Monocle, a UK publishing success story, looks beyond Brexit Britain for its future

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Monocle, one of the most distinctive global news media brands to have emerged in the UK since the start of this century, is now looking beyond Brexit Britain for its future.

Launched in London in 2007 as a stylish magazine briefing on world affairs and culture, the multi-platform media brand has turned to one of Thailand’s largest property developers, Sansiri, for the $6m financial injection which will fund its next phase of growth.

Furthermore, it has chosen to establish a “second headquarters” in Zurich, partly to insulate itself from the impact of the UK’s departure from the European Union.

Monocle’s founder, Tyler Brûlé, outlined his future strategy, including a new Christmas-based The Winter Weekly newspaper, new investment in book publishing, and editorial expansion in Los Angeles and Zurich, which will become a crucial post-Brexit commercial operation. “Looking at where the UK is heading, and everything I hear about spending power and what is probably going to happen, I’m not sure if all of our commercial discussions should be starting here (in London)," he says. “I think that maybe they need to be starting on the continent.”

Committed to print

The launch of Monocle’s Christmas broadsheet follows the advertising success of its Summer Weekly title and further emphasises the commitment to print media of a brand that publishes its magazine on a range of luxurious paper stocks and sells it for a hefty £7 a copy.

Again, Brûlé is underwhelmed by the UK’s position in regard to ink on paper, and is set to transfer its production operations to mainland Europe. “There’s a big project here to move our print and production out of the UK to the continent where there is just more stability,” he says. “Whether it’s the Germans, the Swiss, the Italians, the Polish, there are still big investments in print plants.”

That move overseas became imperative after “a panic” recently when Monocle realised the lights had gone out at one of its major printing partner companies. “Our head of production said ‘let’s get a truck up there’ because we had a lot of paper which we had already bought sitting in there but we were too late, the bailiffs had already put the locks on the door,” Brûlé recalls. “Stability is what we need. Monocle is a complicated magazine to put together. It needs a dynamic print partner.”

He complains that “there’s not the level of investment in new machinery” for UK print media that there is in Europe. In Zurich, he argues, “the publishers are much more joined up, you feel that the newsstand is talking to the distributor, who is talking to all the newspaper and magazine players”.

Nonetheless, Brûlé is feeling “very good” about Monocle’s future after the Sansiri deal, which he says brings “a lot of cash into the business” and will enable it to achieve “a number of things we want to do”.

The investment added to the festive spirit last weekend at Monocle’s Midori House headquarters in London’s Marylebone, where it was staging its annual “Monocle Christmas Market”, showcasing its favourite retailers while staff, readers and a sizeable contingent from London’s diplomatic community, which especially appreciates the brand’s global outlook, mingled over glühwein.

Monocle has a staff of 55 at Midori House, where it runs a 24-hour digital radio operation as well as producing a stylish magazine with a circulation of 81,504 (of which almost quarter are subscriptions). It produces 10 editions per year, plus annual specials called The Forecast and The Escapist, to which Brûlé aims to add a food and drink themed publication next year.

Investment yields mixed results

Partnering with a Thai property company does provide certain synergies for Monocle, which has always had buildings and lifestyles among its strongest content themes. Sansiri, which will take a 12.5% stake (valuing Monocle at $48m) told Brûlé it was interested in the brand “because you understand cities and architecture, and think about what type of buildings people like to live in”.

But the Canadian also accepts that this deal is quite different from the one in 2014 with Japanese media giant Nikkei Inc, which caused the business world to look up and valued Monocle at $115m. Brûlé says the Nikkei partnership has not quite worked out as he hoped. “While it was a really great valuation, the relationship has not over three years quite delivered the newsstand uplift and the synergies we would have liked,” he says. “It works well editorially but it hasn’t brought the distribution muscle that we thought it would.”

Monocle, which sees potential for growth in south-east Asia, is hoping to use Nikkei office space for a new bureau in Bangkok. Monocle currently operates small bureaux in New York, Toronto, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore and Zurich, employing 12 full-time editors, in addition to 36 part-time international correspondents.

The beefing up of the Zurich operation, plus a physical presence in Los Angeles (addressing what Brûlé admits was a “bit of a blind spot on the US west coast”), will allow Monocle 24 radio to have a more global feel. “Instead of the day starting in London maybe it begins in Zurich and then hands over to London, then hands over to North America,” he muses.

Despite the mixed results of the Nikkei deal, he had become convinced (before talking to Sansiri), that what Monocle needed for its second decade was a strong partnership with a new major media organisation.

Although Monocle has a strong reputation for its lifestyle and design content, it is also a news media brand (especially in its radio output). As such, it fights for advertising with some big hitters. “There are all these global brands out there who we compete against, whether it’s the Wall Street Journal for an ad campaign or the New York Times or the FT,” says Brûlé. “We are tiny. There are no efficiencies for us and when it comes to paper buying we are on our own. When it comes to distribution or firepower in terms of what we want to do digitally we are a bit of an island.”

So, around February, having engaged investment advisors, he started talking to potential media partners. “Probably the seven or eight biggest media companies in Europe and the States all came to London, and we went to them – we pinballed around the world,” he says. But these companies were not able to offer the “silver bullet” partnership that Brûlé wanted, with some requesting a majority stake in the company. “We said we are just not ready for that, we like to date first.”

Tyler Brûlé's roadmap

After months of talks, Brûlé – who recently quit his long-standing The Fast Lane lifestyle column in the Financial Times – says he became “exhausted”, although he suggests that the business, which has generally danced very cleverly through the turbulence of the digital revolution was not in desperate need of financial aid. “We had a decent run of profitability with maybe a dip here and there along the way,” he says. “We were generally feeling fine and good about the business.”

Monocle’s print sale has risen slowly but steadily since launch (but is still well short of Brûlé’s optimistic initial target of 200,000 within six months). Its website has avoided cannibalisation of the audience by focusing on retail and audio (the publisher now wants to make Monocle 24 radio “front and forward” on the site). Magazine subscribers get access to its archive in digital format.

In June, the connection with Sansiri was made, and Brûlé dropped the idea of another big media partner. The new arrangement continues an early Monocle tradition of taking investment with family-based businesses unrelated to media. “We like being close to people who don’t know the media market,” says Brûlé.

Now Monocle can innovate further. Its new newspaper points to wider ambitions in the weekly broadsheet market, targeting a sophisticated audience with time to read. “We are very interested in this weekly newspaper space, I will leave it at that,” says the founder.

Christmas, he says, has “become the global holiday”, not just for Christians but as a period in the calendar that is internationally seen as a time to stop work and to become “untethered” from digital screens.

His thinking when he launched Summer Weekly (following the success of Monocle’s Summer Series of podcasts) was to reach readers by the swimming pool who didn't want to be swiping iPads with sun cream on their fingers.

The same concept applies to this new product. “They could be sitting on a sun lounger in the mountains applying zinc to their noses,” says the man from The Fast Lane. “Advertisers really respond to the notion of getting people at a time when they can engage – there is a realisation that being on a screen during leisure time is not that nice when you are doing it every day.”

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