The Economist ends its four-year exile from British TV this week
with a surreal 60-second Tom Carty-directed epic filled with images of
deprivation and isolation in the old South Africa.
That the magazine has been absent from our screens for so long has been
less the result of a deliberate policy than for want of an inspired
idea, according to David Hanger, its publisher.
With a finite budget and the need for any TV campaign to pack a punch
well above its weight (as did the much talked-about 1996 ad featuring
Henry Kissinger), the medium has usually lost out in favour of posters
Now Hanger believes The Economist has found its big new TV idea, a
minute-long tour de force that uses the story of Nelson Mandela and his
fellow prisoners on Robben Island as a true-life parable to present the
magazine as an eclectic, wide-ranging and provocative read that belies
its forbidding title.
This, after all, is the magazine that declared Bill Clinton unworthy of
the presidency and whose investigations into the murky world of Silvio
Berlusconi has led to threats of a writ from the Italian media tycoon
and would-be prime minister.
The new film, on air for the first time this week and scheduled to run
in Europe and the US as well as on the internet, is aimed at supporting
a major redesign of the magazine.
The design changes needed to be finely judged, so as not to alienate The
Economist's conservative core readership. To attract new readers,
however, the magazine has had to address the fact that there are many
people, who can't be reached by advertising or direct marketing, who
might pick The Economist off a news-stand only to replace it as being
The main features of the redesign are a bolder and easier-to-read
typeface (better for reading in poorly lit aircraft cabins), a two-page
contents list and a more navigable format. As Hanger says, it's
important for readers to quickly select what they don't want to read as
well as what they do.
At the same time, advancing technology is allowing the magazine to match
quality colour to tight newspaper deadlines at its seven print sites
around the world.
Hanger dismisses any suggestion of a dumbing down. 'It's not going to be
easier to read, but it is going to be easier on the eye,' he
That evolution rather than revolution is the right strategy is borne out
by the magazine's steadily rising circulation, which now stands at
130,000 copies in the UK, 760,000 in the rest of the world. A survey
among Europe's top earners last year named it as the most frequently
read international magazine ahead of National Geographic and Time. It
amounts to a compelling argument for not trying to change the readership
The story featured in the new commercial of how the Robben Island
authorities allowed a prisoner to receive The Economist, only to ban it
when they found what it actually contained, was first told to an
Economist circulation director on a visit to South Africa several years
Economist staffers dined out on it for some time afterwards but it
wasn't until Mandela himself repeated it in his autobiography, Long Walk
To Freedom, that the seed of a creative idea was sown. Permission to use
it was sought from the Mandela Foundation and readily given. 'Mandela
has always been pro-Economist because we've always fought for freedom of
speech,' Hanger says.
Hanger, too, is very much pro-Economist, having joined the magazine 32
years ago from the marketing department at the East Midlands Gas
Hanger was the first publisher to be appointed in its 158-year history
and, along with Bill Emmott, the editor, and Helen Alexander, the group
chief executive, is seen as one of the lynchpins of the
A bon viveur who unashamedly enjoys the jollying that goes with the job
- and the world presidency of the International Advertising Association
- he is nevertheless renowned for his energy and for having driven
significant revenue growth year on year.
Rubbing shoulders with journalists for so long also seems to have given
him an instinctive feel for creativity and - according to those who know
him - has led to a mutual love affair with Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO that
transcends the usual agency-client relationship and has manifested
itself in the persuasive red-and-white Economist posters.
'David really understands the advertising process,' Jeremy Miles, who
was the board account director for The Economist at AMV for 15 years,
says. 'He's very sympathetic to creative work and was receptive to 99
per cent of what we presented to him.'
David Abraham, the chief operating officer of St Luke's, who was
recruited by Hanger to take charge of the speakers committee for last
year's IAA congress in London, cites his power as a networker to
galvanise people into action. 'He is as driven as he is self-effacing,'
Hanger himself exudes contentment. 'I work with a high-quality product
and alongside lots of interesting people. I even have an office
overlooking Buckingham Palace. What could be better than that?'