured. This is priceless value: they help the world be a better place.

Monocle now has stores, and I hope they thrive as a sort of World General Store (they should hook up with Remo Giuffre in Sydney). Stores are the brand extension you always hoped for from a magazine but was never delivered. They see the natural and obvious connection between a magazine and retail.

Monocle has achieved this status because of Tyler Brûlé’s unwavering devotion to an idea. He surprised us beautifully in 1996 with Wallpaper*, and through his spirit of “radical curiosity”, Brûlé has shown again with Monocle that ideas rule the world.