All treats and no tricks: The Mr. Magazine™ Interview with Rob Hill, Editor TREATS! magazine: “The big problems for the magazine industry lately has been more of a perception, fear and hyperbole thing than the actual apocalypse of print.”April 28, 2011
Bringing more treats than tricks is the key behind the launch of the new ultra glossy quarterly magazine TREATS! With a hefty $20 cover price for a single issue and “double the treats” on both front and back covers of the premiere issue, the European-styled magazine is turning heads of folks in the publishing industry including a one by the name of Hugh Hefner. “A few days after our launch party,” Rob Hill, TREATS! editor told me, “we got a call at the office form Hugh Hefner’s secretary saying she wanted to send a messenger asap for two copies for Hef. Someone at the party told him about it. He loves it; was really just raving about it.”
So, what is the secret of the new magazine that makes a legend like Hef ask for two copies. Well, I had the opportunity to ask Mr. Hill few questions about TREATS! and what makes the magazine tick and click in this day and age. His answers were candid, amazing and intriguing. In typical Mr. Magazine™ Interviews here are the sound-bites first followed by the entire interview.
Here are the sound-bites:
What I saw in TREATS! was a modern multi-platform media company with a fresh and well executed idea, that had a plan, a buzz, and a print product that was its anchor but not sole property by any means.
The marriage of photos and words on a printed page is very potent—especially put in the context of a well crafted magazine.
The (new magazine business) model will be to invest heavily in edit and content, charge a premium for it in both newsstand and subscriptions, market it smartly, find an audience, and grow slowly into it all.
Good magazines are good because of who goes up and down the elevators, not what printing press you use or who you buy your paper from.
We are trying to accomplish is introduce a brand that can thrive in many different areas, anchored by a great magazine.
Samir Husni: What is the trick behind Treats, i.e. what is the story of Treats!?
Rob Hill: TREATS! is the brainchild of Steve Shaw, the founder and publisher. Steve has been a very successful photographer for some time now. He’s one of the few photographers that really knows that fine line between taking sexy photos and sensual photos and the last few years he found that most of his assignments from magazines involved taking manufactured, parochial and pandering photos. As a lover of photography and photographers he wanted to start a publication—media company—that would give some of the best photographers, stylists, and models the platform to indulge and execute their creative fantasies without some draconian editorial edict: the only guidelines are spontaneity, sensuality, artistic and long, very long, stories; 15-20 and 25 pages. There are few magazines, mostly in London, that do aspects of this, but he really wanted it to have a L.A. point of view—the non-Hollywood one—even though it’s truly an international magazine, distributed in NYC, London, Paris, The Netherlands, Australia etc. There’s no doubt that L.A. is the city of not only the present bu the future in terms of art, inspiration, style etc. I think Tom Ford said that a few years ago. My job was to come in and find great writers and off-the-beaten-path long form articles mixed with artists, architecture, big Q&As and travel stories.
SH: The magazine is more of a treat to the eye and a meal to the brain, how is this combination of brains and beauty essential to the future of the magazine?
RH: When I first started at TREATS! most of the photo shoots were done and on the wall and I must admit I was intimidated. The shoots were so lush, original, provocative & almost dizzying. I was like, ‘Jeez, what can i bring to this?’ Then I really scoured old, vintage magazines, bathed myself in some of the great European magazines and came up with my vision of what should shoulder these amazing pictures. The article that really flipped the switch for me was the GARDEN OF ALLAH by Kirk Silsbee. Almost lost in history, the GARDEN OF ALLAH was a walled compound of villas, pools, and gardens on the corner of Sunset Blvd. and Laurel Canyon that was GROUND ZERO for some of the best parties, trysts, antics and tomfoolery of the biggest celebrities in the world—Monroe, Hemingway, Flynn, Bacall, Garbo, Marx brothers, Fitzjerald etc— from the 1920s to the 1950s; sorta the west coast Algonquin mixed with the Playboy Mansion, before there was a Playboy Mansion, with nice doses of the South of France sitting in the middle of Hollywood. That really set a nice tone and turns out to be the article that most people comment on a lot.
SH: From your launch letter, you sound like a major believer in print, you’ve never given up on print although most of the magazines you’ve worked for are no longer in print (Ray Gun, Bikini, FHM, Giant). How is Treats! different?
RH: Thanks for reminding me! Ha. But it’s true, it’s very difficult to launch a magazine, get it up and running, and keep it going and all those magazines were launches. I suppose I’ve never worked at any of the stalwarts that have been around for 30 or 40 years—maybe I have an underdog complex or something. What I saw in TREATS! was a modern multi-platform media company with a fresh and well executed idea, that had a plan, a buzz, and a print product that was its anchor but not sole property by any means. But the biggest thing for me is that I saw this as a brand—what Steve really saw it as, too, from the beginning—that could have tentacles in many different lifestyle categories. For a start our offices are next to SMUDGE PHOTO STUDIOS, which Steve founded as-well, and it’s really doing well, always booked and thriving with activity. But I would not be surprised at all that in the near future we have some sort of media or TV channel, small retail shops selling candles, apparel, prints, make-up, lipstick etc. things like that.
SH: The magazine is published with a quarterly frequency and a $20 cover price. Is this the new business model for print?
RH: Well, there is a new business model emerging in the magazine industry, just like every industry that has to reinvent itself or go extinct. We’ve seen it with the automobile industry, the banking industry, the movie industry, energy, etc. There’s gonna be lots of magazine launches happening in the near future—but they won’t be $70 million dollar launches with parties on Ellis Island and MC’d by ex-presidents; those days are over. But there will be launches for $500,000, a million, two million, even 5 to 10 million: If the idea is good and has traction across the media spectrum. The model will be to invest heavily in edit and content, charge a premium for it in both newsstand and subscriptions, market it smartly, find an audience, and grow slowly into it all. I think Tyler Brule at MONOCLE has invented the new model, really. He invested big time in edit, the product, charges $10 for it at the newsstand and $150 for a year’s subscription; I believe he has almost 20,000 subscriber’s or so…so do the math, it’s a healthy business, expanding, adding staff, creating new revenue streams; he now has half a dozen small retail MONOCLE shops around the world that sell luggage, fragrances, watches, etc. If you are an advertiser and book an ad in MONOCLE you may not be reaching 1.5 million people but the 120,000 or so you do reach you know are heavily invested in the product and most likely will be interested in YOUR product. It’s already been proven that a consumer is more likely to buy a product if they see the ad in a well-crafted, good looking magazine over, say, a radio ad, TV ad, Internet ad—especially for apparel, glasses, watches, hotels, furniture, architecture etc.
The experience of reading a magazine comes with the notion, or general acceptance, that the ads are something to be gazed at, a part of the product, where as, I think, the ads that pop up on a website are intrusive, annoying, and to be clicked off immediately. TV the same, except for the Superbowl, of course, and some other event type shows. Video ads on websites are a different story; they can be fun, provocative and engaging if done right and paired with the right kind of video content. This is where we see our website really gaining traction and the right marketing partners. But back to the business model idea: Playboy was right to up their cover price, sub price, and take their rate base down. I understand the whole rate base/ad game, I do, but look at what happened a few years ago when advertising fell of a cliff…all of a sudden all these good, greats, magazines had no revenue because they have been giving away their subs for years and just putting their magazines on the newsstand hoping people will buy them. Vanity Fair is a very well crafted, luxurious, premium product and yet it gives its subs away like it is Costco. I mean, a Vanity Fair subscriber won’t pay more than $12 a year to have THAT PRODUCT delivered to their door? It’s a bit schizophrenic, I think. But then again maybe there are army’s of people on whole floors of skyscrapers running the numbers and say they will lose hundreds of thousands readers. But then again, maybe there isn’t. Who knows.
SH: What are you trying to accomplish, prove with this latest print entity?
RH: Not out to prove anything, really. What, in the end, we are trying to accomplish is introduce a brand that can thrive in many different areas, anchored by a great magazine. My old boss always used to say, ‘Magazines are sorta like wine, people get passionate and emotional about their favorites—you can’t let them down. Ever!’ It’s true: poor, lazy, head-in-the-sand editors can bury a magazine the same way great editors can bring it alive. Good magazines are good because of who goes up and down the elevators, not what printing press you use or who you buy your paper from.
SH: As an experienced editor, who have seen it all, how is journalism and magazine editing today different than say ten years ago?
RH: You know what’s been great to see the last few years? Magazines that have been around for awhile operating on maybe their highest levels ever: Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Wired, Esquire etc. Esquire has made a very conscious effort to push the medium as far as they can being a big consumer magazine. It’s obvious that Jann Wenner has counter intuitively invested heavily in edit when everyone else was batting down the hatches and they are thriving. And to see what Bloomberg has done with Business Week is very inspiring. It’s a vital, exciting and poignant product. Very impressive. The competition and fear that the last few years have produced was maybe the best thing that ever happened to magazines—it forced them to hustle, rethink their medium, their place in the media landscape. Some were late to the game and some got there fast. And then to see all the great smaller launches like MAN ABOUT TOWN, PORT, and LULA in the UK; AFAR and TRUNK in the US; and a great magazine called ABOVE.
SH: What does the future hold to Rob Hill? What makes Rob tick and click every day in this media environment?
RH: I’ve always loved reading and working at magazines. Magazines are the most intimate and personal form of media that is out there—still. As the industry comes out of this vertiginous period of change and uncertainty, it’s very exciting. I’ve worked at a half a dozen magazines and I have never seen a response to any of them like with TREATS! A few days after our launch party we got a call at the office form Hugh Hefner’s secretary saying she wanted to send a messenger asap for two copies for Hef. Someone at the party told him about it. He loves it; was really just raving about it. He’s invited Steve up there a few times and now he is a regular! In fact, lots of those guys who hang out up there used to hang at the GARDEN OF ALLAH and were blown away by the article. What I think he—HEF—sees is that we’ve brought the medium and vision to a different level, a unique and invigorating product/brand for 2011 etc. And, well, he did it better than anyone back in 1955 so he knows it when he sees it, right? People like Ellen Von Unwerth, Donna Karan, Tom Ford, Shepard Fairey, Alessandra Ambrosio, Brett Ratner etc. have all been really supportive and excited about the brand. Everyday it’s someone new, it seems, ringing up, wanting to meet, talk etc. The manager of Book Soup in West Hollywood said she’s never seen a magazine sell 50 copies so fast. When we hear things like this we like to get up in the morning, even if we are hungover!
SH: What advice would you give someone wanting to start a new print magazine today?
RH: Invest in edit/content. Build a brand that transcends the magazine, and go slowly. Also, market, market, market. I mean when HBO has a new show, they market it. When Calvin Klein has a new line they market it. When Wrigley has a new gum they market it. When an indie film comes to town they market it. But magazines…well, they do nothing, really. I’m not saying spend millions on marketing but be creative. We’ve made a big move to market through Twitter and Facebook but also micro-marketing at newsstands, certain retail shops that makes sense for us, magazine and champagne signings at book stores, maybe some taxi cab stuff in NYC in the summer, London, too. I’ve never understood why magazines don’t market their products better. And, most importantly, don’t fall asleep at the wheel. Take note of Blockbuster, Friendster and My Space. Brands dead in the water; they drove right of the cliff in their fancy sports cars, stock options and hubris. In the 70s the NBA was Dead League Walking; look at it now. Adapt, adapt, adapt. It’s not survival of the fittest anymore, it’s survival of the adaptable!
SH: What are some of the pitfalls of launching a new magazine in this day and age?
RH: See above answer and inject it with steroids!
SH: Everyone is talking about a future where print and digital will live side by side. Your views please?
RH: It’s interesting, I went to visit my nephew in college and when I got to his Frat house there were magazines everywhere! Sports Illustrated, Maxim, US, Dwell, ESPN, GQ, Wired etc. I was like, Whoa, you guys read a lot of magazines. And they were like, ‘Uh, yes, we love magazines and magazines were not meant to be read on Blackberry’s or iPhones.’ Magazines are so much more than just vessels of information; they are accessories that help define who you are or who you want to be. My neighbor subscribes to MONOCLE but never reads it. One day I said to him, ‘Why do you pay $150 for a magazine you don’t read,’ and he said, ‘I like having it in my loft and I like knowing it’s there and I like looking at the ads!’ Pretty interesting statement. Would be hard to say about Perez Hilton, Pop Sugar or Tmz. We think magazine websites do two things really well: video and blogs. We have invested in both of those heavily. But the web doesn’t do long form writing and big, lush photography well—but magazines do. The web can’t sit on your coffee table or enhance you bookshelf. The marriage of photos and words on a printed page is very potent—especially put in the context of a well crafted magazine. My uncle fought in Vietnam and I asked him the other day, ‘How was the war really stopped? Was it the evening news? The protests? What? He said, ‘Still pictures and words. Life magazine. Esquire magazine.’ Obviously that was a different era and now revolutions are spearheaded by social media but great photos and words are still a powerful union.
I think the big problems for the magazine industry lately has been more of a perception, fear and hyperbole thing than the actual apocalypse of print. The publishers are scared they are going extinct so they don’t invest in their products, staff, marketing; the perception of media buyers that people don’t read or like magazines anymore; and the hyperbole of the media about the end of print. It was like the perfect storm… but also a bit of an illusion. Yes, the business model needed revamping but the desire for a great magazine hasn’t waned at all from what I can see. Every apartment or house I go to I see at the very minimum of 4 different brands of magazines: from married couples, to single friends to men, women, everything. And now with Zinio and the iPad the creative and financial possibilities are very exciting and make sense. As far as our website we will have some of the best and original video content—we have one of the best videographers in L.A. running this department—and a must read, exciting blog. We’ll create viral videos for our marketing partners that will be embedded by the most influential fashion and photography blogs in the world and, of course, on Vimeo, You Tube etc. The reason we are so bullish, really, is that now that people are beginning to understand that the same way sitcoms don’t work on the radio and radio shows—sans Howard—don’t work on TV, magazines aren’t meant to be read on mobile devices or websites, we can all get back to work creating exciting, envelope-pushing, multi-platform products that are fluid, appealing and circles that fit into circles. But what I am really interested to see is what happens when mobile devices become the primary way people use the Internet. Ever since I got a blackberry ninety percent of the time I spend of sites like Facebook or Huffington Post or IMDB is done through it so I never see ANY ads on those sites. And no one I know does, either. How do you solve this? I don’t know but somehow Steve Jobs will probably be involved in a solution, right?
SH: Thank you.