Inside the Anorak

by Steve Watson in April 2010
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This month’s Stack delivery was Anorak, the happy (and very nicely designed) mag for kids. Things really seem to be happening for Anorak, and when we caught up with its editor and founder Cathy Olmedillas she filled us in on Anorak’s future on the iPad, her love for print, and what it means to count Gwynneth Paltrow as a fan.

How did you come to start Anorak and how has it progressed from there?
It started four years ago now – we launched the first issue in November 2006. I became a mum in 2002 and started looking around at the kids’ magazine market. I had previously worked in magazines for 10 years at Emap, then at The Face and at Sleazenation. Unfortunately the titles I worked on are all now defunct, but I learned a lot during these years.

Everything that was around for kids was very much cartoon character based or an extension of merchandising rather than a proper culture magazine for children. If you were brought up in the 70s or 80s you’ll have had magazines that were annuals or that had broader content, and the idea to do something similar stayed in my head for a long time. Then a friend of mine introduced me to Supermundane (Rob Lowe). He’s an art director & illustrator, and funnily enough he had also worked at Sleazenation for a while but after I’d left, so we’d never met before.

We met and we talked about what a kids’ magazine could be visually and what it could be in terms of content, and that’s when the project really kicked off because we were on the same wavelength in terms of content and concept, and he could visualise it fantastically. So he did a few sketches and the first thing he did was the little character Anorak, which is the little blue fellow. He sketched a few of him and a few logos and we just started planning the issue out.

I sent out a press release announcing the launch of the first issue out towards the end of that year. We quite quickly had a call from the Tate, who said they’d love to order some copies, and then we showed a dummy to Borders, who also said they wanted some, so suddenly from the idea it became a real thing.

Then just before we were going to print we had a call from the H&M press office saying they really loved the concept and they’d like to do an Anorak-specific campaign within the magazine, so that generated advertising money, which made the project completely viable. I still had my full-time job working as a digital producer in digital agencies, just to finance the magazine really, to fill the gaps. I did that for three years and then in July last year I stopped full-time work and decided to give Anorak a good go, and to see if it could sustain itself financially as a full-time business.

It’s just been phenomenal really – it just goes to show that the more time and the more energy you spend on something the more awareness is created and the more people gather around it, which is brilliant.

You now have stuff like the iPhone app, which is really quite a big deal for an independent magazine
It felt completely natural to us because obviously I’d worked in the digital world, and working with digital heads you come to hear about all this new technology.  When I saw the iPhone and the possibilities that were there in terms of interaction, I was really excited about it. I met a guy called Alasdair who is a Flash guru, and one of the very early guys to do iPhone applications. His agency is called On-Sea. We met while working at a digital agency and he said: “you must absolutely make an iPhone app”.

To be honest I was a bit daunted by it, wondering how much work it might involve, but Alasdair made it all very simple and very easy for us. He has three children himself so he understands everything to do with interaction as his kids would play with his iPhone! We created some assets and reconditioned assets that we’d already created for the magazine, and Al came up with this really lovely iPhone app.

But it felt really natural to us, because really it was a very natural extension to the magazine. One of the nice things about doing something printed is that you can really get into stories and characters, but there’s always the interaction element missing. From a storyteller’s point of view or an illustrator’s point of view, to see something animated and take life and be able to interact with it is really exciting.

The next step for us now is an iPad application, because the only downside with the iPhone is its size, and Rob does very intricate drawings that we had difficulty applying to the size of the iPhone, but now with the iPad, it’s almost the same size as the magazine and it means we can really showcase his artwork and do some really wonderful colouring applications for it. I’m really excited about the iPad. I’m not sure how much longer it’ll take us to make it, but we should have something in the next month or so.

That’s brilliant. Magazines are just starting to feel their way into these areas, so what’s the value for you in working on the iPhone and iPad?
Creatively it’s about telling stories in a different way and using animation and interaction. From a business perspective it opens up a new audience for us, and probably more of a US or Australian audience. To send a magazine to the States is expensive because it’s pretty heavy, it’s on thick paper, so I think a lot of Americans see that for 59p they can get a bit of the Anorak world on their iPhone.

So does it make more sense for you to work digitally because your costs are lower?
It makes sense but it will never replace the paper magazine. It wasn’t done for economic reasons – it was done because we wanted to do something with interaction and we wanted to bring Anorak the paper product to life. We’re really proud of Anorak as a paper object and as something you can draw on and touch and feel and smell, so it’s a very tactile experience, and the iPhone and the iPad is a different experience. So I don’t think one will replace the other – there will always be paper-based stuff. But the electronic side allows us to spread our wings creatively and also from a business perspective, so it would be silly for us not to take that opportunity.

I wrote a blog post recently that said we’re used magazines selling us a lifestyle, but that I think Anorak does it very well. I’m aware this could be just to do with me and my life, but whenever I read Anorak I find myself thinking that if and when I do have kids, this is the magazine I’d want to read with them. So I think you’re really creating a niche for yourself.
I worked in magazines in corporate companies where all decisions were led by research or focus groups. There if you wanted to launch a magazine, you had to create a typical person who you were selling that product to, rather than creating a product that people would find an affinity with. I prefer that second option – you create a product that people want to have something to do with. That is why Anorak is more about an attitude or a spirit than something that is based on demographics.

All these decisions based on demographics are to me a little bit out of date. To be exciting things need to be about the product first, because otherwise it completely kills creativity and imagination. Especially that we are talking about a kids market. That’s probably the market that is most researched and least understood. The same things are churned out. Always the same aesthetic, always the same tone, always the same content. Anorak was born because of a genuine need and desire to offer something different to kids.

Anorak is about getting obsessive about a subject and learning through it. It’s about telling stories and being imaginative and just providing fun. I believe that if you do something genuinely like that, you can bring all sorts of people together around an idea. We get emails from families who say ‘I’ve just received my copy, I’m going to read it first before I give it to the kids so they can scribble all over it’. Some parents actually buy two issues – one for themselves and one for their kids so they can scribble and doodle all over it.

Both Rob and I are really pleased with the way it’s happened but it’s not something that was masterminded from the start. It just took a bit of courage to say ‘okay, we’ll try this and see how it goes’. We were quite cautious because we both had day jobs, so it’s not like we ploughed thousands of pounds into it – we had worked in magazines before and we’d seen how independent magazines are quite fragile from a business point of view, and we wanted to make sure it was going to be solid before we gave up the day job.

But you have given up the day job now, so it must be going well?
Yeah – I gave up the day job when it was safe to do so! Or I hope so anyway – time will tell. But it’s been really good so far – we’ve had a really good response and a lot of interest through our social networks and through our PR. We were in The Telegraph not so long ago, we were in Creative Review, and we’ve just been in the GOOP newsletter, which is Gwynneth Paltrow’s newsletter, and it all helps sales brilliantly.

You were saying you’ve had the H&M advertising from the start, so they must feel they’re getting something from that?
Definitely – they’re brilliant clients to work with, and they completely understand and trust what we do. Because they understand that what we do is effective. So for them to come on board and let us do Anorak-style games for them while showing off the collection, is going to get them into the right hands.

And is that dealing directly with H&M or with an agency that they work with?
No, it’s direct with H&M.

And I noticed that you’re starting to get other cool kids’ clothing advertisers in the magazine so it looks as though the idea’s spreading?
You know people always say we get really good advertisers, but fundamentally we’ve got three advertisers, and that includes H&M, so in an 80-page magazine, you compare that to the mainstream titles and it’s not a very high ratio. But we’re into collaboration rather than straightforward advertising, and I think that’s going to get bigger in the future.

While I was working full time, I didn’t have time to focus much on the advertising side, but now, we are speaking more to brands (they’re not fashion related) about collaborations and workshops, that kind of thing. I  hope passive advertising becomes a thing of the past, it’s just really dull, and especially from a kid’s point of view, you need to involve them and give them something more in order for them to take notice.

That’s something I’m hearing more and more – brands not wanting to take an advertising page, but wanting to make a poster with a magazine or something like that.
Well that’s good – if brands are waking up to that I think that’s good news for everyone. Because it just becomes creative then, and creativity brings a lot to peoples’ lives, and if brands can give something back in that way it’s a good thing. We go quite a long way with H&M. For example we’ve done actual games and activities and colouring pages and calendars, so the kids really do have to get involved, and it’s really important to me that there is that level of interaction rather than just a straight forward piece of advertising. Don’t get me wrong – the outside back cover is H&M and that’s just a passive advertising page, but hopefully we make up for it by the extra level of interaction inside the magazine.

We’ve talked lots about the business and strategy of the magazine, but my last question really gets to the heart of what Anorak is all about. Because I want to know who creates my favourite feature – who makes Munkie and Horace?
You know what, it’s everybody’s favourite feature! Whether they’re five years old or 75 years old, everybody loves it. It’s basically a guy and his wife called Nathan and Emma Cooper. I met Nathan in an advertising agency when I was freelancing, and I told him about the magazine and he said, “I’ve got these two characters I’d really love to do a photo story with,” and I said, “okay let’s give it a go,” and it’s phenomenal really.

It works on two levels because I think every child thinks their fluffy toy has a personality and talks to them, and also there’s some very subtle slightly more adult humour in there, so the adults get to have a laugh as well. I love it because it’s very family-orientated – it’s the thing you can read to your children and everyone will giggle at different things, but everyone will have a great time reading it. And the thing that’s amazing is the dedication Nathan and Emma put into it. They got married a couple of years back, took Munkie and Horace with them on honeymoon in Costa Rica, to do a feature with Munkie and Horace going to Costa Rica!

And I’ve seen them go to Amsterdam as well?
That’s where Nathan and Emma live at the moment – they lived in Brighton but they moved to Amsterdam so that’s where Munkie and Horace live now. It must have been quite interesting when the customs asked them to open their suitcase and there were Munkie and Horace staring out of the cases! They spend a lot of time crafting Munkie’s adventures and they are lovely people. I think it shows!

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