Under the Radar with Andy Cowles

Laura Rutkowski

Andy charts the "laundry list" of places he worked before starting his own business, Cowles Media.London. The award-winning Creative Director recently returned from New York, where he spoke at the Rolling Stone conference about his time there and the freedom that the magazine still represents.

Andy Cowles

What made you want to work in the magazine industry?

The Spur

Mike Pretious (far left), Editor of The Spur, designed the front cover. Andy is second on the left. 

The opportunity to make mischief. I was on the editorial committee of my school magazine back in the day. We produced this thing, the head master saw it, and, determining that it was puerile garbage, he ordered all 1,000 copies to be burned. I still have one copy left.

Some members of the editorial committee stole a couple and entered the magazine into The Sunday Times school magazine competition, which it duly won, or at least it was the joint winner. One of the judges was the head master of Eton at the time – Michael McCrum – who described it as "gloriously irreverent".

 The Spur winning letter

The magazine was called The Spur. My friend Mike designed the cover and he cloned The Sun’s logo. It was punk-inspired before punk even existed. I produced a comic strip, presenting various members of the economics and history department in various situations. There was some bad poetry, it was a bit Viz. It was just absurd, twat-ish sixth form stuff.

There was a big stink and we all nearly got expelled. It was such a big fuss. I thought, “This is such fantastic fun. I want to do more of this.” 

Rumpus as 'blue' book wins prize

Can you chart your journey from when you started out to your current position?

My first job was working on Horse and Pony magazine in Peterborough. They wanted a Designer. I was at college and I'd worked on the college magazine. It was a pretty open field, because I don't think anyone wanted to live and work in Peterborough, so I applied for the job and I got it. There was no other Art Editor or anything like that, so I was in charge from day one.

It was a privileged position, but one I took very seriously. I studied magazine craft very carefully. I spent a lot of time looking at Smash Hits, because that was the power in the land. I spent a lot of time looking at continental news monthlies, including Stern and Aktuell. I was very inspired by those.

I went from Horse and Pony to Melody Maker, Melody Maker to EMAP, working on the launch of Look, then the launch of Q, Empire, Mojo and Total Sport. Then as an independent contractor I worked on the launch of Ride and did redesigns of Angling Times and other specialist titles.

Then I went to News International and was the Creative Director of their magazine division and then from News International I went to America where I became the Creative Director of Mademoiselle for Condé Nast. Have you ever seen The Devil Wears Prada? Stanley Tucci – that was me and the job I had to do.

Then the title closed and I got lucky again – right time, right place, Fred [Woodward] left Rolling Stone, so I applied to be Art Director.

With Rolling Stone, the content is fantastic, but what’s really interesting to me is the audience. It’s fundamental to align what you believe, what your mission is and what your purpose is as a media brand with that of your audience.

Rolling Stone is about freedom, freedom to live your life as you wish, freedom to listen to what you want to, wear what you want, love who you want, be who you want, freedom to be part of the extraordinary opportunity that America can offer the world at its best. That idea of freedom, liberty, is something that's not gone away.

A couple of years after that, I wanted to return to the UK, so I spoke to Mike Soutar, who had a big launch programme at IPC Media and we agreed that I would come back and be the Creative Director for IPC. When Mike left the business, I became Editorial Development Director. I did that role for about 7 and a half years, developing new digital propositions, working on Good to Know, Trusted Reviews, Woman, Woman's Own, Now, Marie Claire, Ideal Home and lots of telly titles.

I left the business five years ago and set up my own consultancy, so I continued to work with clients in America, doing development work on People and TIME, and in the UK, increasingly with  b2b businesses, working with The Media Briefing and Centaur on their homes divisions.

This year, I created my own agency, which is based on winning a big piece of business with a management consultancy called Vendigital, which does work with publishers. I'm continuing to develop magazine brands for media owners. I've got several clients that I'm working with on projects and I'm also now doing a lot more training and workshops.

I ran some brand development workshops around design guidelines for Ascential last year. This week, with my colleague Andy Pemberton, we ran a Guardian Masterclass on PowerPoint mastery.  

Do you have a go-to work outfit? 

My boots. I have a very nice pair of very dark blue brogues. I love them. They make anything look good.

What do you turn to when you’re on deadline – tea/coffee/snacks?

I start with coffee and end with biscuits – whatever can be snaffled or that the kids haven't eaten.

What’s the most unusual situation you’ve found yourself in because of your job?

I was doing a talk at Earl's Court at a big trade show. I had just started doing talks about my work and I wasn't very experienced. 

 
A celebrated designer called Vince Frost was on before me and this was in the days of Kodak carousels with slides. He had taken my slides thinking they were his and put his back on. I was then standing up in front of 200-odd people, having to fill 10 minutes of airtime without any slides before he came back with them.

I invited members of the audience to share what their favourite media brand was and effectively psychoanalysed them on that basis. It showed me that your audience is everything. It also showed me that everybody can do extraordinary things if they have to. I was a very shy person prior to this event.

It was quite a long time ago, but I still use this as part of my stage act. It always works. With your choice of media brand, you are what you reflect back to yourself and to others. When I'm in the company of The New Yorker, I'm a really urbane, sophisticated person and when I'm in the company of Dagenham Dog Breeder Monthly, I'm someone else. 

Walk me through your typical day.

I run a small agency with a wide variety of clients. I like collaborating with people. I'm either pitching, I'm fulfilling, I'm writing, I'm designing or I'm talking –  there is no frame into which I fit. I used to have one of those when I had a "job", but I don't have a job.

My studio is at home. I'm sitting at my desk, I'm writing this slide deck, I look at my calendar, I go downstairs and have a cup of tea every 45 minutes. If you come from old school magazine media, you're used to working in a cupboard, and I can and I do. I can and will work anywhere.

If you didn’t have to sleep, how would you use the remaining hours in the day? 

I’d like to read more books. Antony Beevor is a fantastic historian and he has a new book about Arnhem that I’d like to read. I'm halfway through Neil Perkin and Peter Abraham’s book on digital transformation.

What is the last photo you took on your phone (at time of interview)? Why?

Andy Cowles Last Photo on Phone

Inside my shed. I really like my shed.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

Twitter – what a time suck that is. I periodically take it off my phone and then I have to put it back on again for business and then I take it off again. I read other people's stuff. I don't tweet so much myself.

Whose phone number do you wish you had? 

I'd love to meet up with Bruce Springsteen. I did meet him one time on a photo shoot. I was so paralysed with fandom and also I was trying to work on the shoot. 

What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

I don't think I've ever been given advice, let alone bad advice. What makes it a bad piece of advice? If you action it, and it turns out not to be the case, well that's your responsibility. If you think it’s stupid and you don’t action it, then it's not advice, it's just an opinion.

What/where is your happy place?

I do like my shed. I like sailing. I like walking on hills. 

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I was running down the West Side Highway on 9/11 and I saw both planes go into both towers. I was thinking, “That's pretty weird. There's no point of reference for that.” Also bizarrely, when I saw the first one go in, it was so far up, I couldn't recognise the fact it was an aeroplane. I thought it was a light aeroplane. I didn't understand the magnitude of what I had just seen.

Besides, I needed to go to work and had some stuff to do in the office. I completely under-functioned around it – to my wife's considerable distress, and to my regret. I wish I had not gone to the office on that day and had spent the time with her. It was a state of shock clearly. I had a redesign to present. I was working for Mademoiselle at the time and I had a show and tell the next day – a big one, with Si Newhouse [Chariman of Condé Nast at the time], which still went ahead.

What would be in your Room 101?

The tax man. 

Introvert or extrovert?

Can I be both? I'm an extroverted introvert. 

Optimist or pessimist? 

I manage my expectations, but I would say at heart I am an optimist.

Film or television? What are you binge-watching at the moment? 

Film. I don't watch much telly, but the last film I saw, I Feel Pretty, was with my daughter. Amy Schumer is a powerful force of nature – I really enjoyed it.

Sweet or savoury?

Savoury. 

Morning person or night owl?

When I was younger, I was a night owl, but now I've got kids, so I'd say probably mid-afternoon person.

Tea or coffee?

Both please, thank you.  

Emojis – cool or cringey? Which emoji do you use the most?

Red heart emoji

They're cool. I use the heart emoji the most.

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