Flying High, Sipping Whiskey, Reading Rhapsody in First Class. Print is Good. Simon Leslie, Group Publishing Director of Ink, Talks About the Power of Luxury and Print. The Mr. Magazine™ InterviewOctober 14, 2013
“I had a conversation with an advertiser last week and they said, “Are you producing an app and a website for this?” I said, “Are you insane?” This is a first-class magazine. The only way you’re going to get to read this magazine is if you travel first in business class. I’m not opening this up so anybody can just pick it up off the Internet.” Simon Leslie
The concept may seem simple: Create a magazine (as in my definition of magazine: ink on paper) and offer it to a select group of people who can’t get any other way. No iPad edition, no street sales, no subscriptions. You have to be seated a few inches from the magazine to be able to stretch your hand and pull the magazine out from the seat pocket in front of you on that luxurious first or business class seat you are relaxing in as the plane soars to 30,000 or 35,000 feet above the clouds.
Simon Leslie, group publishing director of Ink, a global travel media company, is doing just that — publishing a high quality, ink on paper magazine, aptly named Rhapsody and distributed only to United Airlines business and first class passengers. Rhapsody is defined as a “monthly luxury lifestyle and literary magazine exclusively for United’s premium-cabin customers and visitors to the airline’s United Club and United Global First lounges.” The concept may not be new, but the execution of Rhapsody is.
Quoting from the cover lines of the launch issue, this is a magazine that feels like you are “walking on the red carpet,” and reads like you are “sipping a glass of fine whiskey.”
First, the sound-bites
On why there isn’t a digital version…
The only way you’re going to get to read this magazine is if you travel first in business class. I’m not opening this up so anybody can just pick it up off the Internet.
On the unique experience that Rhapsody magazine offers…
And what we have is something that’s there, it’s three inches in front of their knees and they get to pick up at a time when they’re most relaxed.
On the magazine’s unique advantage…
The thing that we have that’s so unique is this unique distribution model that means we can get in front of the people that most media and advertisers want to reach. And that keeps us sane.
On the power of ink on paper…
When you talk about magazines you think about grids and pictures and text formatted in a certain way and the way you turn a page and look at it. I just think the word magazine will mean something different in a digital format.
On what many magazines are doing wrong these days…
People are cutting so many corners and writing things in house or trying to find the up and coming journalist rather than somebody who is incredibly experienced and is a great writer.
On the power of great advertising…
Beautiful advertisers, great watches, great cars, great holidays — I think they make a book.
And now for the lightly edited transcript of my conversation with Simon Leslie, group publishing director, Ink.
Samir Husni: My first question to you… In this quote unquote digital age where everybody is preaching the future of digital, you’re not only launching a new print magazine but a magazine that’s more upscale and literary, sort of like a magazine that demands reading and not skimming. Why? Are you out of your mind?
Simon Leslie: Yeah, very much so. (laughs) I had a conversation with an advertiser last week and they said, “Are you producing an app and a website for this?” I said, “Are you insane?” This is a first-class magazine. The only way you’re going to get to read this magazine is if you travel first in business class. I’m not opening this up so anybody can just pick it up off the Internet. And she went, “Oh, that makes sense.” Hopefully it does. One of the things that has happened, I’d love to say that I was clever enough to forecast this, but the general market of publishing has really helped our business. We publish magazines for 36 airlines all over the globe and we are seeing a little bit of a return to the inflight magazine. One agency said, “You will be the last man standing.” And what we have is something that’s there, it’s three inches in front of their knees and they get to pick up at a time when they’re most relaxed. So I don’t think our type of media is going away and I hope to think we’ll be launching much more of these magazines in the near future.
SH: You said that this type of media is not going away. Is it the ink on paper that’s the problem or is the publishers and the messages they are putting on the ink on paper that is the problem?
SL: I think in the normal world, when you’re off the plane, things are tough and it’s very competitive. The investment in the quality in some of the magazines has gone down hill. So you’re having to pay more for a product which isn’t as good as it used to be. The post service doesn’t help things — subscriptions are very expensive. I think they’re finding it hard. The thing that we have that’s so unique is this unique distribution model that means we can get in front of the people that most media and advertisers want to reach. And that keeps us sane.
SH: One of the things I’ve noticed about the new magazine is its high quality, the paper and the literary aspect of it. It’s sort of like a must read. Do you think digital can ever reach that stage where somebody’s sitting in business class or first class and instead of having a magazine three inches away from them, they have an iPad. Is it the same experience?
SL: When you talk about magazines you think about grids and pictures and text formatted in a certain way and the way you turn a page and look at it. I just think the word magazine will mean something different in a digital format. I think everybody’s rushed to the iPad — which I think is a mistake — including us. We were one of the first to launch iPad versions of our magazines and we’ve had a significant number of downloads but I think we all got in there far too quickly. And I think the magazine will be — should be — very different in the future. I don’t think the enjoyment is as pleasurable on digital as it is on a magazine.
SH: Why are not more publishers seeing the light at the end of the tunnel like you are instead of seeing the train coming?
SL: It’s panic and you’ve got to follow the herd and you’ve got to do the same things everyone else is doing. And you’re not stopping and thinking about if there’s a better way of doing this. And I think a lot of them are rethinking about their models and I think that is the right thing to do.
SH: One of my pet peeves, one of the issues that I ask almost every publisher and every president, your company is called Ink. You said you’ve published a multitude of travel magazines and airline magazines. What’s the focus of the future of Ink and ink on paper?
SL: People told me in 1998, you need to think about something new to do. They told me the same thing in 2005 and 2010. At this moment in time, I’m confident that I can’t see anything changing in the next five years. I think we are still a premium product and as long as people keep investing in that product…You were very complimentary with what we’ve done with Rhapsody. We’ve really invested in the journalistic content. We’ve gone to some of the finest photographers in the world. And you know, some of that has been lost. People are cutting so many corners and writing things in house or trying to find the up and coming journalist rather than somebody who is incredibly experienced and is a great writer. If you keep investing in quality, people will recognize that quality and support you. You have to brave, you know.
SH: Can you invest in quality on the iPad or on the iPhone?
SL: I think you can. We’re doing lots of testing and we have lots of new stuff. But at the minute I can’t see a better format than print. I don’t think also the revenues will ever be as strong as print. Those publishers that used to have fantastic revenues in their print model are not getting the same revenues in their digital model. And that scares me for a start.
SH: What keeps you up at night?
SL: Lack of good sales people.
SH: Do you ever see our business model changing? Instead of depending on advertising, do you ever see a day where we give the passenger in first class a magazine that they’ve already paid like an extra $10 for on their ticket without advertising or do you think advertising is part of that experience — they want?
SL: I have to be careful what I say here. I think advertising is part of that experience. Beautiful advertisers, great watches, great cars, great holidays, great holidays — I think they make a book. They bring that experience to life. They should complement each other. The process at Rhapsody has been, we’ve turned away more adverts than we’ve sold. We kept the bar really high. No half pages, no fractionals, everything full pages or double page spreads. We have some of the great spreads in the world.
SH: Congratulations on the magazine and I wish the world had more publishers like you who are determined to create a good product in print and not being afraid that this is something that this is something from the past.
SL: I think we have a good future ahead of us. I think publishers need to be proud of what they have and realize the value of what they have. Relating to the last comment, there aren’t enough sales people out there who believe in print. They all want to work in digital. So what we’re left with is quite a bit of legacy sales people who used to do it a very different way. We’re very lucky. We’ve spent a lot of time and effort hiring young talent and developing and teaching them the business and that’s why I think we are doing what we’re doing and achieving what we’re achieving because we people who believe what we believe and are going to market with that passion and enthusiasm.
SH: I have one final question for you. How much of your revenue is coming from print and how much is coming from digital now?
SL: 99.9 percent. To be fair, there are some components we have that are digital and print. The boarding pass business, which is the business where we sell advertising on boarding passes, it’s served digitally, but the actual end result is a print product — it’s a piece of paper. That’s a really fast growing business for us as well.
SH: Thank you.