Tyler Brûlé wears many hats and is one of the world’s most influential media moguls, but he considers himself, first and foremost, a journalist.
TYLER Brûlé sure is a hard man to pin down. Despite the fact that it was still fairly early in the morning in London when the interview was scheduled, it was only after waiting a full hour (and countless calls to London) that I finally heard the man’s apologetic voice over the phone, going “Sorry to keep you waiting, but we’re crazy busy today.”
Of course, one would hardly expect Brûlé (pronounced broo-le) to have a lot of spare time on his hands. He is after all the chairman and creative director of the internationally renowned creative design agency Winkreative; the creator of style and fashion magazine Wallpaper*; one of the world’s foremost trend spotters; and a TV host to boot.
He is also an internationally sought-after speaker on various topics such as branding, consumer trends, and entrepreneurship; and was recently in Singapore to speak at the Beyond 2000 Global Summit for Creative Industries.
Nevertheless, despite the multiple hats he wears, Brûlé once said in an interview that he has always considered himself, first and foremost, a journalist.
“Yes, my business cards happen to say that I am the chairman and a creative director amongst other things; but if I fly into Singapore or Hong Kong, and I’m asked what my occupation is, I would say I am a journalist,” he said.
It was in journalism that the Canadian-born 38-year-old started his career, moving to Britain in 1989 to train as a journalist with BBC, and later going on to write for The Guardian, The Sunday Times and Vanity Fair among other publications.
In 1994, a story on humanitarian-aid NGO Doctors Without Borders led Brûlé to war-torn Afghanistan. While driving through Kabul, he was fired upon by machine-gunners. Despite escaping the carnage, he suffered serious injuries to both his arms, and eventually ending up with only limited use in his left hand.
That near-death experience turned out to be a major turning point of his life, for it was after recovering from his injuries that he set up Wallpaper* – the magazine that would propel him from journalistic obscurity to being one of the world’s most influential trendsetters and media moguls.
According to him, that transition was a fairly seamless one, despite the trauma of Afghanistan.
“While the circumstances in Afghanistan were very disruptive, I don’t think I would be where I am today if that had not happened. That was the circumstance that forced me to reassess how I saw the world, and what brought me to the point of realisation as to what I wanted to do – (which was) to set up and run my own business.”
No mere mag
The idea for Wallpaper* came about in 1996, shortly after he was released from the hospital, and was born out of a desire to be able to call the shots rather than to rely on the graces of an employer.
“I had not received what I would call the best treatment from the media company that I was working with at the time, and I really had to fight for every cent of compensation. That’s how I got the inspiration to have my own business, which I wanted to be able to control the process, take matters into my own hands,” he explained.
He also saw Wallpaper* as a chance to merge design, architecture, education, travel into a single international package.
“Since my childhood I was always very interested in design and it was always an area in which I had a keen interest in, and formed part of my life,” he said. “Even when I wanted to be a journalist, in the early days I often did quite a bit of design work and coverage.”
The result was one of the most influential new magazines of the 1990s; so groundbreaking in fact, that within two years of its first issue, it was bought over by media mega-organisation Time Warner.
Brûlé reckons that the main key to the success of Wallpaper* was its unswerving commitment to quality.
“We had to be true to not just the brand but also to ourselves by saying, ‘I don’t want to waver from my approach to coverage and I don’t want to compromise on quality,” he said. “For the type of project that it was, there was no scope or opportunity to sway from that because of the subject matter, and the type of audience we were looking to speak to.
“Our intended audience was what set the bar much higher for us, because these were people who are constantly travelling the world and, as a result, more exposed and aware to media brands. That helped keep us on our toes, and guide our vision.”
Brûlé himself served as editorial director for Wallpaper* until 2002, when he eventually left to concentrate on his creative design agency Wink Media (which was renamed to Winkreative later).
Wink from the top
According to the company’s website, Brûlé founded Wink Media in 1998 as a spin-off from Wallpaper*, in response to advertisers’ demands for more customised advertising solutions to run in the magazine and other avenues. It proved to be so successful that within two years, the agency’s clients included prestigious names like Warner Music, Saab, Banana Republic, Stella McCartney and Prada Sport.
The year 2001 turned out to be a momentous year for Wink Media, in which it won the commission to developed a new identity for Switzerland’s new national airline – Swiss International Air Lines, a project that won it numerous accolades and international acclaim. It was also that same year that Wink Media finally became an independent company and was re-branded Winkreative.
Since then, its client base has grown to also include British Airways, Marks and Spencer, Nokia, British Sky Broadcasting and Amex, among others, firmly establishing Brûlé as one of the most creative designers in the world.
Currently, Brûlé has a weekly column in the Financial Times, and continues to write for the New York Times. Since his columns focus mostly on trends and fashion, it is important for Brûlé to keep abreast of all the latest “in” things and to spot the trends as they happen. So how does he do it?
“It’s not complicated. You just have to be very aware of what’s going on in the world, and of good brands. I travel a lot, and sometimes spend 11 to 12 hours flying from point to point, so it’s all about using my time in the air to read as much as I can as well as to really engage in all forms of local media,” he said.
“I also have to stay aware while getting off a plane in Osaka, then Seoul and then Copenhagen – using these compressed time periods to see how the Danish market responds to the Japanese market which in turn responds to the Korean.”
Eye on Monocle
It is perhaps fitting that Brûlé will be going back to print media with his latest project – a European-based global affairs, business, culture and design magazine called Monocle.
“It kind of feels like I’m coming full circle by going back to magazines (with Monocle),” said Brûlé, adding that despite its increasing focus on digital and broadcasting media, print media still remains the point of departure for most media ventures.
“When you watch BBC or CNN in the morning it’s still what the papers said, not what’s on radio, not what’s online, and not television is saying. Print media is still the benchmark,” he said.
Nevertheless, Brûlé also underlined that Monocle will be far from just a magazine. “My focus for the future currently will now be on building Monocle as a magazine, and from being a strong magazine to being a strong brand. We’re quite convinced that we can manage this, but it has to be merged with a very robust and confident digital component as well,” he said.
One thing is for sure, Brûlé intends to instil the new magazine with the same commitment to quality that made Wallpaper* such a success back then.
“If you’re going to put out a magazine, you’ve got to do it properly; don’t put out something that is an apology for a magazine,” he explained.
“Some of the English publications are barely printed on toilet paper these days, and it comes out looking like a brochure instead.
“People these days want to engage in print so they can have a great tactile experience. They want to feel the weight of the paper in their hands, an engaging experience in the way that print media can provide and that digital media can’t,” he asserted.