GQ’s ‘Men of the Year’ (MOTY) event has, over the years, evolved into a much-looked-forward-to and happening celebration of individuals from diverse spheres of culture, entertainment, fashion and sport who have made the year gone by memorable.
As the event enters into its 15th year in India, we caught up with the head of editorial content, GQ India, Che Kurrien, who also celebrates 15 years at the publication this year having been the editorial head of GQ India since its launch in 2008.
He also sheds light on the long-standing partnership with Chivas, the sponsor for MOTY in India since 2008.
If you had to describe the essence of the ‘Men of the Year’ awards in one line, what would you say it stands for today?
It's about recognising India's most accomplished individuals across industries and professions but through a filter of style and progressive values.
So it's not just about being very accomplished, we look at it from a lens of progressiveness and then we do have a larger cut on style. Progressive values are very important to us. You could be very big and have done a lot in a particular field but you also have to fit into and align with our values, our commitment towards diversity, gender equality, sustainability, and a modern mindset. That is a filter we apply so that this is a stage that reflects not only celebrities but the best that India has to offer.
How would you say the men's magazine space is shaping up in India? And how has the Indian male reader of English magazines evolved over the years?
So, when we started GQ - a men's media brand in 2008, no one was talking to men. A lot of people felt at that time that it wouldn't work.
To tell you the truth, the brand recognition was not that high in those days. And even those people who had heard of it were those who had studied overseas. So we're talking about a very small number of people. I quickly worked out that going after that small, elite group was going to be very counterproductive. But then there was a much larger universe that was coming of age, that was aspirational, that wanted to look good, that started caring about personal presentation. And I felt that this was the group that we needed to target. And we were able to make that case.
Also, I understood pretty early that if I was just going to rely on the magazine, it was not going to be enough. So we were the first brand to get into events back in 2008-2009. Revenue generation was secondary, it was more about using events as a marketing tool to spread the word and to drive awareness about the brand.
This worked and was the best platform for us to compete because there was nobody else there in the space, even though there were a lot of magazines. Considering this was also pre-social media, it was a very difficult ecosystem. But it was also a very clear path if you had an idea in terms of what you wanted to do to evangelise the brand and to push it out there.
Now over time we built many IPs, and it became an entire kind of offering which included the print magazine, but it also included our event universe, and then of course, digital and social, all of it working together.
What also helped was that we worked with a lot of celebrities, everybody wanted to be part of our world and we were able to use them in the best possible way in a wonderfully symbiotic relationship.
If you compare the magazine's overall consumer demographic (including digital), from the original TG when it was launched in 2008 to now, how has it evolved? Also, do you have a female consumer base?
The audience, in many ways, has remained the same. It’s an affluent audience, but it also includes an aspirational demographic that aspires to be part of our universe, because it is a very seductive universe. I would say the magazine has gone a little younger, as the culture has also shifted. If you want to be at the forefront of culture today, even a printed product needs to have vibrancy. I think we've been able to achieve that, and continually keep on achieving that through what is considered a traditional medium.
We've always had a large female consumer base. I would say around 30 to 35% of our audience is female, and I love that. Because eventually, as I said, we are about the individual, about personal style, growth, and progressivism, and we like to be very modern. And this is something, that in the Indian context, we had to be very careful about because the idea of being a man in India has come with certain expectations or a sense of identity. In many ways, we were dismantling that and providing a template for what would be a 'new man'. And that is not an easy thing to do.
But we tried, and to some degree we have succeeded. Someone like Aamir Khan who famously doesn't go for award functions has come to the GQ Men of the Year awards, not once, but twice. And it's because we walked the talk. It's a very inclusive universe, less gender specific and more about a person these days, as a result, women have felt very comfortable in our universe. Having said that, primarily, we’re skewed towards men of course.
In that context, please talk about the evolving idea of ‘masculinity’ and male fashion, and how GQ ensures its relevance in a world and an industry which is changing by the second.
We have a global project going on at GQ called ‘The New Masculinity’. It's the idea that masculinity is always a process in the works, it's a continuum as long as you continue working on yourself. And that is what GQ is constantly doing. We are evolving the template of what it means to be a ‘man’ today. The idea of this very macho man, which may have existed in the past, doesn't work according to us.
We think that sensitivity, empathy, an understanding of mental health, an understanding of what it means to be a partner, what it means to be a modern father, and sometimes having difficult conversations that don't prescribe to a traditional norm is the way to go and a much more realistic place to be in.
In terms of men's fashion, it has evolved a lot. From 2008-2009, the idea didn’t exist in India, to now when we have men's fashion icons like Virat Kohli, or GQ’s latest cover star Shubman Gill who I would say is the first Indian male celebrity who was born 'GQ-ready'!
When I met him on our cover shoot a month ago, he was so natural and easy in front of the camera. He is comfortable with his ‘celebrityhood’ and he knows how to wear it. But it was also cute, because he brought his entire family - his mother, father and sister on set, so there was a very sweet, Indian vibe to it. And yet, being completely media aware despite being just 24 years old and born in a small village in Punjab.
To me, this has been, in a sense, a testament to what we have been able to achieve, versus the kind of resistance that we faced initially when people felt that if you were stylish you were superficial.
You mentioned the evolving role of ‘masculinity’. Do you think there is also possibly a risk of ‘overcorrection’ when it comes to being seen as ‘gender-sensitive’? In this context, can you shed some light on the recent backlash faced by GQ US this year for featuring Kim Kardashian on the cover as GQ's 'Men of the Year' and more than half the honorees on the list being female?
I don't think that that's a problem, per se. Gender is a very serious issue, and in India more so, there is a long way that we have to go and we have to work a lot on it. So the idea of being inclusive overrides the name of the IP (Men of the Year), and especially in the last five to seven years the IP has evolved. So, if you've had a great year, and you're a woman, why should you not be part of this celebration just because it's called something? That’s just the name of the IP - who the brand is focused towards in terms of an audience group. But in terms of a celebration, we don't see this as an issue.
The way audiences respond, react and engage with our brand is an indicator of a brand that’s always going to have a cultural impact, where you get people to feel passionate about a lot of things. One can even say it's a marketer's dream. So one can argue either way. If you think about what Kim Kardashian said which is, ‘Haha, I'm GQ’s Man of the Year’, it's kind of funny as well and that's equally part of the mix.
Does the inclusivity and ticking off all the boxes extend to the LGBTQ+ community as well?
I don't view things specifically through that lens as it could be considered tokenism. And that's also a very superficial way of checking off boxes. But in general, the way we think about content and who we want to feature right at the top always has that filter (of progressiveness). Because if you want to be part of the GQ universe, you have to share certain values (with us). The idea of inclusivity is one of our pillars and we celebrate diversity. Diversity is not just about sexuality and gender, it could be a range of different things. And we do welcome that diversity of viewpoints.
What's the content strategy for India? And how is it different from the global strategy?
The content strategy is a mix of what we call network content which is globally produced content and hyperlocal. I sit on GQ’s global leadership council where we strategise about what the idea of network content is. The idea is that we are all watching very similar shows and we have very similar cultural references, and looking forward to certain tentpole events like the Paris Olympics next year. So what we do is we ideate and create content that transcends boundaries, and borders, and would apply to us all. This is not made in a particular market, we all make that together, because it all works for us together as there are so many common points. There are some collaborations I'll do for certain titles and markets. So there are all sorts of interesting possibilities, as a result of this global network. And 40% of content is hyperlocal which is very locally relevant. So many of our IPs like 'The Most Influential Young Indians', which will be the 10th edition next year, are a local list of people we believe are driving change and culture. GQ Best Dressed, which is India's best dressed list which we just concluded. These are apart from the amazing features that we do, which are hyperlocal.
Coming to the brand collaborations, Chivas and GQ are completing 15 years. In an era where partnerships are getting shorter in tenure, what would you say is the reason behind this association going strong?
It started because Chivas and GQ Men of the Year had been associated in other markets, it was an organic fit in the early years, and we were able to come together fairly easily. But of course, to last, and to last this long, and to do it without skipping a year, is pretty amazing. This is one of the things I'm most proud of in terms of my career. To be able to steward a relationship through 15 years, and still be able to give each other value in these changing times, changing platforms, changing formats. And being able to come up with an innovative solution every time. I will say that this has been one of the secret strategies - to continue changing together with mutual respect, understanding and shared values.
If you think about Chivas and Pernod Ricard, and the team there, they're fundamentally marketers, and they are some of the best marketers in the business. We've learned a lot from each other. That has also challenged me and my team every year to continue to evolve and innovate the product of 'Men of the Year' which is great. On the other hand, they're also a great partner because they don't interfere too much in terms of our thought process, creativity or winners.