Op-Ed | Is Church and State Obsolete?

With the rise of shopable magazines and a new hybrid business model built around retail, advertising and newsstand sales, Jeremy Langmead, editor-in-chief of Mr Porter, argues that it’s time to dispense with the pretense of ‘church and state’ divisions between the commercial and editorial sides of a fashion media business.

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LONDON, United Kingdom — Twenty years ago, when I was first editing the Sunday Times Style magazine, I got summoned to the editor-in-chief’s office. He grumpily showed me a letter from a member of Giorgio Armani’s press team complaining that they hadn’t been included in the magazine’s fashion show coverage. He asked me to write back and tell them firmly to get lost. We couldn’t believe that a designer — whether they advertised or not — had the audacity to try and interfere with the newspaper’s editorial. After all, it was up to us, not them, whether they got mentioned in our pages.

How times changed. A decade later, I was editing magazines whose revenues were almost entirely ad-based; and keeping the advertisers happy was considered as important a part of the job as commissioning features to entertain and enlighten the readers. And, despite the sniping from the ‘church and state’ brigade (who argue the commercial arm of a publishing venture should have no influence, or even relationship, with the editorial one), I never really saw a problem with that. After all, magazines are a business, not an art form, and if the adverts enable the staff to be paid and the magazine to be filled with enticing content, what’s the problem?

Often overlooked by those who complain about the number of ads in magazines is the fact that the more ads there are, the more editorial pages exist, too: the ‘ad-ed’ ratio always remains the same. So, in fact, those ad-laden issues each September and March were much better value to the reader than the skimpier, relatively ad-free ones that appeared in January or August.

With print magazines, the division between church and state has been almost imperceptible for years. But most editors — good ones at least — will manage that wispy line with skill and integrity. Admittedly, sometimes there is a lapse of judgment that might cause you to raise an eyebrow — a multi-paged ode to the design skills of some dodgy Italian shoe label might be cause for suspicion, for example — but on the whole advertising clients at big, glossy magazines are large, successful brands, and they are large and successful because they produce nice things that people want to buy. So why wouldn’t you want to feature them, where appropriate, in your publication?

The ‘church and state’ debate has become even more contentious, however, with the advent of shopable magazines, first pioneered in 2000 by Net-a-Porter (where I am editor-in-chief of menswear site Mr Porter) and its mix of content and commerce. Now, an increasing number of e-commerce ventures are launching their own shopable magazines, as are traditional publishing companies such as Hearst. And since I’ve made the journey from newspapers to magazines to e-commerce publishing, I frequently get asked if I am compromised, editorially, by the fact that we sell all the clothes we feature, as if I have somehow betrayed my journalistic integrity.

In fact, it’s the opposite. Everything we sell at Net-a-Porter and Mr Porter we have bought ourselves; and we’ve bought these items to sell because we like them and we think our customers will like them, too; none of the merchandise has been bought by us because an advertiser has asked us to do so.

What should also be a comfort for those who worry about ‘church and state’ and I don’t dismiss their concerns entirely, particularly with rise of sponsored blog content — is that an online retail magazine makes it clear what the deal is. There is no pulling the wool, or cashmere, over the readers’ eyes. We are selling the clothes that we’ve bought. In fact, the set-up is lot more transparent than it is with our traditional counterparts. Not only that, but we enable the reader to have a seamless experience from page to purchase.

I believe, in the luxury fashion sector at least, this is the publishing model of the future: a blend of content and commerce talking in realtime to a highly-engaged audience with a finger primed to purchase. Advertisers certainly seem to get this: currently 50 percent of Net-a-Porter’s, and 80 percent of Mr Porter’s, ad revenue is from brands we don’t even stock. These companies are attracted by the scale of our global, high-net worth audience; one they’re able to quickly evaluate by click-throughs and conversion rates. Instead of a passive conduit, this new publishing model acts as a global, hi-speed, multi-platform marketing partner for luxury brands.

And, thankfully, this is a sector that will employ more and more content creators. I recently went to talk to a number of fashion journalism students at Central Saint Martins. Some were concerned that they were training to join an industry in turmoil, citing the circulation declines faced by most newspapers and many magazines. I told them to cheer up. In fact, it’s the opposite: theirs is an industry of growth; more and more retail ventures are going to be launching magazines — print or digital, or both. All that’s changed is the platforms and the proprietors.

This hybrid business model — with revenues from retail, advertising and newsstand sales (Net-a-Porter is launching its own print magazine in September; its brother site publishes The Mr Porter Paperback each year) — needs a new name, as it’s neither church nor state. It’s a comfortable combination of both, much like the current British monarch, who is both head of State and head of the Church of England; white-gloved hands gracefully poised in both.

Jeremy Langmead is editor-in-chief of Mr Porter.

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5 comments

  1. What about studies that have found direct links between advertisers and the exclusion of editorial on such issues as cigarettes causing cancer, sunbathing causing cancer etc I wonder now what is not being said about mobile phones to appease advertisers.
    Other studies have found direct correlations between the number of adverts and the number of mentions a brand gets – if multi national brands just buy up space what hope does the next generation of young designers have of gaining recognition. Its just cultural monopoly.
    Also as BoF has noted before fashion is devoid of criticism – the power of advertisers has a huge role to play in this sad state of affairs.

    tansy from London, London, United Kingdom
  2. Oh and if you are going to give an ideological little bow to the Queen, it should be mentioned that there are just two other places that think its a good idea to have the head of religion as the head of state – The Vatican and Iran.

    tansy from London, London, United Kingdom
  3. Consumers can not trust reviews and representation from organizations, sites & publications that accept money from those that are being reviewed. This piece is wishful thinking on the part of Mr. Langmead and perhaps BOF itself.

  4. I believe Mr. Langmead is earnest in his essay, but maybe this isn’t entirely his fault. What I mean is this: He is so far down “brand” avenue that he can’t see any other possible road. He’s not alone. I get the feeling most young editors are on this same trajectory. They’ve been indoctrinated into this mindset.

    But I have to ask this question:
    So what exactly is the role of an editor today? To sift through the demands of the biggest advertisers and make sure they get placed on the right page? To make certain the Louis Vuitton shoe is not shown with the Saint Laurent skirt? To coddle and pacify designers so feelings are not hurt and nobody is going to pull an ad? Surely, you don’t need to hire someone with a true knowledge of fashion to do that! An algorithm could probably do just fine.

    In the end, if there is no separation of church and state editors are not free to do what they do best: edit. They are unable to take real risks in the way they present things. (And I think this is part of the reason street style has become so urgent; readers want to see some truly creative dressing.)

    Today, so many magazines end up looking the same. So much fashion criticism is banal. Nearly every title features the same designers, the same luxury brands, the same new films and starlets… ugh…

    I’m not certain a high-speed, “hybrid” global marketing partner for luxury brands is what will bring me the freshest ideas, the most inspiring information and the excitement I want from a magazine. But hey, that’s just me.

    Personally, I’m dying for something different! But that would be something that isn’t “bought” in order to get me to buy.

    http://www.aviscardella.com

    Avis from Paris, Île-de-France, France
  5. Edvertorial content is refreshing in that it starts from the opposite premise to conventional media- i.e. extended product information, trend and style guides which sit clearly as an adjunct to the main commercial purpose of sites such as Net-a-Porter or Mr Porter. Beautifully produced and well written, some of the content of Mr Porter is reminiscent of publications such as “The Chap” or a kind of modern day “The Gentleman”. Dunhill’s Day 8 is another example of the “Edvertorial” which has a light commercial touch, producing enjoyable, informative content. This kind of media creates a sense of community and extends the brand to the idea of experience and identification with a set of values and take on life. This definitely adds another dimension to how we consume fashion media and what we gain from it.
    However, I don’t think the editorial autonomy of conventional fashion media can be so easily dismissed in terms of the logic of market forces: i.e. brands produce pretty things that people want, so everyone wins. When journalists such as Cathy Horyn have been banned from reporting on shows for example, this reveals how the extent to which the State desires to control the Church.
    In all of this, is the question of the quality and depth of fashion reportage and whether that becomes sacrificed, so that reportage which integrates the history, design and culture which inform designers creative processes, which question some of the darker side of the fashion industry (body image and labour ethics) and which dares occasionally to voice dissent is replaced by the shorthand of breathless press releases and marketing speak. Thankfully there are spaces of intelligent reportage, carved out by some newspaper journalists and some bloggers who walk the tightrope between more substantial fashion reportage and the commercial and therefore editorial logic of fashion media.

    Phyllida Jay from East Grinstead, West Sussex, United Kingdom