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the rob interview

Tyler Brûlé, chairman and editor-in-chief, Monocle magazine

I am having lunch with a living media dinosaur. He should be extinct. He believes in print and radio. He has no digital strategy to speak of, not even a Twitter account to market himself or his curiously tactile publications. He clutches his nearly extinct BlackBerry because he likes the feel of a real keyboard – how quaint – not a glass touchscreen.

If there were ever a media counter-revolutionary, Tyler Brûlé is it. Born in Winnipeg and more or less based in London – he is on the road 250 days a year – he is the founder, chairman and editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine, the slick anchor piece of a pocket global publishing empire whose chief delight is ignoring the adage-turned-cliché that print is doomed.

A deluded creature, Mr. Brûlé? Maybe not. Monocle, which bills itself as "a briefing on global affairs, business, culture & design," seems in fine form – "absolutely profitable," he says. In 2014, the Japanese publishing house Nikkei, owner of the Financial Times, bought a 3.8-per-cent stake in Monocle that valued it and its various guide books, plus the few retail outlets, at about $115-million (U.S.). Not bad for a title with a monthly circulation of only 78,000 and 100 employees.

Read more: Tyler Brûlé on his aversion to social media and success with Monocle

Of course, Mr. Brûlé knows that print is in trouble everywhere, but so, apparently, are the strategies of thousands of newspapers and magazines that drank the digital Kool-Aid. He cringes at the fortunes lost on digital tablet editions, the strange experiments in social media – The Economist magazine's presence on Snapchat baffles him – and the endless marketing campaigns aimed at prodding readers into paying for commodity content. Charging for exclusive reportage is the way to go, he says.

"What we haven't done is bet the farm on digital, even if we are doing digital things," he says. "The radio station is our digital presence. It lives on your phone, it lives on your laptop, on CBC and other places in syndication. I would say the principal digital revenue streams for us are radio and e-commerce from our stores. … Should we dive into digital with rolling blogs and the like? Forget it; let the BBC do that."

He is such a believer in print that he is considering the launch of a title, "definitely global, with more of a weekly tempo."

I was a bit tense before I met Mr. Brûlé on a surprisingly mild London afternoon, in late October. What to wear?

Mr. Brûlé has a fearsome reputation for his snappy attire, stylish bags and immaculate grooming. His somewhat annoying "Fast Lane" column in the Saturday Financial Times is occasionally a compendium of brands he is enamoured of (Italy's Altea and Japan's Comoli are recent picks). I ditch the mid-market Italian suit – too risky – and opt for simple black trousers, a light cashmere sweater and my most expensive brogues (shoes define the man, right?).

To my surprise, he arrives at the Chiltern Firehouse restaurant, in the buzzy and chic Marylebone area of West London, in a short, outdoorsy green jacket, one that you might wear on a country walk in the Cotswolds, and what looks suspiciously like training shoes. His beard needs a trim. I relax immediately.

Mr. Brûlé, 48, could be a TV anchor. He is handsome and sturdy – his father Paul played for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Montreal Alouettes in the sixties and and seventies – and has a deep, resonant voice that would be perfect for broadcast. In fact, he often anchors Monocle 24 Radio's current affairs shows (disclosure: I have been a guest on Monocle's morning program a few times).

We sit outdoors, warmed by the overhead electric heaters – "mild" is a relative term in England. He orders a small Caesar salad, green beans, the bavette, extremely rare, and a glass of Pecorino white. I start with the steak tartare, then launch into the sea bream, washed down with a Crozes-Hermitage red. It's all delicious, as it should be given the outrageous prices (boosted by the maddening non-optional 15 per cent service charge and one-pound charity donation).

I notice that Mr. Brûlé has a somewhat awkward way of handling his knife and fork. "I used to be left-handed, then I became right-handed," he says.

There's a perfectly good, and horrific, reason for the left-right switch: Bullet wounds.

Mr. Brûlé left Canada in 1989, dropping out of journalism school at Toronto's Ryerson University, and landed in London, where he worked freelance gigs for various big-name TV networks, including the BBC, as a researcher, producer and reporter.

In 1994, he found himself in Afghanistan, working for the German newsmagazine Focus. He was in Kabul with a four-man Focus team when their car came under withering sniper fire. "There were 39 bullet entry holes, all the windows taken out," he says. "Our interpreter was in the seat next to me and got shot in the back of the head. He survived and now lives in Regina, poor man. The surgeon could not believe we all lived. He said, 'I guess it was not your time to go.'"

Mr. Brûlé shows me the deep scar from one bullet, in his right forearm. A second bullet drilled through his upper left arm and grazed his chest on the way out. His shattered limbs finished off his glamorous foreign corresponding career. "It was during my long convalescence period at home in London, nursing my arms, that I thought about Wallpaper."

Wallpaper was Mr. Brule's first media success story, even if it was, for him, a financial dud. The idea for the title came when his occupational therapist told him to work with his hands and suggested cooking. "So I went to a newsstand and tried to find cooking magazines," he says. "Everything was a bit frou-frou. Martha Stewart was the only thing that was interesting. I started pulling pages out of magazines and thinking there's got to be a better way."

His invention, Wallpaper, focused on fashion, design, travel and art and, as does Monocle today, highlighted top-quality products and services as opposed to merely "luxury" offerings in all their potential vulgarity. The magazine was launched in 1996 – "It ran out of money right away" – and Mr. Brûlé sold it to Time Warner (now Time Inc.) a year later. In 1998, Wallpaper started Winkreative, a brand design and strategy agency that, lately, designed the brand image of Toronto's Union Pearson Express.

When Mr. Brûlé left Wallpaper in 2002, he took Winkreative with him. Five years later, the first issue of Monocle, in heavy matte paper, was published, featuring cover art of a Japanese navy helicopter pilot. Clearly, this would be no ordinary design and lifestyle magazine.

Out of nervous energy, or perhaps because he's a natural motor mouth, Mr. Brûlé doesn't stop talking and gets only about half way through his meal. He is polite. His BlackBerry is tossed on a chair, next to my November edition of Monocle, which is anchored by a cover story headlined "Rebuilding Brand Canada" and brims with Canadiana tidbits. Who knew that the Rock – Dwayne Johnson – is Canadian? He speaks lovingly of his mother, Virge Brûlé, an Estonian artist and "inspirational force" who is the boss of Winkcreative's Canadian operations and his frequent travel companion.

The restaurant is in a strategic location, smack in the middle of the Monocle catchment area. Up the street are the offices of Monocle and Winkreative, which are studies in sleek, compact design, but also design intolerance. Mr. Brûlé insists that employees don't hang jackets on the backs of their chairs or place plastic water bottles or coffee cups on their oak-topped desks. Given a tour one day, Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway, an advocate of messy desks, or at least not bothered by mess, seemed bewildered by Monocle's natty workplaces. "There is nothing ugly here," she wrote. "The room is filled with dappled sunlight, and even the people are shiny and gorgeous."

Across the street are two trim shops – Trunk Labs and Trunk Clothiers – that Mr. Brûlé owns with his long-time partner, Mats Klingberg. They sell horrendously expensive travel and clothing items such as the Begg Arran scarf, apparently made from the wool of caviar-fed sheep; yours for €345 (almost $500 Canadian).

On the same street is the little, ship-shape Monocle Café, which serves surprisingly good coffee, perhaps because Mr. Brûlé, who owns a house in the northern Italian resort town of Merano, knows what real coffee tastes like. The Monocle Shop is around the corner. In nearby Paddington, Monocle is experimenting with Kioskafé, a news and coffee shop that sells 300 magazine titles and thousands of print-on-demand titles, including The Globe and Mail.

Mr. Brûlé says the collective revenue for the publishing, agency and retail spreads are about $50-million. "We're disappointingly small," he says.

But maybe not for much longer. Even as media cemeteries fill up with print titles, Mr. Brûlé is considering bucking the trend again with the launch of a weekly of some sort. "It would be big, ambitious, international, not based in London," he says.

He won't provide details, but says it might exploit the existing Monocle bureaus around the world, including the one in Toronto, and hit the newsstands in 2018 if it gets green-lighted.

We finish lunch with espresso, a double for him, a single macchiato for me. I ask him if he is happy running around the planet virtually non-stop, staying in the best hotels, buying the highest-calibre brands for his stores, telling clients how to overhaul their public images and publishing a magazine that should be unpublishable.

"I have been very happy for quite a while," he says. "Could we do with better margins, yes, but we get to do the journalism we want to do. I feel fortunate that we don't have to report to a board that thinks it knows the future of media."


Movie: The original Bourne trilogy

Book: Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh

Music: The Quiet Nights, a Swedish jazz orchestra

Holiday spot: "Anywhere on the Italian coast."

Fashion brand: Comoli of Japan, "this week anyway."

City: Tokyo

Sport: Running and tennis

Architect: Japan's Kengo Kuma

Newspaper: Germany's Die Zeit

Magazine other than Monocle: The New Yorker