March 25, 2014
In September last year, Kay Khoo, Hooiwan Ling and Payal Khandelwal of Kyoorius travelled to London to attend the annual AGI Open conference held at the Barbican Centre. AGI Open features members of the Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI) and is held in a different world city each time. During the conference, we had interesting conversations with some of the speakers including Chip Kidd, Jeremy Leslie, Astrid Stavro, Nick Bell and Marion Deuchars. The other days were spent in the offices of Big Active, Creative Review and D&AD where we managed to get a glimpse into the ideas and processes that make these organizations so brilliant and unique in their own right. Here, you can read about Creative Review:
Nestled in a pulsating and posh neighborhood of London, Creative Review’s (CR) office is undergoing some renovation when we visit them on a crisp winter morning in September last year. One of the world’s most well-known and respected magazines about creativity, CR shares its huge office space with a few other magazines of its parent company, Centaur Media PLC which is spread over four floors in the same building with more than 600 employees.
We ask Patrick Burgoyne, editor of Creative Review since 1999, to crack the code that leads to the consistently brilliant content that CR has been churning out over the years. He starts off by describing a regular day at his office. That actually depends on where we are in the production cycle of the magazine, he says. “When I had first started here, we just had a monthly magazine and thus there was a very distinct rhythm to the month. We would start the first week with various ideas coming together and commissioning things. Then the work would gradually grow as we were closer to the printing time. But these days we do so much stuff online, so we are constantly pushing things.”
Among other things, CR currently has a monthly print magazine, a daily updated blog and an iPad app. There is a common team for both the digital and print versions and that’s a conscious decision. It is a small team comprising of Burgoyne, deputy editor Mark Sinclair, senior writer Eliza Williams (who works mostly on the advertising sector), Rachael Steven who works on the design side and Antonia Wilson who primarily looks after the iPad app and also writes on photography and ‘what’s on’ kind of stuff. Paul Pensom is the art director and while his main mandate is the art direction of the print magazine, his overall role also includes being the creative director for the brand.
The CR team has a quick chat every morning about what stories should go up on the web on that day and which of those need to be prioritized. They then check on how the work is progressing for the print magazine. Their iPad app has to be constantly updated with new stuff as well. Burgoyne feels that managing everything involves organizing time to keep all the different plates spinning. According to him, all this (content creation) is actually the fun and easy part. There are a whole lot of other things to deal with like annual reports, invitations to be media partners, getting involved with things like AGI conference, design festivals etc. “All those day-to-day kind of requests to get involved with things help us in forming relationships. However, while some of these things work well, like AGI for example, we often also have to deal with things that don’t benefit us. So on one hand, there is our regular core activity of putting out great content and on the other hand, there’s all this other stuff which is related to the brand.” And then there are longer term things to ponder over like what to do with the iPad app in the future, redesigning a section of the magazine and things that are related to the “business” aspect of the magazine like doing subscription renewals’ campaign etc.
The editorial team also needs to go out and meet people. Burgoyne feels that increasingly this particular part of the equation is getting difficult. “Recently, everyone who works in magazines has realized that it’s become harder and harder to go out and meet people because the temptation is to just be at your desk, deal with all the stuff that comes in and churn things out. Earlier, when you had a rhythm to your month (with just the print magazine), you knew that a particular week is going to be comparatively quiet and you can fix up meetings during that week but now everyone is constantly juggling between things.”
When it comes to the print magazine, two or three issues down the line, the team more or less knows what’s going in; those pieces may or may not be written. But most of the work actually gets done in the four week period leading to the printing time. Burgoyne says that they do not work fantastically ahead of time, partly because it is a small team and partly to be able to accommodate if something new comes up.
Talking about the content guidelines, Burgoyne says that while they have a pretty broad readership, the two important communities for CR are graphic designers and creatives working in advertising agencies. Their readers also encompass related crafts including illustrators, photographers, type designers, website designers etc. There are a lot of general issues, but increasingly the print magazine is picking up core areas to do special issues. This obviously helps the sales team too. It also helps during the time when the readers have to renew their subscriptions as they remember the special issues more than the general ones. One of the most famous and fully sold out themed issues in 2013, Burgoyne recalls, was the one based on the 150th anniversary of the London tube. “Trying to identify areas where we can get into focus and real depth, rather than just being topical or driven by what’s new, is extremely important for a monthly magazine like ours,” he says.
The challenges for Creative Review’s print magazine are more or less similar to any other print magazine today. “Obviously, our model has been affected by igital. We are certainly not selling as many copies as we used to. Overall, the nature of print has changed. It’s become a luxury purchase as people are buying magazines now because they love the feel of the paper or they love to pick it up. It’s a tactile object that people like to put on the shelf.” Burgoyne is quite confident, however, that for a publication like theirs, there is an obvious future. He agrees that it probably won’t hit the numbers it did about ten years ago but the magazine has an engaged and loyal readership. “What has changed in the last few years is that from being a magazine that companies bought to keep at their reception, it’s now more of a personal purchase. People buy it because they are reading it and they like it. That’s good for us in some ways because it means we now have readers who are much more engaged and loyal.”
The obvious need at present is to intelligently integrate print and digital and CR is incessantly working in that direction. It is not easy though, Burgoyne confesses. “When websites first came out, everybody rushed to have an online presence. You had to do it or you would become irrelevant. But inevitably, when you start giving out stuff for free and if it’s not the same stuff as in the print version, it will just be enough for some people and they won’t buy the print magazine anymore.” To deal with this, CR tries to do things that are longer, time sensitive, more analytical and richer in terms of content in the print version and hopes that people see value in that. Online blog consists of quick, newsy, opinion based things that people want to discuss or give instant reactions to. “I think you can cover a subject matter from different angles and when you have all these different platforms, the key is to do things which are right for that platform,” says Burgoyne.
The CR blog has a very particular tone and feel and everything is presented in almost the same way. We asked Burgoyne if that’s a conscious decision. He says that it’s something they constantly review. While the current format is good and simple, it’s difficult to have different story types because not everything is the same, he says. It could be a review or just pictures or a serious piece. In the next generation of content, they want to look at how they present different types of content in different ways.
Also, one question that lingers on Burgoyne’s mind is how much trolling can be allowed (and controlled) on the blog. “I think when we first started out everyone was excited about the fact that suddenly they can have their voices heard. They could critique work. And sometimes we were very aggressive about certain work and then there were big comment threads. That created some issues for us. Did we want to be a place where people’s work is constantly being criticized? In some ways yes, we want to be open, eloquent and critical, but as a brand you don’t want to be seen as unfair. That’s a difficult one but recently that has changed a bit. We tend to have fewer comments these days as a lot of people comment through Facebook or Twitter, which is interesting,” he says.
He recalls that the last story to have received maximum negative comments on the blog was about the Olympics posters (in 2012) and other Olympics related communication. Generally, he feels, any story on logos falls in a risky area. It gets a huge thread of comments, as it’s something very easy to have an opinion on. People make instant judgments on new logos and a lot of time the editorial team is not able to get the background on those logos and even when the designers/marketers agree to share some insights, they don’t really help themselves (Yahoo’s new logo is one such example). “While it’s easy to get readers for these stories, it’s hard to elevate that to bait. We don’t want to be a place where people come to just comment on logos. But we realized that if we write our own well-argued critique then the response seems to be more reasonable. If we just put things up without much insight, it creates a vacuum that people tend to fill up with their own opinions.”
Another conscious effort by the editorial team is to have good curation of content. Earlier, most magazines used to be driven by the idea of exclusivity but that doesn’t exist anymore as things can be lifted the moment they are posted online and moreover, design studios/ ad agencies also write stuff on their own websites and blogs now. “And therefore, everyone is beginning to understand that this whole notion of curation is very important. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you don’t,” says Burgoyne.
The response to the CR iPad app has been quite good so far. It was launched in 2012. The team did a lot of research last year to figure out what people want from the iPad app. Burgoyne explains, “Some people want the magazine type experience and some want content designed specifically for the device. We are trying to find out what is the idea behind having this app. What’s happening is that people talk about this idea of the journey where you might, for example, start watching a story on TV, then follow it in print, then on your mobile on your way to work and finally finish it off at your office’s desktop. So with the same subscription or deal, you follow it all the way through with these different mediums. A lot of this is still playing out though. It’s a risk and nobody is sure yet how it’s all going to work out eventually.”
While there is a plethora of specialists in the market now, what makes CR quite unique is that it covers a wide variety of different creative industries and in some way bring them together. But is that turning out to be an advantage or a disadvantage, we ask Burgoyne. He says that it’s both. “What’s good about it is that since we are a general magazine on creativity, we can go wherever the interesting stuff is happening. And because of this, we are future proof to some extent. What we try and do is find a common ground and find where things intersect for our entire readership.” He confesses that in some ways, life obviously would have been much easier as just a graphic design magazine or an advertising magazine as it’s really hard to bring these communities together. “They don’t always show a great deal of interest in each other’s work. Interestingly, in a way, D&AD has all of those same issues. Their community is like our community. If you go to their award show, you will see that when the design stuff is up, the advertising community ignores it and vice versa. There is respect for what the other does but not hardcore interest. So we have bit of that with magazine and that’s a hard balancing act. They all constantly come together and move apart,” he concludes.
This article was first published in the 18th issue of Kyoorius Magazine.
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