Category Archives: Eye contact

How the launch of Hearst’s Town & Country will help give Putin some manners

Quuen-putinIn her editors’ letter, Justine Picardie claims that the time is right for launch of Town & Country on account of  ‘a tidal wave of global wealth that is pouring into London’. She acknowledges the enduring appeal of traditional Britain, but make no mistake, it’s the international rich that advertisers want here, as opposed to a bunch of Downton fans.

Town & Country has been published in America since 1846, where, without a royal family, money really is the true indicator of social status. The big idea behind the UK edition is that this is increasingly the norm over here. If you can afford to buy your way into the highest echelons of English society, Town & Country will show you how to walk the walk.

Extreme wealth has never been a guarantee of social acceptability. The great English essayist G.K. Chesterton once said: “The rich…are egotistic, secretive, dry as old bones. To be smart enough to get all that money you must be dull enough to want it”

Whether this describes Vladimir Putin is neither here nor there, but we do need to know if Town & Country will succeed in its business of turning new money into old school charm. See more

Surprising, delightful, emotional: Radio Times publishes it’s own book of classic covers

There aren’t many magazine brands that can publish a hardback book of their covers alone. Rolling Stone, Esquire and Vogue have done it, now the Radio Times joins this elite club.

Arguably the biggest magazine in the UK, Radio Times has occupied two very different positions in the publishing landscape. Firstly as a monopoly publication of the BBC, and then as a regular commercial offering, competing with all the other listings titles. Radio Times is currently celebrating its 90th anniversary, this book show what an incredible role the title has played in documenting British cultural life,

Unlike the titles mentioned earlier, Radio Times is a weekly, so it’s not possible to put every cover in the book. Skillfully curated by their longstanding Art Director and Deputy Editor, Shem Law, the book has all the famous ones, together with a whole load more that surprise, delight, and frankly make you feel just a little bit emotional.

It’s not available in the shops, but you can buy it online in the Radio Times shop. At only twenty-odd quid, it’s got ‘Christmas present’ written pretty much all over it!

There are way too many amazing covers to show on my blog, so here is just a tiny selection. This cover is from 1951, with what appears to be a one-off logo specially for the Festival.

For the 1964 Winter Olympics, an Escher inspired illustration from Victor Reinganum. A groovy new sixties logo too.

Another from the sixties, this time the moon landings in 1969.

Six months later, Morcambe and Wise usher in the 70’s, with this New Year issue. A measure of the power of this image is that not only can we not see their faces, but Radio Times are confident enough to leave their names off too, referring to them only as ‘The lads’. This cover also presents the logo that for many people, is still the Original & Best.

An indication of the level of effort put into all these covers, is this amazing cover from 1977. Not an illustration, it’s a real tapestry, made by Candace Bahouth and commissioned by then art editor David Driver.

The nineties saw the listings market become de-regulated, which meant Radio Times now faced real competition on the newsstand, notably from TV Times. The logo has been given a whole load of extra muscle, and celebrity covers are now the order of the day. This is Sue Dando from 1999.

The new millenium saw the logo change again, this time to the current position as shown by last years excellent Christmas cover.

In the digital age it seems impossible that anyone could ever want to buy a paper listings magazine, but buy they do, by the million.

Between 2004 and 2013 I’ve  had extensive and continuous involvement in all of IPC’s TV listings portfolio: TV Times, What’s On TV, TV Easy and TV & Satellite Week.

My view as to why these things still work is that compared to digital alternatives not only is the habit more deeply ingrained, but importantly, the listings are just easier and simpler to use than an epg.

And crucially, the sociability is more universal. By that, I mean the whole family, from Granny down to the kids, can easily use and pass round a printed magazine.

In short, they connect the reader to a shared experience of being At Home.

For those interested in a deeper enquiry to covers in the listings market, take a look at my earlier post on coverthink. Here, I look at the differences between Radio Times and TV Times, specifically the challenges of using six images on a cover as opposed to just one.

Glamour. But at what price?

September issues are a big deal for any fashion magazine, none more so than for US Glamour, Condé Nast’s most profitable newsstand title. But new figures released this week show the title to be 28% down year-on-year, so the stakes couldn’t be higher, particularly since Anna Wintour was named Artistic Director for all Condé Nast titles earlier this year.

Let’s be clear, the reason why sales are so rubbish is all to do with change in audience behaviour, not because the work is no good. It doesn’t matter how hot your cover is if no-one is standing in front of it. This means it’s critical to find new ways to market the benefits of print, along with maximising other revenue streams.

With Glamour, one big way of balancing the books is through ad revenue. So how is the design of the title changing to that agenda, and where does it leave their relationship with both the industry and the readers?

Access is everything. It’s the biggest issue of the year, so you have to have Jen, still the biggest newsstand star. The picture is incredible. Beautifully composed, amazing light, great styling, smart props, enviable location. When seen on Facebook or any other digital platform where potential readers will first encounter the work, it’s perfect.

Print is demanding. When you actually see the magazine, there’s a considerable amount of grain in the cover photo creating a very noticable effect. For some Twitter users this caused genuine disappointment when they saw the real thing. More critical is whether the grain has any impact at newsstand, I certainly saw it before I bought my copy.

Eye contact really means something. However ace the cover is, eye contact is where the relationship with the reader begins. And this takes place in a tiny area of the image. If excessive grain makes this contact diffused, all sorts of questions occur. Has the picture been retouched? Is the picture original? Was the image ever intended to be a cover? In short, are the readers being shown the truth?

Don’t piss off the talent. The whole set has the same grain, yet the photographer Alexei Hay is hardly a beginner. In fact he’s built up an exceptional list of celebrity clients. So I must assume this grain is a deliberate choice. It’s a super flattering technique, but possibly of greater benefit to the star than the reader. Jen’s an amazing looking woman, as a recent selfie proves. But she’s also pushing on a bit, so the risks of being seen to be less than perfect are perhaps still too high for the brand to carry.

Craft still matters. Creative Director Geraldine Hessler is a true master of this kind of work, so there’s much to admire. She manages the newsstand paradox perfectly. Great type, yet loads of lines, lots of color yet a cool black logo. My only quibble is that as this is a special Hollywood issue, centering that line alone does not communicate this ‘specialness’ at all.

Make all the ads look good. I haven’t seen the US version for quite a while, so I’ve missed the change to Helvetica throughout the book, all the way up to and including the cover. This is easily my favourite font of all time, witness the Coverthink logo.

In Glamour, all the pages look terrific. But more than that, the ruthless typographic discipline creates outstanding relationships between editorial and ads, as the content looks well branded, yet neutral. Which is of course, Helvetica’s dark secret. If there is a problem, it’s that many of the sections look very similar, the whole mag can feel one paced. But hey, if it flatters the client…

Make it look like Vogue. What Editor-In-Chief Cindi Leive thinks of Anna Wintour now being on her masthead is anyone’s guess. And I don’t know if the recent design changes pre-date her arrival or are  pre-emptive moves. But the fact remains that the mag is now red and black throughout. This is a HUGE move. It’s much more fashion, a lot older, and a lot more premium. Again, it helps with the ads, as many of the editorial pages are now entirely monochrome.

The upshot is, Glamour now looks an awful lot like Vogue.

Make it look even more like Vogue. Helevtica’s great, but it needs a foil. So just to make sure, Glamour now sports a smart new serif. It’s not Vogue‘s Didot, but it sure is a pretty close cousin.

Understanding brand values is everything. Like all general interest women’s magazine brands, Glamour has an overarching dilemma. When you cover a bit of everything (fashion, features, sex, real life, etc), how can you truly define yourself when content won’t do the job for you. This is where tone, both visual and written, is absolutely key.

Tone is the fastest and deepest way of establishing who the reader really is. And this is where Glamour is running the greatest risks. If she were your best friend (and many women’s mags like to make this claim) is she still the clever, sassy and friendly girl you used to know?

Or, has she dropped two dress sizes, become really hip and a little less approachable?

I have always held the view that Condé Nast has only ever been about one brand, Vogue. And that every other title they publish has a substantial amount of Vogue in their DNA. This is no bad thing of course, but given the bun fight we’re all involved with now, it’ll be interesting to see how Cindi Leive keeps hold of her hat.

(Full disclosure: I was Creative Director of Mademoiselle, US Glamour’s now closed sister title, back in 2001)

Six reasons why the new Harper’s Bazaar is so cool

This recent issue of Harper’s Bazaar came my way as part of a motorway service station ‘value pack’; six quid for this, along with Elle and Elle Deco.

On one hand, this commodification of premium content is clear evidence of the publishing industry’s difficulties, on the other, I got to sample magazines that I might never have otherwise bought. Let’s call it even.

Harper’s has been pretty good for a while, Creative Director Tom Usher having done a fine job before moving onto Marie Claire. But I was mightily impressed by this, one of the first from new Creative Director Marissa Bourke. Here are six things I loved about it…

1. The cover picture. First class eye contact, an amazing image to re-inroduce Kate Winslet as the new Mrs Rock n’ Roll. Amy Winehouse eyes? Check. Slimming backlight? Check. Black turtle neck top? Check. Heavy wrist jewelry? Check. That’s pretty much the Harper’s reader, or at least the readers’ fantasy version of themselves.

2. The discipline in the editing. Everything in this issue points to family. Every story seems to talk about the most important relationships in our lives. It’s truly moving stuff.

3. The incredible poise in the layout. Single pages are the true heartbeat of glossy magazines, as this is the content that sits opposite the advertising, which is why these brands exist in the first place. It’s easy to chuck a beautiful picture across a spread, but another thing entirely to combine a whole series of disparate elements and create a new piece of art. This Editor’s letter is no exception. For more on multi-element pages, take a look at an earlier post here.

4. This picture of a typical Harper’s family scene. Except, in this instance, the models are Keith Richard’s grandchildren, four year old Ida, and Ella, 17. Their grandmother is of course Anita Pallenberg.

4a. The fashion credits on the picture. Denin dungarees, £55 from Topshop, and canvas Vans, for £57. Looking this cool is…easy!

5. This limited edition subscribers cover, by Tracy Emin. Worth the price of a year’s subscription all on it’s own.

6. The beautifully written interview with Tracy Emin about her relationship with David Bowie on page 136. That’s what I call access.

Rihanna. Showing us that the newsstand is the ideal place to turn on, tune in, and drop out

rihanna unapologeticHere’s Rihanna, in the latest promotional picture for her new album, Unapologetic. I haven’t heard the record yet, but I’m mightily impressed by this image.

Magazines are Young! Sexy! Fashionable! And judging by the dangling doobie, dangerous to boot. She’s even kindly shut her eyes, to make sure we’re not distracted from any of the cover logos. We’ll get back to the music in a moment, but for now, let’s look at Rihanna and the three Vogue covers she has appeared on in the last 18 months.

Rihanna Vogue Apr 2011This is her first American Vogue cover from April 2011. Shot by Annie Leibovitz, to me it looks just completely brilliant. Eye contact, hair, styling, composition, everything.

Rihanna vogue nov 2011Here is her first British Vogue cover, from November of the same year, photographed by Alasdair McLellan. It’s just as good, but it also eloquently illustrates the differences between the two versions of the brand.

The British look is much cooler. There are fewer lines, and significantly, the head does not cover the logo. Instead, the middle letter is dropped out, which allows the head to be visible, whilst retaining the brand mark to the fore.

British Vogue never cover their logo. Of the two options this is much the stronger brand position. Conversely, American Vogue almost always put the star over the logo. Despite the strength of their brand, I can only assume they do this because their audience insists on the celebrity being at the very front regardless.

Rihanna Vogue nov 2012Which brings us to this, Rihanna’s latest American Vogue cover, from November 2012. Taken again by Annie Leibovitz, it’s a very different picture compared to the previous year. have been running a poll as to what their readers think is the best. I can’t tell you which cover won, as I was obliged me to sign up to to get the results, which frankly, I just couldn’t be arsed with.

But I don’t need a poll to tell me I don’t like this new cover. Aside from the weird wheat field and the unreadable type, I find myself looking for clues as to what’s really going on here. What does the pixie cut saying about her feelings for Chris Brown? Does she look in control? What does the pose mean?

In the Guardian Alex Petredis’s excellent review of her new record suggests that whilst the music might be good, Rihanna’s obsession with her violent ex is still deeply disturbing. It’s a fine piece of writing, and generated lively comments, as you might expect.

For me, I still subscribe to the idea that at heart, pop music is all about haircuts. I think a New Do is in order.


It’s Charming, Chiseled and…Green. But will it sell?

people magazine channing tatumHere’s the latest issue of People, sporting their opinion as to the Sexiest Man Alive. This picture is genuinely different to what anyone might have have expected. The image is coy, slightly sideways on. There’s an awul lot of green involved, which is not a conventional ‘sexy’ colour. And there’s very little flesh, which is surprising given that Channing Tatum is the totally ripped and often topless star of Magic Mike.

So does it work?

The Daily Mail certainly think so, as it has featured prominently in their ‘Right Rail Of Shame’. Opinion in the office has been divided, some are impressed by the ‘off-ish’ stance, and that idea he’s ‘definitely saying something with his eyes’. Others have been less kind, ‘Doofus’ has been mentioned.

But what is a matter of fact, is that this thing will totally rock on the newsstand, the four bright colours alone will see to that. But mixing them down just a touch, and combining with blends and a transparency, keep it feeling premium, at least by mass market measurement. This is a hard act to pull off, as discussed here a few months ago.

The story above the logo is spot on (Vanity Fair have just named the Petraeus scandal ‘Boneland’), and the Justin & Selena split feels like newsstand catnip to me. The lines are good too: ‘Affleck, Beckham, Gosling, shirtless, mustached – and with their dogs‘.

Most importantly, the attention this cover is generating reminds us that succesfull print magazine covers remain highly social, and highly sharable.


People is the biggest magazine in the world. Here are 5 ways it plans to stay that way

People McConaughy Wedding coverThe celebrity news weekly market is as tough in the US as here in the UK, but People still totally dominates it. It’s the world’s biggest magazine, over 2 million subs and another million on newsstand, or thereabouts. They’re really going for it at the moment, with one wedding or baby shoot exclusive after another. But this, the latest issue, is an absolute belter. Here are the five things that make it really work.

1. Trust. As with any brand, this is everything. But celebrity ‘news’ is so inherently untrustworthy, and the market weakness for spin so great, that sticking to the facts can be tough when compared to Perez and the tabs. But the fact remains, if you’ve read it in People, you know they haven’t made it up.

2. Access. This remains People’s strongest card. Celebrities trust People, they know it won’t stitch them up, so in return they let the brand in. Here, the McConaughy wedding picture is just fantastic. It feels like the truth, it lets the reader believe they are sharing a genuinely intimate moment, the finger gesture is just genius. And note the headline; it’s not ‘The Wedding’, it’s ‘Our Wedding’

This scoop is so good, it has pushed the exclusive Tom Cruise interview down to the foot of the cover. This is still an important component; aside from delivering more access, Tom covers off kids and family, and gives eye contact on the newsstand.

3. Bodies! By far the biggest part of the whole package is the top left body story. In the UK, many mags would splash on this, but here, although the second story, it’s given prime real estate, moving the logo over to the right at a consequence.

They’ve got the killer lines. ‘Body after baby’, ‘How the stars really eat’ and ‘Bikinis at every age’, all proven sellers. In the UK or Australia, these lines would be be massive, but with the usual risk of perceived overclaim. Here, they are really quiet, tiny even. But they are in the hottest of hot spots, and sitting on really hot pictures.

4. Colour. Unlike the rest of the market, People’s brand colour is blue, which can make for a relaxed, thoughtful presentation. That’s part of the brand, but not much help in the screaming bunfight of the newsweeklies.

So the key is how to manage the rest of the spectrum. The whole market pretty much uses a yellow splash, as no other colour pops as hard off a picture (5th colours are rarely seen in this market, due to the huge print runs). But where do you go after that?

The ’88 Summer bodies’ story doesn’t hold a lot of space, but is lifted by the yellow blobs. But the pink type upon them is handled with spectacular restraint. This is where the tension between selling the socks off the content, and ‘managing the brand’ is most acute. Get it wrong, and you risk making the whole package feel cheap. Given that this is People’s $4.99 double issue, that’s not a good idea.

Picking out ’88’, Bonus’ and ‘Tom Cruise’ in blue is an understated colour-way, not often seen in this market. It doesn’t leap like pink, but prevents the content feeling commoditised, and keeps it all on brand.

5. Diets. I don’t think I have ever seen a diet line on the cover of People before. But this isn’t any old diet story. Dr Oz is ‘one of America’s leading heart surgeons’ and the Oprah-approved star of a huge Emmy-winning TV show. And the story inside the magazine is genuinely amazing, in the way the best of American health and service content can be. Totally worth the price of admission on its own.

My only reservation is that I didn’t notice it straight away. That’s because it doesn’t have a picture. But as anyone who has ever attempted to visualise diet content in a small cover space knows, this is an almost impossible task. A plate of mung beans is not going to do it, which is why People, in its wisdom, has placed the line directly underneath the incredibly flat stomach of George Clooney’s girlfriend.

Why did Sport magazine win the PPA Cover of The Year 2012?

PPA cover of the year 2012Sport magazine picked up Cover of The Year at last night’s PPA awards in London, with this haunting portrait of Paul Gascoigne, taken by Jon Enoch.

But as Roy Greenslade asked earlier this week in The Guardian, how do you judge a cover by a cover? As he suggested, is it really is a case of comparing apples with oranges?

The PPA process was simple enough, make a shortlist of 15, and then decide by public vote. But that vote takes no account of the environment these covers were originally designed for. Some are newsstand titles – designed to fight for attention and your money. Others are produced to promote their sponsor’s brand. And then there is the third group of titles that are free, such as Sport, and just given away every week outside the tube.

All covers are pieces of commercial art. The question is how commercial does it need to be and what value is placed on it as that piece of art? The fact of the matter is that if Sport‘s cover were to be placed in a newsagent with an invitation to pay money for it, it would sell nothing of any consequence. I worked on the launch of Emap’s Total Sport back in the 90s, I’ve been there.

Failing to sell enough copies is not a luxury available to Cosmo and the rest of the newsstand titles in the shortlist, hence all the coverlines. Words are not the only way to describe value of course, but for titles that actually do want to shift units, readers must be reassured that it’s going to be worth the money.

To some extent, monthlies show value automatically, as they have a spine that talks to both quality and quantity. But for flimsier saddle-stitched weekly titles, coverlines tend to assume even more importance.

But enough of the theory, and back to the winning cover. The vote took place online, with all the covers arranged in a perfectly even playing field. So why did Sport win?

PPA covers of the year 2012This presentation is not dissimilar to that way covers are now displayed in Apple’s Newsstand. The techniques required to stand out in this PPA poll, have real implications for how we approach selling digital magazines online.

I believe we look at a cover for evidence of who we are. If we see ourselves or our fantasies reflected back, we’ll make a connection. That’s why eye contact is still so important. And that’s something Paul Gascoigne’s portrait delivers in spades, better than anything else here.

But after that, we have to look at the fact that there is no coverline, and no attempt to identify him.  Many people will not recognise him. But that’s the point; if you do, (and most men over a certain age will), then not having his name lets the viewer understand that they are already on the inside of the story. They are part of the club.

There is a conspiratorial quality to all our relationships with celebrity. We make them, and then we break them, or in Paul’s case, they break themselves. Although it must be said that the no-coverline technique is usually reserved for people who have just died. But we’ll not go there just yet.

But the killer stroke is the texture of the photograph. Which seems to perfectly fit with what we know about the texture of his life. A magnificent footballer. Hero. Alcoholic. Wifebeater. ‘Friend’ of Raoul Moat. The picture seems to say that Paul knows all of this. He meets our gaze without flinching. It really is great work, and a fine cover as a result.

Hello magazine's Paul Gascoigne wedding cover

Our relationship with Gazza is a long and enduring one. For many years his wedding on the cover of Hello was its biggest ever selling issue. It may still be for all I know. Elvis aside, he is the most famous face in this shortlist. (Although since I made this post, my wife has reminded me that Rihanna is now the most famous person on the shortlist, so clearly, not many young women were involved in the voting)

But Elvis is not British, when push comes to shove, we’ll always go for someone, or something we can actually relate to. Which was demonstrated that last time the PPA ran a public vote to determine what was the Greatest British Magazine Cover of all time. That was won by the Radio Times, with it’s excellent ‘Vote Dalek’ cover.

The true takeaway here, is that we need to learn how to sell magazines in Apple’s newsstand, instead of just wedging them into the local WH Smith. The rules for creating cut-through and value are going to change. Much like the shift from LP cover design to that of CD covers, the smaller format is going to force us into cleaner, leaner positions. We are going to need new ways to prove value for money in this growing retail environment.

The runners-up in the PPA poll were Stylist and Wallpaper, again both very minimal designs with tremendous emphasis on the photograph. Publishers already make special subscriber issues, maybe we will need to rethink our newsstand covers and make special versions for Apple’s newsstand.

One thing remains certain. We will always need stories to back-up the promise, and we will always trust a brand better than a commodity. And they’re both things this industry is really good at generating.