Media Perspective: Important lessons on what makes the top magazines tick

I went to this fantastic conference on the history and future of magazine design last week at the glorious old St Bride Library off Fleet Street.

You were probably all there. What could be a better place for an art director or media planner to deepen their expertise?

I didn't notice any agency names on the attendee list, though. Maybe you were all anonymous. Hmmm. Anyway, for those of you who missed it, here are a couple of things that popped out at me.

The first thing I hadn't realised was how reliant the UK and bits of Europe are on newsstand sales, compared with the US and emerging markets such as Russia and China. The physical scale of those places means the only viable way to distribute is via subscriptions, and a largely subscription-based relationship with its readers lets a magazine take many more risks, both commercially and creatively.

I guess that might not matter to those in the UK, except that there are clearly commercial and ecological downsides to printing 200,000 copies of something in the hope of selling 100,000. You have to imagine that sensible magazine owners are pursuing subscription sales wherever possible, and that must have implications for their relationships with advertisers.

There was also a good discussion on how to react to the digital challenge, best summed up by Jeremy Leslie, the executive creative director of John Brown and editor of magculture.com, saying that magazines need to get more "magaziney". There are things only magazines can do: the deep blacks of the ink in Grazia; the feel of the different paper stocks in Monocle; the striking cover images of Time Out; the unrivalled readability of ink on paper and all those little giveaways and extras that can make a magazine experience such a delight.

William Owen, the founder of the digital consultancy Made By Many, was equally eloquent about the need for magazines to dive into the web without just importing their pages into a content-management system. He summed that up rather smartly as "magazine as service rather than magazine as product". This means abandoning some of the magazine prejudices (beauty is more important than utility; the editor knows best) and embracing the community of readers and giving them a platform to create their own experience.

But the thing that really intrigued me was realising how little advertising income magazines had during the 40s and 50s, a time when they did a lot that was innovative and important. There have to be some useful lessons in that for the future of magazines. We media folk don't know enough about our own history. If we paid more attention to the past, maybe the future would be less frightening.