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ICON gives readers something they didn’t know they wanted

“Magazines in paper format have a bright future, if you do them properly.”

So says Peter Smirnakos, editor-in-chief of Swedish lifestyle magazine ICON. High quality and smart production values are two key elements, but the most important thing is unique content.

“To succeed among today’s enormous range of choice, you have to offer your readers something they can’t get anywhere else.”

ICON’s recipe is in-depth and personal interviews with modern icons.

Peter Smirnakos

ICON tries to give readers something they didn’t know they wanted.

“We want to surprise our readers,” explains Peter Smirnakos. “We’re always aiming for timeless quality, rather than this month’s celebrity fix.”

The magazine focuses on well-written and unique portraits of exciting people from all around the world – “vår tids inspiratörer” (the inspirations of our time), as the magazine’s tagline goes. These may be people with power and influence, entrepreneurs, chefs, musicians, directors, architects, designers or environmental activists. The main point, according to Peter, is that there is some connection that arouses the reader’s curiosity.

“It’s hard, for example, for us to write about an entirely unknown but revolutionary artist from Afghanistan, however fantastic he or she may be. It’s important that there is some form of recognition or link either to the person, or to what he or she does. We wrote about the legendary Japanese chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, who is completely unknown to most people. But everyone eats sushi, and it was Matsuhisa who brought sushi to the wider world.”

Matsuhisa, Hollywood producer Bob Shaye, the young chess genius Magnus Carlsen, horror writer Stephen King, rock hero Slash, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and actress Noomi Rapace are just some of the icons that have been featured since the first issue hit the stands in November 2011.

Stephen King
In 2011, ICON became the first Swedish magazine in 20 years to interview author Stephen King. pil

A month with Noomi

Peter is extremely pleased with many of the articles, not least the one with Noomi Rapace in the latest issue (3/2013).

“We’re hardly the only magazine in the world writing about Noomi, but we got to follow her for a whole month and were therefore able to write something that no-one else could. This allowed us to bring something unique to the story.”

Peter’s wishlist is topped by Richard Branson and Hillary Clinton, not to mention Swedish music producer and songwriter Max Martin.

“He has never actually given a single interview, so that would be a dream scoop.”

Tired of the lifestyle genre

Peter Smirnakos shares the job of editor-in-chief at ICON with Joel Persson. The two met when they worked at Café, a Swedish lifestyle magazine that clearly targeted a male audience.

“We had both had enough of Café and the way the whole lifestyle genre had become increasingly indistinguishable and generic,” explains Peter. “We thought, quite simply, there was a gap in the market for a really good quality magazine.”

They made their first dummy in 2009, drawing inspiration from many, not always obvious, sources.

“It’s something I’m really proud of about ICON, the fact that we are a blend of very many different influences. It sets us apart from many other magazines that either belong to an international network or are a Swedish version of a magazine.”
“We have our own style.”

Design-wise, Peter and Joel are inspired by American news and business magazines such as Fortune and Time, but aesthetically also by the fashion magazine Harpers Bazaar and classic publications such as National Geographic and New York Magazine.

“You could say we’re a lifestyle magazine in a business magazine format.”

No-one sent to LA on three days’ notice

As the digital media become a force to be reckoned with, there is increasing talk about the difficulties of launching a paper-based magazine. At the same time, newsstands are overflowing with magazines and the number of different titles has never been greater. Despite a certain amount of oversupply and tough competition, Peter and Joe never hesitated in launching a magazine.

“No, magazines in paper format have a bright future, if you do them properly,” says Peter.

“We learned a huge amount from our previous experience in the industry and avoided a number of pitfalls.”

“It’s important to have a smart way of working,” he continues. “ICON is seen by many as a ‘major’ publication and we have the Bonnier publishing house backing us, but the truth is that we have an extremely slimmed down business model. There are just five of us on the editorial team and we always focus on being highly cost-effective. Planning is everything, according to Peter.”

“The fact that we want more timeless content rather than the very latest news allows us to plan much further ahead. We don’t, for example, send anyone to LA on three days’ notice and when we do travel, we tend to do several jobs at once.”

Peter Smirnakos och Joel Persson
Editor-in-chiefs Peter Smirnakos and Joel Persson. pil
Peter Smirnakos and Joel Persson

High expectations for the paper

ICON is not only concerned about high quality for its texts and images – they have the same high expectations when it comes to the actual paper itself.

“Some might think it’s a little nerdy, but the choice of paper is incredibly important,” says Peter. “It’s the very essence of a paper-based magazine, and when you talk about the strengths of this format you can’t ignore the paper.”

Peter and Joel decided early on that they didn’t want a glossy paper, as they wanted to create a more ‘genuine’ feeling.

“We began with an uncoated 115 g paper, but the first issue felt like cardboard. Then we went down to 100 g, until the supplier suddenly raised the price dramatically. In our search for an equivalent paper, we initially chose a semi-coated option and that was completely wrong. We lost our whole image, and we had to live with that for three issues. Now we have an uncoated 100 g paper that we’re extremely happy with.”

A source of inspiration and valuable me-time

Peter suggests that paperbased magazines have numerous strengths.

“It’s not just the feeling of holding a paper magazine. Bonnier researched the position of the paper magazine versus digital media when it comes to what people consider a source of inspiration and reflection. Paper magazines received 50 per cent more positive responses in the survey.”

Reading a tablet is clearly not seen as valuable me-time in the same way as lying on the sofa with a paper magazine.

“It’s not all that surprising,” suggests Peter. “We are connected all the time, so there is value in sometimes disconnecting from the digital noise. And the less time we have for these moments, the more we demand from the magazine we read.”

First in the world to have an iPhone app
ICON reaches different readers via its popular iPhone app than through its paper magazine. Cross-reading is only 10−15 per cent. pil

First in the world to have an iPhone app

ICON therefore concentrates on its paper product, with the website taking on a support role.

“We want a good-looking, refined and informative website, but we don’t stress about how many visitors we have each month. I have previous experience of launching websites and I know what an effort it is to run a site that you actually earn money from. It takes a lot of work.”

However, in summer 2012, ICON became the first magazine in the world to launch an iPhone app, which allowed users to download selected articles and interviews from the magazine for free.

“It’s popular,” says Peter. “So far we’ve had 36 000 downloads and the figures are on an upward curve. The interesting thing is that we’re finding new readers via the app, with cross-reading at just 10–15 per cent. The app ICON Sverige also appears in English as ICON Global and is available in 123 countries.”

Urban young adults

ICON has proven popular with the advertising market, but although the target group for the majority of advertisers in the magazine is a good match for its actual readership, Peter Smirnakos sees a danger in talking about one target group.

“It can be limiting and the risk is that it governs the content, which we want to avoid. The magazine’s readers can be described as urban young adults: around 37 years old, city-dwellers, with good incomes and strong curiosity. 63 per cent are men.”

“Yes, we do have a slight skewing,” says Peter. “But we don’t try to make the content ‘typically male’. A good story is a good story, whether you’re a man or a woman. For us, it’s more important to have men and women involved in the magazine – on the cover, in the content and among the staff.”

Icon, chefredaktör Joel Persson Icon, I aprilnumret mötte författaren Klas Ekman den levande rocklegenden Slash.
In the April issue, writer Klas Ekman met living rock legend Slash. pil
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