Worth a Thousand Words: An mg Magazine Retrospective

Worth-a-Thousand-Words-Retrospective-mg-magazine-mgretailer
Worth a Thousand Words: An mg Magazine Retrospective

Business-to-business publications perform a vital role in every industry, reflecting not only the products, places, and people composing the community, but also the community’s ethos.

mg Magazine has the privilege of providing a window into the cannabis industry. Here, the five-year-old trade publication turns the tables on itself and offers an unvarnished view of the daily grind inside the industry’s leading media platform.

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When the team behind mg Magazine decided to focus on the cannabis industry in early 2015, the mission was clear: to produce quality business-to-business, communication-based products that deliver value to the market. They knew in addition to a group of highly skilled colleagues able to execute a coherent vision and create innovative products, success in the world of printed media would require some good-old-fashioned luck. As with any other magazine launch, challenges were formidable, made even more so by the cannabis industry’s unique and unpredictable situations. Sustaining existence in an environment with little margin for error demanded experience and precision.

Like other privately owned companies, mg has maintained its business strategy “close to the vest.” Nobody talks much about the strategic details behind building the brand. To reveal that information—to effectively communicate the details of each department’s initiatives—would take every page in this issue, and perhaps more.

But there is one obvious uniquity everyone talks about—even sometimes envies: the photography. Beginning with its debut issue, mg Magazine has built a reputation for visual eloquence. Being the first B2B publication to serve the cannabis industry on a national level, its pages have served as an instrumental tool for the industry’s effort to gain political and governmental acceptance. To that end, mg’s visual elements, presented in concert with insightful editorial content, provide readers inside and outside the industry an engaging, immersive experience. The product elevates the conversation and changes the public’s perception on a massive scale.

Within six months of its debut, mg had been recognized by the publishing industry. Samir “Mr. Magazine” Husni, PhD, was one of the first to applaud the magazine’s unique approach, calling mg “The B to B Magazine That’s Doing It Consumer-Style.” Another reviewer dubbed mg “weed’s hybrid of Forbes and Inc.

mg’s vision challenges the B2B status quo, tearing down and re-creating everything from design to production systems, printing techniques, and workflow processes in order to build long-term growth in an extremely competitive market. “Everything we do supports serving the market with high-end platforms that connect with our audience in a meaningful and recognizable way,” said Darren Roberts, president of mg’s parent company, Inc Media. “Our mission to empower growth through learning, create connections, and recognize market innovation has remained the same since day one.”

Although the magazine has grown in both scope and readership since its early days, some things never will change. The team is committed to the highest journalistic standards and ethics. Every relationship is a partnership based on mutual respect and effective collaboration. That’s just who we are…and who we’ll always be.

On the following pages, we offer a peek behind the scenes at the philosophy that governs the magazine’s signature visual appeal. We reveal some seminal successes…and some embarrassing failures. The photos chronicle the evolution of an industry emerging into a new era with a passion for change. The images do what we do best: tell the industry’s story.


Frenchy Cannoli (July 2017)
Master hashishin
Thomas O’Brien’s shots of Frenchy Cannoli—renowned the world over for his hash-making techniques—captured a man at home in his own skin, despite his disbelief anyone would be interested in photographing him. Humble by nature, he charmed the entire crew with tales about his world travels in a never-ending pursuit of knowledge. Photographer Thomas O’Brien said, “I felt like I was in the presence of a wizard.”

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MassRoots (August 2015)
Social Media Platform
The MassRoots team adorned mg’s first cover at the height of their success. Founded with a seed investment of $150,000, within two years the company’s over-the-counter stock traded at a volume of more than $7 million in a single week. Fortune did not continue to smile on the operation: The desktop and mobile apps had ceased functioning by early 2020, and share prices had plummeted to $0.0036 by July 31. Jeff Forney photographed the team on location in Colorado, beginning a long and fruitful collaboration.


Bruce Margolin, Esq. (August 2015)
Attorney
Iconic barrister Bruce Margolin has been a stalwart defender of cannabis culture since 1967, representing both individuals and companies against criminal prosecution. In fact, he literally wrote the book about cannabis law, The Margolin Guide, which he continues to update frequently. Now 78, he still takes on criminal cases but said most of his work is in licensing. mg shot one icon on location inside another: Taylor’s Steak House in the Korea Town area of Los Angeles.

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The Art Direction

No one is better acquainted with the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” than mg Creative Director Angela Derasmo. Having directed more than 500 photo shoots over her twenty-year career, Derasmo has substantial experience with visual storytelling, and her passion for the art is palpable.

Art direction is a complex dance of diverse elements and people. Images must organically add to the narrative. All elements must interact in ways both subtle and dynamic. Of tremendous importance in the digital age, consideration must be given to countless publishing formats.

Everything starts with the image out front. “One of the most important features of any magazine is the cover image. It’s the first touchpoint,” Derasmo said. “A good cover is visually appealing, attracts reader interest, and sells the brand.”

Early on, the mg team realized changing the public’s legacy perception of the industry required a new approach to cover design. The only way to achieve the look Derasmo desired was to create visuals in-house. “Our strategy was to shoot the subjects in a way that supported the professionalism of the industry, but also elevated our brand’s identity,” she said.

The concept may sound simple; however, executing the plan was anything but. Typically, only established consumer and fashion magazines have the financial resources and reputational sway to attract top photographers. mg needed experienced shooters who were willing not only to work with a new publication, but also to allow their name to be associated with what was at that time a highly controversial industry. Enter Jeff Forney, well-regarded among musicians and celebrities. He lensed mg’s first cover and has been a valued partner ever since.

Admittedly, it took several issues to refine process and look, but “Jeff got our aesthetic right away,” Derasmo said. He and the other photographers she works with are experts at capturing what Derasmo calls “corporate image with personality.” “Each of our cover subjects needs to look professional, but we want a glimpse of the real person behind the executive,” she said. “Everybody’s an individual; they have a story to tell beyond what’s in the text. When you can capture that in a photo, it’s magic.”

“A good cover is visually appealing, attracts reader interest, and sells the brand.”

Angela Derasmo

Photo shoots are complicated undertakings that require more than just studio time. Each session must capture not only the magazine’s vision but also the subject’s expectations. Derasmo spends several days each month researching the subject to “find out who they are and what they do,” securing a suitable location, overseeing travel, and coordinating the on-site production team which includes, lighting, makeup, video, craft services, set design, and of course the photographer. The team works from a “mood board” consisting of images that convey the emotional impact she wants to achieve.

Despite even the best preparation, things don’t always go as planned. Last-minute schedule changes can wreak havoc on the entire production. “The magazine print date is not flexible, so having to reschedule is costly and overly taxing on the entire team,” Derasmo said.

Other unforeseen occurrences can be equally disruptive. One subject forgot parts of his wardrobe, so Derasmo had to round up accessories on the fly. One rooftop shoot took place during unexpectedly blistering heat. A sudden, brief rainstorm interrupted another outdoor shoot, sending everyone scrambling for umbrellas.

“You have to think on your feet—a lot,” Derasmo said.

Working with subjects who may never have experienced an elaborate photography session presents a unique set of challenges. “There’s always a period of awkwardness [in the beginning],” she said. Music often helps break the ice, and her research seldom has steered her wrong when it comes to picking tunes to which a subject can relate. “Al Harrington and Jason White liked 1990s rap,” she revealed. “Kary Radestock was into ’70s and ’80s rock.

“I value my skill at reading people, and I can usually find a way to put them at ease, even if it means clowning around,” she added. “At the end of the day, no matter how they felt when they got there, I want them to be happy with the results and enjoy the experience.”


Michael “BigMike” Straumietis (April 2016)
Founder and chief executive officer, Advanced Nutrients Ltd.
No, horticulture king BigMike Straumietis isn’t enthroned in the tropics. Thomas O’Brien shot him against a “green screen,” and mg Creative Director Angela Derasmo isolated his image and dropped it in front of a lush backdrop. Straumietis’s company remains at the top of the sales charts, and he’s gone Hollywood: His reality-TV series, The Next Marijuana Millionaire, premiered August 15 on streaming services including Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV.


Jonathan Valdman (December 2015)
Founder and president, Forever Flowering Greenhouses
Jonathan Valdman’s shoot was an all-day affair at an extremely remote, rustic location. That represented quite a change for photographer Jeff Forney, whose primary clients until that point had been music and entertainment consumer publications. In the years since, Forney has lensed dozens of features and covers for mg. Valdman pioneered high-tech light-deprivation techniques, and his company continues to be an innovator in the field. His greenhouses are in use worldwide.

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Dani Mathers (February 2016)
Co-founder, CannaPro
Former Playmate of the Year Dani Mathers was a rising Hollywood star when a social media scandal derailed her career. mg fell victim to Murphy’s Law: The issue in which she appeared on the cover was on the press when news broke she’d been charged with posting covert images of a naked senior citizen in a gym locker room. After a second conviction for a similar shaming incident later in the year, both Mathers and her company disappeared.

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O.penVAPE (May 2016)
Manufacturer
The O.penVAPE photoshoot represented several firsts: mg captured multiple people in a remote studio with a new behind-the-scenes crew and a photographer we’d never met. Despite the unknowns, the shoot went smoothly. O.penVAPE, which is sold in ten U.S. states and Jamaica, is a subsidiary of Organa Brands, which became part of SLANG Worldwide’s portfolio in early 2018.


The Photography

mg’s striking photography is the result of years of experience and hard work by some of the most talented professionals in the field. In addition to Forney, the magazine has featured the work of Thomas O’Brien, James Banasiak, Humberto Ona III, and John Russo, among others. Each has conveyed mg’s overarching aesthetic with his own unique flair.

Forney, whose client list includes Hollywood Reporter and Billboard, has shot dozens of covers and features for mg. He finds mg shoots provide a more collaborative environment than what he’s accustomed to with mainstream publications. Everyone from the hairstylist and makeup artist to Derasmo and any guests on set is encouraged to contribute ideas

Forney’s first assignment sent him on a quick trip to Denver to photograph the MassRoots team on location. Unlike studio sessions, location shoots can be risky. While studios offer a controlled environment, locations are rife with unknowns, and even with the best planning they don’t always work out. The MassRoots excursion produced several stunning images, including one in the middle of a busy intersection which paid homage to the Beatles’ Abby Road album. The shoot on Jonathan Valdman’s remote, rustic northern California property, on the other hand, proved disappointing. Forney captured many extraordinarily beautiful photographs, but unfortunately nothing met mg’s standards for print.

Covers can be tricky. Photos must not only express the subject’s personality while representing their brand, but also meet the strict standards of the publication. Images also must adhere to mg’s editorial standards and have adequate supporting assets for the various platforms. Despite everyone’s best efforts, sometimes the shot just isn’t there, Forney said.

Almost every photo of Bruce Margolin met the conditions. Forney photographed the iconic attorney inside the Los Angeles landmark Taylor’s Steak House. The restaurant’s luxe décor fit the tone of the accompanying feature and the barrister’s personality. Margolin, then 73, was “a total character,” Forney said. “He’s a real ‘pot warrior.’ I loved seeing such youthful energy in a seasoned individual.” The energy and demeanor are abundantly evident in Forney’s photographs, largely because Margolin “is comfortable in his own skin,” Forney said. “He knows who he is, and he’s open, honest, real, and willing to collaborate” with the photographer.

“A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.”

Diane Arbus, photographer

While many subjects are at ease on a photo set, not everyone is comfortable. Like Derasmo, Forney believes putting subjects at ease is the path to a productive shoot. For him, the key is finding a connection. That proved easy with Kenny Morrison, whom Forney photographed at his urban-retro-chic home in Venice Beach, California. Morrison and Forney bonded over cars, skateboards, and surfing, leading to one of Forney’s favorite shoots. “Kenny’s energy was good, and he was willing to try something different,” Forney said.

Thomas O’Brien has lensed thirteen mg covers, but his relationship with the magazine almost didn’t happen. Initially, he was hesitant to work with “crazy pot people,” and he worried his other clients wouldn’t understand. Working with Sophie Ryan changed his mind about the industry. “How could any legislator get between that little girl and something that helps her?” he asked.

Coming from a background in fashion, beauty, and glamour, the opportunity to photograph men both intrigued and challenged O’Brien. Although he found it “nice to get men in there and do some serious, business-y poses,” he had to employ an entirely different artistic process.

“Shooting men is the complete opposite of shooting women,” he said. “I was accustomed to using soft light, because it minimizes imperfections. With men, harsh light exposes every wrinkle. It’s unfair, but they call male imperfections ‘character.’”

In some sessions, he used lighting tricks to evoke a mood. “I snuck in a green gel with [renowned hashishin] Frenchy Cannoli,” he said. “It’s a subtle, subliminal clue about his relationship with the plant.” Because he knew Derasmo intended to superimpose nutrients king Michael “BigMike” Straumietis over an image of lush greenery, O’Brien said he “threw a slightly yellow light on one side of the set so it would look like the sun was shining through, marrying him to the foliage.”

O’Brien’s photographs display an extraordinary talent for capturing the inner person. He works hard to get the effect, though. The perfect shot happens “in one moment,” he said, “but sometimes it takes hours to get that one amazing shot.”


Kenny Morrison (November 2015)
Co-founder and chief executive officer, VCC Brands
mg shot Kenny Morrison shortly after the burgeoning edibles manufacturer Venice Cookie Company rebranded as VCC Brands in order to encompass a second line, Evergreen Herbal, in Washington state. Morrison, gregarious by nature, was right at home in the shoot location: his Venice, California, residence. The VCC portfolio has grown since then, now encompassing additional brands Cannabis Quencher, Subtle Tea, and One Tincture.

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Al Harrington (January 2020)
Founder and chief executive officer, Viola Brands
Scheduling a shoot around a celebrity’s busy schedule always represents a challenge, and Al Harrington was no exception. Harrington, a big man with an even bigger personality, proved charming and fun to work with, and his attitude is conspicuous in the images. He recently committed to creating 100 black millionaires through an incubator that’s part of Viola Brands’ social equity program, Viola Cares.


Bianca E. Green (September 2016)
Activist; founder, Spark the Conversation
As with most of mg’s early shoots, the photographer captured Bianca Green on location—in this case, her boho-chic bungalow. A former fashion model who hung out with high-profile glitterati including Donatella Versace, Tom Ford, and Rachel Zoe, the “Anna Wintour of Weed” proved equally at home in front of and behind the camera, producing groundbreaking documentaries The Culture High, Mount Kushmore, and Living the High Life.


Jessica Billingsley (August 2019)
Chief executive officer, Akerna
Akerna, the data technology company resulting from the merger of MJ Freeway and MTech Acquisition Corp., had just gone public on the Nasdaq when Chief Executive Officer Jessica Billingsley flew from corporate headquarters in Denver to Los Angeles for a cover shoot. Thomas O’Brien’s photos captured an intelligent, confident businesswoman who is at once feminine and powerful. Billingsley, who founded MJ Freeway in 2010, is the first female CEO of a publicly traded cannabis company.


The Brand

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” doesn’t apply to magazines. With its debut issue, mg provided a new experience for cannabis-industry readers, pairing high production values and stunning, original photography with engrossing copy. More than just profiles, features, and advice, mg offers insight into “the story behind the story” and analysis of important issues. Without its signature look, though, readers might not bother to open a copy.

With more than sixty issues in print over the past five years, readers can pick up mg today and instantly know what magazine they hold even without looking at the name, thanks to strong branding. “Our brand resonates with readers, largely because of the photography,” said Inc Media President Roberts. “Consistency in branding is tremendously important. In mg’s case, we worked on the branding for more than a year before producing the first issue. The book’s folio and photography guidelines are written and clearly communicated to the teams on a regular basis. Regardless the time spent and associated costs, if we feel a shoot doesn’t meet our expectations, we don’t publish the images.”

“The photo shoot I did with mg is probably one of the best I’ve ever done. the photo taken today was, without a doubt, the best photo of me ever taken.”

Berner

Despite the staff’s best efforts, sometimes things go amusingly—or embarrassingly—awry. The issue with Dani Mathers on the cover, for example, was on the press when Mathers became embroiled in a well-publicized social media scandal. The team laughs about that now, but it wasn’t funny at the time. “We discussed reprinting, but the team ultimately and unanimously rejected the option,” said Derasmo. Another cover bore a photograph of social media influencer Bess Byers with the words “Sorry, I’m stoned” emblazoned across the front of her T-shirt. The image was attractive and conveyed the intended message about the value of social media for targeting younger audiences, but some industry members considered the T-shirt’s slogan in poor taste. “We listen intently to the industry we serve,” said Roberts. “Without industry feedback, we would be working in a vacuum and serving only ourselves. Before launching mg, we immersed ourselves in the industry. We studied the audience demographics and the needs of the businesses. The photography is an example of what we learned, but so are the fonts, colors, paper, and even the size of the publication.

“Everybody makes mistakes, but learning from our mistakes and preventing reoccurrences is the key,” he added. Let the Byers incident serve as an object lesson for other companies.

Despite a few missteps, mg not only survived but also became the go-to cannabis B2B publication for thought leaders, power players, and celebrities. Although in the beginning staff members had to do significant convincing to woo high-profile artistic talent, today well-known photographers, graphic artists, and journalists are eager to work with the magazine. When not displaying a portrait, covers often bear striking artwork created by celebrated artists including illustrator J.J. Kirby, who has worked with Marvel, Cartoon Network, DC, and Warner Bros., and muralist David Flores, whose work is part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. Inside, readers find work by, among other people, popular cartoonist Jerry King, who approached mg unsolicited.

As the professional face of the industry, the brand is making an impact on Americans’ attitudes about cannabis. Once afraid to appear openly pro-pot, many celebrities have approached the magazine for exposure. A few have made the cut, including Jim Belushi, Al Harrington, and Berner, who are actively involved in the industry. The editorial team prioritizes individuals within the community of cannabis professionals, though. “You don’t have to be a big name to get our attention,” Roberts said. “You just have to be doing great things.”

In addition to earning a place within the cannabis industry, mg has been widely recognized by its peers in publishing. The magazine has been nominated for a number of national awards and won the prestigious Folio:Ozzie for Overall Design Excellence in a business-to-business publication.

mg’s success reflects the industry’s success…and we’ve got the pictures to prove it.


Berner (April 2020)
Founder and chief executive officer, Cookies
Primarily known as a rapper, Berner also is a brilliant business tactician, insightful and deliberate about every move he makes. High-profile celebrity photographer John Russo captured him on location inside the storied Conway Recording Studios in Hollywood, California, between sets during a day-long recording session. Although initially nervous about an unfamiliar process, Berner later said he enjoyed the experience.


David Elias (June 2019)
Co-founder and chief executive officer, Lowell Herb Co.
By the time James Banasiak shot David Elias at Lowell Herb Co.’s corporate headquarters in Los Angeles, on-location shoots had become a rarity for mg. It’s easier to control the variables in a studio, and removing an executive from his or her usual environment allows photographer and subject to work together without distractions. Elias proved the exception, and his offices provided several uncommonly attractive sets.


Kary Radestock (December 2018)
Co-founder and chief executive officer, Hippo Premium Packaging
Kary Radestock’s feature arose from mg’s devotion to covering every corner of the industry, including ancillary disciplines that don’t get much exposure. She was a theater major and did “a tiny bit of modeling” in college, but she “felt like a movie star” when the mg creative team gave her the full Hollywood treatment for her cover shoot. To celebrate its fifth anniversary, Hippo Premium Packaging will unveil a first-of-its-kind packaging technology platform in March 2021.


Medically Correct LLC (April 2018)
Manufacturer
Relaxing on set was not a problem for Medically Correct co-founders Bob Eschino, Josh Fink, Derek Cummings, and Rick Scarpello, who had a spectacular time cutting up in the studio. The company recently launched fast-acting product line Quiq and will introduce Nové luxury chocolates in September.


Yummi Karma (May 2017)
Manufacturer
Ebullient, young, and attractive, Krystal and Chelsea Kitahara and their team would have been right at home on the pages of a fashion magazine. In 2019, the company launched Rehab, a line of ultra-concentrated creams and roll-ons.

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Kyle Kushman (July 2017)
President and chief executive officer, Vegamatrix
Master grower, educator, and consultant Kyle Kushman’s big personality translated well onto the page. Thomas O’Brien, a costume-design artist, and a wardrobe technician worked together to create compelling photographs that communicate Kushman’s iconic stature and vision. Creative lighting techniques added depth, resulting in a powerful image.


Eric D. Shevin, Esq. (July 2017)
Founder, Shevin Law Group
Eric Shevin is one of the most sought-after attorneys in cannabis and topped the list of “30 Powerful Litigators You Should Know” in a special issue of mg. For more than twenty-five years, he has focused exclusively on criminal defense and cannabis law, representing clients in fifteen states and federal court. Thomas O’Brien coaxed out Shevin’s lighter side for the cover.

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Fiona Ma (December 2016)
California State Treasurer
Though accustomed to being photographed at political events, news conferences, and public meetings, then-California Board of Equalization Chair Fiona Ma’s image-consciousness ahead of a race for public office initially made her a bit too stiff and formal. Once she relaxed somewhat, Thomas O’Brien captured the woman inside the politician’s skin. Ma, a vocal proponent of banking for the cannabis industry, was elected California State Treasurer in 2018.


Jason White (March 2020)
Chief marketing officer, Curaleaf Holdings Inc.
Jason White is no stranger to bright lights or studios. Prior to joining Curaleaf Holdings, he created high-energy, high-impact marketing campaigns for big-league mainstream companies including Beats by Dre and Nike. Outgoing and quick to laugh, he proved easy to shoot even though the company’s publicists tended toward micro-management. Curaleaf acquired multistate operator Grassroots in July, creating what it believes to be the world’s largest cannabis company by revenue.

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Taylor and Tim Blake (December 2018)
Associate producer, The Emerald Cup; founder and chief executive officer, Emerald Cup Holdings
mg was the first to bring into a studio the father-daughter team who own and operate the iconic Emerald Cup annual cannabis awards and celebration. Inside the issue, a profile of the Blakes and the event revealed aspects of their lives and businesses to which the public previously had not been privy. In March 2020, Tim Blake partnered with Harry Rose of Rosette Wellness to launch a vertically integrated product line under the Emerald Cup Supply Co. brand.

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Bess Byers (April 2019)
Social media influencer; founder, Blaise Creative
Known to her tribe as @ImCannaBess, Bess Byers is one of the top Instagram influencers working in cannabis. Her online persona isn’t an act—she’s nothing if not authentic. Karma picked Byers to star in a cover kerfuffle: In the image we chose, she wore a shirt on which the word “stoned” played a prominent role. Yes, we received complaints about that.


Jim Belushi (January 2019)
Founder and chief executive officer, Belushi’s Farm
When multi-talented Jim Belushi was ready to step up promotion of Belushi’s Farm, his publicist approached mg about coverage. We were happy to oblige and became the first trade publication to feature him on the cover. The profile inside offered readers an uncommonly candid look at a seldom-seen side of the actor, comedian, director, producer, singer, and entrepreneur. Belushi’s latest project is the docuseries Growing Belushi, which premiered August 19 on Discovery Channel.

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