Tom Freston, television executive and philanthropist, once said “Innovation is taking two things that already exist and putting them together in a new way.” Pop-Up Magazine is a living expression of that idea.
You may be familiar with Pop-Up’s sister brand, The California Sunday Magazine, a nationally distributed magazine that’s bastion for award-winning long-form and photojournalism. It is also an insert publication that accompanies weekend editions of The Los Angeles Times and The San Francisco Chronicle. But despite that reach, it was Pop-Up Magazine that was responsible for most of the revenue Pop-Up Magazine Productions generated last year, which also has its own custom content division called The Brand Studio.
Behind the Curtain
But what exactly is Pop-Up Magazine? In terms of the name, it may seem like an obvious a nod to a concept almost everybody has become familiar with by now in either a retail or restaurant setting. The “magazine” follows that same basic concept in that it’s only accessible in a given location for a very short time—sometimes only one night. However, the name actually plays off of pop-up books because of the multiple dimensions it takes on. But here’s where things get interesting, and innovative. Pop-Up Magazine is not really a magazine at all, at least not how we have come to think of them or define them. It’s not printed on paper, or sitting on newsstands, and it definitely doesn’t have some sort of contrived digital edition. Pop-Up Magazine is a live, or rather living, embodiment of the structure and content you’d find in a magazine—performed in front of more than a thousand audience members on a given night across the country. In simpler terms, it’s an event—something all magazine publishers have been doing for quite a while now—but married with the fundamental component of any good magazine—storytelling. Thus, it took two things that already existed and created something entirely new, and innovative.
Co-founder of Pop-Up Magazine Productions and publisher of The California Sunday Magazine, Chas Edwards, tells Folio: that the idea started in 2009, five years before its parent company even existed.
“My partner Doug McGray [co-founder of Pop-Up Magazine and editor-in-chief of The California Sunday Magazine] realized journalists who practice within certain media types don’t cross-pollenate much,” he says. “So the idea was to bring together great journalists, non-fiction writers, photographers—all from different worlds of media—and make something together, a show that is inspired by a magazine.”
Edwards says that the development of Pop-Up Magazine happened in two phases, the first he refers to as the “hobby phase” when the show was more experimental and in smaller venues in San Francisco. Now it’s in phase two, which Edwards hasn’t given a name, but involves Pop-Up Magazine touring the country in large theaters in cities that include New York, D.C., Atlanta, New Orleans, and L.A. All of these venues seat more than 1,000 audience members, and tickets range from around $30 to 60, so this is no small-time production.
Unlike many magazine events, Pop-Up Magazine wasn’t developed alongside marketers and experienced event planners. Instead, Edwards says it was the editorial team who was largely responsible for developing the concept and how it all came together.
“We didn’t have production experience for the stage, but we did know how to make a magazine,” he says. “We reached out to journalists and invited them to pitch us their ideas. We wanted the ideas first and then we figured out the production product. The process and final product isn’t that much different than a general interest magazine.”
Theatergoers at a Pop-Up Magazine show are given a printed program that includes a magazine-like table of contents. The show format is familiar to a magazine in many ways, with short lighter pieces opening the show—similar to the front of the book in a magazine. Long deep-dive features occupy the latter part of the show. In total, a Pop-Up Magazine show includes about 10 to 12 stories and each feature can include multimedia elements like film or photographs that appear on a giant screen behind the performers/journalists who are doing the storytelling. Edwards says there are even instances of interactivity, depending on the piece or the show.
Audibly backing the program is The Magik Orchestra, which is, for lack of a better term, the house band. Edwards says the orchestra works with the Pop-Up Magazine team to create a soundtrack that fits seamlessly with the program. “We work with them the same way a Hollywood film would and they score everything as it’s happening.”
Also enhancing the experience is the total absence of phones. The audience is instructed by the host at the start of the show to turn off their devices because the program requires their full attention. So that means no glowing bodies scattered throughout the theater, or hands raised above heads filming the show, or onlookers taking countless selfies.
The show runs about 100 minutes without pause. The only breaks in the editorial programming are live sponsored pieces (more on that to come). When the show wraps, the audience is invited to a bar in the lobby where they can imbibe cocktails and discuss elements of the show with other attendees, the host or performers. Edwards says this offers a more intimate experience for the theatergoers, and allows the conversation to continue beyond the limitations of an on-stage Q&A.
The Business Model
Like the show itself, the business model is also innovative. As mentioned, Pop-Up Magazine was the leading revenue generator last year for Pop-Up Magazine Productions. Edwards says print advertising in its flagship sister magazine is just a small piece of the business in comparison. However, he forecasts that in 2018 The Brand Studio will be the company’s income juggernaut, in thanks to the work it’s done through Pop-Up Magazine.
Pop-Up Magazine’s revenue is roughly split between ticket sales and sponsorship. But the sponsorships aren’t merely logos on a print program, or forgettable thank you’s from the host during the opening or closing remarks of the show. Instead, the sponsors are integrated into the content in an engaging and organic way. Edwards says this is where The Brand Studio comes into play.
For instance, the Google-owned smart thermostat producer Nest worked with The Brand Studio to create a multimedia piece that features smart homes of the future with subtle product integrations woven into the film. The content isn’t an overt advertisement, but it allows Nest to become a part of the show in a more authentic way. Sponsors like Nest also own the assets and can distribute them elsewhere, like on their own sites or social media channels.
Bespoke solutions like that are how Edwards and his company expect to grow in 2018 and beyond. Edwards believes there is a “big appetite” for partnerships like this and he foresees The Brand Studio will have plenty to do this year. But he also recognizes the Pop-Up Magazine brand needs to grow further in order to sustain its early success.
“When we walk up to a person on the street and ask them about Pop-Up Magazine they look at us with a furled brow,” Edwards jokes. “And when we tell them about it they don’t have a context for it, so for the most part they end up there through a friend or through our PR efforts. But when we get people into a theater, almost everybody really loves the show, and at the after party you can really feel it. But it’s not just anecdotal. We survey people at the show, and almost 90% of them say it was one of their best nights out, or they say they will come back and bring friends.”
With that in mind, Edwards says the strategy to grow brand awareness is to slowly expand into new markets each time they launch a new tour. “We see opportunities to expand into other cities. Could we bring it to a college campuses or museums too? Those are things we are trying to figure out as we look towards the most efficient ways to scale.”
Better brand awareness could also open the door to another opportunity, like licensing. “We’re looking into ways to work with local partners and local teams,” Edwards says. “If we can find a way to partner with independent producers we could offer our expertise and smarts. Take TED for example, they have found a way to work with folks around the world. We think that’s a potential opportunity for us as well.”
Turning a New Idea Into a Movement
When asked if Edwards would like to see more magazines testing out this model, he suggested this was never intended to be a proprietary idea. “One of the reasons we are looking to connect with other storytellers and content producers is because we want more of it,” he says. “We don’t own great storytelling or good journalism, but we want to see more of it in this world.”
Whether or not this model is something magazine publishers should adopt themselves isn’t really the point, however. Instead, Pop-Up Magazine’s existence illustrates that publishers have the ability to innovate by leveraging their inherent strengths, and rethinking or repackaging products they already have. Innovation doesn’t require starting over.
In an era where much of the industry jargon is focused on vapid tech buzzwords and a general notion that the only way to grow or survive is by pivoting your business to the latest “it” platform, Pop-Up Magazine offers a counter argument. It shows that proven ideas can be recast into something entirely new and successful.