Whether he is the arbiter of 21st-century style, a zeitgeist wunderkind or simply a ‘peddler of yuppie porn’ (as one mordant journalist once wrote), one thing is for certain – Wallpaper* founder Tyler Brûlé certainly inspires emotion.
When the rumours began last October that the one-time Guardian and Sunday Times journalist was preparing to make his magazine comeback with a hybrid travel/style/business magazine called Monocle, the gossip machine quickly rumbled into action with a mixture of anticipation and derision.
‘This move reveals his undiminished verve and a resolve to explore with Falstaffian spirit the aesthetic boundaries of our manufactured and mediated existence,’ said one somewhat pretentious post on blogsite apartmenttherapy.com.
One response contrarily described Brûlé as ‘self-obsessed and self-involved’, adding that he is entirely to blame for a ‘hateful breed of style-obsessed Feminazis’.
This month though, the speculation ceases. Issue one of Monocle – described by Brûlé as a ‘mix between The Economist and Vanity Fair’ – comes out on 15 February. To many the magazine will be the proof of whether (or not) Brûlé has still ‘got it’.
Perhaps with this in mind, Camron PR has a tight grip on Brûlé’s image – for this article PRWeek had to choose from a set of approved pictures rather than use our own photographer. But seated in the plush office of his London-based marketing agency Winkreative, Brûlé talks freely, unsupervised and with typical immodesty, about the industry he believes he has helped to grow.
‘The effect of Wallpaper* and magazines that followed, such as Elle Deco, was to give rise to the shopping page,’ he says. ‘We highlighted the must-have products and must-do events. This concept is now repeated in almost every glossy and Sunday supplement you can pick up, and that has been a great field for PROs to target.’
The inspiration for Wallpaper* famously came after Brûlé was shot by a sniper in Afghanistan, where he was covering a story on Médecins Sans Frontièrs. The incident left him hospitalised for several months, and during his recovery he developed the concept of a ‘chic’ magazine about contemporary living and design.
Indeed, Wallpaper* was to be a 1990s publishing phenomenon, which Brûlé sold to Time Warner for a reported £1m in 1998. He stayed on as editorial director until 2002, when he left – amid rumours of a clash with IPC over the magazine’s direction – to set up Winkmedia (now Winkreative).
Now returning to his media roots – he says he still describes his occupation as ‘journalist’ on official documents – Brûlé retains traces of old-school scepticism towards PR. Indeed, any inference that PROs might have dictated the style agenda of Wallpaper* is quickly rebuked, and Brûlé says journalists guilty of such pandering should be ashamed. He insists: ‘Keeping your integrity is absolutely crucial.’
Brûlé adds: ‘If journalists say they are sent lots of irrelevant PR-generated material, my question would be – why aren’t you out there telling PROs what you want?’
And those PR people brave enough to pitch an idea at Brûlé should do their research, he warns, citing a recent successful approach from an airline keen to get a mention in Monocle: ‘It was a contact I knew from my time on the Financial Times – he pitched me this big story, so I said “fine – but only if we have the global exclusive”. Sure, he could have gone for several of the big nationals in each key market, but my argument was that Monocle represents this airline’s exact target audience, and is distributed in all of its top destinations. I play hard-ball. I will stick to my guns. I want Monocle to deal only in exclusives – I think we are significant enough to demand that.’
Brûlé is serious when he says he has clout. He plans to fill Monocle with a mix of global affairs and business issues, as well as humour and fashion. He had to raise £5m to launch the title, but the payoff is that it will be distributed in 50 countries, and has offices in London, New York, Zurich and Tokyo. He accepts that having four international ‘bureaux’ is unusual in today’s publishing climate – but insists that such a reach will prove a great advantage.
‘There has been a lot of consolidation in publishing recently and shareholders are having more and more of an influence,’ Brûlé argues. ‘They are more concerned with the bottom line, so budgets aren’t what they used to be and the pressure on editors is stronger than ever.’
He says that to cope in this environment, journalists must proactively approach PROs, not the other way around: ‘We [journalists] want to be – we have to be – out there on the street, spotting the trends, seeing what is happening and listening to what people are talking about. Although I want strong PR relationships within my four Monocle headquarters, it isn’t up to PROs to do everything. I think it is important for journalists to seek out relationships with relevant agencies and let them know what we are doing, what’s going on, and how the magazine works.’
Perhaps it is no surprise that as he launches Monocle, the maverick publisher feels he has to assert his journalistic side over the marketing one that he developed post-Wallpaper*. But Brûlé’s PR prowess should not be discounted. Winkreative, despite only being a few years old, has been involved in several high-profile PR projects, such as the re-branding of Swissair to Swiss, and has worked closely with global brands including Nokia and Stella McCartney. ‘PR is part of the marketing arsenal now,’ he says. ‘Every launch and relaunch needs good PR, and we have naturally brought that through.’
PR looms large
Brûlé reveals that he often turns down requests from clients to be their full-time PRO. ‘I can’t tell you how often PR comes up in Winkreative client meetings,’ he says. ‘We’ll be sitting there saying, “We can do your catalogue, we can do your custom magazines and your website, we can look at your branding and packaging”, and about 50 per cent of them are like, “Can you do PR for us, too?”.’
So, does Brûlé see PR as one future career? ‘I’m not looking at moving back [to marketing] for the moment. If I did, it would make sense to develop a different approach to PR that would go back to being a proper service rather than the cattle-call press release. There is room for a service that concentrates on relationships.’
For now, Brûlé is concentrating on his own campaign for Monocle. And he knows it will make or break the magazine: ‘PR is hugely important when you are launching something like this – we’ve also taken on a PR agency in Scandinavia and Japan. Talking to advertisers was the first push; the consumer push comes next.’
No one has ever criticised Brûlé for lacking confidence, and from his days as an intrepid reporter, to Wallpaper* and now his burgeoning marketing career, Brûlé has scaled the heights. The significance of Monocle – in terms of its media and PR impact – remains to be seen. But with Brûlé’s track record and increasing influence, professionals in all areas of the media will be keeping a close eye on his new venture.
CV - Tyler Brûlé
Launches Monocle in February
Pinknews.co.uk votes Brûlé 37th in its list of most-influential gays and lesbians in the UK
Hosts TV media magazine The Desk on BBC4
Leaves Wallpaper* to concentrate on Winkreative
Becomes youngest recipient of the British Society of Magazine Editors Lifetime Achievement Award
Launches design agency Winkmedia (now Winkreative)
Time Warner buys Wallpaper* and keeps Brûlé as editorial director
Shot by a sniper while covering the war in Afghanistan
Trains as a journalist with the BBC