Conversations with extraordinary people
Tyler Brûlé makes Monocle
"Somewhere in the back of the mind, I'm always thinking: What are they going to do, shoot you?"
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There’s something not very convincing about Tyler Brûlé. That’s not to say there’s anything remotely suspect about his work as publisher, journalist or advertiser. It’s more that his backstory feels almost too good to be true. Son of a Canadian football legend and a German-born Estonian artist, Brûlé moved to Manchester in the late 80s, where he trained as a journalist. In 1994 while working as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, he was shot twice and nearly died. Some soul-searching from his hospital bed led him to abandon the battlefield and launch seminal style magazine Wallpaper*. Since leaving the magazine in 2002, Brûlé has founded leading ad agency Winkreative and launched Monocle, an intelligent print journal that has defied a downward trend for the magazine industry.
Alongside his media successes, Brûlé is known for his love of international travel (in business class, naturally) and high living. His weekly Financial Times column paints him as something of a restless, millionaire playboy, obsessed with fine dining, exquisite clothing and ski resorts. Similarly, Monocle feels somewhat like a magazine James Bond might read when jetting out on his latest mission. Intelligent, beautifully written political analysis is interspersed with shopping guides and carefully curated, high-class advertising.
Flying up to Sydney to meet Brûlé at the Park Hyatt, I worry that I too have been seduced by the man’s mystique. I’m far more nervous than usual and feel slightly as if I’m meeting Bruce Wayne or Don Draper.
As it is, Brûlé is nothing like Don Draper. He is, as I suspected, impeccably dressed — wearing one of his many blue blazers, a light shirt and well-cut jeans, turned up at the ankle. (It’s an outfit I’ll see cloned — with substantially less flair — by his fans at that evening’s Monocle cocktail party.) In person, Brûlé has a commanding presence: engaging, charismatic and occasionally effusive. I’m aware, however, of his restless gaze skittering away across the cafe.
There are things we don’t talk about. I sense he isn’t keen to yet again talk about his near death experiences in Afghanistan. When talk turns to his parents, he deftly directs the conversation away from his father. He and his father have been estranged for years — his father disapproving of Brûlé’s homosexuality — and I regret not steering our chat back towards the topic. As soon as we’re done, Brûlé is off, promising to meet up at the evening soiree. And we do. He is standing on the door, like the father of the bride or, perhaps, a head of state. He shakes my hand, looks briefly confused, and I realise he doesn’t quite remember who I am. I don’t take it personally. Our chat was 12 hours ago. The world has turned since then and Brûlé, always moving on, has gone with it.
I think, in part. This being my first paid working gig — I say paid, but I was paid in magazines, because they weren’t allowed to pay me.
I think I was 13. I definitely grew up in a magazine household. There were always magazines: news magazines, decorating magazines, food magazines, vintage magazines. Like most children of my generation, one’s entertainment was largely print based. But I think my fascination went beyond that. So when there was an opportunity to have a stockroom job and take home as many magazines as I wanted — that wasn’t bad. Plus, I could take all of the back issues for free, because they would just rip the covers off them and send them back. It was a good gig.
What’s strange is that magazines were a pastime interest. Even then, I had my sights firmly set on television. Well, at that age I was split. I was still interested in being a pilot. But I was very interested in TV news and I really saw myself somehow working my way up the ranks of the CBC to become an anchor. So I certainly didn’t see myself working in magazines. In fact, I hated writing.
I might still hate writing, I don’t know. I just found it hard going, maybe because I was lazy.
Canada was a little bit like Australia in the 70s and the 80s. This was before the surge in satellite television. In the evening news, there was a big focus on local news, which never interested me. World affairs were covered by the main late night bulletin at 11. I would always make an excuse to stay up and watch it, even when I was very young. My parents just gave up after a while. I was also really interested in the success of Peter Jennings, seeing him graduate from CBC to become one of the first superstar, millionaire news readers working for ABC in the States and being a foreign correspondent. That was really fascinating to me.
Of course! You can’t even imagine it any more, but US nightly news used to be part anchored out of London. So that was very alluring to me. Magazines were the fuel that got me through the day, but it was TV I was interested in.
I think there were probably two things. One, purely from a presentation point of view it all looked so rinky-dink. I think ABC were one of the first networks to go for a fully open newsroom, where you looked at all these people on typewriters, clattering out scripts like a news-gathering machine, able to pool stories from around the world. The other thing was, from my mum’s side of the family, I always felt a little bit more connected to the Nordic world. And I think the interplay of the Cold War was important; my family had to leave Estonia and ended up in Canada and the US. The shifts between Washington and Moscow were interesting too, now that I think about it.
Yeah. And I travelled around Canada and the States a lot as a child. I wasn’t globetrotting with my family until I was maybe 14, when we went to Europe for the first time. I was really bitten by it. I thought straightaway it was maybe a place I’d like to end up.
I think I was like most boys. It was a different time. In Canada the skies were owned by two players — the Lockheeds and the Boeings, both were flying the national flag. There was pride in being part of one of these brands, which would take you around the world. I look back at Air Canada as a brand that was really outstanding in its time. Sadly, it’s a shadow of its former self and now defines itself by cost cutting, rather than innovation.
I think there was a sense of occasion that used to go with it. People used to make an effort.
I think we’ve lost that sense of occasion, of being proper.
That’s what still excites me about Japan. Japan is still proper, Japan has somehow held onto, not just Japanese traditions, but everything that happened in the post-war period. I don’t want to talk about a golden era of advertising — we’ve had five or six years of obsession with Mad Men, which is thankfully starting to go away — but that culture has always been there in Japan. The culture of the drinking executive in the three-piece-suit, impeccable shoes and a natty hat. Brylcreemed hair. That is alive and well. You still feel like you’re walking onto a stage set. Everything is done exquisitely and perfectly. In aviation — a business where everyone is looking for economies — Japanese carriers still behave, in a way, like it is the 1960s, which is very professional.
I always try to put opinion with a solution. We as journalists are very lazy — we just kick the shit out of things and beat people up and never have an answer. I find that very boring. Of course, it can be funny and it can be wonderfully provocative, but I always think it’s nice to deliver some kind of positive or solution-driven conclusion. Maybe that’s become part of my schtick. It’s the way I would go into a meeting at work, it’s the way I would approach a relationship. You want to be able to have a solution. Whether it’s going to make everyone happy in the end is another issue. But just taking a shot at people or things is boring. It’s partly why this whole culture of mean and free comment is so dominant. I just don’t think it’s healthy.
Within the media today, you become a heretic because you’re not on Twitter, you’re not on Facebook. It’s like saying, ‘Am I a bad person because I don’t drive?’ I think it’s really fascinating where we are at in a media space, where it’s seen as irresponsibility — for not being in these places. I mean, that’s like saying, ‘I’m not in every restaurant every evening, or every taxi rank and overhearing everything.’ I think it’s also because people are insecure about using social media, because they put themselves out there so much. They’re like, ‘Well, why aren’t you out there?’
When I do speeches now, I say, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t film me. I’m having an intimate moment with you, the audience, I don’t want to see it recut on YouTube.’
Not only is it being taken out of my control, it’s being taken out of context. I think that’s a bigger issue. People can go and stand in the taxi queue and say, he was great or he was a dick, but I don’t like people being able to manipulate things I said. No-one wants to curb free speech, but I think we’re at an interesting juncture. To say new media companies are only the messengers, I don’t buy it. You’re not a telco. You’re not the Sydney Morning Herald either. But you need to live by some of the same rules.
It’s funny. This venture tonight could have been a garden party at someone’s house, but we’re having it here at the Park Hyatt. People will say that’s elitist. It’s not. It’s our version of having a social gathering. We want to get out and meet people. It’s much more interesting for our readership to be able to look each other in the eye, have a drink, exchange cards. Of course, it’s good for business, but mainly it’s just making an effort. I was talking to a major government body here yesterday and we got into the whole social media thing—how many Facebook likes they have, blah blah blah. And I thought, Do those likes really mean anything? Do they really turn into actual plane seats for people coming here? The fact that you’ve got 60,000 people coming from China has nothing to do with social media. It’s got to do with a surge in that economy and China airlines have laid on more flights, end of story.
Yeah. I don’t want to overdo it, because I hate talking about clubs and clubbiness because that suddenly becomes elitist. Sometimes I feel a great rush to this lovely device [gestures at my MacBook Pro], but it says nothing about you. I don’t know if you’re looking at Pokemon, or reading back issues of The New Yorker, or trying to get cover inspiration from old copies of Men’s Club in Japan. It doesn’t matter whether you’re carrying Dumbo Feather or Monocle, I would probably have a deeper insight into you and your tastes than I would from seeing you carry that titanium device. I’m amazed by how quickly the Fairfaxes, the Hursts, so many media companies, have forgotten the value of the front page. I’m amazed they haven’t had a conversation with Apple to say, ‘We need to think about the value of the association with the media brand.’ This is something that defines you. You put as much effort into your watch or your eyewear or your shoes as you do to what you put under your arm, what you feed your mind with.
We’ve never filmed one of our story meetings, but it’s this curious cocktail… I wouldn’t say it’s about improvement, but it is about taking an optimistic, rather than a naive view of the world. Monocle is defined by optimism. If part of that gets distilled into general global improvement, great. But I think the overarching view is that
there are a lot of things to feel good about. There are a lot of things that don’t need to be reinvented.
There’s a frustration with government and corporations, so much money is spent in research when, in fact, there are solutions already out there. The Finns have already figured out how children can be thinner and how you can have a better education system—you treat teachers like lawyers, you put them on a pedestal in your society and you pay them better wages. And yet, you have school boards in Canada fighting and spending hundreds of millions trying to figure these things out, when all you need to do is buy five air tickets to Helsinki and spend two weeks there, meeting your counterparts. There are five places you could go, probably, to find a solution, without dipping so deeply into the public purse.
Oh yeah, goodness! Absolutely. Hopefully that runs through our business and is a big defining part of what we do. As you said, a defining part of so many media outlets today is just taking a negative view on things. We have the luxury to be able to say: ‘Many things are working and there is inspired leadership out there.’
We can look at what happened off the back of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in 2011. That was a good example of us taking a very harsh line with the Japanese government—saying here are ten things the Japanese government needed to do, moving forward. But, out of that you can also do a story about something amazing like NHK. Here is a public broadcaster which is not there to make money covering the crisis.
Yeah, I think that’s become a bigger part of what we do. We were only a year old when it all went wrong, but one thing that helped us grow was we didn’t have covers showing doom and gloom. We were saying, ‘Maybe this is a really good time to rethink your life.’ If you’re working for Westpac and they downscale their European offices and you get laid off; is it time to go back home, is it time to say, ‘I’m going to get my EU passport and open up a vineyard in Portugal?’ That notion of taking stock has always been a big part of what we’ve done. That comes out of travelling a lot and seeing where there are opportunities all over the world. I think you’ll see more of it, this year for sure.
Yes and no. I think I had a very special set of experiences. Mine were certainly different to losing your job…
Yeah, more dramatic. I think, maybe, my experiences have made me, on one side, incredibly risk averse and conservative.
Maybe this is a moment of self-realisation but I think there’s a reason that I, well… sometimes people think I’m just being obstinate and have the luxury and the resources to behave like that–not doing a digital edition of the magazine, for instance. It’s not really that. There is one part of me that doesn’t want to follow the pack. The rest is, I’m just not sure it’s going to work. Part of it is driven by conservatism, but oddly, there is this other side that can be quite fearless and reckless. Having gone through what I’ve gone through, somewhere in the back of the mind, I’m always thinking: What are they going to do, shoot you? You know what that’s like. Which sort of gives you a ballsiness that other people might not have. I think, certainly, in a very gritty, business negotiation sense with investors and so on, it’s allowed us to be bolder and to stick to our guns more than we might otherwise have done.
I think, growing up as an only child in Canada, gay, I probably already had a certain drive and ambition to see the world and maybe do things on my terms, to make my parents more proud. But having been through that experience in Afghanistan allows me to sit here today and it also propels me forwards, to look for those solutions, to meet those people, to form my own opinions about the world, more so than in a regular newsroom. We spend a lot of time and money getting out there, at a time when it’s really important.
I was invited to a digital media conference and everyone was trying to look for an algorithm to cover news, for ways of aggregating, for a sense of community. What was incredible was, we were having to defend putting people on the ground. You know, ‘Why is it important being there, when everyone has laptops today and can be there, sitting on their terrace, blogging about what has happened?’ And I was thinking, Really? Is it really the case? If you look at all those blogs, 95 per cent of it would be people reflecting on the actual images, comment and reporting by news agencies that are on the ground. Being there and being witness to it—having been to plenty of zones of conflict—is hugely valuable. Unfortunately, it’s not so recognised by many boardrooms any more, but there are heaps of listeners and readers and viewers who still see the value in it.
Because the cover price is high? Because we go to lots of places? Because we have a different way of doing journalism? In many ways, you’re right.
You’ll get to a point where getting your news fresh, balanced and accurate becomes the preserve of the rich.
We talk about democratisation of the news, but I’m not convinced. You’re going to see many more great towers of media collapse, because we’ve been weaned on this diet of “free”. It’s just not sustainable. So will it end up being just the people who can come here tonight and spend 150 dollars on a subscription who can have access to good quality news? Maybe.
I always think it’s a bit unfortunate if people just flick to the back of the magazine and find, yes, an exquisitely shot fashion story from Japan, but fail to notice we’re the first magazine that went to the African Union and did a piece on their new headquarters or that we were the first mag that had a proper interview with Sarah Palin. Of course there’s no harm in wanting to build a good house, live in an interesting community and also know where there are opportunities to do business in Mozambique. Of course, it irks people. They think you need to keep it separate — there’s the Economist and there’s Intelligent Life. It makes more sense to separate the newsiness and the culture. But that’s not how a newspaper works. Newspapers have fashion sections and all kinds of things that go into the mix. You can have interviews with heads of state and chat line ads. I think the people it irks the most are maybe the people who didn’t get where they wanted.
I’ve changed my travel habits, although I’m not covering less ground. I’m two weeks on, two weeks off. I refuse to do day trips now. When I’m on the road, I’m on the road, but when I’m back in London, I’m back in London. And then I don’t move. It’s better socially and, I imagine, it might be better for my health.
There is a classic case of the grass is always greener. I’ve developed this obsession with Japan but I know I could probably never really live there. I’ve already had one experience in my life where I was disappointed by moving somewhere I really loved and then found I actually hated it. I wouldn’t want to have that relationship with Japan spoiled. I think it’s better that I just dip in and out. I suppose there is restlessness in wanting to see who does it better. I love being able to find, chronicle and discuss cities, companies and experiences, which elevate the playing field for everybody.
Oh yeah, definitely. I wish I had more time. One of my problems is I’m not particularly deep on any one subject. I know a lot about aviation, I can speak with a little authority about cities and urbanism. But I do have a broad range of interests. I think that’s kind of unfashionable.
The general interest magazine, which ours is, is completely out of fashion. You should have a magazine that is only devoted to single gear cycling, or whatever.
I think there are a couple of things. One is, worrying we’re not doing it well enough and knowing we can up our own game. The way we look at doing radio is very much exactly what you said earlier, ‘What do you want from a relationship with a media brand?’ Do you want to be in the gymnasium with ten thousand people shouting and everyone struggling to be heard? Or do you want to be at a really nice dinner table with three good people having a great conversation. That’s what drives me. Can we think of other opportunities to deliver that kind of dialogue?
I think about it a lot. Everywhere I like, I’m always thinking about what could life be like here? Who would I hire as an architect? Would I have llamas? All of those things.
It is. You’re always just looking at the last thing and thinking about how it could be improved. If London is so bad when it comes to the quality of housing, then maybe I should stop moaning about it and really do something about it. So we are toying with the idea of building an apartment building in London. I think of myself and a lot of my friends. They have 1.8 children or whatever, they make good money, but they aren’t really living as they should. So I’m thinking it might be time to build something in London.
I don’t want to use the modern definition of the family, but certainly community. I think a lot about my mum right now. I think about my partner’s parents. I spend a lot of time thinking about what that community looks like. Is it a compound? Is it a townhouse? Is it two houses around the world?
My dad is in Ottawa. My mum is in Toronto, but she’s… I made the mistake of letting her become the CEO of our Canadian company [laughs] in a good way. I think she likes playing the administrator as much as the visual merchandiser, all those things. But it keeps her in Toronto more.
Oh God yeah. She was going to be on this trip, in fact. But she took my grandmother, who’s 96, to Vancouver.
Australia is a country that thinks of itself as the only place that managed to escape the GFC—Canada would have something to say about that. There is definitely an interesting moment happening there. We’ve been quietly doing quite a bit of work in Canada with Blackberry, we’ve worked with Porter Airlines and that led to quite a lot of other work…
Yeah, it’s great. I’ve been really critical of local government and what I call the Canadian “comfiness disease”. Canada’s had a great ride, but that makes you a bit porky around the middle. That is a huge issue, so it’s good to be able to have to return home and put your money where your mouth is. And, hey, it’s nice to be recognised after a while.
I think tall poppy syndrome is something that runs through the Commonwealth. Oddly, in Canada, I think I’m treated more as an oddity or a curiosity. It’s not so much about people taking swipes at me; I’m just treated as a slightly different… creature.
Yeah. I think some friends are a little bewildered by how I live, etcetera.
No, I think people know that’s very much me. Oddly, my tastes—even though I’m travelling a lot and seeing a lot—my tastes are very simple. I think it’s an easy catchphrase, with my pinballing around the world etcetera, that it’s all champagne and cocktail parties. But that’s not really my bag.
I think most people are, to be honest. Maybe not. I’m not very social really. When I’m at home in London, I’m usually at home. Or I’m at the office.
Not really. I probably made a decision, consciously or unconsciously, knowing that I’m committed to my work. There’s no nets or wires to what I do — we’re only as good as the last issue. There’s no-one bankrolling the magazine or agency, it’s me. There are some investors, but they’re not going to save it. I, probably consciously, decided to work with people I really like and adore being around. I fly long distance with most people I hire. I do have a bit of a measure — could I be on the road with them for four or five days and make sure that we still get on well when we get back home?
People we hire go, ‘wow, it’s a really tight-knit group’, even though we’re now 200 or so people. When we have story meetings, everyone is on the same page. I’ve been in many editorial environments where people like to kick and scream and fight hard for their ideas.
We’re in a situation where everyone is in agreement when a good idea comes up. We don’t have editorial conflict. That’s not interesting.
I think it does, because everyone wants to defuse a situation, whereas we’re able to get on with it. Andrew, our editor, I’ve known for 25 years. These people are all good friends. It’s very hard to separate my work life from my social life. That is my social life. And then I have two or three very good friends who go back to high school. It’s interesting. Do you make real friends later in life? People I’ve met later in life, they’re great people, but you sort of just drift in and out with them. The people I still connect with are the people I grew up with in Toronto.
Maybe. I was always just the badly behaved one, not going to class. I was more content spending time in the library.
Not the school library. I’d go to the university library because there were more things to look at and read.
There’s maybe a certain delight in proving the naysayers wrong, but that’s not the driving factor. It’s just doing things that I like. And sometimes that becomes a bit of a political agenda. But, no. I love radio, I love paper, I love selling, I love retail. I have the control. I don’t mean control in a control-freaky kind of way. I have the control of 800 words a week in the Financial Times, to go and tell my stories and reveal as much of myself as I want to.
I don’t think of myself as having public notoriety, but I’m aware of how guarded you have to be. What’s interesting is that the relationships I have with readers of Monocle and the FT are quite different. I think they’re either people who read me to hate me, or people who love what I do. But I’m always surprised how much people come up to me. It’s always on a plane or during travel that someone will intercept you—it’s strange.
Absolutely. And incredibly stressful. Because I’m not a public celebrity in the traditional sense, I’m writing in quite a niche environment, but people really feel they know me. In that odd way, we all develop relationships with columnists and people like that. People will come up and say, ‘Oh God, how’s your mum?’ It’s fine to ask that question after 15 minutes, but otherwise…
No, I don’t. I think, oftentimes, I’m probably much more reserved and quieter than people tend to expect. People think I’ll be a bit brash or larger than life than I actually am.