GQ’s ‘Men of the Year’ shows brand transcends initial vision

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We were sitting at a banquette at the Four Seasons drinking: He, a martini, straight up; me, an iced tea, on the rocks. He - Art Cooper - had a late Hemingway thing going, with a black turtleneck jamming up against his salt and pepper beard. I, in his phrasing, had the "nerd" exposed, the collar on my Paul Stuart broadcloth having grown tight against my thickening neck, forcing the tie into an unsightly bulge. He wanted to find out what I had against him. I wanted to discuss the buses.

The buses: They're all over New York, proudly announcing GQ's "Men of the Year" special - both the annual issue of the magazine Art has stewarded for 17 years, and the TV event drawn from it, which runs nationally on the Fox Network on Dec. 9. "MOTY" has developed into the foremost example of a publication-initiated multimedia event, fortifying GQ's brand while providing cross-media sales and branding opportunities for advertisers.

When GQ began the program five years ago, I thought it an example of "me-tooism:" Time crossed with GQ's old, unlamented "Manstyle Awards." But I'd neglected both the foresight that had inspired it, and my own competitiveness, rooted in my affections for the GQ foe, Esquire.

Esquire and GQ are like the Cain and Abel of magazine publishing. They began life as siblings. Gentleman's Quarterly was a men's fashion catalogue owned by the Smart family, Esquire's original proprietors; later, they gave the GQ name to Apparel Arts, the magazine that had provided a base for the great Paul Rand to invent 20th century graphic design. In 1979, when Esquire was sold to a former editor, Clay Felker, the company sold GQ to Conde Nast. At the time, GQ was an inconsequential afterthought. Then, in 1983, Art Cooper arrived, and began one of the modern periodicals industry's hearty conflicts, rivaling the battles between Time and Newsweek (at both of which Art had worked) and Playboy and Penthouse (at the latter of which Art had toiled).

Those of us associated with Esquire belittled Art's efforts. A column by Wilfred Sheed? A profile of a drunken Ted Kennedy? Fashion spreads featuring sexy ladies? Hadn't we been there already? Today, that attitude looks like the classic hubris that defeats lazy incumbents and allows creative destruction to build new businesses on the shells of the old.

The fact was, Art's vision was unstinting. He had his sights set on the legendary Esquire he'd first come to know as a kid near Harrisburg, Pa., when his aunt got him a subscription. ("She had bought first a magazine subscription, to Boys Life and then got me a subscription to Life," Art told me. "Everyone has an aunt like that.") At GQ, he set about recreating the Gingrich-Hayes publication, in a modern context, nurturing a mini-generation of writers (Richman, Junod, Nocera, Kaylin) and editors (Silverman, Kaplan, Beiser, Prouty, Granger) who have helped keep the mag trade vibrant.

While Art's vision was validated with a chain of National Magazine Awards, he was still denied the General Excellence prize he thoroughly deserved for showing that the general interest magazine still has vitality, both as a form and a business. He may yet deserve another trophy for resisting the siren call of "Maxim-ization." Not that there's anything wrong with an editorial diet of beer, booze and boobs, but more and more, it's looking like a buffet full of fad foods.

With "Men of the Year," the Cooper vision showcases the importance of editors and publishers transforming themselves into entertainment impresarios. Tom Florio, GQ's current publisher, caught the imperative exactly right when he joined Art and me at the banquette. "When you have brands that can transcend the original delivery system and make their spirit work in other channels, you can leverage those brands all day long," said Tom. "There the opportunities lie."

When I left our detente lunch, Art was sitting alone at the bar, nurturing a drink. At first, I thought he looked lonely. Then I walked back onto an avenue trafficked by GQ-emblazoned buses and realized: Yeah, as lonely as a long-distance runner.

Copyright December 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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