Esquire’s David Granger: “Shouldn’t magazines be more?”

David Granger at MagnetDavid Granger, editor-in-chief of iconic men’s magazine Esquire, has turned the magazine
model inside-out in hopes of saving the “magic” of the medium. Readers
and advertisers are paying attention. He spoke at the opening marquee
for Magnet, a magazines conference that takes place June 1-4 in
Dana Lacey reports (and took photos). Come back to J-Source for more Magnet coverage all week.

Granger spoke to a crowded room at the opening event for Magnet yesterday, which also happened to be the 13th anniversary of his job as editor-in-chief of the iconic men’s magazine (The NYT headline read: “Hearst names a new top editor to try to turn around Esquire“). Esquire has taken a lot of chances under his leadership – a lot of missteps, he admits, but also plenty of innovative triumphs. Some have made money and increased newsstand sales, others – like a quarter-million-dollar investment in the world’s first electronic magazine cover – have changed how Esquire approaches the medium altogether. 

“I’m not here to talk about iPads, or the great internet machine. I’m here to explain what a magazine is capable of,” Granger told the audience. “And when I say magazine, I mean ink and paper. It’s a collision of words, ideas and images that is, quite simply, magic.”

He remembers a day a few years ago, after nine years of signing off on a new issue each month, he received a copy of the magazine and thought, “Shouldn’t it be more?”

That question led to some major and minor changes in how Esquire designs, writes and markets its magazine. The current dismal state of the economy and the magazine medium in general is the perfect catalyst for ushering in a new way of thinking about magazines, Granger said. “Disappointment, desperation and despair are an editor’s best friend.”

People – both readers and advertisers – seem to like the changes they’re seeing. The mag has earned 47 national magazine award nominations (and 13 wins) during his tenure. It continues to secure big-name advertisers, some of whom are willing to take chances along with the mag (the electronic paper experiment took more than a year to develop, but the mag broke even thanks to sponsorship from Ford).

Heinz ketchup shakes things upGranger gave the audience a quiz, the same one he’d given his editors just a couple years earlier, before the magazine “entered the 21st century”, as he puts it. He held up a glass Heinz ketchup bottle. First question: “What’s this?” The answer: a bottle of ketchup. Then he held up a plastic squeeze Heinz ketchup bottle with the cap on the bottom. “What’s this?” he asked, and the audience dutifully answered “a bottle of ketchup.” “That’s right,” Granger said. “It’s a ketchup bottle. It’s also the greatest consumer innovation of our time. It takes the same tasty and delicious content, and makes it more accessible.” Next, he held up a copy of the very first Esquire, autumn 1933, and then a copy of the current issue. “It’s the same fucking thing! The magazine format hasn’t changed in centuries. What I asked my editors was, ‘Where’s our ketchup bottle?'”

The team started with small changes. Granger wondered why the front section of magazines, despite housing the best advertisers, are usually ugly and uninteresting. Esquire decided to drastically redesign the masthead, table of contents (TOC) and letters to the editors. The TOC page has become a piece of art in itself, never replicating itself. Some feature collages of photos from stories, another offers lists of ways to read the magazine (what stories in what order) if you’re “a man in a hurry”, “drunk”, “in the tub” or “a woman.” The pages are infused with charts, tiny illustrations and footnoted hyperlinks. A letter from 15-year-old Nick Wojtasik, where he called his father an “ass” for not teaching him the ways of manhood and asked Esquire to teach him instead, inspired an on-going exchange called “The raising of Nick Wojtasik” where readers answered Wojtasik’s questions, including advice on how to dress, date and get a job.
Esquire fiction in margins
Esquire started to rethink every aspect of the magazine. What of all this wasted white space in the margins and gutters? Granger decided to run a 1,700 word piece of fiction along the bottom margin of each page called “Marginal Fiction.” “We want to challenge people to experience the magazine in a way they hadn’t before.” 

Next, Granger tackled the coverEsquire cover lines. Typically boring, cover lines usually look the same on every magazine. So Esquire has been experimenting with giant cover lines, full-sentence cover lines, perspective-tilting lines, lines covered in body parts, or written on naked women…basically, he lets the designers play around with design. (The cover pictured on the left says “We shot this image to catch your eye so you will pick up the issue…and immerse yourself in the most gripping story you will read this year. It’s on page 102.” Granger confirms that this was, in fact, the reason the cover image was chosen. The cover below apparently made Stephen King a bit queasy.)
Of course, not all experiments were successful. One idea – to get cover celebrities to hold a replica of the Esquire logo instead of printing it on the page – fell flat, because 1. celebrities didn’t really like the idea and 2. photographers didn’t really like the idea, because it killed the resale value of their photos. He showed the audience photos of Benicio Del Toro throwing the logo into the Los Angeles river (never to be found again, despite the magazine’s best efforts and ads on craigslist).

The magazine is also experimenting with Data Matrix code, small square boxes similar to bar codes that can be read with internet phones. The box starred on the cover of a recent issue (Robert Downey Jr. was sitting on one with cover line: “WTF? A living, breathing, moving, talking magazine?”) and, throughout the magazine, readers can scan the code, download an App to their computer and, depending on the page they’re on, watch the content come to life. Turn the magazine over, and watch Robert Downey Jr. fall off the page and start complaining. He also sings, makes jokes and promotes his new movie. The uber-popular “Funny joke from a beautiful woman” page offers a code that, when scanned, features the beautiful woman herself telling the joke in a video, while the joke is illustrated around her. The technology was paid for by Lexus, who were inspired to create an interactive ad of their own that allows readers to test out a car while reading the magazine. A list of the 25 essential wardrobe items offers matrix codes that allows readers to buy the item directly. The point, Granger said, is to close the gap between the ideas in a magazine and the action that sends people away from the magazine.

When asked how advertisers have responded, Granger said the changes “haven’t essentially changed our relationship with adversities.” Esquire‘s relationships with Ford and Lexus are all the stronger for all the promotion and buzz generated by the features they sponsored. Of course, Esquire would like to start making money off these ideas, Granger says. So they will keep evolving. “We redesign the magazine 2-3 times a year,” he said, “We just never announce it.”

David Granger shows augmented reality appAll of these innovations aren’t meant to replace the print magazine: rather, they should drive people to it for an experience they can’t get elsewhere. Content is still key for keeping readers once they’re there, he says, and he will continue to support great journalism – the recent profile of Roger Ebert is proof of this. “In just 10 days, we had 800,000 people reading that story online,” Granger said. “That’s 800,0000 people reading an 8,000 word story. And our stats show that people were reading the whole thing.” Someone asked why Ebert wasn’t on the cover, and Granger cited another brilliantly-written piece about Fred Rogers. The piece was so good he’d put Mr. Rogers on the cover, and it was the worst-selling issue of his career. This time round the cover featured Leonardo DiCaprio, and many stores were quickly sold out. Lured by Leo’s smile, hooked by Canadian Chris Jones’ story.

Not everything is going to be a homerun with readers, he says, but Granger admits that he hates focus groups: “I don’t want to give people what they want,” he said. “I want to give them what they never could have expected.”