Monthly Archives: July 2013

Five must-see, must-read links

Neat list from Say Media of of five things that drive online engagement.

Busted! US Men’s Health stopped writing new coverlines years ago. This from Gawker. Not to be confused with British Men’s Health, which has a much more varied proposition.

The inspirational Giles Duley has set off to take 100 portraits before he dies. Read this.

Time Inc. lets customers see more of a digital mag before they buy it.

IPC’s Head of Advertising Charlie Meredith wins the argument in the House of Commons!

Why the picture’s not the problem

As an ex Art Director of Rolling Stone, I’ve been reading a lot about this week’s cover, which has created a shit-storm of accusations that they are glamourising an alleged killer.

The Guardian report that certain retailers will not stock it. Jezebel has a good round-up with lots of supporting visuals. The Huffington Post says they were right. Boston magazine says they were wrong. Bloggers far and wide are all busily casting theories, culminating with The New Yorker’s well made opinion:

‘This is an example of two of the ugly public outcomes of terrorism: hostility toward free expression, and to the collection and examination of factual evidence; and a kind of culture-wide self-censorship encouraged by tragedy, in which certain responses are deemed correct and anything else is dismissed as tasteless or out of bounds.’

My view is that Rolling Stone are quite within their brand and their remit to write this story, and perfectly entitled to put this picture on the cover, just as many newspapers have done. Here’s the New York Times, by way of example.

Where this has gone wrong is how the picture is perceived. When Rolling stone put serial killer Charles Manson on the cover back in the 70’s the magazine still had a newspaper format. Crucially, the logo did not go over the image, itself virtually an illustration. This meant critical distance was maintained, there was no endorsement, and no outrage (not that I can remember!).

But put the logo over a glossy image and everything changes. To hell with what an editor might think, the public see this as invitation to admire the subject, to buy into the fantasy, to identify with the brand’s cover choice.

This is an extraordinary image for Rolling Stone to use, not because he looks like a Rock Star, but because it’s a selfie. Rolling Stone is legendary and rightly so for creating powerful identities on their cover. Here, they are doing nothing more than reflecting back to us the vanity of a young man’s narcissism, complete with his Armani Exchange T-shirt.

Regardless of the quality of the reporting inside, the use of such an image was always going to be the story. Particularly for a title with such a history of putting long-haired hippies on the cover and asking us to love them.

Already, thousands of people are firmly of the belief that Dzhokhar could never have committed the crimes he is accused of, purely because of the way he looks in this image. We are such a visual society that we are willing to ignore any amount of hard evidence in favour of a good haircut.

My complaint lies with the words ‘The Bomber’. Notwithstanding that he is innocent until proven guilty, and that any editor in the UK would never get such a headline through their lawyer (read Roy Greenslade on the matter here), it’s this unthinking label that causes the problem. Unlike the New York Times headline (The dark side, carefully masked), ‘The Bomber’ does not comment on the image.

Without the words, we don’t really know what to think. The picture asks a good question, but it’s up to the editors to let us understand what this picture really means. Are we: ‘Looking at the face of American youth’ Or is it: ‘What this picture says about America today’. Who knows, and of course, very easy to say with hindsight.

Another route to making this cover work would be a layout that detaches the image from the logo. At this point there is no explicit editorial endorsement of the image. It’s the technique that has allowed Time magazine to put any number of mass murderers on its covers over the years.

Or of course, they could go the Manson route and abstract the image, so that it no longer becomes a depiction of reality. Rolling Stone would still have a controversial cover, they might still be accused of glamourising terrorism, but perhaps they could have avoided the Boycott Rolling Stone facebook page, currently at 142k likes and rising at the rate of 2000 an hour.

Update: since this post was made, Rolling Stone reports that this issue doubled it’s newsstand sale.

How newsstand pressure is bending even the biggest brands out of shape


This year at the PPA conference, Top Gear magazine’s editor-in-chief Charlie Turner made an excellent presentation about what was surely the biggest motoring scoop of 2012.

When the new Aston Martin One-77 was launched a couple of years ago, it was so expensive (£1.2 million) and so exclusive that Aston decreed, ‘No journalist will ever drive this car’. The idea being that the driving experience had to remain that of the owner, and the owner alone.

A fine piece of PR, but Top Gear found a way round by way of a super-wealthy oil sheik, a collector of super-cars and a fan of Top Gear. He said he’d buy a One-77, let Top Gear magazine drive it, then sell it on.

So the editorial team had a day’s notice to get to Dubai where they had just four hours in the desert with the car. Photographer Justin Leighton took over 8000 shots, he and Charlie made this good looking video and Tom Ford wrote the whole thing up.

As Charlie told it at the PPA conference, it’s a great story, but right at the end of the tale, we learned that although the scoop was on the cover, it had been aced by a great big red Ferrari. It was, as David Hepworth, the PPA panel moderator said, ‘a duvet moment’.

When I asked Charlie how this came about, he reflected ruefully that the One-77 isn’t actually very good, and that these sorts of cover decisions were ‘political’.

He didn’t elaborate, but I am assuming that Ferrari had understandably been promised the cover in return for access to the car.

Which puts the editor between a rock and a very hard place. Why run a review of two-year old supercar which no-one will ever see, let alone sit in, mightily piss off Mr. Ferrari and risk a newstand drubbing at the hands of Car and Evo, who could very well have the Ferrari themselves. The bottom line is that Ferraris will absolutely sell more copies. Given that publishing isn’t a charity business, Top Gear did what they had to do.

But the result is that the cover ends up looking like all the others. Some kind of head-to-head test, flattening out the quality of the work, making the whole offering feel generic and not at all special, either for Ferrari or Aston Martin.

As Charlie told us the Aston story came in really late, I can only assume it was not possible to put the One-77 on a subscriber cover, as that could have solved the problem. Those would have been the issues sent to advertisers, the industry and used in upcoming PPA conference presentations, allowing Top Gear to own the event, whilst the red Ferrari happily sold its socks off in Smiths.

Top Gear is not alone in having to make very hard decisions around newsstand sales, but at the end of the day, they’re a big enough brand for this not to hurt them. Far more troubling is the way many other titles are seeing their brand DNA being bent totally out of shape by the demands of newsstand, whether they be celebrity weeklies or more specialist titles.

What’s needed are innovative ways to get cover ideas in front of potential customers without them needing to be standing in a shop or browsing Apple’s newsstand.

Social media can really work here, witness Elle’s success with David Beckham, The NME’s ‘record that changed my life’ and Time’s breastfeeding mom. Combined with traditional PR and SEO, all these initiatives drove print purchase. The challenge now is to think of new ways to seed a cover idea in a readers mind, and how to create promises that are still worth spending money on, whether that be in print or digital.

One wipes the royal arse

Sometimes magazines just do stuff that’s so cool, you wonder why any of them are ever in any trouble at all. I saw this in a recent issue of Mother & Baby of all places. The caption reads: ‘Don’t worry darling, I’m sure Pippa will have some tips for us’.

But below is an example of a magazine doing something so absurd, I don’t know if it really is utter shite, or a work of mad genius.

Ladies and Gentlemen, here are all the details of the royal birth, dutifully noted by America’s Star magazine, before any of them have ever happened.

Which all-type cover sold best?

This is the trouble with being self employed. You promise yourself you’re gonna blog like crazy, and then a whole load of paid work comes along. So apologies to for not answering this question as promised in my last post, I’ll remedy that now.

I designed both of these covers in the same year. Both are all-type solutions, but one was the best selling issue of the year, the other the worst. Most people can guess which is which, but many can’t, and for good reasons too.

The best seller is of course the 500 greatest abums of all time, doing exactly twice the numbers of the anniversary issue. Why? Well, it’s leveraging Rolling Stone’s authority to a story that readers might actually be interested in. It’s an incredibly simple, ‘Ronseal’ proposition. I don’t much like the look of it, but it does have the feeling of an issue that is to be valued, to be kept, and to be shared.

By contrast, we all LOVED the look of the anniversary issue, and were dissapointed when it tanked so badly. But on reflection, what’s happening here is that the brand has overplayed it’s own importance. I genuinely believe Rolling Stone to be an American icon, but that is of itself no reason to buy.

However, advertisers saw it very differently, the vanity of being associated with a whole bunch of icons was hugely appealling. It was stuffed full of ad pages, which at the height of Rolling Stone’s power had a book price of $50k each. Jann Wenner may have lost a few dollars on the newsstand, but he more than made it back on the pagination.