Current gig Editor in chief of Esquire; editorial director of Town & Country
Previous gig Editor in chief of Town & Country
Adweek: Growing up, were you an Esquire reader?
Jay Fielden: Sure I was. I tell this story in my first editor's letter, when I was about 13 or 14 and growing up in San Antonio, I started getting into magazines, and Esquire and The New Yorker were two magazines that I just got curious about and wanted to know more about. They were probably both a little above my head at the time. But I started having that experience with magazines that I envision still being the most powerful thing a magazine can do, that kind of religious conversion where you realize you want to see this thing every month. So that was the beginning.
What made Esquire such an important brand?
Because it was genre-busting. When you have Nora Ephron writing about breasts, when you have Joan Didion writing for it, when you do the kind of covers they did, a lot of it punched through the culture. It was something highly relevant, on the pulse, fitfully trying to and succeeding at often leading the cultural conversation, saying things no one else was, doing things no one else was.
What changes will you be bringing to the magazine?
Even though there's a tremendous history there, this is a moment where you have to pretend there's no history and see it as just a reboot and an opportunity to ask the hardest questions. I just spent five years at Town & Country reimagining what Town & Country was. [At Esquire], I want to reimagine the way fashion can be done in the pages, and I want to make sure that the level of the writing and the journalism kind of becomes a constant throughout all the pages. I don't want it to feel like there's two different guys reading this: one who's reading it for the fashion and the style, and then one guy who wants it for the 10,000-word well-reported article. I would say also that my vision of the magazine is one that has symphonic contributors.
A lot of the contributors you're bringing in for your first issue are women. Why is it so important for the magazine to have female voices?
Because I think that's the real secret to the genre-busting element. When you have women who are not simply in lingerie in the magazine, you're creating a different idea about what a men's magazine is. When you have significant bylines who are women, significant photographers who are women, significant figures in the magazine who are women, you're actually mirroring what real life is. There needs to be a lot more realness to the magazine, in my opinion. A lot less worry about whether it's manly or not. That's a trope that I think has had its time.
Esquire has had some iconic covers over the years. How do you recreate that kind of magic in an age when people aren't buying magazines at the newsstand like they used to?
Well, look, I think there's still a lot of magic out there. The world has changed, but I think that a magazine still can do things like no other form of media. And therefore, maybe the place we're in right now is giving us more freedom to be more experimental again. So my way of thinking about the cover is that it starts with the aesthetic team we put together to take whomever it is that we're putting on the cover and making out of it what we want. And then thinking, secondly, who will those people [on the cover] be, if they are people all the time, and what will those moments be when we break away entirely from the tradition of having a celebrity on the cover.
In recent years, a handful of magazines—Hearst titles included—have experimented with putting advertising overlays on their covers. Is that something you'd be open to?
I don't know. I want to approach things as they come. I want to see how creative and how thoughtful I can be about respecting the journalistic soul of the magazine, but also being a good steward of creating a healthy business that will keep this magazine around for a lot more years. That's the mantle that I inherited.
This story first appeared in the May 23, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.