A sexy chat with Little White Lies

by Steve Watson in July 2010
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This month we sent out the fifth anniversary issue of Little White Lies. It’s a major landmark for publishers The Church of London, so earlier this week I sat down with the magazine’s editor Matt Bochenski to get his thoughts on where it goes from here. From getting into bed with brands to losing your virginity and taking a mistress, it turned into an unexpectedly sexy chat…

It’s been about a year since we spoke about Little White Lies, so maybe you can fill us in on what’s been happening since then?
What was interesting in the early days of Little White Lies is you noticed major jumps from issue to issue where new things were being introduced for the first time. So issue three was the first time we’d ever interviewed the director of the cover film, issue four was the first time we’d ever commissioned our own photography. And as soon as a new issue was out I was always sort of embarrassed by the last issue – I’d never show an old issue to somebody because I felt it didn’t really represent what we did. But then gradually you don’t really notice those big jumps – you make incremental steps but not big jumps.

But in the last six months it feels like, on a much grander scale, we’ve made another of those leaps. The magazine doesn’t look massively different – it’s not like we’ve broken new ground in some way, but the magazine has now taken its place as just one aspect of this bigger company, the Church of London. So really it’s far more about how the magazine has enabled this company-wide change that means we’re no longer just a small publishing company (although we are that) but we’re now a small creative agency.

And just as Little White Lies always punched above its weight in terms of getting attention and respect in the very early days, the Church of London is now competing against big international creative agencies and we’re hearing that we’re being brought up in meetings when we’re not even in the room.

Everything we do here has played its part in that, but to me – and I would say this – it feels like White Lies is the engine room behind the change. Partly it’s about getting more high profile stuff, so we’ve spoken to Steven Soderbergh or Francis Ford Coppola, and partly it’s about big new ideas. We increasingly think that we’re getting known for our creative briefs, where every issue we reach out to a certain creative community and we set them a challenge and publish the results. And that’s huge because the currency of communities now is just unbelievable – brands fall over themselves to create communities. They’ll lavish time and money and attention on building them, whereas we’ve just sort of grown ours organically over five years of hard work on the magazine. The community has come as a result of the quality and the authenticity that people see in the magazine, so really the work we’ve done on Little White Lies has allowed us to go out as a creative agency and expand out own creative horizons.

So for example you’ve got the Grolsch free screenings going on?
Exactly – Grolsch is a good example of these new things we’re doing. We sat down in January as a company and had a meeting about, ‘Okay, what do we want to achieve in the next year?’ Danny (Miller, TCOL publisher) had this idea that we’d all make pie charts of our time – an actual version and a desired version, and in my pie chart my actual was about 70% Little White Lies, and my desired was about 30-40% Little White Lies with the rest of it as Church of London – sort of project management almost. And that’s what it’s become now.

In that meeting I was introduced for the first time to an agency called Elevenfiftyfive, who are a marketing company we now work with. Over the last few years we’ve been close to getting a number of breakthroughs, a number of opportunities. We’ve done a bit of contract publishing, and some of it looked like it was going to be lucrative but didn’t pan out, or there were projects we came close to getting but then they evaporate into thin air and you’re never quite sure where they went. But when Elevenfiftyfive came along they really made things happen, so in the last six months working with them they got Grolsch in for ‘Grolsch and Little White Lies Presents’, which is a series of free monthly film screenings starting in August nationwide. Grolsch are putting a huge amount of backing into it, both financial and promotional.

It’s great, because we’ve done film clubs before but in the past we did them on a shoestring, whereas this is nationwide, in eight cinemas, and not necessarily big films but really great films – films we want to support. Having the self-confidence to go out there, not just to the Optimums and the Momentums, who are brilliant, but also to the Sonys and the Universals, and say, ‘Hey, you should get in on this as well now, because the time when you could ignore us, or when we thought you’d probably want to ignore us, is over’.

We’ve always said, especially over the last few years as the recession has kicked in, that independent publishers cannot afford to sit around and just make a magazine and cross fingers and hope everything’s going to be okay. The magazines are always going to be closest to our hearts, they’re always going to be the first priority, and they’re the standard bearers of us as people and as a company, but they also have to be a launching pad for as much stuff as possible, so that we can be engaged and interested in the opportunities that come along.

But that’s really tricky. The hardest thing for me right now is how we strike that balance between the independence of White Lies, which is all we really have, and the fact that we want to make money. Because our credibility has a value attached to it, and in the simplest possible terms, brands want to buy our credibility. But it’s like your virginity, right? You can only sell it once, and once it’s gone it’s gone. So the idea is how do you take advantage of that without actually selling out, because then we’ve got nothing.

When we first started working with brands years ago we marvelled at the level of control they were obsessed by, but now we’re starting to be the same, because you have to be. I’ve heard myself saying to a bunch of people in the last six months, ‘Yeah, the White Lies brand is that we never really tried to build a brand, it was all very organic and very natural so we’re quite relaxed about it’. And I’ve realised that’s bullshit. I’m not relaxed about the White Lies brand at all – I’m insanely protective of it, and I do find myself sitting in meetings with companies that have shit loads more money than we do, and are way more powerful than we are, and just saying no. No, you can’t do this, you can’t do that, and it’s not because you want to be difficult, it’s because you have to be protective of who you are.

You have to be pragmatic but you can’t forget about what it was that brought you here in the first place. You hear people saying a lot that we need to compromise – if the brand wants this and we want that we have to compromise – but actually being uncompromising is what got people interested in us in the first place so I’m not going to start doing that now.

So how does that fit with you spending less time on White Lies? Because being difficult means doing things the hard way, and that means more time.
The main thing is that we’ve got some more people on board now – Adam’s the web editor and Tom’s the DVD editor – and they make things a lot easier. Especially Adam – if anything comes through for online I have complete faith in him so I’m aware of what’s going on but I leave it to him. But to be honest, making life difficult for ourselves is kind of a Church of London thing rather than a Little White Lies thing.

Years ago we interviewed Guillermo del Toro when he came over for Hellboy 2, and one of the questions for him was, ‘Compared to when you were making The Devil’s Backbone, was it easier making Hell Boy 2, because now people know who you are?’ And he said that if it ever gets easier it just means he’s not trying hard enough – it should always be hard. And I really took that to heart – it was a real wake-up call, and I apply it to White Lies all the time. Each issue of White Lies gets harder than the last because the ambition gets bigger and bigger.

At the same time, I’ve been making White Lies for five years now, and I have a very good instinctive feel for what I want it to do, where I think it’s going. And one of the things that I think will happen in the next year is I will take another step back and get a new editor on board, because it’s no good for anyone for me to be doing this thing for ever and ever. White Lies isn’t exactly smooth sailing, but the new stuff and the teething troubles and the struggle that we’re going through with the Church of London, that’s all new and fresh. I worry that I’ll get stale with Little White Lies and the mag will suffer as a result, so I’m excited about bringing in someone else who has passion and is totally going to take it to the next level, whereas I’m insanely excited about the Church of London as a business and a brand and all the opportunities that are coming our way.

And so I suppose that feeds into you launching the new magazines, because it’s good for The Church of London to build its portfolio, but also launching a computer games magazine gives you the excitement of being back to square one.
That’s exactly the conversation we’ve been having. When you’ve got the experimentation and the uncertainty and it could all go tits up, it could be rubbish, but we don’t think it will be. Invert Look is our new computer games mag, and the idea is that games magazines haven’t really moved on in the last 20 years, so you’ve got the same formula of news, reviews and previews, all tied very closely to the games industry. Here you have an entire publishing sector whose job in theory is to criticise video games, but I’d guess that 99% of their revenue comes from the games industry – how can that be healthy?

So we want to launch a mag that responds to that – drop news, drop reviews, and try and write long-form, interesting features that engage with the new reality of video games. They’re probably the culturally dominant art form, and I use that term advisedly, of our generation. I’m 30 now, so I was born in the same year that Space Invaders hit the arcades, yet most computer game magazines are still being put together as if they’re made for 14-year-old boys.

Everything about Invert Look is being decided now, and that’s been great for revitalising me a bit. Obviously it’s not like I’m down on Little White Lies, but it’s like a marriage. White Lies is like a marriage – it’s brilliant but you’re waking up with the same person every day, and you love that person but they’re the same person, and occasionally, you just want to check out somebody else! Invert Look is like the mistress of the Church of London. Issue zero isn’t perfect, but that’s what’s so great about independent publishing – we’re not tied into anything, we don’t have shareholders who have a five-year plan to meet. Actually we probably do but I just don’t know what that is.

So to finish off, you’ve just had the fifth anniversary issue of White Lies – when you talk about Little White Lies changing in the future, what direction do you see it going in?
In a slightly intangible way, it’s about growing in confidence. Back in the 50s and 60s there was Cahiers du Cinema, and I am categorically not comparing Little White Lies to Cahiers du Cinema, but as a model and an inspiration, what Cahiers did in the 50s when it was edited by Andre Bazin, and it had Truffaut and Godard and all these other guys writing for it, and it didn’t have a manifesto as such, but it had something it stood for.

Truffaut writes A Certain Tendency of French Cinema in 54 and that becomes the model for the new wave, and that came from film criticism. And then you get Pauline Kael at the New Yorker in the 60s, and criticism mattered and it stood for something and it was based in something sociological. Back when we started White Lies that was always my dream, that one day that’s what White Lies would evolve into and we would have a clear critical manifesto.

And really we don’t have that. I think we’ve got some of the best film criticism in the UK in our magazine, but it doesn’t compare to that stuff in the 50s because that’s just not around anymore. Even Sight & Sound – I’m not sure what its manifesto is. It believes in British film and it believes in film as an artform, but if you ask who does the BFI champion, and what are their reasons for championing them, I’m not sure you can give an answer.

So in my dream world, the thing I would love White Lies to become, is that we organically develop this voice and this ideology, and we become known for believing in something, and there’s a really cultural criticism that could re-emerge, and White Lies could be part of that. But it would take a better editor than me to do that.

You’ve got the Futurists’ manifesto in the front of White Lies – is that tongue in cheek or straight down the line?
It’s partly because it’s a really cool piece of writing, but it’s also because (apart from the fact that when you read the whole thing they’re a right bunch of fascists) is that it’s got that youthful anger and energy. I mean I’m 30 now so I’m too old to have youthful anger any more – I just need to quietly become part of the establishment – but that’s the kind of thing you want. You want to capture that, and you want to be unashamed and unafraid of that sort of belief.

To really stand for something – I mean the futurists are advocating armed revolution – but to stand for something and be so bold about it, I get excited about that. Because you look at the magazine industry as a whole, and you’ve got to ask, what does anybody believe in? We went to the PPA awards recently where we were nominated, and we didn’t win anything but afterwards I wrote a really angry blog post. I didn’t post it in the end because it could have sounded too much like sour grapes, and maybe it was, but I wrote this blog saying, ‘What sort of face does the magazine industry want to present to the world?’

Because if you’re going to give awards to Look magazine and Grazia and Empire, what do any of them believe in? Obviously they believe in nothing. They are the interchangeable products of the corporate publishers, who believe in making money. And that’s fine, because they’ve got their shareholders and people want to live well, but I couldn’t name a consumer magazine right now that has a clear agenda. And I mean you can argue the other side and say agendas are a bad thing because all they do is get in the way and blind you to a more complete picture of the world, but there’s also something glorious about them. I don’t see that anywhere, and I don’t see it in White Lies either, but my hope is that eventually we’ll get there.

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