Every Thursday evening, attractive young men and women gather outside select Métro stations in Paris to hand out free copies of the fashion and beauty magazine Stylist to specific commuters.
"In the beginning, I thought our mode of distribution was weird," said Aude Walker, the editor-in-chief. " 'OK, you're a woman with a rich and young vibe. Here, take a magazine.' It's such super-targeted distribution. We don't give to guys in their 40s from the suburbs."
But it's working so well it's rewriting the rules of periodical publication.
More than 400,000 issues of Stylist are distributed each week in Paris and nine other French cities. For perspective, the monthly circulation of Vogue Paris is fewer than 150,000. Advertisers in the magazine's roughly 60 pages include such brands as Kenzo, Lancôme and Dior perfume as well as local department stores. The quality of the articles, which mix luxury and affordable fashion, is on a par with major publishers.
"Free is not cheap," said Gwenaelle Thebault, the magazine's general director, who pointed out that her team came from magazines such as Vogue and Glamour. She calls Stylist a "freemium," a portmanteau of "free" and "premium."
"We use young photographers who work for the luxury fashion magazines and top models," Walker said. "We had to start out at a very high level or it wouldn't have worked. People would have thought it was trash because it was given out for free in the Métro."
Without having to sell at newsstands, the staff has liberty in its editorial choices.
"We can put a dog on the cover," Walker said, and she wasn't exaggerating. Stylist eschews traditional celebrity covers for conceptual ones, such as a recent issue that featured a detergent bottle bearing Karl Lagerfeld's face.
Stylist won the 2014 Innovation in Publishing award from France's Syndicat des Éditeurs de la Presse Magazine (akin to the American Society of Magazine Editors).
"For consumers, the boundaries between free and paying don't exist," said Pascale Marie, the syndicate director. And herein lies the strength of Stylist: It's something of quality on paper for members of the Internet generation who are used to getting media free, with the added human element of hands-on distribution.
Stylist began in 2009 in Britain, where it is the highest-circulated women's fashion and lifestyle title. By 2014, revenue reached about $15 million.
The French edition is produced in partnership with ShortList Media and the Marie Claire Group.
"Our simple logic was you can make a free magazine that's the same quality as a paid-for one," said Tim Ewington, a founder of ShortList. "The strange thing is that some media is free and some isn't. There's no logic to it. No one says Facebook is free so it's no good. Magazines are just as relevant to young people, but they don't buy them the way they used to."
A Stylist edition was introduced in the United Arab Emirates in October.
"We're looking to launch in a new country each year," Ewington said, explaining there is no need for a cover price when Stylist has gangbuster advertising.
"We have a reach with 25- to 40-year-old professional women no one else does," he said. "It's targeted and high volume. If you are launching new products, and want to have high impact with your campaign, it's a very powerful relationship. It physically goes into their hands on their way to work."
TrendingNY debuts in April
The business model, and the success of Stylist, are not being ignored in the United States. Soon the New York subway's free reading material will not be limited to religious pamphlets. Starting in April, 100,000 issues of TrendingNY, published by Hearst Magazines, will be passed out the first week of each month by teams at neighborhood stations. A four-issue pilot version of the magazine was test-marketed last fall.
"The numbers we saw were off the charts," said Michael Clinton, the president, marketing and publishing director of Hearst Magazines. Then he hinted at possibly a more widespread plan.
"Trending is a name that certainly can lend itself to other cities."