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Monocle's Poke in the Eye

Tyler Brûlé sells a media vision that's hip, haughty but humane. For a while, he had me.

Francis Plourde 17 Jun 2013TheTyee.ca

Francis Plourde is a Vancouver-based journalist.

"Meet the Monocle's team as they're gliding through the Pacific Northwest in Vancouver, Seattle and Portland...." Tyler Brûlé, the founding editor of a burgeoning media empire, was coming to town. I had to be there to report on the secret behind the London indie magazine with big ambitions.

My first encounter with Monocle -- the monthly update on global affairs, business, culture & design -- came through its radio sister, Monocle24. A news junkie, I was looking for a daily fix in international news, at a time when local radio filled their airtime with weather forecasts, traffic reports, sports news and local issues. Monocle24, broadcast from its headquarters in Midori House in London, and available for free online, presented itself as a decent alternative. With its global team in New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Istanbul and elsewhere, its serious tone and its focus on urban issues, the online radio appeared in my life as my new "go-to" place for news. While CBC radio was telling Canada to Canadians, Monocle24 was explaining the world as it saw it to a global audience. At a time when most media tried to be everything for everyone, favouring fluffier news to more serious reports or adding the usual Canadian angle to any international news, this was definitely a bold move. Quickly, I got hooked.

That's how I came to Monocle, the monthly bible for the urban traveller. With its hefty price tag (12 dollars per issue), its brick-like thickness (200 pages minimum by issue), its ads for products that the "99 Per Cent" can't afford (Rolex, Hublot, Lexus, BMW, etc.), Monocle isn't a likely read for people of average means and modest lives, like myself. But inside its covers I discovered a world where a dispatch about the revival of Kurdish culture in Iraq can coexist with an in-depth report on global transports and the latest in Japanese house design.

Tyler Brûlé, the icon behind the magazine, is a modern dandy who, through his weekly column "On the fast lane" in the Financial Times, can write about his latest haircut at Istanbul's Ataturk airport or his disgust when discovering the provenance of his last underwear purchase (they were from Bangladesh). He is the incarnation of a new global elite -- a group of educated people, fluent in English, with the means to travel anywhere in the world and sharing the same interest for culture, design and life's pleasures.

In many aspects, I'm the anti-Tyler Brûlé. I travel on a shoestring. I picked my barber not for the fanciness of his haircuts, but for the fact he's been in my neighbourhood for 40 years and as such, acts as a local historian. And only recently did I start upgrading my wardrobe, goaded by criticisms of colleagues and acquaintances. And yet I found myself slipping into Brûlé's cult.

The Apple thing

Monocle could be compared to tech giant Apple. One of the reason behind's Apple's success is the way the company sells a vision of the world. In fact, Apple users don't buy a computer, they buy a lifestyle. They "think different." In the same way, Monocle readers (and there's only about 70,000 of us) are subscribing to a way of life. With his magazine, Canadian-born Tyler Brûlé found the perfect fit for the Ikea generation, which grew up with a sense of design, yet insists on telling itself that design-obsessed self-absorption is not a barrier to caring about, and even affecting, global issues. Brûlé caters to this sensibility ingeniously.

How did he manage to do that and where does he see it going next? With those questions in mind, I wanted to meet the man behind Monocle when I learned he and his team were coming to Vancouver this June as part of a Pacific Northwest tour.

As a sign of appreciation to its subscribers, the Monocle team had transformed a popular Gastown eatery into a VIP lounge, with a local DJ, drinks and food à volonté. But the main attraction of the evening was the access to the brains behind the growing venture. At Monocle, editors don't try to engage with their readers on Twitter or Facebook. They say they prefer meeting them in person at special events in various regions of the world or connecting with them via email. "We answer every email we receive, and trust me we get a lot," Nelly, the new associate editor in Toronto, would later tell me. Hence the Vancouver gathering, soon followed by events in Seattle and in Portland.

Getting to Tyler

At the entrance, greeting subscribers, was Tyler Brûlé himself. As I entered and met with Brûlé's assistant, who was controlling who could come in, we briefly discussed my requested interview with her boss. At last, I met Brûlé, if only for a brief handshake. No worries. He agreed we'd speak later in the evening, or if not, over the phone on the next day. For now, he had to stay at the door to greet his readers and thank them for their loyalty. As a long-time friend of his would explain to me later in the evening, this attitude was part of his DNA: Be nice to people and treat them with respect. What a great guy, I thought to myself.

Tyler Brûlé, the son of a Canadian football player Paul Brûlé, is an original. Early in his career, the Manitoba-native moved to the UK, where he trained with the BBC and went to work as an international correspondent. This career stopped abruptly in Afghanistan, when he was shot in both arms by a sniper. While recuperating, he refocused on what was important in his life: friends, a home and travelling. Those interests turned into two business ventures, first fashion and design magazine Wallpaper*, and then Monocle. Through his work as the director of a marketing agency, Winkreative, he developed contacts with the business world, but also a sense of what consumers needed.

When Tyler Brûlé founded Monocle in 2007, he was looking for a magazine that would be a combination of The Economist and Condé Nast Traveller. His target audience: intelligent, business-oriented urban readers from around the world. In 2011, the Monocle team added online radio, and Monocle boutiques sell the kind of items Monocle promotes every month on its pages.

Monocle's readers work in finance, public policy, the academic fields, the media and the travel sector. They are over 30 years-old, and, as Brûlé says himself, "are probably living in a different country from where they were born, and are on the hunt for opportunities. They're also looking for smart media." At the Vancouver event, the subscribers clearly fit the above description. Well-dressed men and women (men the clear majority) in their thirties and forties shared the space with young hipsters with a flair for the latest trends. Despite their differences, both crowds seemed to share a passion for good design and no-nonsense journalism. They seemed to form a community and oddly, enjoy each other company.

While most magazines tend to sell subscriptions for dirt cheap, Monocle asks its subscribers to pay more than they would if buying the issues individually. Its subscribers are not sold only the access to a magazine, but access to a community, with events like the one in Vancouver. Those readers don't want to know about the fate of celebrities, which they would learn in any glossy magazine. They want to know about local entrepreneurs, designers, architects, trendsetters. Controversial articles? Not in this magazine, filled with optimistic stories with a tone implying that "yes, it's possible to change the world."

The more I talked with Monocle's editors and guests, the more I felt my cynical side fading, a voice inside insisted that indeed I could change the world (though exactly how was not altogether clear). I felt a connection with this group of people using English as a lingua franca, a group interested in international events, culture, architecture, speaking a common language and sharing common cultural references. In fact, I felt that I belonged to Brûlé's growing group of followers, despite my lack of interest in Japanese design or my reluctance to pay more than 15 dollars for a haircut.

But as the evening went by, I would regularly get a reminder that this sense of belonging was at best, superficial, at worst, an illusion. Regularly, I'd find myself going back to Brûlé or his assistant, politely inquiring about the interview I had asked for. Again and again, I would get the elusive answer: check back later.

The global silent treatment

As a freelancer, I'm used to rejection. After days or weeks working on a project, I sometimes do get rejections from editors or producers. Contacts will decline requests for interviews, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not. It's part of the business. But the "silent treatment," as I call it, is the worst. An elusive answer to your proposal or request that leads to this odd question: "What should I do?" No reply often implies a refusal and further requests could be perceived as harassment. And often, things are left at that, without the sense of closure that a rejection entitles. Without this definite "no," anything remains possible and in many ways, that's how our society works. Lower and middle class people live with the impression that they can climb the ladders of society and become someone. It works for a few. It doesn't for most of us. Somehow, we all accept this little lie because it makes it easier for all of us.

As I left Tyler Brûlé's Monocle event, it was clear that I wouldn't have the interview I had asked for. His assistant Emily promised to call the next day for a discussion with Tyler. The call never came. An email was sent, then another. So far, no reply. For two weeks now, I've been offered the silent treatment.

Is Tyler Brûlé the ultimate metaphor for his own magazine? Monocle offers you access to a global elite, a global village. The idea is seductive, inspiring. But in the end, the same way Tyler Brûlé's elusive approach provides the illusion of being accessible, Monocle makes you imagine you can connect to a smart set saving the planet with good taste and worthy insights. That's the genius of both Brûlé and his magazine: being a dream-maker for the educated middle class. That's probably his biggest achievement: acknowledging the existence of a network of the wealthier citizens of the world, with its virtues and faults, and catering to their impossible dream of being part of a true global village.  [Tyee]

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