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?”
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