Interviewer: Chris Sutcliffe

Alun: Esquire Townhouse is the experience that brings the Esquire brand to life. So it’s a pop-up members club. We’re here in St. James, in a beautiful old Georgian townhouse. And we activate it for three or four days, every year. This is the fourth edition of Townhouse. It’s where our readers can come and engage with the brand, face to face.

So, we put on a series of talks and masterclasses, supper clubs, ‘In conversation with,’ live music. So really, all the strands that through our articulate, intelligent discerning reader that they’re interested in. So, later on today, there’s a talk with fashion designer Kim Jones equally, there’s an in conversation with Salman Rushdie, and so quite eclectic!

So how it works in terms of the business model is we have a lot of partners who want to associate with the Esquire brand and the Esquire readership. We’re fortunate that we’ve collaborated for the second year running with Breitling as headline partner. They have brought a couple of rooms to life that fit in with the Breitling loft aesthetic which is something they’re using to show that their brand is a lot more ‘lifestyle’ than previously. They’ve moved their brand position away from purely being associated mainly with aviation, so this is a really good time for them.

We’re also working with Harvey Nichols, with CUPRA cars, which is high end [cert] cars, with Sebastian Professional who have a grooming salon here, Harvey Nichols have a clothing edit, so a lot of our partners bring… Bang and Olufsen have some absolutely amazing speakers…

Chris: I thought it was an air conditioning unit because it’s that big! It looks incredible.

There’s also in there, there’s a 77 inch TV.

I’m terrified of that.

Yeah, it’s £17,000 pounds worth of TV apparently, so it would take up a big big part of your front room.

You mentioned there that it’s a good way to get the readers in and to involve them and get them more invested in the brand itself. So what form is that engagement, that live engagement taking, and what does that offer to the Esquire brand more generally outside of the actual Townhouse three days?

Within the three days of Townhouse, basically people register, they come along, use it as a pop up members club, network, have lots of people, business guys come and have, or young entrepreneurs can have business meetings, and then they stay to hear the talks, or take part in the masterclasses, and it’s fun as well.

We work with Highland Park this year, who are a really high end whisky company, part of the reason why I’m so tired today! We’ve done a single cask ‘Esquire Highland Park’ whisky with them, which I think is going to retail at about £200. I’m not a big whisky fan myself, but this was absolutely delicious. But after we tasted it, they did tell us it was 60% proof!

And so what we’ve done actually this year as part of extending our brand ecosystem with Esquire, is that we’ve launched Esquire Evenings as well, which are activations that we do when brands want to collaboration, and they can be on the small elements of Townhouse or either, you know, a masterclass or a supper club or an ‘In conversation with’.

So, two good examples from this year, we did a Japanese-themed evening with Seiko to launch one of their new watches, and Victorinox who are the Swiss knife brand as well as army knives, wanted to highlight their really cool range of chef’s knives. So we did a knife skills masterclass followed by a supper club.

So we’ve got whisky and knives in the same environment…!

Well, yes! But yeah, so we’re using smaller events throughout the year to just keep that face-to-face engagement going.

You’ve preempted one my next questions then which is, over the last couple of years, I think maybe the last three years specifically, we’ve seen changes, particularly in how lifestyle and health and fitness brands actually choose to engage their readers. It’s not just that we’re putting out product, and letting people come to us mentality anymore.

I think one thing that is really, really encouraging, is that what we have done with Esquire over the last 12 months is really really celebrate print. Esquire is a brand with an amazing heritage, and people don’t actually know, it’s the first ever men’s magazine, it launched in the 1930s in the US, end of the Jazz era, and two of our original contributors were Hemmingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. So pretty cool, heritage you can’t buy. And so it’s always been this iconic brand with a real passion. But what we felt we needed to do was really reinforce that [passion], the exclusivity of Esquire.

And so we relaunched the magazine at the start of this year, we decided to go from ten issues to six, but we invested a lot increasing pagination, paper stock, so I would say it’s more a coffee table book than a magazine now, in how you look at. And readers have absolutely – and advertisers – have absolutely loved it because it just feels like something really special.

We know we’ve a got very high end audience, so we increase the cover price from £4.30 to £6, no problem there. And with our subscribers, we’d actually budgeted because they were going to get far fewer issues, we budgeted that we would see a 20% decline in subscriptions. We haven’t. Subscriptions have stayed completely the same, which just shows that they really value the quality that we’ve invested in the magazine, and the luxury paper stock.

And we’ve moved it into more luxury market positioning. We felt that’s the area Esquire should occupy. So away from what was traditionally viewed as men’s lifestyle.

We’ve seen questions over the last, maybe, two years about the primacy of brand and the value of brand. Some of the big US luxury magazine titles have struggled to find buyers despite having this incredible heritage. So what is it about Esquire and its relationship with the audience that made it retain its primacy when others were losing it?

So I think with Esquire, and especially where we’ve moved now around its core editorial pillars of style, and culture, and design, what we what we are saying and saying to our advertiser is, we’re not the biggest brand in the world, that what we are now is everything to some people, an exclusive set of people, rather than being something to lots of people. No one gets up in the morning and thinks, ‘Today I’m going to buy a men’s lifestyle magazine’. Men’s lifestyle is just a term that’s used in the industry, that when we found we were covering humour and politics and sport, and other things as well, what are we doing that’s different?

So we’ve gone very deep on style, design, aesthetics, culture, art, and it’s really resonated with our readership. And the advertisers love what we’ve done with Esquire, the investment we’ve put into print. So we’ve actually, of the six issues that we’ve done this year, we are generating significantly more ad revenue than we did on ten issues last year. So that’s just talking about the print side of things, so that is brilliant.

And then what we’ve done as well is invested in our digital property, our website, both in terms of number of people we have on board and the content we create. We’re doing a lot more video online, engaging, so we have a franchise called Get Dressed, which is our style editor Charlie Teasdale. And it’s really funny how he does it, but it’s also got service that the watcher can take away and apply to their own lives, like an introduction to watch collecting, or how to wear suits in a casual manner, or different things. So we found I think our Q3 video views were up 30% year on year, and our overall traffic’s up at round about 25%.

So we’re dovetailing a lot more the print and digital properties. And then that’s just really the core of our audience growth. Then around that within our ecosystem, we have Townhouse, we have the Esquire evenings, and then we’ve also got something called Esquire Edit, which is in its second year.

How do you deal with not overextending the brand and diluting that value, as happened with Sports Illustrated where they’re everywhere now and maybe the brand is a little bit less valuable than it once was?

So we’re – I think it’s a really good question – we’re really careful about who we work with, and we get approached quite a lot to do brand extensions on licencing, or put our names to things. This isn’t just on Esquire, it’s across a lot of our brands, and we do the things that we think resonate, or where we have expertise. So for Esquire, style and fashion is very much our core.

I also look after Men’s Health where we have a premium range of home gym equipment, we do we actually do that with Argos but we do it as their high end range called Men’s Health Active Plus. But what we wouldn’t do, I’ve been approached before to do Men’s Health jeans. I just don’t understand how the jeans would be Men’s Health.

So beyond the Esquire brand then, what consistent trends have you been seeing? You mentioned that health and lifestyle is effectively a term that publishers can use and advertisers can use, but have there been consistent trends over those, and how have they been different from other sectors within the market?

One of the big things that we’ve seen coming to the fore over the last few years has been our audience’s interest and engagement with mental health. So this is something that we’ve been – mental well being and mental health awareness is something we’ve championed on Men’s Health for a number of years now, but it’s really started to resonate in the last two years. You can see that’s happening in wider society.

What we’ve done there is a number of campaigns from a #MendTheGap campaign, which was talking about the time a GP sees someone who’s had a mental health episode breakdown, the recommendations are two to three weeks, whereas if someone gets, the impact is similar to being knocked over by a car, they’re going to be seen straightaway. So we’ve been raising awareness around that. I think that’s in terms of content trends, that’s something we’ve seen.

In terms of general trends, I think a lot more engagement with video, is something, and so on our different brands, what we do is just articulate how we bring that to life, and what video works for, because anyone can do video, but what makes it different and what makes it you?

Yeah, exactly, as with the print product, it’s finding that point of differentiation and saying, what works with us, and actually what works to enhance the brand itself? We spoke a little bit earlier about Esquire and how it’s almost rethought the print product, and how that would fit into the wider strategy. And I think that the conversation has moved from ‘print is dead’ conversation to, well it actually does offer something very valuable, it’s just not what it once did. Outside of the Esquire brand, how are the print titles doing across your portfolio, and how are they changing as well?

So, in general, they’re pretty robust. The revenue we…well I think we’re fortunate because we have a number of market leaders. And so if you’re number one in the market, you’re the go-to, so Men’s Health is number one, Women’s Health is number one, Esquire’s is now by far the biggest in the super luxury sector, Cosmo is obviously…we have Good Housekeeping and Country Living which are amazing amazing brands. And so I think, we are seen as market leaders, as number one brands on point of contact.

For a few years, there haven’t been many magazine launches in the market, certainly not big brands, I mean, I launched Women’s Health about seven years ago, and I think it’s been the most successful magazine launch in the last 10/15 years in terms of it’s had 13 consecutive circulation increases, and really took that number one spot.

So if you get it right, it can work in print, but obviously, we’re putting a lot of our investment into digital, into video, because, into social media we have social media editors across most of our brands now, because with the younger audiences that might be how they first engage with the brand, and then they discover print.

The previous editor of Cosmopolitan had an email from a reader who said, ‘I love Cosmopolitan on Snapchat, you should think about doing a magazine or something’. Okay.

You talk about using maybe events or social as this first engagement point with audiences. What is the end goal then? I suppose it’s different per brand, but is the goal to funnel them into subscription or membership, or are you okay with having them ‘fly by night’ so you can monetise in other ways?

I guess the goal is to have them as named data, because what we find is once someone buys a subscription to say, Country Living, then they might go on a Country Living curated holiday, they might go and stay in the Country Living hotel – we have two hotels as licence partnerships, one in Bath, one in Harrogate. So, they might go and stay there.

And, the lifetime value of known data is much stronger than a ‘fly by night’ person, as you said. So a big part of our strategy is obviously that data harvesting, taking people through the funnel.

So presumably that’s actually changing the organisational structure as well, and the staff you’re hiring.

Yes, and having those big focuses, you have experts in the business which 10 years ago, you just wouldn’t even know that you would know. We’ve got the data team, data acquisition strategies, but also on the advertising side, our programmatic team is far bigger than it ever was.

We have our social media products, and how we align with advertisers on social media, again, expanding part of our brand universe, so yes. A lot of young, clever people who help me understand, help me and other people look good!

You mentioned video and some of the video series you’ve been putting together earlier like Get Dressed. That’s seen as a huge growth area for a lot of, particularly digital native publishers, I don’t know if you’ve seen what Joe have been doing lately, but with this live broadcast and everything. So to what extent is that going to be a big investment? Not just for Esquire, but for even some of the health brands, which I imagine have a huge opportunity?

Yes, absolutely. So we have a new Head of Video, and a big video team now at Hearst. And we have specialists in different areas, in health and fitness, in fashion, within this video team so the amount of video creation has increased exponentially over the last 12 months. And we look at video in different ways.

There’s a way of looking at where you have ‘hero hub hygiene’. So just to explain, so on Men’s Health, hygiene would be how to do the perfect squat, how to do the perfect ab crunch or things around nutrition, so short, but things that Google often that you should have.

On Men’s Health, the Hub content would be regular franchises, so we have our deputy editor Dan, we have a kind of ‘Challenge Dan’ series where he does road cycles, a hundred miles for the first time, or tries different sporting challenges or take part in CrossFit…we were trying to explain to him why it wasn’t good to go out with a road cycling team on a mountain bike! So that’s the extent of his knowledge.

And then our hero pieces, so we do exposes, we do really investigative, high quality journalism. So we did a big piece on steroid abuse in gyms in the UK on Men’s Health, which has had over a million views on YouTube. Really good quality, 20 minute pieces.

So I think when you can look at video in different strands and they’re serving different needs, that gives you a nice structure to how you approach it and your strategy around video rather than just, let’s make some moving content.

Yeah, exactly, and it’s not like you can’t do incredible engagement and growth on there. We had Ellen Stewart on from PinkNews not that long ago, they grew to be the biggest LGBTQ+ publisher, just from existing on Instagram.

Yeah. And I think you’re finding that now as well that there are a lot of upcoming sports or football content channels, which basically start on Instagram. We look at that too, when we’re looking at new brands, we’re going okay, this is the idea. This is the content. Where’s best for it to live first? Rather than the old model of, right, let’s do a magazine. Let’s do a website. Let’s do a social channel, then let’s do an event.

It could be an event. It could be it’s something starts with an event, and from that you have more regular content that you put out in a digital format or something.

I mean, we’ve just launched Delish in the UK, which is a brilliant, funny food network site, which already exists from our parent company Hearst in the US. But that that’s a digital property, would that ever be a print property? Potentially, but that is digital first, publishing strategy.

And then just as a penulitmate question, from my co-host Peter, he’s interested in the relationship between the US operation and the UK one. You mentioned Delish there, and how it filters across. So how does that relationship work in terms of managing the brands, making sure everything is consistent, and in developing new opportunities?

So I guess…they were very collaborative. I think, one of the things we benefit as Hearst massively is the technology, the platforms. So we have a common website platform called MediaOS, which is really cutting edge and it’s ahead of the game, and through that, in the UK, we get best-in-class technology, but also we can share content. So what’s trending in the US actually might trend in the UK as well.

We have a worldwide network of content that we dip into and share. We repurpose content from the US to the UK, but also vice versa. So we have much, much closer content sharing, collaboration than we ever have done in the past.

And actually, a lot of the global network will pick up US content, our international brands often tend to be licencees. And they will pick up US content, and they’ll pick up UK content, and so, we’ve got very well-developed content sharing networks, content sharing technology.

And also, when you look at brands in terms of advertising budgets, a lot more they want a really really great content activation, but they don’t want to do one for the UK, one for the US, and one for Germany, and one for Spain, they want the same one. So we’ve got a global ad sales team who work with global budgets and produce some amazing content that then we can run on different websites and print products in different territories.

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