Jun 26. 5 min read

How cities can become publishers…

...and start shaping their own futures

When I moved back to Israel in 2009, after spending the 1st part of my professional career in Canada, I knew I wanted to do something about Israel’s problematic international image.

So, I launched a magazine that aimed to showcase the Israel I loved that wasn’t making it to the news.

On the surface, 18 Magazine was a business & culture magazine aimed for a discerning International audience. At that point, the only other stories coming out of israel were J-Post pieces intended for sock and sandal wearing Jews in the diaspora or the ad-filled Atmosphere Magazine they put out on El Al flights that you would read from cover to cover before take-off.

I got top contributors on board even though I had a limited budget. I worked with top designer David Haliva to give the content a sexy and contemporary look and feel. The content was smart and thoughtful. We acted as if we were going places and despite the fact that no one had heard of us or knew exactly how much (little) money our mysterious investor had actually put down, we were successful in creating great buzz around the magazine.

For our launch party, we had 1200 people show up and right after that, the ministry of Foreign Affairs agreed to purchase 5000 copies of the following issues to distribute through the worldwide embassies and consulates. For a brief moment we felt that we were on the right track and that not only were we going to be successful with the magazine, but that we had unchained a series of events that were really about to change the way the country was perceived globally.

Lessons Learned:

To this day, 18 Magazine still looks fresh, even though almost 8 years have gone by. The design was timeless and the writing was smart. It indeed was propaganda as Dr. Blochman from the Goethe Institute said, but it was heartfelt and sincere. It was strategic and purposefull.

Good presentation is important, but it’s not the core. It’s just the standard to be taken seriously. The real lesson, is getting locals to buy in to the story you’re telling before you expect globals to. That’s the difference between advertising and branding. Advertising just pushes a pretty story. Branding is more meaningful and encompassing. It starts with the product and not the campaign.

2009-2010 was the beginning of Start-Up Nation. Everyone was talking about innovation, start-ups and exits. People were talking about Israel in a more confident and international manner. In the years that followed, Tel Aviv truly has transformed into a confident city that comfortably speaks about creative energy, endless opportunity and unparalleled lifestyle.

Key Ingredients to successful storytelling:

  1. If it’s too corporate, then it’s too boring. The CEO needs to be featured alongside the academic and between them you need to feature the little hipster who opened a gluten free pizzeria.
  2. If a story looks too good to be true then it usually is. The key to creating compelling content is the 90/10 rule. The 10% needs to be critical to give the semblance of objectivity. No one likes being fed a line. Also, people like the feeling of discovering the content on their own.
  3. When developing the table of content, we used something we called the Rule of Mexico. Ie. if this story happened in Mexico (which we knew nothing of at the time) would we still find it interesting?
  4. Supermarkets. Perhaps this was only my own thing, but whenever I travel to a new place, I like starting out at the local supermarket. This always gives an insider look at a place, whether it’s how the aisles are stocked or it’s seeing labels in a foreign language.
  5. Faces. I remember once reading a piece about Aleppo in Monocle (before the troubles) and being pleasantly surprised at the faces that appeared in the article. Whether it was a PR woman, a hotelier or a bartender, these were all faces you didn’t associate with Syria at the time and rather ones you would expect to see in Zurich or Frankfurt. The novelty of it created a powerful effect on the reader and changed perceptions without even a word. I continue to believe in the power of faces.

An end & a new beginning:

Publishing is not a business for the faint of heart. I decided to fold after 2 issues and return to working with clients. But the end of 18 didn’t diminish my desire to tell stories and change perceptions about places. It was almost like a drug where you crave that first hit, that 1st jolt of excitement at discovering a place and sharing it with the world. To really know a place requires you to be fluent and curious about so many things, from politics, to culture to architecture, infrastructure and sports. It also requires you to like people and have the willingness and patience to discover and bring out their good sides.

Belfast & Northern Ireland

A few years pass and then an opportunity comes up with a friend of a friend who had just returned to Belfast.

I had always had a bit of an obsession about Ireland, reading endless history books, listening to the Undertones and thinking Sunday Bloody Sunday was a great tune.

Jenny Holland was the daughter of prominent Irish author and Republican sympathizer, Jack Holland who had been exiled by the IRA for critiquing them in the local press. Because he was affiliated, he was given the option of exile and not the regular treatment dissidents got.

Only upon his death in New York was it safe for Jenny to return, which she did. The Holland name carried some weight in Belfast and Jenny soon started working with Quintin Oliver, one of the architects of the Good Friday agreement, a brilliant man, scholar and gentleman who headed Stratagem, a PR consultancy specializing in post-conflict areas.

Together, we put a bold proposal forward for moving Northern Ireland forward and showcasing it to the world. Just as I believed that Israel could benefit from generating a parallel conversation, i knew N. Ireland needed to do that as well.

Furthermore, both Israel and Ireland had the power of a strong diaspora which wielded significant influence in America.

While I was aware that N. Ireland is extremely biased towards Israel politically (especially on the Catholic side), I leveraged this fact in our favor. If Israel suffers from such a horrible image, but still manages to draw billions in investment, just imagine what we could do with Ireland? This got the attention of both sides of the aisle, both Protestant and Catholic.

More importantly, the business sector, regardless of affiliation saw the huge benefit Northern Ireland would get from shifting the media attention to the many business opportunities that lie in the 6 counties.

Storytelling meets technology

I took what I learned from 18, primarily the storytelling formula and added a technological element that had become available in the time that had passed and created a new proposition that formed a formidable one-two punch.

Working with OutBrain and Taboola and bringing the content to a digital platform enabled cities, regions and countries control their own story. They no longer had to pay a journalist from Forbes or the New York Times come and cover their area. They could place their content in Forbes or the New York Times. They just needed to decide what story they wanted to tell and to whom they wanted to tell it.

We created a model called the Global City Report. It was part McKinsey, part Monocle and part Conde Nast Traveller in terms of content and style.

Unfortunately, we got caught up during election period and the contacts we had carefully cultivated over many months were elected out and in their place came a new guard who had other ideas for Northern Ireland.

Who needs storytelling?

New York, London and Paris don’t need storytelling. So many stories have already been told about these places that they have already been immortalised in popular culture. It’s the second tier cities, the up and coming regions, Belfast, Tbilisi, Karlsruhe, Rotterdam, Leipzig, Belgrade and Bucharest. These are the cities that could use a jolt of global profile.

An interesting example of regional storytelling is the Calvert Journal, run by Calvert 22 Foundation, a non-profit UK registered charity created in 2009 by Russian-born, London-based economist Nonna Materkova.

I’ve always suspected this is Kremlin propaganda at its best, the stuff they do when not meddling in elections. Regardless of who is really spinning the yarn, the content is brilliantly crafted and curated and combined with today’s cheap flights, it has generated massive traffic of Europeans to such destinations as Talin, Moscow, Belgrade, Bucharest and other stalwarts of the former Eastern Bloc. It also is a tremendous vehicle that allows the Russians to wield their soft power muscle in many Western capitals.

Carpe Diem

While technology changes at a rapid pace, a good story remains a good story and smart people who make big decisions aren’t swayed by clickbait or Playbuzz.

In today’s competitive landscape, it’s not enough for cities to offer better tax breaks. They need to draw a compelling story and present their city’s vision in a clear and confident manner.

Today’s technology simply allows them to do this and compete with the mega-cities on a much more levelled field.



Some of my clients, past and present.