Playboy South Africa has been much in the news lately. Launch editor Peter Piegl left, announcing his resignation via Twitter. Charl du Plessis was announced as the new editor in chief. Then the social networks started buzzing with rumours that the title was about to shut down. And Playboy responded that it was simply moving to Cape Town. TheMediaOnline caught up with Du Plessis for a frank talk about the future of Playboy South Africa.
Du Plessis’s first issue is about to hit the stands. It was to feature South African beauty Candice Boucher on the cover. She had been shot in the African bush by the US edition in what Du Plessis described as a “very conservative concept” when once again, Twitter buzzed with the rumour that Ms Boucher was not happy to be revealed in all her glory in the South African edition.
Yesterday, Playboy issued a statement to say it had dropped Ms Boucher as its August cover model, replacing her with Lizzy Jagger, daughter of Mick and Jerry Hall.
“It says a lot about how far we have to go towards calling ourselves a mature society when a model of Ms Boucher’s stature feels comfortable posing internationally for a very tasteful shoot of this nature, but gets put under pressure locally by sections of our society,” commented Du Plessis.
“We respect her choice, as we do with all of the women we work with, and are happy that our readers will not be disappointed with a bumper August edition that carries all the traditional Playboy hallmarks. Playboy is, after all, and has been for 57 years, far more than just a pretty face.”
The fact that the photos are widely available online for all to see did not appear to appease Ms Boucher who was said to be “not be happy having these pictures published in South Africa as they would not suit her local image”.
“We respect her right to make her own choices,” Du Plessis told TheMediaOnline. “With the right to make our own choices comes our responsibility to accept the consequences of our decisions gracefully.”
In another release from the magazine yesterday, Du Plessis said Playboy had decided to drop the word ‘girl’ from being used in the magazine, replacing it with ‘woman’ or ‘model’ depending on the context.
“We made this decision independently, and do not need US approval. Value shifts take time, but as our Constitutional Court mentioned on their ruling against the death penalty, even when something like 85% of our population informally surveyed was for it, one has to have a polestar, an end goal of what is right, and then aspire to that,” he said.
“To me, a respectful, mature and non-hypocritical relationship between men and women is that. Our readers are smart enough to know their ‘broer’ from their ‘bro’ and their ‘bra’ and not to be intimidated by women who burn the latter.”
Okay! But what went down a couple of weeks ago when the media world buzzed emphatically that Playboy was about to go under?
“An important part of our creative team has been down in the Cape all along. With me joining as a Capetonian, and as a lifetime entrepreneur who actively despises corporate culture and its ability to bring out the very worst in people, it was suggested that we streamline the operation, lose the corporate side running parallel to the editorial process, and start having the fun producing the world’s most famous magazine brand – the way it was intended,” Du Plessis said.
“So, in total, four people were retrenched, none of them part of the editorial squad. I like working with freelance writers, getting plenty of sharp ears and eyes on the ground and pumping ideas towards our team, rather than a top-down editorial dictatorship. It also allows for fresh voices for our readers to enjoy all the time.
“As an MBA student in strategy and international marketing at Yale, I extensively studied the pros and cons of running good virtual teams and that is the way I prefer to work with a very creative crowd. You cannot 8-5 creativity. All-in-all, the story of the JHB shut down reminds one of Mark Twain’s: ‘Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated’.”
Advertising is key to any new publication and right from the start, naysayers were convinced that Playboy was re-entering the market at a dodgy time, and that advertising could be tricky.
“Advertising has been very slow, because of several factors compounding each other’s impact, yet we have strategies in place to deal with each and to overcome them in due course,” Du Plessis said.
“Firstly, there is massive misperception in SA about Playboy. Because Playboy entered the market post-94 at the same time as some smut magazines, an association stuck. We do not do pornography and draw a very clear distinction between nudity and pornography. But, people need to be informed of that.
“Now, secondly, because of these misperceptions, we find that there are many youngish female decision-makers who are not well-enough traveled or read to know the distinction between the world’s best known men’s magazine brand, with all it has achieved in 57 years as a strong social voice, ironically for some of the issues they take for granted today. This includes reproductive rights for women, civil rights, freedom of speech and more.
“Instead, there is some ill-informed moral high horsing (my copy editor will kill me for that word). Furthermore, as long as corporate culture rewards people only for not doing anything wrong, rather than trying to do something brilliant and fresh, we will keep on being frustrated with some intermediaries in the media game not willing to even take our brand through to their clients.
“Of course, we have several initiatives I launched this month to start working at these misconceptions and you will see some in near future. Fact is, Playboy has engaged with more Nobel Prize winners, famous sports people, celebrities, authors, musicians and more than what most of these mid-level, self-appointed censors of the public imagination could imagine.”
What about distribution then? Peter Piegl resigned over the fact that the magazine would be sold in Adult World.
“We have changed distributors to a very effective company, yet still come across incidents where shopkeepers do not put the magazine out and leave it in the back till end of month. Why? Because they too have claimed the right to decide for others what are good or bad for them, quite the way our Government’s proposed ‘secrecy bill’ attempts to do.
“In the meantime, if you had to compare our covers with some of the lads’ mag covers on the shelf, I would far more comfortably walk my eightyear old daughter past Playboy than any of these.
“You will not see ‘Ten Blow-job Tips’ or anything like that on our covers. We have learned from our Brazilian counterparts, who produce a so-called ‘retail’ cover, that the brand is strong enough and the loyalty deep enough, that we need not push the limits on the cover.
“If we want to be available to our readers, we need to get to the places where they buy milk and bread, often with their kids in tow. That is where we are heading. As for my predecessor’s resignation, I asked to see his exit interview, and trust me, that was not the reason why he resigned, although I think he needed to be seen as a good guy in his own following and hence hanging his departure on the bell of some major moral issue. There are a few magazines bought by the owners of these stores, in bulk, which represents less than 10% of our total distribution. Storm in a tea cup.”
Du Plessis hasn’t been in the saddle for too long, so to speak. Highs? Lows? “High,high, high,” he said emphatically. “The passion for this brand out there is incredible. Every person I have sat down with wants to tell me exactly what the mag should look like and what they love about it.
“Editorially, I have been privileged to engage with some of the sharpest minds and most respected members of our society – people like Zapiro, Andre Brink, Dr Ian Player, and many more as we are working forward on the next four editions already.
“Simultaneously I have been working my way deep into the Playboy legacy, reading interviews with Castro and Muhammed Ali, stories by Nadine Gordimer, Garcia Marquez and other greats all published in Playboy. It’s a fun brand, a fun team and we all thoroughly enjoy the brand and the work. The only place where we do not take things light is in the execution – I dare you for instance to find one typo in 150 pages. In that regard, my biggest high has been working with an incredibly passionate and committed team at Playboy SA.”
No publication is complete without a compelling digital strategy. “With the benefit of recently sitting in conference with the editors and publishers of 30 international editions, we have seen the future and it is way more than digital. Augmented reality is already happening in the Playboy family. Our approach is 360 engagement of audience (not just readers). It includes all the platforms, and we are doing some daring things – earlier this week we decided that for a photo shoot, we will throw it open to our readers to become the models in groups of friends, rather than casting formally.
“We had seven groups of friends applying within 15 minutes. Then, I have this picture in my mind of every fun-loving South African driving around with a pillow in the back of their cars, waiting for the next, short notice announcement of a Playboy pillow fight (the way Playboy Mansion love birds settle issues.)
“We are teaming up with breast cancer charity, Reach for Recovery, because we like healthy breasts, to start a summer of people having a blast beating the crap out each other on beaches, in squares, airports and what else, all for a good cause, and walking away feeling that they too have been part of ‘fighting for Playboy’. My ultimate dream will likely not happen – get the people who we all love to hate to challenge one another. Law firms against law firms in pillow fights. Traffic police vs burocrats. Eskom vs Telkom. Which of us would not love to see that? It is easy to connect with Playboy – get on the website, facebook (where you could win a Harley just for getting involved), twitter, and more.”
Do you tweet? “Not until someone can convince me that having the word ‘twit’ in Twitter was an accident, I have my reservations. More seriously, I deal with up to 500 sms and email messages and calls a day and cannot do justice to an instrument of convenience, cost-efficiency but mostly vanity – namely having one’s own followers. Our digital team and I have worked out a solution where I can use slower times to get out on Twitter without taking my eye of the ball in a pretty demanding day.”
Nevertheless, @editorplayboysa is out there.