Grace Under Fire: Luxury leadership in troubled times

Time is on my side – an interview with Gabriel Jagger, founder of WhyNow

The latest in a series of interviews by Walpole's new star columnist Peter Howarth - editor, content expert and CEO of luxury creative agency, Show Media - features Gabriel Jagger, founder of new digital platform WhyNow, who discusses Generation Z’s feelings on British culture and the impact on this of Covid-19. 
29th Apr 2020
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Grace Under Fire: Luxury leadership in troubled times  Time is on my side – an interview with Gabriel Jagger, founder of WhyNow

Image courtesy of Milo Brown.

In this series, I have so far concentrated on talking to people who, if I were being kind, I might describe as experienced and venerable greybeards. This is because at a time like the present it is obvious that we should seek out the advice and insight gained by experience, no?

Well, there was a time when I was seduced by activist Jack Weinberg’s diktat “Never trust anyone over 30,” though in my case this seemed to have percolated down to me through a '70s punk DIY filter rather than having anything to do with Weinberg’s original statement of 1964. It strikes me now, though, that one of the mistakes we make as we grow older is that we forget that there is wisdom in youth, too; wisdom that comes from a fresh perspective unburdened with the baggage of that very experience we might look to for help in a time of crisis like that of Covid-19.

Remember, Alexander the Great became King of Macedonia, overlord of Asia Minor, Pharaoh of Egypt and King of Persia at the age of 25. And by the same age, and that of his early death, John Keats had written Ode to a Nightingale, and John Lennon had played his final concert with The Beatles.

So I decided it might be enlightening to ask a young man about his thoughts on where we are culturally at the moment ­– generally, and not just as a result of coronavirus – and what this might mean for us all, and in particular for his generation, in the future.

Because let’s face it, Generation Z are the consumers who will ultimately set the agenda for how we live, and consume, in a few years’ time.

So I called a 22-year-old who I had met a few days before lockdown when I went to a building just north of Oxford Street to meet a group of “kids” who’d had the temerity to start a new media venture. Spread over a few narrow floors there was a recording studio for podcasts and visiting musicians and an attic studio full of computers and youths in T-shirts. The leader of this group is Gabriel Jagger – who not so long ago, after leaving school and rejecting a brief flirtation with the idea of studying philosophy at university because “I’m not really that academic” – served time at The Times on both the editorial and commercial sides where he formulated a novel idea.

“I just thought I’d like to create something that would appeal to my generation, and crucially, that would be more centred around positivity,” says Jagger today, down the phone from where he is isolating in London. “That might sound a bit idealistic, but I wondered why the big stories have to always be bad things about terrorism, disease or crime. Why couldn’t creativity be the big story? I had met a photographer and videographer who was around my age, and we started working on how we could make it happen. Since then, we’ve built a small team of people who share the idea that the media should be doing something for younger people, and promoting positive stories.”

Of course, that was before Covid-19 struck and changed the news agenda completely for a while. Jagger wryly points out that after a year and half of developing his new media platform, WhyNow, the launch party took place on the Thursday before lockdown.

“Now we need to celebrate creativity more than ever,” he says. “There are operational challenges for us, of course, as we need to be out there getting stories, but the desire for inspirational narratives has probably never been greater.”

WhyNow is an online members’ club. You subscribe to access its stories and although more or less brand new, it is well stocked with features. The big surprise here is that unlike the print-style magazines of my youth, the content does generally not come from a faintly cynical cooler-than-thou angle. “We aim to be enthusiasts,” says Jagger. “It feels like a lot of people are really afraid of not being cool. We are a big range of people at WhyNow, and we see our job being simply to spotlight creativity. If we believe it’s worth covering, we’ll do so. Our job is not to decide if it’s cool or not.”

It’s a refreshing perspective, which makes more and more sense as you look at the stories WhyNow is pursuing. I have to confess that before I met Jagger and looked at what WhyNow actually offers, I did wonder where exactly the point of difference between this platform and others that already exist could lie. The answer, perhaps paradoxically, seems to be that Jagger and his team are, as he says, not trying to be “cool”.

So what can you expect from WhyNow? Well, in terms of format there’s a combination of written articles, photography, films and podcasts. Musicians are invited to use the in-house recording studio and release mixes on the WhyNow platform. The content is indeed eclectic, and, surprisingly for a platform conceived by the young, very open in its attitude towards age. In other words, there are plenty of old people covered here.

“A lot of publications that target young people feel they just have to be focused on the young; we feel the need to have a mixture. The crux of the matter is: is it good? If it is, it doesn’t matter who they are or what age they are.”

So in one series, called Dear Young Me, established artists are asked to write a letter to their younger selves, imparting what they’ve learnt. Here you’ll necessarily find older people such as Stephen Fry and Pete Townshend. Then there’s a podcast hosted by Will, a former soldier. “Will was in Afghanistan for around 11 years, and we have him talking to other veterans about what they’ve done to overcome the trauma of war and how they’ve moved on with their lives. It makes for challenging listening, and it’s really worth the time and effort. It’s very therapeutic for them to be able to tell their story, and so important that Will is actually a veteran – so it’s two soldiers having an honest conversation, not a journalist interviewing someone.”

Another feature sees Jagger journey to Ireland in a DeLorean – surely a nod to Back to the Future – to find people who have chosen to live off the grid. “It was fascinating to see how some people are thinking more and more about their own independence. In retrospect, in the context of lockdown, it seems it was eerily timed.”

Then there is a series of films called Decades in which people are asked to talk about a decade of their work. One of the first of these features film director Franc Roddam, who directed Quadrophenia. “That one’s really interesting,” says Jagger. “People we speak to seem to feel more free to say what they think, because we’re not focused on getting a scandal, just on their creative process.”

So what do we learn from Franc Roddam? “Well, his thought process was that he really lived it aged 19 – in the era of mods and rockers – and he wanted the film to feel real, so he used tons of extras, no Hollywood tanned hunks. There was a suggestion that it should be the story of a hero in the Hollywood mould but Roddam wanted to make a film about British youth culture.”

Britishness seems to be something that comes up a lot when speaking to Jagger about WhyNow. Is it in his mission to look at home-grown culture, rather than the international stage? “Right now we’re focussing on British creativity. We’re not trying to be internationalist. In Britain we have a tradition of opportunity for creatives and have turned out amazing artists, inventors, poets, filmmakers, philosophers, directors, designers. The variety of creatives we engage with should be inspiring – a whole cast of people who embody the national character of creativity.”

And post-Brexit, post-Covid-19, we’re going to want to tap into that energy, he says. “Right now is a really great time to rediscover what is the identity of British creativity. Look at the history of art movements, for example. There are periods of activity and periods of quiet. I want to discover and cover the next movement of creativity in Britain.”

It is, he says, about being able to surprise people. “We want to look at a whole range: new things, the upcoming, but also the established and the eccentric. The eccentric in particular is not something you are getting from many other places at the moment. We want you to feel like you can be surprised by the platform – not come to it and expect the same thing every week.”

Talking of surprises… let’s turn to this young man’s surname. If you haven’t guessed already, Gabriel’s mother is Jerry Hall and his father one Mick Jagger, who at the same age as his son (younger actually – at 20) had fronted the Rolling Stones’ first album.

Interestingly, it turns out Mick also contemplated a career in journalism before R&B beckoned, but instead bypassed conventional employment altogether, effortlessly moving from The London School of Economics into rock stardom where he spoke for and to a generation. In this respect, maybe we have here a like-father-like-son situation. Because what is WhyNow if not a way of doing something similar through that most rock ‘n’ roll tool of the age: the Internet.

When I put this to Gabriel he laughs. He says it’s a cute comparison but there is a difference. Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Sixties was the ultimate in glamour and cool. He and his colleagues, on the other hand, as he’s already said, are not going for that look: “We’re a young team and we haven’t been moulded by ideas of the past; we don’t know if something’s wrong, so we’re willing to try it. We’re not established journalists.” So you are rebels then? “Well that depends. The statistics show that the younger generation is doing fewer drugs and drinking less. Maybe the tide is turning so the counterculture is the mainstream and the mainstream is going to have its time.”

The peculiar thing about talking to Jagger is that though in many ways he seems the picture of the young entrepreneur and it is tempting to talk of his outfit in the terms we usually apply to the shifting media landscape with its increasing digital bias, there is a sense in which what he expresses is very old-school. He explains that WhyNow’s commitment to quality long-form stories means it holds appeal for those who still read books and buy vinyl. His vision of journalism is all about adequately funding stories and reporting. Lockdown is a challenge because he wants to do “boots on the ground journalism” where writers and photographers “get out there and find stories”. This, he describes as “proper journalism” – “We don’t get stories from Twitter,” he explains – and his enthusiasm for people his age who are prepared to put in the work to discover and report in this way means you often feel like you are listening to an old-fashioned newspaper or magazine editor rather than a young – very young – digital disruptor.

But then maybe that’s the point? In an age when the press is often treated with mistrust by his generation, perhaps Jagger is seeking the very thing that journalism can deliver – not click bait or gossip or fake news, but genuine insight. And this conviction chimes with his belief in the value of British culture. “Britain is one of the last places where people really believe in the journalist as someone who goes out and finds the story. That’s really important to me. This is where we are from – by and large my team is a British team and we want to reflect home-grown creativity.”

He is, however, clearly uncomfortable with the idea of politicising his aims. Instead, he deflects that sort of suggestion by insisting that it is all about culture. “We’re not political, in that we’re not aligning ourselves with any viewpoint. Art can be political, of course, but WhyNow as a publication doesn’t feel like has to have a stance on politics. We’re not a news platform, we are an arts platform. We know there is a lot of division out there at the moment. And a lot of people are thinking about identity, and particularly what is it to be British. We’re just saying that the creativity we have in this country is amazing, so let’s engage with these great artists – young and old. What we always try and say is that the agenda is creativity rather than any stance. And we don’t discriminate between art forms.”

The idea that we might come together as a nation through ideas and imagination is laudable. But if this is to work, it also has to be a business. So who is funding WhyNow? It’s a particularly pertinent question as at present advertising revenue for a start-up website will be non-existent. “Like all start-ups, we have investors,” he explains. And then before I can ask the obvious question, he volunteers the answer: “And it just so happens that ours are my parents.”

So it really is the bank of mum and dad? He laughs: “I know how lucky I am to be able to call on them, but don’t forget, they’re pretty astute and neither would put money into what they consider to be a bad idea.”

In fact, the business plan for WhyNow owes more to yet another of Jagger’s parents than his biological ones. He stepfather is Rupert Murdoch, and if there is one thing above all that Jagger seems to have taken away from his time spent working at News UK, it is that digital content needs to be valued and paid for. Just as Murdoch’s model for The Times and The Sunday Times is based on a digital paywall, WhyNow, unlike many digital ventures that look to traffic as a way of generating advertising revenue, is a subscription service.

“I mean it’s essential,” says Jagger. “I believe that you pay for all work – so you should pay for journalism. The problem with giving away content for free is that your constantly trying to drive traffic to get ads to survive. So in many ways you don’t care about the audience, it’s just about numbers. I would rather have a smaller group of people who really care about the quality of the content. The trend for the opposite – for free journalism – is unsustainable. In the past there were very few options for information, but now because of the Internet there is almost an infinite opportunity. The only thing that differentiates is quality and ethos. I firmly believe that there are some people who really do value quality, and those are the ones we want to attract.”

It’s a point of view that has resonance for luxury brands of course. Do you chase numbers and volume, or do you focus on building genuine engagement – on your digital platforms, and for your brand in general? Do you commit to quality and in so doing understand that this may not be a quick win and might actually legislate against expansion, as you will more likely be appealing to the discerning customer, rather than anyone more transient in their tastes? Jagger believes that his generation – the target for WhyNow – not only wants good quality, but is also prepared to pay for it.

He describes how when he first started work at his stepfather’s firm, he began by shadowing reporters before moving on to various desks, including arts and the sub editors’ desk, and then joined the trainee scheme. “But then I wanted to learn about the other side of things and how the business of it ran, so I worked in the marketing department focussing on how to get students to subscribe to The Times.”

Jagger talks of his subscribers for WhyNow as a community and of being able to deliver better and better stories over time as the community scales and the business grows. He explains how WhyNow should be a place that people see as a home of creativity, not just in terms of what it reports on, but also in how it does so. At present, generating content is a challenge, but he has already responded by focussing on podcasts, which can be recorded even during lockdown.

“We’re doing a series of diaries about how artists feel in these times. And a strand about grandparents. It occurred to us that many people our age have grandparents who went through something similarly life-changing when they were young. We thought it would be a good idea to ask some creatives about what their grandparents experienced. In a way, it is designed to reassure: don’t feel so bad about this situation as it really is nothing compared to WWII. When you consider that some people’s grandparents fled the Holocaust, some fought on the beaches of Normandy, some worked in munitions factories. And we’ve started a daily newsletter of good news. A lot of people really appreciate that.”

So we’re back to positive news. In fact, when you visit WhyNow’s homepage the first thing you see are the words “Personal”, “Powerful” and “Positive”. “Post lockdown, we will see a real desire for positive news,” says Jagger. “You see more and more people starting to think this way. Russell Howard was way ahead of the game with his Good News comedy TV show a few years back, and last month John Krasinski in the States launched Some Good News on YouTube.” In fact, in Scandinavia there has, for some years, been a movement known as Constructive Journalism that promotes solution-focused news reporting. “That’s where we sit,” says Jagger.

Is this really what we are so lacking – not just in the media, but in our lives? Has a 22-year-old really discovered a simple truth – that if we are bombarded with negative stories every day we will eventually switch off and crave something that gives us hope and inspiration? I’d say there’s something there that we can all learn from. As I said at the outset, sometimes a lack of experience is what you need to see things more clearly.