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Tyler Brűlé: 'Getting Information First is One of the Biggest Luxuries of All'
The founder of Wallpaper* magazine says that "the news agenda concerning the media is quite narrow." He intends to change that with an "elegant" new BBC show about the media world.

By Patrick Phillips
I Want Media, 10/19/04


Tyler Brűlé, the founder of the international style magazine Wallpaper*, is the host of "The Desk," a new weekly television show about the media, launching on BBC Four in January 2005. "The Desk," which aims to explore the global media landscape, will be co-produced by a unit of the parent company of Brűlé's creative agency, Winkreative.

At age 35, the Canadian-born, London-based Brűlé already has had quite an eventful career as a writer and media entrepreneur. (He's even been the subject of a documentary film, airing this month on the Sundance Channel.)

As a young journalist, Brűlé sustained bullet wounds during a 1994 ambush in Afghanistan. While recuperating, he conceived Wallpaper*, which launched in 1996. The magazine was purchased a year later by Time Warner and is now sold in more than 50 countries.

Brűlé sold his stake in Wallpaper* to focus his efforts on Winkreative, his design and advertising agency. Brűlé also contributes columns on design and culture to T: The New York Times Style Magazine, the Weekend section of the Financial Times, and Swiss newspaper NZZ am Sonntag.

Brűlé describes the current U.S. TV programs about the media as mostly "talking heads." He observes that Britain has no TV-news counterpart to the "strong political point of view" of Fox News Channel, and claims that London is a "much more dynamic media hub" than New York.

I Want Media: What is "The Desk"?

Tyler Brűlé: "The Desk" will be a 30-minute show focusing on both a domestic and international news agenda. I think part of the reason why our agency won the pitch to produce the show is that we had the most global and outward-looking proposal.

If you're a reader of the New York Times or the Guardian in the U.K. on a Monday, or the Financial Times on a Tuesday, the news agenda concerning the media is quite narrow, in a domestic sense. Foreign media stories are able to creep into the press only if there's something truly remarkable or ground breaking -- a new television concept, or a radically different newspaper format.

We plan to cover the big media stories from both a global and domestic perspective. We could be looking into the rise of ethnic media in the north of England, the dynamics of the Norwegian media market, or role the Russian government plays in the disclosure of information following the recent events there.

IWM: Will "The Desk" air in the United States?

Brűlé: We would, of course, love to sell the show in the United States. We have no plans to be there at the moment.

The 30-minute magazine-style program in America tends to follow the "Entertainment Tonight" model. We're going be much more thoughtful and considered. We want "The Desk" to be a really elegant show. I don't think you hear the word elegant applied to TV anymore.

So many of the media shows in the U.S. are personality-driven. If you look at Donny Deutsch's program or Tina Brown's program on CNBC, they're very much driven by talking heads. We'll have that component, but we'll also have a lot more packaged reports. We're going to have beautifully shot pieces as well as studio and satellite interviews.

IWM: Why do a television program about the media?

Brűlé: Right now the media agenda is covered mostly by print or online. But so many components of the media are about the visual, and there are not a lot of outlets for that. The current media television programs are mostly people gathered around a table debating.

We chose the name "The Desk" because it's a metaphor for so many components of the media -- the foreign desk, the photo desk. It's a place where stories originate. Visually, we're going to have great graphics and a great-looking set. A lot of magazine-format shows have a cardboard backdrop with not particularly flattering lighting. We will have a very designed show.

IWM: If you were doing "The Desk" right now, what would be some of your topics?

Brűlé: We would probably have a regular spot in which we would jump to the opposite side of the Atlantic to follow the presidential election coverage. We would use our perspective to analyze the media coverage in your country at the moment.

We would love to do an interview with [Vanity Fair editor] Graydon Carter talking about his new book, which was interesting to read. On this side of the Atlantic, we would probably be focusing on one of the morning shows that recently relaunched. It's a critical time in morning television over here.

IWM: Who are you looking forward to interviewing?

Brűlé: It would be very intriguing to sit down with [Viacom chief] Sumner Redstone or [Time Warner chief] Dick Parsons at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, come the new year.

I would love to talk with Jonathan Ives, the chief designer of Apple, about the design and packaging of the Apple brand. He's the king of esthetics when it comes to media products.

IWM: What are the differences between the media in the U.S. and the U.K.?

Brűlé: While the newspapers in the U.K. have very strong political points of view, we don't have much of that in our television news. Your Fox News has been a fascinating story to watch. We don't quite have anything like that in the U.K. Even though, of course, [Fox owner] Rupert Murdoch has a very strong grip on Sky News, you couldn't say that Sky News wears its politics on its sleeve quite like Fox News does.

Another story that would be interesting to look at is the tabloidization of newspapers. The Independent here in the U.K. was having a terrible time. Then it went from a broadsheet format to a tabloid format, with broadsheet-quality content, and it has reversed its sales story.

It would be very interesting if a quality title like the Washington Post or the L.A. Times would be brave enough move into a tabloid format. Those are the types of things we'd like to explore.

IWM: Do you miss working on Wallpaper* magazine?

Brűlé: No, not really. I have a column in the Financial Times and in am Sonntag, one of the Swiss Sunday newspapers. And I'm writing for the New York Times now. They provide quite strong outlets for me. I like having a home for my ideas that touches as many readers as possible. So I don't miss Wallpaper* in that sense. After five years there it was time for me to start looking at other things. That's why the agency has been able to grow to the level it has.

IWM: You're probably tired of being asked this: Why is there an asterisk in the logo for Wallpaper*?

Brűlé: The asterisk was a device of its time, in one sense. The magazine had a slightly whimsical quality, and the asterisk referenced a number of logo devices. And then, of course, it was an asterisk in the true sense of the word in that it drew the reader's attention to the tagline of the magazine, which at the time was "The stuff that surrounds you." We thought that the word Wallpaper needed a qualifier.

IWM: You sold Wallpaper* to Time Warner in 1997, continuing in the role of editor, during which time your agency, now known as Winkreative, was founded. Then you reportedly quit the magazine after clashing with managers over issues like expenses for a helicopter trip. Is that true?

Brűlé: No, not true. There was never any fight about the helicopter trip. My departure coincided with a number of things that were happening at the company.

I had a five-year earn-out and an option to leave the title. At the same time, Time Inc. bought [U.K. magazine publisher] IPC Media. I previously had a direct reporting line to New York, partly because Time Inc. didn't have many titles in Europe -- there was just Wallpaper*, Time and Fortune. So I was reporting to New York and very happy with that arrangement.

Suddenly, Time Inc. bought IPC and its galaxy of magazines. IPC was driven by a very domestic agenda, while Wallpaper* was an international magazine. I didn't want to report into that company. After a long discussion, we agreed that it was time to find a successor, and I bought the agency back. We came to an amicable agreement.

IWM: Have you ever thought about creating another magazine?

Brűlé: I think about magazine concepts all the time. But I'm not quite convinced that the next thing I'll do in publishing will be a magazine. I'm actually quite interested in newspapers at the moment. I like the idea of taking a very old format and doing something interesting with it. It's something I'm playing with.

There's so much labeling in the marketplace with the word luxury. It's become one of the most over-leveraged terns in marketing. But, curiously, no one's taken the concept of information and packaged it in a way that says: to get information first is one of the biggest luxuries of all. I think that there's room to use both the newspaper platform and probably a radio platform to create a very powerful print and broadcast brand.

IWM: Would the Web be part of this?

Brűlé: Yes, the Web, of course, would be a part of it. But the problem with the Web is still portability. The Web still demands, for the most part, that you have to be in one place. You can talk about mobile phones and hot spots all you want, but you still have to be tethered to something at some point.

I was up in Finland with Nokia recently, and I was amazed at the technology but also equally frustrated by a lot of it. Mobile phones don't do enough yet. Yes, you can stream news onto your phone, but it's a laborious process and quite boring. The portability of the phone is very interesting, but ...

IWM: Is there anything you see on the Web that you find creatively appealing?

Brűlé: Not really. I look at a lot of things. It still comes down to the fewer bells and whistles the better for me. I think that some television companies have beautifully designed Web sites and do a good job allowing their viewers to navigate them.

There's nothing on the Web that I turn to at the moment and think: God, this is an absolute must-read for me every morning. There's lots of great content, but nothing surpasses the way I interact with the FT in the morning or the "Today" program on the BBC.

IWM: Early in your career you were wounded while working as a journalist in Afghanistan. Can you tell us about that experience?

Brűlé: I was working for a magazine called Focus, which is a German newsweekly like Der Spiegel. This was in 1994. I was shot in both arms, in my left bicep and my right forearm. I've got quite limited use of my left hand. I mean, I can still type with two fingers on my left hand. It's not visible; most people don't notice.

During my recuperation was partly when Wallpaper* was conceived. Whenever you have time to sit back -- certainly after you've been shot -- you reassess things.

IWM: You have described London as the most creative city in the world and once said that you couldn't have launched Wallpaper* in any other city. Is London more creative than New York?

Brűlé: Yes, I think so. The price of admission in New York is so much higher, which stifles creativity. It's much easier in London for a young media entrepreneur to get their new magazine or Web site up and running and at the same time be able to throw some nice clothes on their back.

And now, the issues surrounding homeland security make it even more difficult for people who want to go the United States. A young Polish writer who wants to be a journalist can come to London because it's part of the EU. Going to New York requires getting a green card and security clearances. It's much more difficult.

London is a very international media city. Al Jazeera is setting up a major broadcasting hub out of London. When the U.S. networks cut back on foreign offices, like in Rome and Frankfurt, they consolidated operations in London. So we have a strong U.S. news-gathering community here.

You have to be pretty pathetic to be unemployed as a journalist in London because there's just so much work. Also, we've got WPP, the international advertising player. London is a much more dynamic media hub.




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