Garden & Gun ties success to early vision

By Lauren Ratcliffe
Published Dec. 5, 2011

Each year, roughly 700 magazines launch with the hopes of creating the next big buzz. Most of them die.

In 2007, Garden & Gun launched as one of the few national lifestyle magazines to ever come out of a Southern publishing house. Today, with their fifth anniversary approaching, the magazine is thriving, winning national accolades and celebrating Southern culture.

In October, Garden & Gun was ranked fourth on Advertising Age’s 2011 A-List. Beating out large national magazines including The New Yorker, National Geographic and Vanity Fair, the ranking reflects the magazine’s growth in ad pages and it’s ability to attract top advertisers.

Rebecca Darwin, president and CEO of Garden & Gun, said as a startup, the magazine had to first build its reputation and develop its audience. (Photo/Leslie Burden)
Rebecca Darwin, president and CEO of Garden & Gun, said as a startup, the magazine had to first build its reputation and develop its audience. (Photo/Leslie Burden)
David DiBenedetto, editor-in-chief, (left) goes over layout with Braxton Crim, assistant art director, and Jessica Mischner, senior editor at Garden & Gun’s offices on King Street in Charleston. (Photo/Leslie Burden)
David DiBenedetto, editor-in-chief, (left) goes over layout with Braxton Crim, assistant art director, and Jessica Mischner, senior editor at Garden & Gun’s offices on King Street in Charleston. (Photo/Leslie Burden)
“We had to build up our reputation first,” said Rebecca Darwin, president and CEO of Garden & Gun LLC, adding that the magazine had to develop its audience before these accolades could fall into place.

Earning high-praise was all part of the lofty goal Darwin and her business partner, Pierre Manigault set for themselves when they conceptualized the magazine in 2006.

“My vision was to launch a company here in Charleston that could produce the same kind of editorial quality that comes out of editorial companies in New York,”  Darwin said.

“We set the bar really high.”

Rooted in the South
Garden & Gun came out of a casual conversation. Pierre Manigault, chairman of the Evening Post Publishing group and partner at Garden & Gun LLC, recalls sitting around with a friend talking about what they saw as a lack of high-quality Southern lifestyle magazines.

“There was no good general Southern lifestyle magazine, so we sat down thinking about all the articles that could be done,” Manigault said. “It was a lot of fun to brainstorm it.”

Manigault is a newsman, having spent time in television, editing and reporting before joining his family’s business and becoming chairman of the Evening Post Publishing Co.’s board in 2004. Evening Post owns The Post and Courier along with several community newspapers and substantial television holdings. Having no direct experience in magazines, he saw an opportunity when Darwin relocated with her family to Charleston.

“What had been a loose daydreaming idea became a real possibility,” Manigault said.

But launching a magazine wasn’t on Darwin’s mind when she moved to the area seven years ago. The encouragement of friends to create something got her started, the name had her hooked.

“The name Garden & Gun was tossed out,” Darwin said. “I shut my eyes, and I could see what this magazine would be like.”

From there, Darwin created a business plan for a magazine division of the Evening Post Publishing Co., but had her eye set on much more.

“My vision was that this would ultimately be a company with perhaps multiple titles and products,” she said.

On Labor Day 2006, Darwin realized the first step toward her lofty goal by persuading the board of the Evening Post to back her plan.

“By spring 2007, we had the first magazine on the news stand,” Darwin said.

Evening Post says goodbye
Garden & Gun had been in publication for almost two years when the economy took its downward spiral and many magazine giants closed their doors.

Garden & Gun was establishing itself as a hot commodity, launching with 150,000 copies in circulation and earning the honor of being the second hottest launch in 2007, after Conde Nast Portfolio (which went out of business in 2009).

Manigault, Darwin and then editor Sid Evans built the magazine on longer prose, large photographs and a penchant for all things truly Southern.

They published on thick glossy paper and attracted top Southern writers such as Pat Conroy, Reynolds Price and Clyde Edgerton for the inaugural issue. The photography also stood out with expansive views on the Southern landscape and striking personality portraits. Conroy was featured on the first cover standing barefoot in a garden.

These decisions on paper quality, photography and writing talent made the magazine both appealing to readers and expensive to operate.
“The economy started getting rough and the magazine was costing more than we anticipated,” Manigault said.

Darwin adds that as larger magazines were shutting their doors and newspapers began announcing layoffs, the future didn’t appear bright for Garden & Gun.

“Brands all over the place were folding,” Darwin said. “Looking into a crystal ball, the picture didn’t look great for a new, not fully developed magazine.”

At the end of 2008, the board of the Evening Post decided not to continue Garden & Gun, opting to focus on their core news products. But Darwin refused to let that be the end of the story.

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“I called up Pierre very quickly and said ‘We can’t let this thing go away’,” Darwin said.

It was then that Darwin and Manigault formed Indigo Acquisitions LLC and purchased Garden & Gun LLC from Evening Post.

Once on their own, Garden & Gun had to weather the rough economic climate and find a way to continue to publish.

“We’re lucky because we are small and nimble,” said current editor-in-chief David DiBenedetto. “We were able to say ‘What do we need to do to survive?’ and then do it. Everyone is working more, working with less, but we still have to produce the magazine that people

Growing an identity
DiBenedetto attributes the recent successes of the magazine to a deep connection with its readership and its less conventional approach to publishing.
“It slows down a little bit, there are big beautiful photos, and the stories might run longer,” he said. “The South is based on good storytelling and that is the heart of what Garden & Gun is about. I hear it so many times that readers say ‘I think this is a magazine that was made for me.’”

Advertisers have responded to the magazine, too. During its first year, the magazine sold just over 99 pages of advertising in four issues. In 2011, over six issues, the magazine sold more than 220 pages, although the publication reported a sluggish 2009 when the magazine went out on its own.
Manigault said the increase in readers has led to the growth in advertising.

“If you have great content, no one else is providing, you are going to get the readers,” he said. “If you get the readers, you are going to get the advertisers.”
Garden & Gun quickly expanded beyond its glossy pages, too. In 2009, the company launched its Garden & Gun Club, a three-tiered membership giving access to events, discounted merchandise and ways to connect to the magazine.

DiBenedetto said the success of the club has created a cult-like following from readers.

“People are realizing that Garden & Gun has the most engaged readership you can imagine,” he said. “It’s crazy, rabid, wonderful.”

Two years ago, Garden & Gun LLC brought in Ed Bell as partner to help expand the company and the brand. In his short time with the company, he has created new ways for readers to connect with the brand through the Garden & Gun Exclusives initiative.

The magazine partnered with eight designers to create exclusive products readers can buy. The products include items such as a denim and leather apron, to a gunmetal-colored Dutch oven and a shallow-water fishing boat.

With the publishing industry changing rapidly with new ways to connect readers to content, Garden & Gun is trying to position itself with room to grow. They’ll be unveiling a new website next year and are looking into the development of a phone app. 

But in everything, they’re not losing sight of their print publication, which they plan on expanding in both frequency and circulation. They insist print isn’t dying, and that a quality print product still has its place.

“People have been predicting the demise of print since radio came along,” Manigault said. “I think that the success of Garden & Gun shows that there is still a market out there for quality print publications ... hopefully.”

Reach Lauren Ratcliffe at 843-849-3119.

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Added: 18 Jul 2012

What's happened to the G&G emails I looked so forward to? The last one I received was 5/31/12

David Narramore SS member# 4042