David Granger has presided over Esquire for 16 years, an unusually long tenure for the editor in chief of a magazine these days. In that time, America has been pounded by the dot-com bust, 9/11 and the Great Recession. Intertwined with those events came huge changes for American males. They’ve suffered through the mancession, but they’ve also stepped up at home, taking on more of the housework and child-care duties. And they’ve started caring more about how they look, to the benefit of men’s lifestyle titles like Esquire. The Hearst Magazines monthly is enjoying its best year in decades, helped by a surge in casual fashion and grooming advertising. At a time when overall magazine advertising is essentially flat, Esquire’s year-to-date ad pages grew 18.2 percent to 786 through October versus the same period last year. Average print circulation is up, too, by 1.8 percent to 734,306 in the first half of 2013. After 80 years of publishing, the magazine is extending itself into television via the Esquire Network, just launched with NBCUniversal. Here, Granger talks about why the men’s fashion boom isn’t really new, what advertisers get wrong, and the cultural phenomenon he never saw coming.
Adweek: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in male readers over your tenure?
Granger: About 1998 or ’99, I started noticing this real self-satisfaction among men and in the culture at large. There was this feeling that we were in this extremely prosperous time and that America had become the only superpower. That was the time of casual Fridays, when men just decided, I don’t even have to try anymore. It was a symbol of this national lassitude. Then September 11 happened, and we couldn’t be fat and happy and content. From the moment we became complacent, there have been a series of earthshaking events that undermined everybody’s confidence in ourselves. Esquire’s role in that time has been to explore all of the issues, trivial and massively important. We’ve also been optimistic and forward-looking. Even though I worry about everything and am motivated principally by fear, I’m also deep down deeply optimistic.
Adweek: One big cultural shift has been men caring more about how they look. Is that in response to the rise of women?
Granger: I think men are uniquely oblivious to the fact that young women are outstripping young men in large part in education and career treatment. You have a culture where only 40 percent of the people going to college are men, unmarried women under 30 make more than unmarried men. You have to wonder whether that imbalance is good for our culture in the long run. Esquire is in a position where it has to take an active role in advocating for men, to mentor young men and boys, to show them that success is something to be desired.
Adweek: Is that imbalance why men are paying more attention to their looks?
Granger: That’s a fascinating thing. It has been one of the great shifts over the past 10 years in watching how it’s been OK for them to think about style and fashion that would have been unimaginable 15 years ago. But a lot of it’s as simple as [Bravo TV show] Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Ted Allen was a writer for me, and he told me he was doing a pilot for this show and it was going to be five gay guys who went around showing straight men how to decorate their apartments or dress better. I’m like, “Ted, really?” And now he’s this famous guy. I didn’t necessarily see that coming.
It was this seminal moment in the culture. But also, I don’t consider it a feminization of men. If you look back to the beginning of the 20th century, men were deeply concerned [about their looks]. Look at fashion coverage in the 1930s. It was expected that a man was a little bit of a dandy. Throughout history, men have many times been really concerned with their outward appearance. So this isn’t an anomaly.
Adweek: Although their taking on more child-care and household duties is.
Granger: That is unique. That’s because in the last 40 years or so, there’s been a concerted effort to educate more women toward success. And it’s worked, and it’s fantastic. There’s never been a time when men and women were on more equal footing.
Adweek: At the same time, you had the rise of Maxim and the absorption of those lowbrow values into the culture.
Granger: I think there are a number of reasons for the Maxim phenomenon. Maxim filled a couple voids: the advice void. People were just beginning to use the Internet for the exploration of pornography, and Maxim was such a breath of fresh air. It was kind of safe and demure. So it was refreshing. It had a little bit of attitude, and it was funny. We were just beginning to find our way, and one of our big things was to begin to offer suggestions to men. We launched “What I’ve Learned,” where we asked men who’ve lived amazing lives for their conclusions. A huge part of the Big Black Book’s success is these three sections of instructional pages: Here’s how you get through your life, here’s how you exit a party gracefully, here’s how you hem your pants in an emergency. Men are looking for that advice and support.
Adweek: Sounds like job security. What do you think when you look at advertising to men?
Granger: I think the thing that is far too seldom used as a marketing device is the deep and rich emotional life men have but never show. Men tend to be portrayed for their foibles or blunders more than people who care deeply about their families or communities or just have doubts and dreams. When we address really basic parts of the male experience like being a father, being a son, their first job or career, the relationship with the women they care most about, we get so much response. It is so amazing. I think we need to pay a lot more attention to the positive influence men can have on other people and the culture at large.