Friday, May 13, 2005

Watching leaders in action - project X, Lucire

It's one thing to be inspired from the screen, or from the pages of a book. It's another thing to actually observe the day-to-day interactions of inspirational leaders. I've been watching two lately.

Project X
I've been involved recently in a project which I have to keep secret for the time being. You can be sure I'll tell you when it's time, but for the moment - hush hush.

Anyway, on this project I've been privileged to work with a true leader - someone who has a vision to make a difference in a very competitive industry, and who has worked several years single-mindedly on a vision, persevering through misunderstanding and failure to see this project come to fruition.

On the way, he has discovered - unless he already knew - how to help other people get what they want out of his project. The cliched win-win situation is still the ideal in any situation. Zig Ziglar says you can have anything you want, by helping other people to get what they want. This leader is putting that into practice on a daily basis.

It's not as easy as it sounds, because it could easily come across as manipulative. But through vulnerable, open, honest communication, this leader has helped all members of the team feel assured they're in it for their own reasons, and that it really is a win-win situation.

Another thing - I'm referring to this person as a leader here, but the feeling in the team is a group of leaders. There aren't really any "followers" at this stage. We all get on with each other, that's about it.

When I joined the NZ discussion group on Yahoogroups some five years ago, I was impressed by Jack Yan, one of the co-moderators. Here's a man unhindered by the stereotypes of what it means to be in business, or in the fashion industry, or in fact any limiting paradigm.

At the time (2000), he'd been successfully running an online-only fashion magazine for three years. In 2003 it became a print magazine, and a whole section of the public suddenly realised it existed (doh!).

Now he's expanding to Romania. I asked him why Romania of all places, and he explained: "Good people, growing middle class, about to join the EU."

Jack's written a piece about the lessons he's learnt in reaching out to Romania. I'll post his entire article here - you'll also find it in today's National Business Review in NZ (although without the links). I have emboldened bits that struck me as particularly important for those who, like me, skimread (naughty!).

Knowing whom not to listen to

In creating a new venture, knowing whom not to listen to is as important as absorbing good advice

Jack Yan
Jack Yan is founder and CEO of Jack Yan & Associates and publisher of Lucire.

THIS WEEK is pretty important to me as a publisher (as well as a professional brand consultant and typeface designer). In late 2003, I made an unusual decision: to turn a web property I owned into a print magazine. It was, by and large, unprecedented in the world of publishing (one other publisher had done it at that point). In the days ahead, I’ll personally work on a brand extension to the print magazine, but, more importantly, see the launch of Lucire in Romania. I didn’t do it alone; the key was listening to the right people and rejecting all that was wrong with 20th-century business.

I won’t say the path was an easy one. The web magazine is number two in
Google, slipping every now and then to third when Condé Nast has a good week, but we could have owned the online fashion category if we wished. To give up the title of the world’s leading online-only fashion magazine in favour of becoming just web-and-print title was not an option, either. Instead, Lucire had to become something special.

The story has been told before: the twenty-first-century brand must have social responsibility. It is vital for a brand’s survival today.

Secondly, it is important today for a magazine, regardless of medium, to have constant contact with its readers.

Thirdly, while think global, act local has its merits, it is the era of think global, act global, and it matters not that one has a small business.

But the story is not complete. The rest of the story is about what we blankly rejected because it was démodé and irrelevant for 21st century business.

It may be very cocky to say this only after two editions, one in Australasia and one in Europe, but I like to think of Lucire as part of a global movement. We began it online, where global movements are commonplace. I refer not to Ebay or Google, but socially responsible groups such as
TakingITGlobal. I am closely involved in one, the Medinge Group, which is made up of the world’s top branding authorities—where we do look at changing our part of the world by making brands more transparent and honest. I refer to those informal networks of people who band together because they see the opportunity to effect change. whether it’s privately hosted or on Yahoo!.

If you are in publishing and you didn’t notice this, then, in my opinion, you are in trouble.

It’s that spirit that, despite having come from the end of the 20th century, was a vanguard of the next century. In the 1990s, postmodern critique was fashionable. In branding,
No Logo was the seminal moment, Something had to give, and I proposed the concept of moral globalization; I talked about how brands could become more human, even more spiritual. The consumer movement couldn’t be ignored, either: it came of age in the last decade.

Those who suggest that we continue branding just as we always did, maybe by putting up an extra sheen and give social responsibility mere lip service, are misguided. I had to ignore them.

But there was one thing that I knew, but didn’t want to believe. For years, I resisted doing a print edition. Print was seen by the “digerati” as a retrograde step. But here we are in the 2000s and the allure of print is as strong as ever. Nearly all those people who said they would stop buying tabloids when Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed were killed (or assassinated) have failed to keep their promise. Since we’re not going to change millennia’s worth of habits, we decided we had to be part of the print world.

However, that world had things I didn’t like. Largesse, arrogance and formality. I am blessed to have never formerly worked in the industries I have chosen to work in: consulting, software and media. We joked about
JY&A Consulting being the anti-McKinsey long before they were handing out books on their work for Enron. And in the months before Lucire approached launch, we heard that we were the ‘anti-Vogue’. Well, I was born on the anniversary of Condé Nast’s passing, so perhaps there is some meaning there.

If I was to spend this much money, then some things had to be done in the way Lucire had evolved, never losing the character or the values we found in the 1990s.

That meant the lean structure of the web site had to stay. That meant that we did not complete three months’ worth of articles before launch, because that would not afford us any chance to adapt to consumers. It meant trusting your team to create articles and artwork that represented the magazine’s ethos. It even meant putting aside the idea of traditional demographics because based on my observation of consumer behaviour on the web, the budget–premium distinction had disappeared. It meant listening to everyone from advertisers to consumers, and treating them respectfully. And if this magazine was to have a chance in exporting, either in intellectual property or physical magazines, it had to consider New Zealand as part of a global society.

I can’t say this was all laid out before me the months before October 4, 2004, our New Zealand launch date. Nor was I totally sure of my own capabilities. But I imagine most of us felt it deep down, and with hindsight, we can now see the bigger picture.

A lot of this came from the selection of the right people or just trusting that they would be there: Phillip Johnson has stuck by us through thick and thin, for a start. Lisa Tardrew, our director of advertising, contrasts her rivals and is, therefore, our finest ambassador in Auckland, New Zealand. Nicola Brockie, our editor-in-chief, has managed to maintain a level head during all the growing pains. For five out of six covers (and likely seven out of eight), Jessica Tarazi created world-class make-up. Doug Rimington, a photographer who doesn’t distinguish between classes of people. Fiona Barnett, who understands global design. Printers who knew my record. Folks on our team who are too numerous to mention. All are internationally minded people, adopting an attitude that is a necessity.

Since then, we’ve had Americans tell us that it’s the antipodean version of
W (we actually had Vogue in our sights rather than anything of Mr Fairchild’s), and others believe we might be the benchmark, at least in our home country, for our sector. I hope so. Or that at least we lead in some ways, helping our readers, and helping our advertisers connect properly in an age of segmentation and consumer democracy and advocacy.

Our attitude remains, nonetheless, informal. And that is what drew the Lucire Romania team and head office together. Mirella and Valentin Lapusca have done a magnificent job of re-creating Lucire there, following the ethos of the “master edition”, our harnessing everything from FedEx to web servers. The magazine may be physically shorter there, measuring the same width but A4 in height, but there is no denying that, with its New Zealand-designed typefaces, it is Lucire.

I salute our Romanian team. Mirella and Valentin took a chance on our vision after we had delivered only two issues to the New Zealand and Australian public. That was when I knew that our relationship would be founded on trust first. The contract we executed merely became a formality. In some countries I can name, mistrust would have come first, the contract a document to live and die by. But I hold those values of the
United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights dear to me: ‘innocent till proved guilty’ are not only words, they are a good way to do business. Due process is in the Fifth Amendment, though on some days I wonder.

However, it is an underlying belief even in our coverage and the issues we get involved in. As a member of the media, I stand for what my company stands for: ethical solutions with the strongest awareness of integrity, rights and freedoms. That’s my declaration and Lucire, that organic brand, that global movement, is living proof of it.

One day, I’d like to see more countries with their own Lucires. There is no secret that I would like to see it Stateside, run like a New Zealand magazine. Good business is a mixture of high-stress and ‘She’ll be right,’ that slogan beloved of antipodeans. There are other markets, too, ones that are willing to see how a 21st-century title can be run. Nationals in those countries I would like to connect with, and humbly await their consideration. •
Marvellous stuff. Having rubbed shoulders with both these leaders over some time, I'm going to keep watching and learning from them. And follow my own dreams, so they can somehow learn from me too.


At 12:47 pm, Blogger Jack Yan said...

Simon, seems like you're doing quite well with your own visions and direction. I'm just an everyday Joe trying to find my way in this crazy world. With a little bit of luck.


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