ShortList co-founder and editorial director Phil Hilton looks back at 10 years of success - and also towards the future
We had no idea what we were doing. When we launched ShortList magazine we had no idea, we had no idea. We had experience, chops, know-how and black roll-necks but, honestly, looking back, we didn’t have a clue just how fundamentally altered the relationship with our readers and the creative task would become.
The first change I felt personally was the absence of the fear that had hummed behind me year after year as an editor of newsstand magazines. The fear that my sale would be disappointing. I’d worked on successes and disasters, and the fear follows you in both scenarios; even on a magazine that’s breaking records, the targets are set and the creeping notion that you will be unable to meet them seeps into you. I remember editing a glossy monthly adrift of its sales goals and haunting the main newsstand at Waterloo Station watching the display stack of my magazine stand, unmoving day after day, a retail monument to public indifference. And yes, I was aware they restock the shelves – the urge to hover came from a dark place far beyond logic. And this fear focused me. If I didn’t secure the right celebrity, select the right image, assemble the most tempting array of articles and craft the most appealing cover enticements, I would be facing consequences and, in extreme cases, my entire team would be facing consequences.
The focus, the fear, affected the creative process. Success, a strong sale, became the most fascinating phenomenon – what on earth, you ask, went right? You theorise: was it the cover star, the lighting, the location, the verbs in the cover lines, was it a word? Was there a word that had a magical effect? If so, could you use that word again? Every element of the magazine was designed to be a sales tool when compressed into eight or so words on the cover. It was a fascinating and consuming task but always left me at risk of working a formula. And this is why when you line up the covers of so many titles, they repeat, they yell at you. They offer 127 of something, an ‘exclusive’ something else, they offer unlikely promises and easily detected exaggerations.
The cover of a newsstand magazine is not a summary of its contents for readers, it is a sales poster for non-readers or very occasional readers, and if it had arms, those arms would be reaching out and grasping passers-by and making them stop. A strong editor will manage the fear and innovate in the teeth of anxiety – extraordinary paid-for covers are obviously made all the time – but I found the hunt for a winning combination of sales factors in no way prepared me for the task of producing free-to-the reader magazines.
As we launched ShortList and watched the behaviours of our audience, we began to break our minds out of our ingrained habits and it became clear that freedom from the newsstand meant that we could experiment with covers and feature ideas we would never have entertained in our previous jobs. The readers grew to know and trust us enough to accept the magazine from our street vendors – this took a while, urban audiences guard their time/space carefully. As long as they could see the logo, it seemed they would take a copy with very few words on the cover, enigmatic or demanding topics and sly, knowing jokes… we were, it seemed, free to do whatever we liked.
But not quite.
We realised our features and our cover were a form of brand marketing – the relationship with our loyalists was a close one, they read every issue. Why wouldn’t they? It was there for them to take every week. Our content was not prompting purchase, it was communicating a set of values after the moment of pick-up. If we strayed, if we ever became witless, obvious, if we made a wrong step, they would let us know… immediately. Freedom came with a fresh set of obligations.
The hand-distribution window is around two hours. This means that hundreds of thousands of people are all reading the same stuff at the same time – a big impact. And if they don’t like something or they love something, we see the social conversation build and emails fly into our inbox becoming an immediate and powerful wave of feedback.
We quickly began to feel the force of the distribution moment and the new ‘contract’ we had with our audience, we were expected to surprise and entertain, to demonstrate ingenuity because these were values our demanding, metropolitan readers held dear.
We were expected to craft something visually experimental, every week. For our target audience – educated, knowing, well-read, busy: we were a brand that reflected the kind of people they admired, the kind of people they wanted to be.
The magazine had to be designed to be consumed in public, where it was handed out. A lot of the visceral material that drives traditional titles – sex, vanity, extreme human stories – could not be enjoyed on the Circle Line without discomfort. The reader had to feel proud of their choice to pick up a copy.
The feedback we received led us to play and take chances and, at times, print material we knew they would have been unlikely to buy had we carried a cover price. Some of the subject matter we were able to explore would sit comfortably in literary magazines or business titles and yet here it was being read – genuinely being read and enjoyed – by a very large audience who had grown to trust us and stretch with us into material neither would have entertained in the past.
And this is the continuing miracle that we have all come to accept as normal.
Our cover had to be a hybrid of artwork, poster, badge and book jacket. Never have I seen so much fevered brainstorming and sketching – both Stylist and ShortList magazines eat ideas. We grasp at everything from abstract art to childhood toys for inspiration and have turned covers into puzzles, cakes, mirrors and almost blank sheets of paper in order to amuse our regulars.
The impetus to launch free print magazines with a broadsheet sensibility was at core a response to the pull of digital. The internet was free and fast; a heavy, time-consuming magazine sent to press weeks ahead of the moment at which it is placed in a shop, to be bought for little less than the price of a paperback book, was going to struggle against the web, we guessed. Our slim, fast-paced, magazine was delivered to its readers and cost nothing to enjoy.
Now, 10 years on, we watch the audiences for many of the old, glossy print giants shrink in the face competition from every side including the social media platform that we once used to look up school friends and the little device we used to call our mums on.
But it is exciting to see vibrant experiments taking shape, some like our own, in the high-frequency free space but others moving in the opposite direction, positioning themselves as collectable, opulent accessories with high price tags and uncompromisingly heavy paper. And while the newsstand may be less and less visited, when one of our covers resonates, it takes on a new afterlife, it’s shared on Instagram and Facebook and often seen by thousands who will never hold it in their hands because it says something about them. Social media rewards work that reflects well on the person sharing, smart content markets itself.
Now both our print brands have pushed out into the very digital spaces they were designed to compete with - most recently we have reached into social video. Another set of entirely alien priorities to discover, another set of skills to learn, we’ve been translating brands born to be placed in your hands into a quite different medium.
However, after a year of production, experimentation and discovery, it seems that when we get it right, the dynamic is closer to free print than we imagined. Our audience can be tempted by the instant and easy but when we succeed in making something clever and unexpected, something with the kind of twist that defines our most popular print covers, they watch and share and share.
Delighted to report that the frantic brainstorming and sketching has become even more central to our business than it was when we launched 10 years ago.
(Vendor image: iStock)