Independence: Danny Miller, Weapons of Reason

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Over the summer we’re slowing things down a little on the Journal by publishing interviews from Jeremy Leslie’s 2015 book ‘Independence’. Today we hear from Danny Miller, the creative mind behind Little White Lies and more recently Weapons of Reason.

Jeremy: Can you remember the first magazine you ever saw that you ever picked up that inspired you or interested you in the form?
Danny: It was Mean Machines, a computer games magazine, when I was ten or 11 years old. I used to collect all my copies of Mean Machines magazine. Then when I was about 13 or 14 I used to write letters to Computer and Video Games asking how I could work for a magazine. Very detailed lists of questions, and they printed them under the title ‘Boy Asks Boring Questions’. Things like, ‘How does your deadline work? How do you upload your magazine to press?’ I don’t know what was going on in my mind as a young teenager. But I’ve always known that I wanted to make magazines.

When did you get to make your first mag?
I was about 16, and I’d been learning to use CorelDRAW, and our school suddenly decided it should have a magazine. No idea why. I took total control over it. We made a magazine which was a snapshot of a year at our school, it had artwork from people, it had sports reporting, we commissioned various stories, one of which was written about Matt Bochenski, who I started Little White Lies with years. It was crap obviously.

Was it rebellious?
I’m not cool enough to be rebellious. It was just very basic. It was amazing to be given the opportunity to do something so young, I guess.

What was the next project?
I made my university magazine, and then, because I really wanted to be as employable as possible, when I left uni I came down to London to work for a mag called Adrenalin, which was a surf/skate/snow magazine.

You were studying design?
Yes, graphic design. My course was at Newcastle, Northumbria, it was  in graphic design and illustration. I got dead lucky, got a job at Adrenalin, and worked for them for two and a half years. I did espionage around the company, made friends with the people who did all the ads, the people who did the print. And I figured that it was possible to do our own thing. When that company unfortunately folded, we thought that we should have a crack at it, so we put out issue one of Little White Lies.
We started making it in November 2004 and we put it out in March 2005.

Little White Lies became very much an early leader in independent magazines. Tell us about how it came to become so. We knew that it needed to have a unique selling point, because we couldn’t complete with the big movie mags. So we took one film as its theme for each issue, and then all of the magazine both visually and also the features was spun around that film. It was supposed to be like the conversation you have on the bus on the way home from seeing a film, it could go in all different directions. It was about movies and about life as well. It was about all things. And because films are so visually rich, we would take our visual cues from that film. We had black and white film ‘Tetro’ on the cover so we did an entirely monochrome issue, for example. That’s an extreme example.

Empire, Total Film and Sight and Sound, they’re all great mags, but respectfully I didn’t and don’t think that any of them are very beautiful. We were lucky, it was like a huge gap in the market basically. To make a lovely looking movie mag.

Those more mainstream movie magazines have access to the stars and unique sets of images from the films. You had a problem with the front cover that you solved very elegantly. I remember asking somebody at Empire, ‘how did you get that picture of Tom Cruise for your cover?’ This is probably a figure that’s spun off in my head over the years, but I think they said something like, ‘Oh it cost £10,000 pounds to secure that image’. Which is fine for them because at the time they selling 200,000 copies and pulling in millions of revenue every year. We couldn’t do that, so we said, we’ll just illustrate the covers.

I’d been looking at American magazines like Interview and Flaunt, huge fan of their covers. We thought, well we’ll just do that. Then I met a chap called Paul Willoughby who I still work with, he’s one of our creative directors. He was an extremely talented illustrator and he started the mag with me. It was like, well, he can do the covers!

The first one was the ‘Life Aquatic’ issue with this beautiful image of Bill Murray and it was the perfect film, he did a great illustration, and it just became a lovely snapshot. One of the reasons people responded so well to Little White Lies was because of those illustrated covers. I don’t think anyone was probably reading it for a year and a half. Editor Matt Bochenski was lamenting that no one was reading his words. They were  just looking at the pictures.

Did you change it in some way to make it more readable?
No. Matt built a team of great writers and great film writers. People began to believe it was a magazine that they could trust, that they could take film recommendations from that would be interesting. It just takes time.

The thing with mags is that everything just takes a long time. The illustration and the design was really immediate, people could just pick it up and think that’s really lovely and put it back down again. You can’t just pick up a mag and know it’s editorially cohesive, that takes a while.

Visuals are important then.
Very much so.

Clearly that’s something you’ve taken to Weapons of Reason.
Yeah definitely. I bang on about doing what you’re good at, but illustration is a major, major thing for us. Having someone like Paul as one of our creative directors was important: he is talented not just at illustration but at seeking out great illustrators and commissioning them. It just felt like we should do this with him and with illustration. And also, it is true to say that we couldn’t do what, say, The Economist do, and go and get loads of photography from around the Arctic, because we simply can’t afford to do it. So there are still practicalities in mind.

Both magazines are great examples of making a virtue of a problem.
Yeah, turning a problem into a solution. None of the things that worked well with Little White Lies were particularly planned. We just worked hard and got lucky with stuff. The covers did work our very well, but they were just common sense I guess. We were always very pragmatic about what we were doing, and illustration was just a pragmatic thing to do basically.

Little White Lies was successful creatively, then, but as a business?
Yes it was. The Church of London was the company that published Little White Lies, and it was set up in two parts. There was the part which made Little White Lies and another magazine, Huck, a great mag as well, which came off the back of Adrenalin which I had worked on.

The other part was more of a client servicing part, because what happened, again happily but unexpectedly, was that people who liked Little White Lies or Huck would come to us and say, ‘hey, would you like to do this project or that project’ and that started with things in film like DVD covers or film posters, and then it extended to slightly larger things, like magazines, where we were in control of the editorial and design and using production and distribution skills. It grew up quite slowly for four or five years, and then for the last three we won Google as a client, which was kind of random. We ran a mag for them for two years, and with that our company, not doubled in size, but it got quite a lot bigger quite quickly. There ended up being 30 of us or so in our office, working for these two companies.

Was Little White Lies covering its costs, or did you rely on the other work to balance it?
Both Little White Lies and Huck, in different ways, were able to cover costs. You could have had a little company with four or five people making Little White Lies, or a little company making Huck, but the thing was, and this came from me and my colleagues, we were super-ambitious about both magaziness. So we wanted to do more and bigger stuff.

We got an office in Shoreditch and converted the basement into a small cinema and bar, and that was not paid for by Little White Lies, that was paid for by Google and the other work. It was fine, everything was sort of feeding into each other. They were definitely just about able to wash their own back, but they never could have made a big company. Never could have done something big. It was only through embracing client work and other projects, and being open-minded about that, that we were able to grow and do something larger.

I’m intrigued about the relationship with brands like Google. Some people might have reservations about working for huge corporations like that. Was that ever an issue?
Not really. At the time we started working with Google, I don’t think I was even aware that anyone would have any beef with them. I started to learn about certain issues that people might not have liked, things that were contentious. We’d been approached by things like cigarette brands before, who we respectfully declined to work with. I would never decline to work for Google. But then the reality is, anyone could talk up different clients’ virtues or the opposite, and say you should not work for this person. We have to take everything as it comes. We have to run a business, and pay our bills. Unless Google decide to go whale hunting or something, I don’t think we’d have stopped working with them.

Church of London split into two, and you left behind both Little White Lies and Huck. That must have been very tough to do given Little White Lies was your baby in the first place?
It sort of was and it wasn’t. Because I had by necessity turned my attention to more business stuff, like spreadsheets and HR and sorting out bills and stuff. I hadn’t done much hands on work on the mags for quite a time. But it was very sad that our company broke up, that wasn’t pleasant, and these things happen in business unfortunately. Wrenching myself from the company was much harder than the magazine, really.

For my colleagues, it was harder. Paul had been – Little White Lies was his life, for eight years it had really defined his output as an artist and an illustrator, so it was very difficult to step away. But then, we were all up
for a fresh challenge, so, you know, it’s not such a bad thing I guess.

So the new company Human After All starts up and you’re still working with Google, was there a gap that needed filling? A magazine-shaped gap?
Yes I suppose so. We moved and had a new start in a new office, and the week after we went to South by Southwest and saw Al Gore’s talk. I came back and said to the guys, we should totally make a magazine called Weapons of Reason about conflicts facing the world. And they were like, no we don’t, you’ve got to be kidding me. They are a lot more pragmatic and sensible than me I suppose. They rightly pointed out that it would be sensible to try and figure out how to run a company first, and get ourselves going, because we only had one client when we arrived, and 18 employees – if you’re ever going to start a business, don’t start that way.

So I went and developed Weapons of Reason, not on my own, but outside of the company with friends and other collaborators, speaking to people like yourself very early on to get advice, for a long time, maybe a year, maybe fourteen months. I was very nervous about the whole thing.

The idea at the time was that it would be separate to your day job?
The whole development would be separate, and then I didn’t know what would happen if we ever did it, if we would bring it back into the company in some way. But after a time, the company started to do a little bit better, so come August last year, the guys said, yes we’re stable enough, things are good, lets make the mag, let’s show people that we still care about independent publishing, that we still want to do our own thing, have our own voice and that we still have stuff to say about the world.

We definitely have this desire to say stuff and to shout about things, which I think all people who make mags have. If they’re into fishing, and really want to tell the world how much they love fishing, or how important fly fishing is or whatever, then making a mag is a great way to do that. That feeling had to be exercised in some way.

Was there also an element of wanting to do something that was more public-facing than your client work was? You mentioned Little White Lies and Huck and clients came to you and wanted a bit of that.
I would never deny that there was I suppose a cynical part of us, I’d say about 10-15%, that thought, well, if we put Weapons of Reason out, maybe it will attract some people who we can work with in the future, but that never would have justified the cost and the time it’s been to do it, it was predominantly…

…I don’t think it’s cynical…
…I think it is, not in a bad way, but if you’re doing something like this, you’re always thinking again about how it can benefit the company. But it was predominantly that we just wanted to do it, we thought it would be great to do, and a little bit of like, wouldn’t it be nice if someone from Apple saw this, and said ‘hey would you like to rebrand us?’

With Weapons of Reason, you didn’t publish it and put it into newsagents and sell it, it was given away.
Yeah. Issue one of anything is really a proof of concept. Just do it, and see what it looks like, and it will be flawed. Magazines that go on to issue two obviously fix it. So we thought, let’s print as many as we can, which was 2,000 copies, and see what we can do with them. We didn’t try to put them into many shops, we sold them through our website, we sold way more than we thought that we ever would, and we made it clear on our website that if you’re buying it – if you’re parting the cash – it’s supporting the project. And we managed to re-coup maybe half of our costs by doing that.

And the rest we just gave away. We sent them to people who we like, we gave them away at events, we gave a few hundred to D&AD. We just wanted to get them in front of the right people. They’re all gone now.

What did you get in return from D&AD?
D&AD are an amazing organisation, and they have the white pencil award which is for design for good, and this felt like it fit in with that category, and I just thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if a reputable organisation like that would partner with us and lend a seriousness and a gravitas to the project. So there is no great money changing hands, there are no contracts between us, we just help each other out with the project, they helped us to distribute it and get it to good people and lent a bit of clout I suppose. And hopefully we helped them to show that people in the creative industry are interested in using their skills for good.

You mention and showed the work of Jean Jullien, who is obviously a freelance contributor. Was he working free or was he paid?
We paid him. We can’t make a mag and not pay people. That did happen with the start of Little White Lies, but that can’t happen anymore. And we paid people well, you know, a rate card, x pence per word, a proper amount for illustrators, we did have a paid intern who helped us for two months, a guy called Alex who was brilliant, and a paid intern as a designer, a designer called Aaron, who was also fantastic. I think it’s very important that we pay all of our contributors in the project.

It surprises me how many magazines don’t.
I can’t say that I blame them because I’ve been there. We often found ways where someone who do something for Little White Lies for free, or for a very small fee, but then we’d offer them a very large fee to do something for Google. We’d find a balance. We tried really hard, and not always, but often succeeded in rewarding people where we could for helping us out on projects with little budget.

Issue two of Weapons of Reason is under way?
It’s been underway for what seems like forever, because we have just been so busy, but I’ve been working on it. The topic is Megacities. We’ve picked eight cities from around the world, and then we link out to all of our other topics, so we’re talking about environmental issues, climate change, immigration, we’re talking about leadership, how cities are becoming governed in a better way than countries are, because there is so much money in certain cities –  we’re focussing on Lagos in Nigeria for that one – and we’re talking about crime in Mexico City, about loneliness and isolation in Tokyo.

What have you learned from issue one that you hope to apply to number two?
It wasn’t good enough, broadly. It lacked a sparkle. I think we told the stories really well, and we did a descent job of getting into people’s heads and getting them interested in the topic, but I don’t think we energised people enough. We had this list of action points which we linked out to at the end, but I think they need to be more energetically embedded into stories, so as you’re reading about something, we’re really encouraging people to take action. That is our mission. The two things can go hand in hand, ramming home the action points more and imbuing the magazine with more of a sense of energy.

When’s it out?
I hope people will be interested and excited to see it, and some of the people who bought the first issue will hopefully buy the second as well, but the reality is, people aren’t out there clamouring for issue two of Weapons of Reason. I think it’s more important for us to focus on making it good then getting it out really quickly.

By issue four or five of Little White Lies, we were running a week late and it felt like the world was going to end if we didn’t get it out on time. The reality is, no one cares, and it’s fine. We know that now, and we just want to focus on making it good. But we don’t want to leave it too long, – everything’s commissioned, and we know what the content is. Our creative team will begin to think about how to attach visuals to stories probably in a month or so.

So, it’ll be distributed in the same way, given out, sold online, the same kind of thing, quite a relaxed way of getting it out then.
I hope we can get one partner, one sponsor, a company, say IBM, because they do a lot of stuff with smart cities and it’s a megacities issue, and someone from there will say – I think this is a great project we’ll give you 10,000 pounds so you can print another 20,000 copies, and then we have a distribution deal set in place now where we can get loads of copies out
for free via our wonderful distribution company, Gold Key Media, but I need that sponsor to come on board. We’ll continue to support it ourselves until such a thing happens. But we won’t put display advertising in it, because that’s just not right.

It’s not overstating it to say that Little White Lies was very influential on a lot of people making independent magazines now. What do you think when you look at the much larger range of independent magazines that are now available… Do you look at them?
The truth is I don’t have time to do much of anything unfortunately, and so I don’t look at very many mags. And I don’t find myself massively drawn to many that I do look at, I could probably give them the same criticism that I give the first issue of our magazine – which is that they lack a certain zest and energy. I find that they’re often very beautiful, and very serene, but they don’t grab me and make me want to read them. I need that energy to excite me and to pull me in. I see that with some mags, there are some mags that I really do love, they make me find time for them.

Like which?
Delayed Gratification is a good example, over the last few years, it’s just
so full of stuff, and information, and great content, infographics, and it feels like things are reaching out from every page. I know you’re a fan, like I am, of FAT, from Finland, for example, which has got so much class…

…and wit…
Yeah. And I can’t put my finger on exactly why or how that is, but it makes me read it. And then when you meet the people behind it you sort of get an understanding of why, because they’ve got that too. I’m just not drawn to a lot of the mags, even the more successful ones that are kicking around at the moment.

What advice would you give to someone who is starting out now with an idea for a magazine? Should they do it?
Is anyone here thinking of starting a magazine? Yes? Do it. My piece of advice is to remember that you want to do it for a long time. The hardest issue of Little White Lies, and maybe the same for Weapons of Reason, was issue two. We’d spent a lot of money, and we were fucked financially. We  had to put issue two on a credit card, and pay it back a long time later.

You need to think of it like a business from day one: how will it sustain itself? How will it work? What is your long term plan? Position yourself five years in the future, a day in your life, going to your place of work, going home, what is that day going to look like? And how is starting and making this project going to contribute to that? Otherwise, however lovely your
mag is, it might not get there. You’ve gotta be super practical and think about it in that way.

There are loads of inspirational things to say about making a mag, but that comes from the people who want to do it. It’s all that other stuff that people need to think really hard about. I only say that because we didn’t. For that reason, we had very long and difficult, painful years of earning no money and it perhaps needn’t have been that way.

This interview is from the book ‘Independence’ by Jeremy Leslie, first published in October 2015 and now sold out. The twelve interviews took place in front of a live audience at the Pick Me Up festival at London’s Somerset House, in Spring 2015.

Portrait of Danny by Ian Pierce.

weaponsofreason.com

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