A decade after Monocle first sprouted, the global media brand has grown some sprawling branches. Its mainstay, a voluminous monthly magazine packed with discerning long-form feature articles, eye-catching photography and lifestyle and travel listicles, remains at the core. But it is now amplified by a website featuring short original films, a 24/7 digital radio station, seven retail shops (including three in Asia), an e-commerce site, and cafes in London and Tokyo. Monocle’s website now sells sweaters, handbags and stationery. The brand has published volumes of guides to world cities and better living.
It wasn’t planned out this way when Tyler Brûlé first envisioned Monocle in 2005.
"We were fully focused on it being a magazine 100 percent," the editor-in-chief told Campaign Asia-Pacific on a call from Tokyo. "We weren’t sure what the digital extensions would be….everything was up for grabs."
Thanks to a pair of well-endowed European families as backers, it was only a matter of months after Monocle’s launch in 2007 that the first experiments with audiocasts and pop-up shops appeared, giving way to their respective full offshoots.
To outsiders, it may seem like a motley mess of media and retail. For Brûlé, whose name became synonymous with fine taste and a modish lifestyle via urban living bible Wallpaper magazine, it’s more likely the inevitable product of his passion to deliver the richest experiences possible to his audience, shaped by commercial opportunities along the way.
"There’s a plan, but things can drop off that plan," he said. "If we see a really interesting opportunity we might be diverted to something completely different."
A TV partnership with Bloomberg was struck when Singapore’s Economic Development Board wanted the flavour of Monocle’s print work in the EDB’s existing Bloomberg TV partnership, leading to a series of half-hour programmes running internationally. Monocle’s move into book publishing came after being twice approached by publishers offering to take care of distribution and retail.
In both cases, commercial opportunities came knocking, looking to be part of the same upwardly mobile culture and content that attracts Monocle’s readership of 81,000 globally, which Brûlé would argue is more aspirational than elitist.
Monocle on Asia
Asia-Pacific is only Monocle’s third-largest region, holding 23 percent of its circulation, with Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong among its top ten markets overall. But Malaysia, Taiwan, South Korea and China are key growth audiences, as more among their growing middle classes learn the international language of business and spread their wings.
"I think this era of people transferring between global cities, leading proper global lifestyles facilitated in business and pleasure by the rise of low-cost carriers—we want to reflect that," Brûlé said.
APAC forms 18 percent of Monocle’s advertising revenue, but is growing with brands like Cathay Pacific, Hyundai, Citizen, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Sino Group, Seiko, Muji and Uniqlo among its top advertisers. The current March magazine issue holds ads from the likes of Thai Airways, ANA, Beams Japan and the Nikkei Group, which holds a 4 percent stake in Monocle.
"APAC is serious for us," Brûlé said. "And there’s reach."
To really grow quickly in Asia, however, one might be tempted to break out into local-market editions, something Brûlé still adamantly resists, noting that big players in China have approached him to produce a China edition.
"Absolutely not," Brûlé said. "People don’t come to us for recuts of Southeast Asia. We have enough of the region for any kind of advertiser to feel comfortable. If they want more than that, we’re never going to be right for them."
That means Monocle’s print and radio advertisers will largely remain those with big global ambitions—airlines, international banks, developers and retailers. "We’re not going to be talking to a Taiwanese or Malaysian bank to try to convince them to do audio," said Brûlé.
"Print in Asia—not a problem at all," said Brûlé, attributing the publisher's success partly to reduced ad rates in comparison to competitors like The Economist. "I think the bigger challenge has been audio and trying to get Asian companies into this podcast world."
Audio has been Monocle’s unconventional digital play, with global 'radio' broadcasts streaming live round the clock since 2011. About 30 percent of listeners tune in live, while 70 percent download podcasts. Brûlé claims 1.1 million programs are listened to each month worldwide.
UBS is the largest audio sponsor, owning two shows aimed at reaching Europe and Asia, but others include Allianz, Air Canada, Turkish Airlines and Nike. Brands will sponsor a program and provide their own audio spots or work with Monocle on custom ads. They can also choose to develop custom-content programmes, which are clearly labeled as such, and own the editorial.
Brûlé admits it’s been a tougher road; his radio play has only just broken even. A more conventional route would have been to embrace a round-the-clock news website, supplemented with heavy promotion through social media.
But Brûlé has stubbornly resisted both. Monocle’s website remains devoted to podcasts, long-form feature articles and original short films. His disdain for social media is well known, and that stance appears to be a hill he’s prepared to die on.
Much of Monocle’s original content—striking photography, practical travel tips—is unique and highly shareable. But it’s the idea of social aggregators getting ahold of it, taking credit for it and leeching traffic from it that seems to irk Brûlé. He finds an underhanded irony in the fact that the best media publishers continue to suffer cutbacks from advertisers who choose to allocate more of their spend ‘into social’ that so heavily relies on media for substantive content.
"We know it’s there and we know what it does," he says. "But unlike many others we don’t feel it works for our brand."
So, radio it is. That’s one of the perks of having Swiss family backing.
"We have to find some enjoyment and hopefully a margin along the way. But at our core we’re a family company, so the good thing is we can be quite agile. If we want to do something we can go off and do it."
Winkreative not for sale
It’s an envious approach Brûlé can also take with his creative agency, Winkreative, which works in publishing, advertising, design and strategy.
"We really like what we do and we have a real degree of freedom," Brûlé said. "If we want to make 3 percent a year, but everyone is happy and we’re doing good work, then that’s our call. And if we want to make 15 percent or grow at 15 percent, then that’s our call too."
Giving up such freedom, as Brûlé did when he sold Wallpaper to Time Warner back in 1997, might spoil the fun. That’s perhaps why he hasn’t entertained recent buyout approaches from larger firms. It also might explain why the big holding companies haven’t exactly been banging at the door either.
"Martin Sorrell hasn’t called us," Brûlé quips.