Our conversation with Tenzin Wild | CEO and Magnus Berger | Chief Creative Director of Berger & Wild
By Kenneth Richard | The Impressionist
Grace and flow are not two adjectives typically used to describe creatives, yet these are precisely the attributes that come to mind upon meeting with sublime and sophisticated duo of Magnus Berger and Tenzin Wild of Berger & Wild – the founders of The Last Magazine, art directors of WSJ magazine, and founders of their namesake creative agency known for their work with AG, Derek Lam, Prabal Gurung, Hugo Boss and others.
This week, the duo celebrates the release of their 15th issue of The Last Magazine, one of fashion’s most coveted and original publications. The issue is telling, as rather than revisit their successes, the pair commissioned a group of visual artist to illustrate, rather than photograph the issue. No small feat for what is, after all, literally, the biggest magazine on the market.
The Impression sat with the pair to chat about how they got their start, why they opened an agency, ex-girlfriends, and tackling today’s dynamic creative landscape.
Grateful for the time, and am obsessed with much of your work and excited to learn about how you two got your start. What drew you to this career?
Tenzin: I come from a finance background, but I was always very interested in the visual environment and the world of photography, architecture, branding and advertising, and interior design. I basically made the choice early on that I needed to leave finance while I had the time to make a career change.
So that’s what I did when I moved to New York fifteen years ago. I joined the Visionaire team and sort of got my hands dirty in this world of publication, design, and advertising.
How did you make that leap from finance to Visionaire? That’s quite a leap.
Tenzin: I know, isn’t it? Actually, it was quite a coincidence. I was planning on going to New York and possibly finding something in interior design. At one point I met Stephen Gan, Cecilia Dean, and James Kaliardos in Zurich at an event and we kind of hit it off right away.
When I visited New York one day, they invited me to an event and said, “Look, if you’re interested, you can join our team and do an internship.” That’s how it actually all started, meeting the owners by coincidence.
A literal success story out of a magazine internship! What did they have you do as an intern?
Tenzin: Everything, from making copies to deliveries, scanning, etc.—intern work. Obviously, coming from finance, I was doing a bit of that too. First I needed to learn graphic design, and then I got more into production. Production has a lot to do with number-crunching and making sure we stay on budget, so I was doing those two things and ended up leading the production team for all the titles we were publishing at that time.
Magnus, what drew you into this field?
Magnus: I think I’ve always been interested in visual art and art and advertising. I was always obsessed with magazines when I was younger. I played music since I was a kid and that was sort of what I wanted to do and that’s why I moved to New York, even though I studied social and economic geography and political science in university. I never really pursued that field as a career. I came to New York to play music.
A lot of my friends in New York were working in advertising and fashion. Through them, I met a lot of people in the business. They kept saying, ‘You should pursue this, you have a really good eye.’
I met Fabien Baron and convinced him to let me intern at Baron & Baron. I did that for three to four months or so, and basically worked my way up and stayed there for about five years. It was hard work and demanding, but it was a great school. The standards were very high, and they pay extreme attention to detail.
It’s kind of unique that you landed at two very strong camps: Visionaire and Fabien Baron. And you both worked your way up from internship roles.
Magnus: Yeah, the idea of being an apprentice is great. It’s the best way to learn the craft and at the same time get an understanding of the business.
There are a number of Swedish people who have infiltrated the fashion/design space. Why do you think that is?
Magnus: I think maybe there’s a tradition of Scandinavian design in general that you could probably point to, and there’s a simplicity aesthetically. They’re really tall and slim. [Laughs] It’s hard to say, I don’t know why it stands out. People always say that, but I’m not sure I agree. It probably stands out because we’re a small country.
The work is pretty solid. So, how did you two meet?
Magnus: We met through two ex-girlfriends. We were both dating girls who were best friends and we probably met on a double date at one point. Those two relationships didn’t last, but it was the beginning of ours. So in retrospect, I’m extremely grateful for that.
How was it putting together that first magazine?
Magnus: The idea was pretty clear, but it took about year to work it out. Even though we had experience from the magazine world, we had never done it on our own, really. Tenzin, with Visionaire, knew firsthand what it meant to put a magazine together, to print and distribute it. I had some experience with magazine work but hadn’t done it on my own.
We also really wanted to spend time on finding the right paper and really making sure that the production values were at a really high standard, which would be especially important in our large format. The idea from the beginning was that we wanted to work with all the new talent from our generation. All these other people that were out there, they weren’t our generation.
It was always the same people at all the different magazines, so we wanted to make a magazine for them and for us. In the end you have to do what you believe in and we were convinced this was the way to do it.
On that issue, we still had our old jobs. It came together really well, because there were so many people that were really supportive and helped us with everything, from photographers to studios to models and agents, to writers and friends and other contributors.
I mean, it’s impossible to do it all on your own. A lot of it was thanks to friends and good relationships that we had from years back.
How has the magazine evolved and changed? Also, why did you decide on that size?
Magnus: At that time, the whole ‘Print is dying’ discussion was quite big, but people didn’t really know what was going to replace it. People just knew that it was going to go away, that everything was going to be digital.
But no one knew what the digital platform was going to be. We wanted to do a magazine that was both online and print. Then we thought, if we’re going to do print, let’s utilize all the best things about print, like printing at this size and the fact that you can print beautifully and you can control the outcome.
Tenzin: We really wanted to focus on the visuals and make big, beautiful photographs, and at the same time develop the digital side, which, funnily enough, takes that much longer. I’ve always liked the old newspaper format, so our newsprint idea was to use better paper and make the quality stand out.
There’s a number of them framed in my office.
Tenzin: That was actually one thing I was just going to say. What surprised us is, we thought it was going to be disposable like a newspaper, but we realized when we came over to friends’ houses and they had it on the walls and we were like, ‘Whoa.’
One of my favorites is the Negrini, the Italian fencing mask.
Tenzin: Oh yeah, Natalie Moellhausen, the Italian fencer.
Stunning. So how has the magazine evolved over the years?
Magnus: We’ve stuck to the format. We did change paper at one point when we changed printers. We printed the first four issues in Germany with Gerhard Steidl, without whom this wouldn’t have been possible. Now we print in Verona with Graphicom, so we changed the paper to tweak it a little bit. We never really sat down and said, ‘Oh, we’re going to redesign the magazine.’ It sort of just evolved.
Tenzin: We changed type and everything many times, but the one constant thing about the magazine is it’s pretty clean and simple. At the same time, the magazine also evolved a lot with us in terms of content. Each issue very much reflects what Magnus and I were interested in at the time we are working on the issue.
Magnus: It’s funny, looking back at older issues, each is essentially a time capsule of the three to four months when you were working on the issue. It’s what you were interested in, what music you listened to, what art shows you enjoyed, what designers you found relevant and interesting, what new talent grabbed your attention during that time.
When we start a new issue, I always start a new playlist, and that issue is the music we listen to while we make that magazine. Now you can go back to the playlists from the first issue to our current issue and hear all the music we were listening to when we were making those issues. Music has that ability to bring back all the memories from when you first heard a song.
Sounds like something fun to put on the side.
Let’s talk about advertising. Who was your first client for ads and how did it come about?
Tenzin: At first, when we were working on the first issue of The Last Magazine, we had the opportunity to pitch a design idea for Givenchy’s website redesign when Riccardo Tisci just joined Givenchy, and we won the pitch. So that was our first project. That’s definitely helped lead to other projects down the road.
Were most of your first projects web oriented?
Magnus: The very first ones were, which was really strange because that wasn’t the ambition really. I think we automatically thought that we were going to do editorial work and fashion advertising, because that was mainly the work we had done when we worked for other people.
Tenzin: I think people approached us because of Magnus’s work at Baron & Baron—you worked on the Baron website and the Balenciaga website, and those were referenced a lot at the time—so that’s definitely a reason why we started out that way.
And the first print campaign?
Magnus: I don’t remember exactly, but one project that was very interesting and special was a collaboration with Y-3 that we did for The Last Magazine that was more like an advertorial project than straight advertising. We shot images for the issue and directed a video that they ended up using in stores worldwide.
Benjamin Millepied, who is now the director of the Paris opera ballet, choreographed the shoot and the video that I directed. We used the images and the video as installations in the stores. It was sort of a co-branding thing between the magazine and Y-3. That was a good starting point for us to get the work out there and show how you could do things a little bit differently and not just straight-up print ads.
Tenzin: The thing is, Magnus and I both worked on fashion campaigns before, with our previous jobs, but we never used that work for our portfolio, so the magazine really lent itself as a good tool to express our visual aesthetics.
It still is. When we go into meetings, we’re usually more excited about showing the magazine work because that’s what we just did—obviously we show advertising work as well. When we meet new clients, it’s sort of easier for them to understand the possibilities while looking at our editorial work.
Let’s talk more about that editorial work. How did the Wall Street Journal Magazine opportunity unfold?
Magnus: They changed the team there about two-and-a-half years ago. Kristina O’Neill was hired as the new Editor-in-Chief—she came from Harper’s Bazaar. I met with her by recommendation from a few different people in the first week she started. I don’t know, it was sort of strange. It wasn’t really meeting with them, it was almost like we just started working together.
So it was more “How about you come over and help me put this whole thing together?”
Magnus: Well, I was at this meeting and then spoke to Tenzin, and I told him, ‘I think this could be really fun and there is an opportunity to do some good work here.’ That’s it.
Are there big differences between self-publishing with Last Magazine and working with an established entity like the WSJ?
Magnus: Yes and no. Funnily enough, it’s actually not that different. I feel like we’re covering very similar subject matter. Obviously, they have an edge in their circulation. They’re in the millions and we’re in the thousands with The Last.
But I feel like we’re dealing with similar subjects and a lot of our contributors for The Last Magazine also contribute for the Journal. It’s funny, a lot of people that we may have covered at some point early on in The Last Magazine, they graduate, they grew to WSJ Magazine, like Carey Mulligan or others like that, who were in The Last many years ago and now they’re on the cover of WSJ.
Tenzin: She never made it to the cover of The Last. [Laughs]
Magnus: Obviously, it’s different in the sense that we’re operating on a much bigger level at the WSJ, but I feel like we have so much freedom to do what we want to do. That was one of the only things that I was hesitant about when they wanted me to join, whether we could really do quality work and if we could curate content.
But they were very clear that they were hiring us because they like what we do and they wanted us to do what we do, and they didn’t want to tell us what to do. That felt like a good, healthy attitude towards it.
It sounds like it’s been a good fit.
Magnus: Yeah, it’s been great. We have a great team over there. It’s like extended family at this point.
How do you divide roles between the two of you, or do you?
Magnus: We do, sort of. Tenzin is more on the business side and I’m more on the creative side, but we certainly overlap quite a lot and we talk about all the bigger decisions together. Tenzin has a lot of great, creative ideas too.
For Y-3, you did video, web and print. Do you have mediums that you favor more than others?
Magnus: Not really.
Tenzin: No, I think it’s more like, you try to come up with an idea that fits to the purpose of that project and working with that client.
Magnus: It’s more about coming up with the idea and then thinking about which medium is appropriate.
You mentioned earlier, when you started The Last Magazine that print was dying then. What’s your take on that conversation today?
Magnus: I think that’s why we called it The Last Magazine, too, because everyone really was negative about that aspect. We really thought it was going to be the last magazine. But there are other magazines that started after us, and there was actually a big wave of new magazines a few years after we started.
Tenzin: It’s not easy today for a small publisher. Especially on the commercial newsstand side in a country like the United States.
I think independent publishers have a bit of a bigger market in Europe, but I still think there’s room, and people like to be inspired. It’s not necessary to have a huge circulation really. There are plenty of commercial titles in the US that cover that. And of course, don’t forget there is online and digital.
Magnus: And I think the medium is sort of secondary. Whatever looks best in print, you put in print, and whatever looks best online or on social, then you do that there. It just needs to feel interesting.
In your advertising work, are you finding that brands are coming to you with more asks on digital because they’re spending less on media?
Magnus: I think it depends on the client. A lot of people still feel like it’s important to have a presence in print publications. It’s more about the idea of creating a strong image and a story and whether you advertise that online or in print, I don’t think that’s really the point. I think it’s really important to create a strong image for a brand.
Tenzin: It’s maybe two different types of investments for a brand. Some might invest in traditional advertising, and some, with less budget, put more into PR.
How would you describe the agency today and what do you feel the agency does really well?
Magnus: What makes us a little bit different from other agencies is that we create editorial content and we publish our own magazine and we also work for other magazines. We’re good at that and we have a lot of experience in creating content and sourcing new talent, which I think is much more important now than before, so it’s not just about design.
The idea of a brand today is a much bigger story. It’s about the talent and what that talent stands for, the image and how it’s all put together and presented. I believe in being a part of writing and editing that story, not just telling it. I think you have to offer a wider range of services now as an agency.
Tenzin: I definitely think the editorial puts us in the forefront of accessing information, so that definitely helps. And content is what a lot of brands are lacking and something that we can provide.
A lot of people come to us because we are very involved—both of us—with the client, and we don’t just take a client on, then pass it on to somebody else internally. I think that personal involvement is something that people definitely cherish, and we have that relationship with our clients.
Magnus: We always look for long-term relationships.
Which is a credit to the agency. What’s next for you guys and what are you looking forward to?
Tenzin: To keep on doing what we love. If, someday, we don’t like it anymore, something has to change, or we have to do something else.
Magnus: We’re working on a few campaigns for Fall, some advertising work. We are doing a big redesign of The Last Magazine on digital and mobile which we are really excited about (www.thelast-magazine.com). We are working on the new issue of The Last Magazine that will be a very special issue (you’ll see) and the two September issues for the Wall Street Journal Magazine coming up. We just moved to a bigger office, so that we can hire some new people. There’s a lot of stuff going on.
Magnus: Yeah, it’s super exciting.
Gentlemen, thank you very much for the time today and looking forward to the upcoming season and issues.
Tenzin: Thank you very much for your interest, we appreciate it.
Magnus: Thanks a lot.