If the Esquire editor in chief is in a good mood this early March day, it’s understandable. The Roger Ebert interview in the current issue is generating media buzz and Web traffic in advance of the film critic’s appearance on Oprah. Then there’s the upcoming National Magazine Awards. Granger is optimistic about the magazine’s prospects. (His expectations are realized a couple of weeks later when Esquire emerges as a finalist in six categories, including general excellence.)
But Granger’s lunchtime chatter is not about the high-profile acclaim and influence that accompanies the top editorial job at one of media’s most iconoclastic titles. It’s all about ink.
Photosensitive and flavored inks, more specifically. Granger has met with the world’s most innovative ink expert and his mind is racing.
Granger loves this stuff. He enthuses about meetings with printers, paper companies and ink vendors the way his peers gush about celebrity Oscar parties.
Excitement of any description was clearly lacking in the magazine industry last year. Esquire got hammered along with its peers in the men’s lifestyle category. With more than 716,000 in total circulation, Esquire’s newsstand sales declined 13.5 percent in the first six months of 2009 but recovered somewhat in the second half, posting a 7.8 percent decline compared to the industry average of a 9.1 percent drop. (Newsstand, however, only accounts for about 14 percent of the Hearst title’s total circulation.) Ad pages in 2009 fell 24 percent in a category down 22 percent. Not great, but better than competitors like Granger’s previous employer, Condé Nast’s GQ, which posted a 28 percent slump. This year, there are already some bright spots. Through April, ad pages are up 2.5 percent versus a 16.7 percent decline for the men’s category.
In such an abysmal year, numbers do little to measure any sense of progress in media.
While other editors muddled through the economics of retrenchment, Granger pushed forward, publicly embracing print while exploring its transformation through technology. The magazine published two covers that functioned as pieces of origami; one used augmented reality to transform a static medium into something fluid and delightfully unexpected. Esquire launched a replica of its print edition for the iPhone, and Granger got involved with a larger Hearst initiative to show what magazines might look like on advanced reading devices like tablets and e-readers. In the darkest of times in recent memory, Granger best articulated the magazine industry’s need to redefine the act of reading. His outspoken defense of print’s continuing relevancy and creativity in pursuit of that earn him recognition as AdweekMedia’s Editor of the Year.
“David’s always been a leader in pushing the envelope—challenging his readers and advertisers to take those risks with him,” observes Audrey Siegel, president, director of client services, at media planning and buying agency TargetCast. “A lot of editors are stepping back now or burying their heads in the sand. He’s using this tough time to be very proactive and take risks. Through that experimentation with magazines and different technologies, he’s getting ahead of the curve in finding different ways to bring content to his readers.”
This isn’t the first time Esquire covers have generated buzz. In the 1960s and early ’70s, designer George Lois grabbed attention with provocative covers like one showing Andy Warhol drowning in a soup can. While Lois found his inspiration in pop icons from Campbell’s, Granger finds his in Heinz. Nearly four years ago, he gathered his writers and editors for dinner in the backroom of a midtown Italian restaurant and showed them a diner-style ketchup bottle, the kind that needs a battering to loosen the condiment. If that’s a bottle of ketchup, then what’s this? he asked as he held up a redesigned upside-down squeeze bottle.
“It’s a ketchup bottle; but it’s also the greatest consumer product innovation of all time because it retains the same tasty content, but it’s easier for people to access, and it causes them to access it in a new way and think about the product in a whole new way,” he recalls saying.
Then he held up the first Esquire issue from 1933 alongside its then-current counterpart, posing the same “what is it?” question. “Yeah, you’re technically right, it’s a magazine,” he said of the latest version. “But more importantly, it’s the same fucking thing. There have been magazines for 200 years. Why isn’t there a new ketchup bottle for us?”
Granger has taken that crusade around Esquire, lunching with groups of staffers in the magazine’s copy, research, production and design departments. A former production head subsequently recalled his childhood delight in the doodles and cartoons in the margins of Mad magazine. He questioned why editors don’t use that white space. That got Granger thinking. For a 14,000-word Stephen King novella, Esquire commissioned drawings of Stephen King novels, images like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, to illustrate the edges of each page. That led to “Marginal Fiction,” a short story commissioned and edited to fit on the margins of all of the October 2007 issue’s 102 pages.
Deputy editor Peter Griffin brought up another overlooked section in magazines: the front of the book. “Nobody would read the masthead, the letters, the table of contents, so we mashed it up,” says Granger. “As much as we love the medium, there’s also impatience with how conventional magazines can be.”
In that restlessness, Granger found an ally in design director David Curcurito who he hired five years ago. As Granger looked at new ways to make every inch of space in the magazine entertaining, he applied that thinking to cover design as well, introducing a Vietnam Memorial-inspired “wall-of-type” aesthetic in the September 2006 issue. Not that Granger’s always trying to squeeze more on to a page: He’s walked into Curcurito’s office asking things like “Why do we have headlines? I’m sick of them.” Curcurito, a former creative director at The Source, was happy to comply with an issue where none of the features carried headlines. “David’s got fantastic taste and style, but he also gives me a lot of creative freedom,” says Curcurito. “We get excited about the same things.”
As Granger tried to get readers to reassess their relationship with print, Esquire needed to do the same with its underleveraged Web site. The results speak for themselves. Since Esquire.com’s relaunch three years ago, the number of unique visitors has grown sixfold to 2.5 million last month, with page views increasing to 23.3 million from 1.8 million. The site’s content deftly augments and promotes print. Last June for the Megan Fox cover, the sex symbol was shot in a digital video, which was made into a short promotional film that got more than 3 million video plays on Esquire.com. Outtakes from the video were used as photographs in the magazine. Typically, extra print photography and interview content make their way to the Web. Earlier, a March print fashion portfolio was also made into a short film, which was e-mailed to international fashionistas, distributed virally and became part of a “Fashion Film Festival” on Esquire.com.
“David believes the magazine has to transcend the medium, but the Web site has to speak back to the magazine. He’s always pushing for the Web to do more—just as he does with the magazine,” says Esquire.com Web director Eric Gillin, who oversaw the relaunch.
Adds Esquire publisher Kevin O’Malley: “We talk to advertisers about Esquire, the brand, not just the magazine. One of David’s great assets is that not only does he have such great editorial instincts, but he also has a very solid business acumen and understands the lifeblood of this business.”
Even in a tough year, those instincts weren’t lost on advertisers. For the launch of a new hybrid vehicle, Lexus created a special ad with an augmented reality marker that appeared in Esquire’s December issue with the same editorial focus. Using the augmented reality technology, readers were able to experience product demonstrations like the use of the car’s radar cruise control capability.
“We wanted to bring the innovation of the Lexus HS250 to light in a different way, and the augmented reality issue was a huge draw to us,” says David Nordstrom, vp of marketing for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.’s Lexus Division. “As we see print evolve, we want to be associated with that kind of innovation.”
If Esquire’s ketchup bottle needed better packaging, nobody could complain about the quality of its contents. The magazine works with some of America’s best writers, many of whom moved from GQ to Esquire with Granger. During Granger’s 13-year tenure at the top, Esquire has been a finalist for 53 National Magazine Awards, winning 13, including the General Excellence award in 2006.
Granger has smaller budgets at Esquire than he had at GQ, and his core edit and design team of 12 oversees a remarkable amount of content. Granger—who most people address by his last name—and deputy editor Griffin met in the mid-’80s at Sport and are close friends.
Griffin was happily between jobs when Granger joined Esquire in 1997 and didn’t want to join the staff, but agreed to help him for 90 days. Thirteen years later he’s still there, and their close collaboration drives the magazine’s success. “They’re like two people who finish each other’s sentences, but they don’t even have to speak to do so,” says writer-at-large Chris Jones.
Granger, with his Master’s degree in English, takes pride in his writers. He still personally edits writer-at-large Tom Junod, whom he began working with 17 years ago at GQ. (When Junod left to follow Granger, published reports had Condé Nast trying to keep him with a counteroffer of $300,000 and writing gigs at GQ and The New Yorker. While that amount may be overstated, Junod’s loyalties to Granger are not.) When the writer first pitched “The Falling Man,” the September 2003 award-winning piece inspired by a close-up shot of a man who jumped off a World Trade tower on 9/11, Granger was less than enthusiastic, thinking it was a media story—the kind of thing he doesn’t like. It was a tough piece to get just right, even in Junod’s skillful hands.
“Most of the time I flailed around, and David allowed that flailing to happen in the interest of getting something outside the norm,” says Junod. “When I first met David, I was a first-draft writer, and I deemed a story a success because of that. Now I’ve written 40,000 words to get to the final 10,000. It’s not a minimalist place.”
Or, a predictable one. In 2001, Chris Jones, an Ottawa-based newspaperman, showed up at Esquire’s New York offices. Armed with a box of donuts and helped by a friendly building janitor, he cold-called one of the editors and later got the chance to submit a sports piece. In 2007, Jones proposed a piece about how a soldier’s body gets sent back from Iraq. Granger and Griffin “looked at each other for 30 seconds before agreeing to it,” Jones recalls. Eight months later he delivered 22,000 words for a piece that was supposed to be 6,000 words. In May 2008, “The Things That Carried Him” ran at 17,000 words and won the National Magazine Award for feature writing last year. “Where else will you find that willingness to trust a writer like that?” asks Jones. “While I was working on it, there were never any questions about the piece or where the story was going.”
After eight years at Esquire, Jones says he still feels like the new kid among a group of old friends, although people like Junod have taken him under his wing. When he came to New York to do a reading earlier this year, Granger flew in other writers to attend and share a group dinner afterward. “It was great food, a fireplace, great conversation,” says Jones. “Esquire has a family feeling, very intimate; everyone knows each other. It was wide-ranging, with everyone talking about stories. I just sat there thinking: Do you know how many people would pay $10,000 to sit in this chair?”
Jones, like Junod, had more humble beginnings. He held jobs selling scuba gear and underground sprinkler systems, while Junod peddled women’s handbags. “Granger has more former salesmen on his masthead than any other editor,” Junod jokes.
The 53-year-old Granger’s own path to Esquire might seem as improbable. He started at Muppet Magazine as one of two editorial staffers—a “fantastic” first job where he got to write and do pasteup, he says—before moving to Family Weekly. He went on to join Sport as an editor and helped launch Sports, Inc. and The National Sports Daily, where he served as executive features editor. At interims during that period, he went through two “failed attempts” as a freelancer. On the first day he joined Adweek and Mediaweek as executive features editor in 1991, he got a call from Art Cooper, the legendary, late editor in chief of GQ, who said three people had recommended Granger for an editor’s job. The gig was his to lose and he nearly did so. “I arrived at the interview a half-hour late, and I was so consumed with the desire to be an editor at GQ that I completely blew the interview. For years after he hired me, Art would always tell people it was the single worst job interview he had ever conducted.”
After six years at GQ, and nearing 40, Granger started to chafe. The magazine was enjoying a golden era, known for its association with some of publishing’s best writers, but he wanted to run his own title. In the early and mid-’90s, Esquire struggled with declining newsstand and ad sales and an identity crisis, first under editor Terry McDonell and then Ed Kosner. As rumors circulated about Kosner’s future at the magazine, Granger wrote Hearst Magazines’ then-new president Cathie Black, suggesting the changes he would make at Esquire. He called her afterward and was rebuffed. When Kosner was actually ushered out of the job, Granger wasn’t in a hurry to return the calls of an unfamiliar Booz Allen Hamilton executive who turned out to be a headhunter trying to set up a lunch with Black. Even after Granger got the job, there were moments when he wondered if he was going to make it: “[Cathie] supported me or at least allowed me the time to become successful. If I had only 18 months, I would have failed; if maybe I had only three years, I would have failed.”
In graduate school at the University of Virginia, Granger began reading Esquire as an aspirational guide to living in the cultured world of Manhattan. He’s become the epitome of the Esquire ideal. On a spring afternoon, he favors a smart black suit jacket and tie with cords, a typical day’s look. As he forks over slices of dry-aged strip loin and sunflower seed couscous in a 44th floor Hearst dining room with sweeping midtown and Hudson River views, he’s genuinely in awe of the job he has. That love of print in all of its possibilities mirrors his evolution as an editor.
“It took me six months [after arriving at Esquire] to realize that I was hitting the reader over the head with sledgehammer narrative. Even short service things were narrative,” he recalls. “Sometimes they just have to be fun. I had to find other ways to tell stories. And once I finally got that into my head, then the design—the visuals—became much more important. It was fascinating to see design solutions to editorial problems.”
Where to take Esquire next? Granger is still working out the details but hints that it may involve efforts in worlds beyond media boundaries. “Where do ideas come from?” he muses. “They come from wanting to have them.”
If David Granger had his way, an upcoming Esquire cover would be printed with a thermodynamic ink where the imagery and cover lines could completely change with the heating and cooling of it. Then there’s his idea for the next Esquire “Best Bars” annual feature. Using flavored inks, he wants to replicate the taste of drinks on the printed page and include a sobriety strip that bar patrons could lick to determine if they’ve had one too many.
For the first idea, after much experimentation, Granger couldn’t find a way to create enough battery power on the page. For the second, he was unable to find funding. “Nobody wanted to use it in their advertising because drunkenness is not something you want to promote,” he says.
Last year the Esquire editor in chief had more luck in selling advertisers on other recreations of traditional print. The most radical execution debuted in December with Esquire’s “Best and Brightest” augmented reality issue. Five articles and an ad were transformed by the emerging technology, including the cover where Robert Downey Jr. is brought to life performing, climbing over the top of the magazine and singing.
In May, Granger invited readers to make their own cover by mixing and matching three perforated-layer portraits of George Clooney, Barack Obama and Justin Timberlake. The portraits peeled away, allowing various combinations of the three men’s facial features.
Earlier, Esquire’s February cover featured president-elect Obama with a trapdoor superimposed on his face, which opened to a small table of contents that played off of the cover line, “What Now?”
In a tough newsstand year, did the covers move the needle? Not a lot, it would seem. December’s issue sold 95,970 vs. 97,326 average for the period; May’s magazine sold 97,971 vs. 97,713; February sold 99,950 vs. 97,713. But they generated a lot of media buzz for Esquire, including no small amount of snark.
“I never objected to the use of the word gimmick. They clearly are gimmicks,” Granger observes. “That’s what everybody does. That’s what movie trailers are for, that’s why people do stunts, that’s what PR agencies are supposed to do. We’re doing these because we think they will be good and also because I think it will bring a lot of attention to this issue of reinventing print.”
Esquire created its first digital cover in October 2008, with its 75th anniversary issue. Six years ago, Esquire did a story about a company behind the technology, called eInk, in which Esquire parent Hearst has since taken a 50 percent stake. The issue sold 135,000 copies on the newsstand at a higher $5.99 cover price compared to the 105,503 copies average for the period, at Esquire’s normal $4.99 price. It was Granger’s first indication of advertiser interest and the attention-grabbing appeal of such initiatives.
“Ford ended up buying into it. It was a big expenditure, seven figures, but they got multiples of that in press,” he remembers. “And so did we—it was insane.” —N.O.
Photo credits: three large images, one small: Mat Szwajkos/Aurora Select